The Man Cave.
A place ventured near with caution for fear of being sucked into it's black hole of unleashed testosterone.
The testosterone seems to leak out from the event horizon of its open door, seeking to seize the unwary passersby, sucking them in to their doom. For much of its career it has been a floating flophouse for young males of the homo sapien species (some have questioned this categorization after several loud, violent ructions, complete with grunts, growls and howls, that have emanated from inside the Man Cave). Many a gunshot has been blasted from the front porch for no other reason than UMT. (Unleashed Male Testosterone.)
I have been called upon to do wilderness first aid for prostrate victims of the Man Cave. This usually entailed mopping up blood and slapping a sterile bandage on gaping wounds and duct taping the bandage in place.
I have also delivered libations and grub to these sinister precincts, and have offered literature and spiritual advice in hopes of civilizing the denizens of the Man Cave--all to no avail, I fear.
This went on for several years, with certain characters coming and going, while one remained more or less steady, my nephew Sterling. He was resident caretaker of the Man Cave for his brother Ethan who owned it, but who'd wound up deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Eventually, Sterling, after many adventures with me, moved to Ketchikan to take up a landscaping job and settle down with Cayce, his "better half."
Once the young male occupants packed up their testosterone and left, the Man Cave began to sink into obscurity.
And by sink, I mean literally.
The Man Cave was originally built by my brother Robin while he was still in school. He, with my dad, gathered the logs for a float and then built the small 12'x16' cabin with a sleeping loft. The new floathouse was tied alongside my parents' house, except for the time Robin had it towed to Bear Creek to serve as a trapline cabin--but that's a story for a different blog post.
While it was still new, when Sterling was a toddler, he and his parents stayed in it while they built their own floathouse of much larger dimensions.
But it has been over twenty years since then, since it was new, and the inevitable in Alaskan waters has occurred: the wood-eating bugs have gnawed the float logs into mere skeletons of themselves.
After the guys left, it developed a severe list and seemed in imminent danger of either turning turtle and capsizing, of the float pulling apart under it. Since it was still tied to my parents' float, the worry about it was a constant stress. My dad and I dreaded having to deal with it on our own in addition to the projects we had to do on our own houses.
We were delighted when we got word that Sterling would be coming out to work on it.
Sterling is a blond, slim six-footer who is deceptively powerful. I watched in envy as he jerked twenty foot poles, small trees, out from under the cabin as if they were Lincoln Logs, and tossed them aside. He also casually dismanted the rotting, water-logged and HEAVY parts of the float that were no longer pulling their weight.
It would have taken me an entire day--assuming I could build up the energy and motivation--to do what he did in less than an hour. And he did it with a twinkle in his eye, a sense of the absurd, and comeback quips that left me weak with laughter.
Of course he felt obliged, in honor of past Man Cave exploits, to do it all while nimbly twirling and playing with a hatchet, sword, knives and the odd gun somewhere on his person.
The UMT had returned to the Man Cave.
This was all done, of course, when the tide was out. When it came in, Sterling towed the float log (a firewood log that my dad had parted with in a true spirit of sacrifice) that would go on one side of the cabin, through all the floating obstructions--including the generator shed.
I used a pike pole to help guide things out of the way of the log, but it was still a tense, frustrating business in tight quarters with everything that floated perversely going in exactly the direction we didn't want it to. Sterling also had to be careful he didn't foul his outboard engine's prop in any of the many lines about, including floathouse mooring lines to shore, or run into any of the lurking rocks. Plus, the tide was so high that the lower branches of the evergreens were in the water, causing their own obstructions to get around.
Despite the stress level, probably not improved by my and my dad's ever-so-helpful suggestions, Sterling got the log back behind the cabin and in place without losing his temper. No mean feat when it comes to manipulating logs and ropes with a skiff.
Now we were ready to refloat the Man Cave.
Unfortunately, before we could do the next step--putting new support poles under the cabin--Sterling got a call from Cayce saying she was sick.
The first evening he stayed with us he shared that he and Cayce were going to make my parents great grandparents and me a great aunt. Cayce being sick in the first month of her pregnancy had Sterling taking the next floatplane back to Ketchikan. It was good to see him taking on the responsibilities of a man, taking care of, and being concerned about, another person. The Unleashed Male Testosterone had been, if not tamed, at least was now under some constraints.
It would be up to my dad and me to finish what Sterling had begun in refloating the Man Cave.
I woke up this morning to the sound of rain pummeling the roof. As I lay there listening, a sensation of comfort, well being and "home" warmed me. This is the sound of SE Alaska.
We live in a rainforest, and right in the rainiest part of it. A little to the south, Ketchikan averages 152 inches of precipitation a year, while to the north Little Port Walter on the southern end of Baranof Island averages 221 inches. The post mistress in the nearby village kept track of our rainfall one year and we had 172 inches.
If you read John Muir's explorations of Alaska from 1879-1899, you will find that he devotes many pages to all the different kinds of rain that he experienced here and he rhapsodizes about all of them: "This rainy weather, however, is of good quality, the best kind I ever experienced."
When we came to SE Alaska my two youngest brothers were babies, and the very young have short memories.
One day as Robin, my second youngest brother, was playing on the floor, after days and days, perhaps weeks of steady rain and overcast, a terrifying, supernatural phenomenon crept slowly but surely toward him.
He backed away from the glowing movement, but it continued to creep toward him.
He panicked and screamed, "What is it? What is it?"
It was a ray of sunshine.
When I worked as cook on a guide boat I told the clients this story, of my brother losing all memory of sunshine, to prepare them.
They didn't believe me, laughing at my attempt to put one over on experienced world travelers.
After a week on the boat one of them joined me as I stood at the rail hauling up a bucket of seawater to cook crab in. She contemplated the rain dripping steadily from the top deck, and then looked across the bay we were anchored in at the forested shoreline barely discernible, cloaked in rain fog.
"You know that story you told about your brother forgetting what sunshine looks like?" she said. "I believe it now."
The reality of all this rain is you are almost always caught by it, whatever you're doing. If you need to haul boxes of groceries up the beach, you will inevitably wind up clutching soggy cardboard, hoping the bottom doesn't fall out. (The tiny store in Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island provides courtesy large plastic bags for skiff patrons who have to take their groceries out into the elements.) Our mail is tucked inside layers of plastic. In my previous blog post I tell how the Mail Services librarians in Juneau learned to put the books in plastic before mailing them to me.
You cut and haul firewood in the rain, build in the rain, picnic in the rain, play in the rain. One young couple with little ones made it a rule, to make all the rain fun, that whenever there's a big summer downpour they would all go out, the whole family, and jump in the biggest puddle they could find.
When we were little and there was a huge, thunderous downpour in the summer my parents would send us out with soap.
The least fun reality of all this rain, is the inevitable leaky roof.
Every house has to deal with this at some point and ongoing roof repairs are just a way of life. In the meantime, while waiting for the leak or leaks to be dealt with, the plastic containers and cans and jars come out.
I remember, as a kid, putting paper towels in the can in my bedroom to muffle the dripping so I could sleep (and to contain the splatter).
A floathouse with a screwed down metal roof is particularly vulnerable to leakage because as the house floats as the tide comes in and then sets on the ground as the tide goes out, the house is constantly shifting and settling. All the movement slowly works the screws out and lets the rain in. We are on a constant quest to find the sealant that will forever end the need for rain catchers.
We haven't found it yet.
When I was a kid I saw rain barrels on everyone's porches before the village waterline was installed in the Eighties. You still seem them, for those times when the waterline goes down, or when it freezes.
I have one myself because I can no longer drink the tannin-rich water of the muskeg lakes and streams around here, but the weight of it presents problems for a floathouse. It is currently surrounded by the blocks of foam needed to refloat the section of the float it sits on and is sinking.
It's true that in the winter months, when the days are so short, that the rain and overcast contribute to the darkness and makes it tough on the people who suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but it makes the spring all that much more welcome.
"He took in a deep breath of damp, salty air. Scents of seaweed and marine life mixed with the smell of cedar trees and rain to give an odor that was quite unique to Southeast Alaska. Despite the rain and [winter] darkness, Jim loved the smell of his home.
"'But not to worry...spring is on the way. It'll still rain almost every day, but at least we'll start to get a little more daylight around here.'" --TSUNAMI WARNING by Brent Purvis.
People have told me that they couldn't imagine living with "all that rain." But I couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
I was fifteen when our principal/teacher at our bush school arranged for me to become a rural patron of the Juneau Public Library, several hundred miles away. That's when I was first introduced to the librarians who worked in the mail services program, and I've been in love ever since. I've had books from them forwarded to me wherever I wander in Alaska, when I'm away on jobs in the summers, or housesitting, or visiting relatives. The library's books have had many adventures with me over the years. They traveled to their home with me on a ferry trip once, and I was able to return them in person to the Juneau Public Library and meet at least one of the librarians who spent so much time and energy on getting me exactly what I was looking for whenever I made a request.
The books, to reach me, are flown by jet to Ketchikan, then to the nearby village by floatplane. We then go pick up the once a week mail by skiff, braving rain, snow and waves to get it. Not to mention the tide. Lugging a heavy bag of books up the beach is not on my dad's all-time favorite list, and I usually hear about it.
I remember having to walk a log to shore once, with the mail and library books in hand. The log was slippery on one end and I slid off, splashing into thigh-high water. I yanked the books out of reach of the water, but I'm afraid the mail didn't fare so well. I've even, though not recently, made the arduous trek by land to the village, packing mail and books to the post office.
What can I say? I love books.
Over the years the librarians have changed, but I've had wonderful relationships with all of them. I still keep in contact with some who left the library years ago, like Brooke, who's a Civil Air Patrol pilot on her downtime and built her own plane with her husband to fly Alaskan skies. Cheryl, Dian and Lynn were my librarians for many years. They were the ones who established putting the books in plastic at my request after I explained about the open skiff ride the books take to get to me, in all kinds of weather. They also understood that sometimes I couldn't make the due date on some books because of weather and they generously renewed the books until I could get them to them.
I didn't have Internet until this year, so they offered to look up research questions for me online and then mailed me, at their expense, stacks of print-outs. The time and effort they spent on figuring out exactly what I wanted never failed to impress me. I think librarians are next door to being mind readers, or at least very insightful psychologists. Besides uncannily always knowing exactly which book out of several on a topic I would prefer, they would leave no stone uncovered when it came to Interlibrary Loan requests. They made sure the other libraries understood my situation--mail once a week, weather permitting--and gave me lots of time to read the books and get them back.
This year, JPL and its Mail Services program has been nominated for the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. They certainly deserve it. Originally they served SE Alaska, but now they serve the entire state, sending books hundreds of miles to isolated, far flung places few people have ever heard of, let alone visited. They pay for the postage to send materials to patrons, we pay to send them back by library rate in their dedicated, self-addressed mailing bags.
There are four employees in the Mail Services program, now that they have the entire state to take care of. They are Max, Marjie, Julie and Ani and I have with them the relationship you can only have with librarians. You know what I'm talking about, right? You trust them and share your interests with them in a way you might not with anyone else, and you feel that they will do all they can to further your interests and introduce you to new books and materials that are tailored to your likes and curiosity.
Let me introduce you to them.
Max was originally encouraged to work part time at the library by his sister who already worked there, while he applied to medical school. Two years later he found himself taking on a permanent position in the Mail Services program.
"Although it was not my intention to remain at the library permanently," he says, "I'm proud of the work I do and the positive changes I've made to this department to ensure it runs efficiently....In particular, I remember a note you sent us which described the epic journey just to retrieve and return library books, a chore we in the city certainly take for granted. I related your experience to some out-of-town friends who were visiting, who said that your story was the most influential advocacy for literacy they'd ever heard. I think this is absolutely true."
Max spends some of his time away from the library climbing mountains and ridges, getting lost in alpine meadows and muskegs, and wading through waist high flooded running trails. "My sister," he explains, "is my training partner and best friend, so it's quite convenient that our cubicles share a wall, allowing us to scheme while we're working."
Marjorie, unlike many who love books, is "not an introvert." She moved to Alaska with her husband from New York City and started working for JPL right away, despite not having any library science training or degree. "But that's Alaska, is it not?"
She took time away from the library for several years to have a family, travel and cope with her husband's successful battle with cancer. In 2013 she returned to the library as Curator of Public Programs (in the museum) and a year later also began working in the Mail Services department. "I think my favorite part of serving our remote customers," she says, "is what I might call 'the hunt.' It has been fun to research on behalf of so many people who are not necessarily reading what I read, and learning about different authors, topics, sources of recommendations, etc."
What Marjorie loves about Alaska is the sense of community--"I love the community for support and friendship and the daily, casual connection I have to almost everybody I run into"--and the way the environment shapes everything and everyone--"most folks vaule it and interact with it almost daily, fishing, hiking, skiing, photographing, etc."--and the opportunities--"For example, one of my daughters is passionate about music and theatre and she gets terrific opportunities to do real, big things, like she sang a solo with the Juneau Symphony this past June....In a larger city, competition would be fierce for those things....in Juneau she gets these opportunities. And I got the opportunity to be hired at the library, despite the lack of a library science degree!"
Julie has lived in different areas of Alaska, from the largest cities to small communities in the Interior, and finally in SE Alaska in Juneau. She says, "Having come from N. Dakota, I've always enjoyed the milder climates in Alaska."
She was a newspaper editor in Fairbanks and Anchorage, taught journalism at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and had her own business. It was when she was in McGrath that she reluctantly became a librarian and found she loved it. "Who knew that all that time I spent reading and working with authors and illustrators would come in handy!"
She loves selecting books and movies for Alaska's far-flung residents, and spending as much time as possible outdoors. She also, like so many Alaskans, enjoys quilting.
Ani grew up in Juneau and was always a reader, as well as studying piano and active in theater. "Reading," she says, "is still always near the top of my list of what I'd rather be doing, preferrably at home, on my couch, with a cup of tea."
Like many people who grew up in Alaska, Ani has tried her hand at a wide range of occupations: pre-school teacher, piano teacher, commercial troller, gardener, book-keeper and, of course, librarian. This last, and current, job, is her favorite. "I love trying to match the right books with the right people, and I love spending that much time immersed in books. I always have way too many books checked out."
She's married with three kids, who are all readers so she gets to be their personal librarian as well. She also loves hiking and spending time outside.
I recently had an online conversation with avid readers who shared with me their love of libraries and librarians. One of them shared this story: "My late brother was hired to manage an old-style ice cream parlor years ago. He took out a bunch of library books about ice cream and never returned them. I returned them for him (he'd moved to another city) expecting a large fine. The library rep said due to my honesty, there was NO charge....My late mom was a librarian at a public library."
I think that anyone who has contact with librarians at a formative age never forgets that first love of books. One of my closest friends is a former school librarian and we trade books through the mail, all the time.
Another online poster said: "I loved the creaking floors, the long wooden tables and the librarians. They knew magical things....They knew where the good books were." The library of her childhood has since changed, but what has not changed, "is the kindness of the librarians."
I responded that libraries are the repository of the world's knowledge monitored and shared by some of the most intelligent, funny, caring people around. And then I told them about the Juneau Public Library and its Mail Services librarians. They were instantly interested and hoped that the library wins the award they have been nominated for. Readers love libraries and librarians....how could we not?
I don't think I'm biased in thinking that my library and the librarians are special and I hope they win the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, which "honors outstanding institutions that make significant and exceptional contributions to their communities. Selected institutions demonstrate extraordinary approaches to public service, exceeding the expected levels of community outreach."
You deserve it, all of you, over the years, who have ever worked in the Mail Services department. Thank you.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)