One of my first memories of arriving in Alaska is the floatplane ride to our new fishing village home in a Grumman Goose. It was on the "milk run," a concept my six-year-old mind knew nothing about, but one I was to become abundantly familiar with over the years.
On this trip--as in later trips--we stopped at various isolated communities dotting the vast shoreling of Prince of Wales Island, dropping off hardy looking people in jeans and rubber boots, and stacks of packages of all sizes.
The stop I remember the most vividly was at a floating lumber camp.
It was an entire village of woodframe houses neatly grouped, with wooden alleyways, and woodplank front and back yards, all built on interconnecting floats and water-slapped walkways. There were gardens, greenhouses, patios complete with deck furniture and lawn chairs, a kids playground including swings, slide and monkey bars. And it all floated.
A tiny piece of the larger world my family had just left behind had been put on a floating platform. It looked incongruous, almost fairytale-ish as it rested in the shadow of the raw, undending wilderness and snow-capped mountains.
I never forgot my sense of wonder at this brave new world afloat.
In the fishing village that we finally touched down in there were, aside from the buildings adorning the forested hillsides and built on stilts over the water, were more floating structures that hugged the shore.
One of them was our new home, and immediately a new word entered my vocabulary: floathouse.
A floathouse is a normal woodframe house like you'd find anywhere, except that it's been built on a raft of enormous logs, or it was slid onto the raft after having spent an ordinary existence on shore.
At that time, following the example of the logging camps, there were floathouses everywhere, since there was little land for sale and even less that was capable of being built on. This land is often sheer rock straight down to the water, covered in a forest of evergreens with interlocking root systems.
But there was no end to the water that was available, and no end to the forest that produced the rafts for houses to sit on. It was a flooded world with waterways connecting every chunk of land. These waterways served as highways on which to travel and tow your home--or entire communities--from one location to the next.
One location we towed our floathouse to was the large logging camp in Thorne Bay where my dad was to work for several years. That was an unforgettable experience, crossing Clarence Strait in our house. Porpoises swam and cavorted right alongside our decks that were continually washed by the waves as we were towed toward the mountainous island ahead of us. We ate dinner with the length of the strait outside the windows changing color as evening fell. In bed we stared out the window from our bunks as our house traveled in this continuing fairytale called Alaska.
We found a shelted cove in the long, winding entrance to the riverfed bay where the houses and buildings of the logging camp were huddled on raw dirt roads. While my dad commuted to work every day in the skiff, we mostly stayed out in the uninhabited woods, in our peaceful, creekfed lagoon where our floating home rose and fell with the tides.
From the floathouse's deck we fished in the green water below the towering spruce, cedar, and hemlock. We swam in the chilled water, or lazed about on inner tubes. We were not allowed to step outside without wearing our lifejackets.
This winding entrance to Thorne Bay, over the years, became dotted with floating homes, lodges and a floatel, or floating hotel.
The people who lived there year around commuted to work in skiffs, which they also used for hauling supplies home, everything from firewood to food to propane. Some of the hardy old-timers still live out, others rent their floating homes to summer visitors, or only visit themselves in the summer, avoiding the storms and the frozen water caused by the river's heavy flow of freshwater into the salty bay.
Those who still live out and have children are served, in the school months, by a fast, large, welded aluminum boat that breaks the ice and stops at each floating home to pick up the kids before busing them to the dock in town, and then back home when school is out.
But those hardy few are becoming fewer all the time.
After the logging died off in SE Alaska, fewer and fewer people had the experience of living in floating logging camps. One modern and expensive logging camp floating school was turning into an office building.
Other floating structures became fishing lodges.
One older gentleman turned one of the old float buildings into a "donation-based" restaurant. You pay whatever you feel like paying after enjoying his cooking and the dining on the water experience.
At some point, as the people who came to Alaska changed in character and had no connection with the past, floathouses came to be labeled "eyesores" (and they were also enviously vilified because the owners didn't have to pay property tax) and a move was made in several towns and bureaus to have them banned and/or limited to those already in existence.
My family and a few other families and individuals scattered about in their floating homes will be the last ones to live this unique lifestyle.
While I was writing up this post I came across a memoir by a woman who taught in one of the floating logging camps (Life Jacket by Biz Robbins). I've only just begun reading it, but she's a good writer and she brings back the days of my childhood. It's fascinating to read those times through an adult's eyes, an adult who was as brand new to SE Alaska as I was when I first made the acquaintance of this world afloat.
Now the floating logging camps she wrote about are a fading memory. Some of them are gone forever, some are harnessed to shore, abandoned, never to travel the wilderness again behind a tugboat, as they slowly rot and sink out of sight. They are floating ghost towns, remnants of a bygone era.
I will be forever glad I saw them in their heyday.
When I was a kid, the old timers in the fishing village said the red house next to the cliff used to be occupied by the Lady that's Known as Lou.
I liked the phrase, the rhythm of it, and would say it to myself like a nursery rhyme, but I didn't know what it meant.
Many years later I took care of the kids of a commercial fisherman who'd grown up in the village. To my surprise, this weathered Alaskan, who'd lived through many high seas adventures and tragedy, loved to watch old black and white films featuring a needle-witted, knitting sleuth named Miss Marple, played by the swashbuckling Margaret Rutherford.
In one of these movies, "Murder Most Foul," Dame Margaret recites, with gusto, a poem called "The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew."
And in it was the mysterious phrase from my childhood.
In the scene, Miss Marple is trying out for Mr. Cosgood of the Cosgood Players in an attempt to find out whodunit. She informs the empty theater, with only the prop men, a cleaning woman and Mr. Cosgood present, that she will be reciting "The Shooting of Dan McGrew'" by Robert Service.
A big, imposingly built woman, she intones portentously: "'A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon. The kid that handles the music box was hitting a jag time tune. And back of the bar--'" turning to gesture significantly at the wide eyed prop men "'in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew. And watching his luck was his light o' love, the lady that's known as Lou. When out of the night--'"
She goes to the stairs to stand on them as the transfixed prop men's eyes follow her, "'--when out of the night that was 50 below--'" clutching her bosom, "and into the din and the glare--'" coming back down the stairs and stumbling forward into the spotlight again, "--there stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dark dirty and loaded--'" slapping one ample hip, "'for bear.'"
Mr. Cosgood interrupts: "Just give me the gist and get to the climax!"
Miss Marple says, very serious and thoroughly British: "Oh dear, that's very difficult. It's a long poem and there's a great deal behind it. However, as you wish. Well, now--um--soon after the stranger has entered this lurid scene it becomes increasingly evident that there is a growing antagonism between him and Mr. McGrew--an antagonism that is to end in stark tragedy. Should I pick it up at the point where the miner, seated at the saloon piano, is playing like a maniac?"
Mr. Cosgood: "Yes, yes. Please do."
Miss Marple: "Thank you." She turns aside to play an air piano. "'And the stranger turned and his eyes they burned,'" playing the piano wildly, "'in a most peculiar way. In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway," the piano playing becomes more violent as she sways, "'and his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, but his voice was calm.'" She ceases playing. "'And boys, says he, you don't know me, and none of you care a darn--'"
Mr. Cosgood, looking at his watch: "Yes, yes, yes, but get to the point please."
Miss Marple, not missing a beat: "'But I want to state and my words are straight and I bet my poke they're true. One of you is a Hound of Hell, and that one is Dan McGrew! Then I ducked my head,'" she bends at the waist like a bull about to charge a matador, "'and the lights went out and two guns blazed in the dark, and a woman screamed--'" she flings off her cape and scarf, letting them sail to the floor, "'and the lights went up. And two men lay stiff and stark,'" both hands gesturing to the crumpled cape and scarf. "'Pitched on his head and pumped full of lead was Dangerous Dan McGrew. While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breasts of the lady that's known as Lou.''
There's a long pause, the cleaning woman leaning on her broom, looking enthralled, the prop guys are more transfixed than ever. Miss Marple stares at them for a moment then turns to the audience. "'I'm not as wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two, the woman who kissed him and pinched his poke was the lady that's known as Lou.'"
My question, after watching this performance, was who was Robert Service and how did his lady known as Lou end up in the fishing village near where I grew up?
"He was not a poet's poet. Fancy-Dan dillettantes will dispute the description 'great.' He was a people's poet. To the people he was great. They understood him, and knew that any verse carrying the by-line of Robert W. Service would be a lilting thing, clear, clean and power-packed, beating out a story with dramatic intensity that made the nerves tingle. And he was no poor, garret-type poet, either. His stuff made money hand over fist. One piece alone, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, rolled up half a million dollars for him. He lived it up well and also gave a great deal of help to others.
"'The only society I like,' he once said, 'is that which is rough and tumble--and the tougher the better. That's where you get down to bedrock and meet human people.' He found that kind of society in the Yukon Gold Rush, and he immortalized it." --Obituary of Robert W. Service in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, Sept. 16, 1958: "A Great Poet Died Last Week in Lancieux, France, at the Age of 84."
Robert Service was born in England in 1874 and grew up in Scotland. When he was 21 he traveled to British Columbia, Canada, hoping to be a cowboy, but instead became a polo playing bank clerk. In late 1904 the bank sent him to their Whitehorse branch in the Yukon. He bought himself a stylish raccoon coat on the bank's expense account and became a fashionable man striding around the muddy streets of the frontier town. He lived in rollicking Dawson, the raw spirit of the place inspiring many of his most successful poems, including The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew. It was here in Dawson where he met the old timers who could tell him about the gold rush days, the characters he would forever immortalize in his poetry.
During WWI he worked as a stretcher bearer and Red Cross ambulance when the Army wouldn't have him for health reasons. After the war, in which he'd lost a brother, he traveled abroad, including to the USSR where he was forever ostracized from Soviet letters or even acknowledged as a poet when he wrote the satirical Ballad of Lenin's Tomb.
During WWII he read his poems to soliders to help with morale. In 1942 he played himself in the Hollywood film The Spoilers, working alongside Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and Randolph Scott. In the movie he specifically, tongue firmly in cheek, mentions the lady that's known as Lou.
He wrote some thrillers, including The Poisoned Paradise: A romance of Monte Carlo (1922) and many, many poems. Although, (or perhaps because of) one of the most commercially successful poets of the 20th century, his contemporaries spurned him as a poet, claiming he wrote popular doggerel for the masses.
Which suited him: "Verse," he said, "not poetry, is what I was after...something the man in the street would take notice of and the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in the pub would quote. Yet I never wrote to please anyone but myself; it just happened. I belonged to the simple folks whom I liked to please."
A movie was filmed on Dan McGrew in 1915 and the audience of that day certainly took what they saw as credible--if overacted--fact. Eighty-three years later the Shooting of Dan McGrew became the basis for the novel The Man from the Creeks by Robert Kroetsch. In between the two the poem inspired many plays, imitative poetry and songs, including "Dangerous Dan McGrew" by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Candians (1949).
But were these people ever real, or just the figment of a creative mind? One Robert Service biographer states that despite Service's own disclaimers that "Most of the characters who permeated poems by Robert Service were based on real people." Others who knew Service intimately say the same.
As for Dan McGrew and the Lady that's known as Lou, there are varying stories about who they were. One story claims they were actually Murray and Lulu Mae Eads. (Robert Service, the proponents of this explanation say, misspelled her name to "Lou" rather than "Lu.") He was a hotel and saloon owner in Dawson and she was a goodtime girl who sang and entertained the miners at his establishments during the gold rush. She married him, but there is no record of the "lurid scene," as Miss Marple calls it, that Robert Service described in the shooting of Dan McGrew.
What became of the Eads? They were both aboard the ill-fated Princess Sophia in 1918 when she went aground on a reef in Lynn Canal. It was assumed that the passenger liner would be fine and could be refloated when the tide came back in. But some time in the night the liner slipped off the reef into deep water and not a soul of the 350 on board survived.
So, was that the end of the Lady that's known as Lou?
Some think Robert Service based the poem on Soapy Smith and Klondike Kate, both well-known characters of the Klondike gold rush. Soapy Smith was a con artist who did his skullduggery in Skagway and came to a violent end, but not over a woman as in the poem. Klondike Kate is described as "The toast of the sourdoughs of Dawson City in 1898; the red-headed daughter of the west who sang and danced for the gold rush miners and panned their pouches and their hearts." However, her biographers don't mention, in amongst her other adventures, that she was in a fatal shoot-out. In addition, Robert Service knew her, but the way he spoke about her indicated that she couldn't have been, at least to his mind, the Lady that's known as Lou.
The Milwaukee Sentinel in July of 1937 spoke with a Canadian who was a close friend of Service's who assured them that Dan McGrew and the Lady that's known as Lou were actually people that he and Service had heard about from the sourdough's in Dawson. The tragedy that took place in "the Malamute Saloon" had it's start in a young couple named Madden. He was a pianist and an engineer who was away from home too often to suit his bride. She ran off, abandoning her baby and her absent husband, to be with "McGrew." The baby died and Madden hunted down the couple, intent on getting his vengeance on them.
The Canadian, interviewed by the Milwaukee Sentinel, said that he still heard news of the Lady that's known as Lou. Some time after the fatal shoot out she went to live in Vancouver, and at the time of the interview, was making her way up the Inside Passage.
The fishing village next to where I live would have been right on her route.
So, who was the Lady that's known as Lou? All I've been able to discover is that the red house (known now for the name it acquired in its hippie days as Hotel California) in the nearby village was known as the house where Robert Service's "Lady Lou" lived. The evidence was in certain papers that old timers had in their possession, that they'd discovered in the house when they'd taken possession.
But those old timers, like Robert Service and all the people who inspired his poems, are long gone.
They live on, now, in his verse and in the various legends scattered throughout Alaska.
583 millions years ago a vast armada of primitive beings dominated planet Earth. They were the free-roaming Cnidarians.
The Cnidarians were round, globular, gelatinous creatures and used a single cavity to respire and eat. They used venemous stinging cells to stun and then kill their dinner.
They were, to put it bluntly, blobs.
Possibly related to the creature Steve McQueen did battle with many millennia later outside a Fifties diner--the same creature Burt Bacharach forever immortalized in song:
Beware the blob, it creeps
And leaps and glides and slides
Right through the door
And all around the wall
A splotch, a blotch
Be careful of the blob.
Scientists warn that the Cnidarians could once again dominate Earth. They are uber-efficient, practically indestructible, able to survive and proliferate in worsening climactic conditions. They have a broad diet, fast growth rates, the ability to shrink when starved, the capacity to fragment and regenerate, and the ability to tolerate hypoxia. These, according to one scientific paper, "are characteristic of opportunistic 'weed species' and would appear to give [them] an edge over [other species] in environments stressed by climate change, eutriphication and [over exploitation.]"
Already armadas are massing in various parts of the globe, and particularly in Alaska.
Unknowing landwellers, smug in their ownership of a vertebrae and opposable thumb, and sublimely unaware, for the most part, of the Cnidarians plans for world domination, think it's cute to refer to this Terminator-type creature as a..."jellyfish."
I've had many close encounters with this so-called "jellyfish."
When I worked on a guide boat operating out of Sitka, Alaska, I, and the guests, experienced what scientists call a blob "bloom."
We were anchored in a remote bay, cut off from the rest of the world with no sign of civilization anywhere. Our only form of outside communication was a satellite phone with an intermittant signal. We were the only upright-walking, two-legged vertebrae around for countless miles of water, forest, mountains and sky.
One day a guest and I stepped out on the deck and saw, as far as the eye could see, pulsing, translucent Cnidarians. They lapped hungrily at the hull and undulated on the waves menacingly. We were completely cut off and surrounded.
The homo sapien beside me (sub species: Texan) said, and I quote: "It looks like Someone sneezed."
I think it's the colloquial, fond contempt inherent to the nickname "jellyfish" that undermines the Cnadarians' intimidation techniques. Plus, however much scientists work as the propaganda department of the Cnidarians' world-domination efforts, many humans just don't listen to scientists.
Even though scientists have been saying for years that climate conditions favor their taking over the world. "Because they don't need much food to grow their watery bodies, and then don't spend that much energy to find food, they end up as biologically efficient as their fish competitors--a fact that possibly gives them a competitive advantage in a disrupted ocean." Several marine systems have already transformed from places dominated by plankton-eating fish-like sardines and anchovies to zones thick with jellies following climate change and over fishing, a NOAA biology report notes.
Or, as the Cnidarians like to say: "Be afraid. Be very afraid."
The Portuguese Man o' War is the Borg division of the Cnidarians' efforts at world domination. It's not an "it" but a "they": a colony of organisms working together, having but one thought and one goal. It uses it's deceptive beauty as camouflage, looking like "a glass blown ship at full sail" as one National Geographic writer wrote.
It has tentacles that typically extend about eight feet, but can grow up to 165 feet long. Its venomous stingers can inflict intense pain from bacterial toxins that destroy cells directly.
My sister has engaged with this advanced weapon of the Cnidarians, to her cost. She and a friend were unfortunate enough to get the tentacles from one of these creatures wrapped around their legs. the pain was intense, an indication, along with dizziness, disorientation and having trouble breathing, of severe envenomation. (This is not an allergic reaction and actually, attempts to treat it as if it was--with an EpiPen, for example--can be dangerous and life threatening. Seek medical aid immediately if you experience any of these symptoms after a jellyfish sting.)
Perhaps you've heard that urinating on a jellfish sting will take the pain away. It doesn't. Just ask my sister. Or don't. It's not a memory that she cares to revisit. Instead, the best known cure for a jellyfish sting is to soak it in warm water with Epsom salts. Fresh water will actually make it worse.
And beward of the Portuguese Man o' War even when you come across one dead. Their venom is still active after death.
Ernst Haeckel, a 19th century German biologist discovered and depicted hundreds of new species of Cnidaria. One wonders if some underlying awareness of the world conquering goals of the creatures he studied, sketched and painted, didn't perhaps inform and influence his evolutionary justifications for nationalism, social darwinism and racism; which justifications the Nazis co-opted to lend scientific credibility to their own attempts at world domination.
One of my earliest recollections of jellyfish encounters was when I was about 6, living in a small fishing village. A friend of my oldest brother's (human, subspecies: male child) came into the house yelping from the pain of having touched a jellyfish's stinger.
"Whatever you do," my mom said immediately, "don't put your finger in or near your eye."
You know what he did.
His screams are probably still echoing in another dimension.
When we were kids we were told never to touch the red jellyfish, but that the translucent ones didn't sting in the winter and spring. We often handled them then, fascinated by their slick, gelatinous firmness, and were never stung.
But I found that in the summer even these Caspar the friendly Cnidarians didn't hesitate to release their venom. I discovered this when I went swimming on my favorite beach--and found the bay plugged with a giant bloom of translucent jellies, which had been invisible from shore. There was no escape, I made contact with hundreds of them every time I moved.
By the time I got out of the water my skin was burning and stinging from head to toe.
Don't tell ME these deceptively harmless, even comical looking blobs aren't the enemy! I had the thought again the time I went commercial longlining for haibut, hauling the groundline in by hand, and forgot to wear gloves. There were jellyfish stingers wrapped around every inch of line. My hands were raw by the time I'd hauled in the first set.
In a one on one match up with these creatures, which can grow to twice the size of a man, there's no competition. And we have nowhere near their survival skills in a deteriorating environment. As global conditions continue to decline it could very well end with the planet becoming Bloblandia.
And yet no one but the scientists, who apparently are seen as the boy who cried blob, take seriously the threat of their taking over the planet, as the over fishing continues hand in glove with climate change.
One day, looking back, I believe it will be said, "With infinite complacency men went to and fro over the globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter....[while another species] slowly and surely drew their plans against us." --War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)