"In Alaska, virtually no one, except [US Coast Guard] search and rescue pilots, flies after dark....In cases of emergency, it is the search and rescue helicopter squads in Sitka who are called upon to respond.
"Whether it is a mission to Skagway, Lynn Canal, Haines, Juneau, Hoonah, Gustavus, Yakutat, Chatham Strait, Angoon, Kake, Meyers Chuck, Pelican, Port Alexander, Rowan Bay, Security Bay, Petersburg, Wrangell or Ketchikan, the trick is to remain on the beaten path as long as you can. The real adventure begins when you are forced to veer off and venture out into the wilderness...." COMING BACK ALIVE by Spike Walker (consultant on The Deadliest Catch) p. 48-49.
I read his book over a dozen years ago and at the time never imagined that one day we'd be calling upon the Coast Guard to make one of those emergency, night-time rescues out into the wilderness.
It was around 9 o'clock in late December when my dad called me saying my mom was having problems breathing, could I come over and help? When I got there she had pain in her lungs and her breathing difficulties became so severe that she had a panic attack and almost quit breathing entirely. "I can't do this, I can't do this!" she said.
I had my dad call the hospital in Ketchikan (the nearest city) but they handed us off to Sitka, which is over 360 miles away. Sitka in turn called the State Troopers because we were so isolated the hospital didn't know how to reach us. The State Troopers in turn handed us off to the Coast Guard in Juneau (even farther away). My dad is hard of hearing so he handed the phone to me when the Troopers were talking. I ended up repeating everything several times over while trying to keep my mom calm and breathing.
The Coast Guard surgeon gave me some helpful tips and told me that from her symptoms and behavior he was "concerned" and that a Coast Guard rescue helicopter and crew were being scrambled from Sitka and would reach us as soon as possible, although at first they had a hard time pinpointing our location since we don't live in a village.
I gave them our longitude and latitude, but they requested that when I heard the chopper I shine a spotlight to help them find us. (There's an awful lot of wilderness and water around us.) This was at 1 am. They got to us at 3:30 am. When I heard the chopper I left off rubbing my mom's back, to keep her calm, and while my dad rigged the spotlight to a battery I stood outside pointing it skyward. "I feel like the Statue of Liberty," I said and my mom, who was thoroughly exhausted by this time, managed a weak chuckle. The helicopter found us, but circled awhile to scout out the area, tree height and other hazards, before stopping above us.
Their SAR (search and rescue) helicopter can produce sustained winds of 150 miles per hour from the ground wash of their blades. Our houses were floating when they hovered overhead and we were instantly slammed by a ferocious, extremely localized hurricane. Everything not tied down, and some things that were tied down, went flying. There was as much saltwater in the air as rain, making it hard to see despite their brilliant floodlights. My parents' house was jerking and shuddering and straining on its mooring lines. When we opened the front door everything in the house took off--plants, pictures, books, etc.--and crashed onto the floor. I held my mom with my back to the buffeting wind and spray/rain at the open door, trying to protect her.
We thought the basket would be lowered and we'd get her in it and they'd be off (hopefully before the roof came off), but that wasn't the plan. They lowered a rescue swimmer onto my parents' tongue of a dock and he was nearly blown off by the incredible winds. He got to the house and had us shut the door and have my mom sit down and rest while he got everything arranged.
He took off his visored helmet and introduced himself as Jonathan, USCG Rescue Swimmer. He looked about 19, dark hair, dark, level eyes, Hollywood handsome--which somehow made it all seem surreal, like we were in a movie--was extremely calm, kind, and listened attentively despite the deafening roar of the helicopter, wind, and things being blown away and crashing around outside.
"How are you doing?" he asked my mom (and me, with a slight glance in my direction to let me know he understood that I might have been having a rough time, too). My mom nodded, unable to speak, and I said, "Well, it's a little out of our usual routine."
He smiled and was very gentle and reassuring with my mom as he attached the portable oxygen tank to her while at the same time communicating with the helicopter pilot, requesting that they gain some altitude since we were suffering some pretty strong wind damage and, he informed them, he'd barely been able to stand up outside and he had to get the patient out there.
The helicopter didn't respond and it didn't gain altitude. He looked at his waterproof handheld, but didn't repeat himself. Instead, he turned to me and explained what needed to be done. He might have been standing in his bathroom shaving for all the excitement he displayed with the house jerking and shaking and things falling and crashing around him. He went to my mom and allowed that things might "seem" a bit exciting, but she should keep calm since that would be best for her breathing. She nodded, her eyes clinging to his, and I could tell she was reassured despite the scary things that were happening to her house. I'd defy anyone to have a fit of hysteria with him in the same room.
He went back outside (my dad was outside this whole time--he had to hang onto the door from the outside to keep the door shut!) to direct the landing of the rescue basket about two yards or so from the door, to make it as short a journey for my mom as possible. He grounded the basket, to discharge the static charge it had picked up in the air, by slamming it into my parents' steel barbecue bolted to their dock. I rounded up a warm blanket (per his instructions) and a bag for my mom, including her current medications he'd said they'd need to look at on board the helicopter. When I saw that the rescue basket was down I gave my mom another puff from the inhaler (also according to his instructions) and got her on her feet.
My dad opened the door and things started flying again. We got her outside, with me carrying the blanket, her bag and the portable oxygen tank, and were instantly blinded, deafened and breathless. Rain and spray slashed our faces and the wind was incredible, like nothing I'd ever experienced and I've been in a few high windstorms that clocked in over a hundred miles per hour.
The rescue swimmer met me and led my mom to the huge steel basket. My dad held onto me and the door to keep me from blowing away. Beside me a 25 gallon steel propane tank, almost as tall as I am, took off and landed in the water.
I had to step away from my dad's support to get the oxygen tank, which was still attached to my mom by the hose, to the rescue swimmer. He was tenderly helping her into the basket and tucked the blanket around her. I had to grab his shoulder to keep from being knocked overboard and he looked up, thinking I needed to tell him something, but he realized what the problem was and got the bag and oxygen off me as quickly as possible. But with their weight gone I was even more vulnerable to the power of the wind and had to drop onto my knees next to him and hold onto the basket to keep from being tossed aside like so much debris.
"Get in the house!" he yelled to me. I didn't have a chance to say anything to my mom or try to reassure her, but I figured he was up to the job. I had to crawl on my hands and knees back to my dad. He opened the door and threw me inside and remained outside, holding the door shut. I tried to watch, to make sure my mom made it up to the helicopter all right, but my eyes started burning and I began choking and retching. When I turned around to see what the problem was all I saw was a solid wall of white. The helicopter was directly overhead and its rotor wash was slamming the smoke down my parents' chimney and forcing it in a flood out the woodstove's door. I staggered blindly to the back door and cracked it enough to breathe. I had to hold onto it with both hands to keep it from being ripped loose in the wind.
The worst part was I couldn't see what was going on with my mom. My dad told me later that she was hoisted straight up without any problems. My mom said it was like a surreal nightmare. Freezing cold despite the blanket and how warmly I'd bundled her up in clothes, coat, hat and scarf, the basket swinging one way then spinning the other, and the too-bright, artificial light in the wilderness lighting up her house below her.
A line with a snap was lowered for the rescue swimmer. He clipped it to his harness and motioned for the helicopter to hoist him up. My dad said they weren't as careful with him as they'd been with my mom and clipped the edge of the house--he had to kick himself away from it. Then they dragged him into the tree tops before they finally pulled him clear. When he was aboard they headed straight for Ketchikan.
I called my brother Robin to have him meet her. He told us later that when the helicopter landed the Coast Guard cordoned off 500 feet of street because the ground wash could flip over a car. After standing out in that wind, I believe it.
We spent the rest of the night--morning, rather--retrieving things from the water, like the propane tank. When the tide went out we found everything else that had been blown away and stacked it on the dock, and tried to fix what wind damage we could.
My mom said that everyone aboard the helicopter was extremely kind and that the rescue swimmer never left her side, making eye contact and smiling reassuringly, holding her hand and then squeezing it when it was time to put her in the ambulance. My dad called the Coast Guard headquarters to recommend that he be commended.
As it turned out the lower part of my mom's lungs had "pancaked," collapsed, and with the addition of a virus she'd picked up her lungs hadn't been able to handle it. The hospital was able to fix all that, though, and she was out of the hospital the next day and back home a couple days later.
One more save for the Alaskan branch of the US Coast Guard.
I'm having problems with the app my blog uses. My only access to the Internet is by a tablet and the signal is sporadic and weak. Unfortunately, the app is confounded by this combination. I've got technical help trying to straighten out some of the problems, such as dead end categories and the wrong pictures replacing the ones that suit a story. (The app, all on its own, went in and changed them.)
You might see some older posts suddenly jumping to the fore as we work on the problems. I will continue to work on posts to have them ready to insert as soon as possible. These include posts on Robert Service (the poet, or Alaskan Balladeer); telephones in the bush; denizens from another world; more skiff adventures; and a guest blog by my sister.
In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy more of my mom's coloring. Hopefully the app doesn't try to exchange them for unrelated photos!
Thank you for your patience and support. Blogging from the bush is turning out be a challenge--but a rewarding one! All of your comments and encouragement are very much appreciated.
For as far back as my mom, Romi, can remember, she wanted to move to Alaska. Her dad fed those dreams by declaring that they'd be moving to Alaska in the spring.
And every year my mom believed him and as spring approached, she'd eagerly anticipate the Great Adventure--the whole family moving to Alaska!
And every time she'd be disappointed as her peripatetic father moved them all across the continent, from Minnesota to Montana and all points in between. My mom was always the new girl in school, or the outsider, always having to adjust and fit in. Her escape and her comfort was to color. She remembers that when she was two-years-old she was given a coloring book by family friends. One of the pages had a chicken and an egg, and she remembers how much she wanted to make it look realistic. With only two colors, yellow for the chicken, white for the egg, she knew, even at that young age, that the key was in the shading to give it texture and make it look real.
Whenever she was stressed, or disappointed--as when her father put off Alaska for one more year--she could lose herself in art, either sketching, painting or coloring. For hours on end.
Then, after she'd left home, married my dad, had one child and another on the way (me), her father moved his family to Alaska.
It was her father's heart attack that finally got my mom to Alaska on a visit. Fortunately, he recovered and my mom's first, long awaited taste of Alaska was not marred by tragedy. But that taste wasn't enough. Happily, all it took was one visit of his own for my dad to say, "We're moving to Alaska."
Their first attempt was when I was a baby. They packed up and hit the AlCan Highway, but broke down in British Columbia, Canada and were stranded there for several months. It was more than five years and three more kids later when they finally made it.
For someone who had never cared for the practical aspects of life, who had sophisticated and cultured tastes, my mom embraced the need to adapt to a nearly pioneer existence. No electricity, only kerosene lamps, wood heat, one tiny store, mail on a weekly, weather permitting basis, very little access to the outside world.
And her home floated.
She and my dad had bought my grandparents' floathouse as their first Alaskan home. (A floathouse is a regular woodframe house that rests on a foundation of logs and floats and "goes dry" as the tide comes in or goes out. Many floathouses, other than ours, in SE Alaska float all the time, regardless of the tide, if they're anchored in deep enough water.)
With five kids all under ten, my mom adapted to the need for life vests becoming mandatory outdoor wear. She also adapted to kids innocently announcing--dripping all over the floor--that they'd "accidentally" fallen in. Many times a day. Not to mention learning to take in her stride the need to come up with cures for jellyfish encounters, boots lost in the tidal muck, kids smelling of seaweed, the threat of bears, worry about the kids getting lost in the encircling woods....but on the plus side, the kids endlessly entertained themselves right within view, fishing or swimming from her front deck.
It gave her the opportunity to hold deep, philosophical conversations with my Aunt Marion, discuss books recently read with anyone who visited, or catch up on her books on British history, or sing around the house as she did housework--her other dream, besides moving to Alaska, was to be a torch singer in Paris.
And, of course, the kids' love affair with the water, allowed her time to spend time with her coloring and sketching.
Some of my favorite childhood memories were of the rainy, windy days that we were forced to spend inside. My mom would expand our rural horizons by playing audiobooks of the classics while we all sprawled around with coloring books, trying to emulate her wonderful texturing. Or she'd expose us to a wide range of music, everything from classical composers, to classical rock, to world music, to jazz, to blues, to show tunes, to--my favorite--popular music from the thirties and forties.
Our young lives were saturated with music and color.
My mom's favorite early memory of floathouse living was when my dad got a job at the lumber camp--largest in the world at the time--at Thorne Bay across Clarence Strait from the village where they were living. With my Uncle Rory's commercial fishing boat, the Velvet, towing their floathouse (and attached wanigan: smaller, floating cabin) they crossed the strait.
Out in the middle of this major artery of the fabled Inside Passage, with the waves shushing by and splashing against her house's foundation of logs, she watched the sun sink on one side of her floating, traveling home, and the moon rise on the other.
She was finally living the Great Alaskan Adventure.
After a year the house was towed back to the village, then towed to the abandoned, burned down cannery where we pounded down stakes and cleared land to build the dream house of my mom's design. It was a six bedroom, two story house with open beams, a cathedral ceiling over the living room and 1,836 square feet of living space. My dad milled all the wood from his sawmill, which us kids packed. All of the labor was provided by my family. I particularly remember when it came time to lift the upstairs endwall using only block and tackle--and my mom at the front of the rope and the rest of us kids in descending order of size hauling it up as my dad guided and brute muscled it into place.
It was at the cannery, when she was alone in the wilderness with five kids while my dad continued to work in Thorne Bay only coming home on weekends, that she came to depend on the stress relieving properties of coloring.
"Don't call me Mommy. My name is Romi!"
In the vast emptiness of the wilderness my mom was surrounded, 24/7, by piping little-kid voices. If my dad couldn't commute on the weekend due to weather, she had no one but children to converse with for weeks on end.
To escape she immersed herself in coloring or reading books. Us kids learned that those were the best times to ask her for something we weren't supposed to do or have. She would, without fail, absently wave us off with a "yes, yes, whatever," and we would immediately scamper off, chuckling evilly as we delved into the food supply that was supposed to last us until my dad got home. Or we'd get permission to do something reckless and dangerous that she had absolutely forbidden, like "log tag." This involved chasing each other over the floating logs my dad had corraled for firewood or lumber. My mom had nightmares of a child falling between the logs and drowning.
She tried to encourage us to have mature conversations with her, which we sometimes managed. When that was mostly a failure, she tried to tune out the incessant kid squabbling, kid yelling, kid giggling, kid chattering by losing herself in the soothing intensity of colors, of getting exactly the right shading, or overcoming a kid-scribbled page and turning it into a work of art--those were challenges she relished and could lose herself in for hours. But when she came back up out of the world of art she found herself once more on the edge of nowhere, surrounded and outnumbered by kid ideas, kid needs and kid wants.
Sometimes, in desperation, my mom would turn to the "telephone channel" on the marine radio and listen to adult voices talking about adult concerns.
There was also the fear of running out of food, which happened after one prolonged storm. She had to allow her preteen oldest son, my brother Jamie, to go hunting in the forest to bring home something to feed the kids. If Jamie didn't return, what could she do? If she got lost looking for him, the other four kids would be on their own. She couldn't call for help because of the storm that was keeping my dad from crossing the strait.
Which brought up the fear of anything happening to the radio, her only connection with the outside world....Her only access to emergency help if a kid got hurt or sick.
She had no skiff of her own. My dad had the only one we owned at that time, which he needed to be able to commute. But she had a creative, think-outside-the-box, unconventional mind so when a floatplane landed at our anchored float, her solution for getting out to the pilot was to climb into our tin bathtub and paddle it out to the float and receive the mail my dad had sent.
But the bathtub wouldn't work to reach the nearest village. And trying to make it through the impassible, dense forest wasn't an option.
She was well and turly on her own.
As us kids got older we provided better conversation, and then my dad was home permanently. Plus we had occasional neighbors and tutors pass through for sometimes months at a time.
One time a young couple from New York that had been left to fend for themselves at a cabin to the north of us, stumbled out of the forest onto the beach where us kids were playing.
We stared at them in shock. We'd seen a lot of things step out of the wilderness, but never humans.
They were desperate humans, starving, their city clothes and shoes in tatters, white-faced and a little wild-eyed.
My mom invited them inside, fed them and most importantly, offered them her treasured Cafe Francais, a latte that came in a tin, and drew them out with her interest and knowledge of their New York life. They calmed right down and were so grateful they almost cried.
Another time my two younger brothers invited two kids from Sweden, who were visiting family in the nearby village, over for a spaghetti dinner. When the Swedish kids looked at their forks and piles of noodles with helpless inactivity, my mom handed them spoons. My brothers looked on, dumbfounded, as the Swedish kids, instead of forking up and sucking, used the spoons to wind the noodles into neat balls on their forks.
When we were growing up, my mom was the sole bastion of refinement and culture on the edge of the world where barbarism constantly lurked, threatening a complete takeover.
My parents were the classic opposites-attract match. Which worked out well for us kids.
On the one hand my dad taught us to be self-sufficient, how to build anything, how not to be daunted by any physical task or danger Alaska could throw at us. I don't think the word "impossible" exists in our vocabularly because of him.
From my mom we all acquired a love of books, music, art, movies, color and laughter. We appreciate manners and try, each in our own ways, to live up to a certain standard. We're all spiritually inclined, perhaps thanks to the Bible studies my mom had with us out on a massive rock that overlooked the bay populated by feeding humpback whales while eagles flew overhead.
Because of her we learned it was possible to live in the wilderness and yet be able to adapt to new experiences, other points of view, other cultures, other lifestyles. And that there was a world out there of rich and varied wonders that we could embrace as our own if we chose.
We had the best of both worlds because my mom never stopped dreaming of Alaska.
Some of my mom's art can be found on my sister's website at www.madartdesigns.com, under "Romi's Art."
Tara Neilson (ADOW)