We were let out of school at 2:30 pm because the teachers of the small Alaskan bush school my four siblings and I attended knew that during mid-winter, by the time we made the nearly half-hour skiff ride home, it would be dark.
As soon as the clock’s hands hit 2:30, we donned our cold winter gear, grabbed our backpacks, and ran down to the dock to wait for our dad.
The village kids either took the small, winding trail home (there were no roads in the 29 population fishing community) or accompanied us down to the dock that was lined with our relatives’ trolling boats, to jump in their small skiffs.
They only had to cross the harbor. We had to head out onto the open strait in a sixteen foot, wooden skiff our dad had built himself, and cross an unprotected bay before we reached our home in the ruins of a burned cannery.
We chopped up slimy, iodine-scented bull kelp and flung it at each other as we waited. By the time we heard the distinctive sound of our dad’s 50hp Mercury outboard and saw the silhouette of him at the back of the skiff as he approached the entrance, the sky behind him was ruddy and rapidly darkening.
When he pulled up to the dock we saw his beard was encrusted with frozen salt spray. We glanced at each other before settling into the skiff and braced ourselves for what we knew was going to be a rough, cold ride. We’d be splattered with icy Alaskan water and be so stiff when we climbed out at home we could barely walk. By then dusk had set in and when we crossed the sawdust trail through the forest to get to the house we’d just built, we had to follow our white dogs: the last bit of light made them glow.
We raced each other the last distance to be the first ones in the house to plunge our frozen hands into the canner on the woodstove that was always full of hot water. Sometimes I didn’t bother to jostle my way through the bodies to get to it. Instead, I’d run upstairs to my room and with chattering teeth and numb, shaking hands, I’d light my kerosene lamp and grab the western I’d been reading the night before.
I always chose westerns that were set in the desert. Nothing felt better than putting myself in the hero’s creaking saddle as his horse plodded across the shimmering sand. The more he sweated, the more parched he became, the more I liked it.
As soon as I finished one, I’d pick up another. My two favorites were WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND and THE DESERT CRUCIBLE by Zane Grey. No one wrote with more detail or gusto about the deadly heat of the desert than Grey. I listened to German pop group Nena as I read, and the desert became eternally imprinted on their music.
These days, after shoveling snow off the deck of my floathouse from morning till evening so it doesn’t sink under the weight, I turn to Tony Hillerman. In the middle of an Alaskan winter, I love to read his Navajo mysteries set in a hot and dusty corner of Arizona.
If I’m too tired to read after scraping snow off the roof, or spending hours firewood logging in 20 below wind chill, I’ll watch the three movies PBS made from Hillerman’s novels. My favorite is “Coyote Waits.” The first words spoken in it are: “It’s a hot, hot day on the rez.”
The more arid scenes there are of red-stone rock bluffs, desert scrub plants, basking lizards, and humans complaining about the heat, the better.
It’s no accident that the only house plants I own are a cactus and an aloe vera. When I buy calendars I spurn ones with seasonal photos. Instead, I gravitate towards ones that have titles like “The Tropics” or “American Deserts.”
People often ask me how I cope with Alaskan winters out here in the wilderness, since most people who own homes here make sure to only visit during the temperate summers. I tell them I was fortunate enough to grow up out here so I’m used to it. But the underlying truth is that at a young age I discovered that the key to coping with anything is how well you can manipulate your own mind.
As a child I recognized that if you can engage your mind in an experience that is different from what your body is experiencing, your mind can find a way to free you from the environment and moment you’re stuck in.
Now, on this cold winter day as I sit inside my floathouse with the sleet hammering the roof and obscuring the view out my window, I’m going to find my battered 80s cassette of Nena’s album “99 Red Balloons” to play on the stereo.
And escape to the desert.
When we towed our floathouses here and settled in, we found a fishing boat on the beach with its bottom torn out and it's name, "Daybreak" painted on its stern. I'd heard locally that it struck the rocks right outside our little tidal lagoon during a winter storm and was a complete loss. I've always wanted to know more about it and have done research online. I even requested the help of an experienced "shipwreck finder," Captain Warren Good at alaskashipwreck.com. But we found almost nothing.
Until last month when a man reading one of my old columns contacted me by email, introducing himself simply as Dan. He'd wrecked in his fishing boat here in 1988, a year before we moved here.
Dan Pryse's story:
I was only 24 when I lost the Daybreak. I have not even thought about her in years. It was my own fault. It was snowing and blowing about 35 out of the northwest at 2 am on December 13th. We had been up for 2 day's fishing and were greedy for Christmas money. We were setting longline gear south in the direction of Meyers Chuck.
I was on deck helping set up a string in the pitch black lit by deck lights when the rising wind and storm tide pushed me right to the rocks.
I heard a noise and looked around the wheelhouse to see huge breakers. Waves were crashing on rocks that had gotten far too close. I didn't make it back to the wheelhouse in time to turn her. She ran hard aground with a rock right under the stern. She just commenced to beat herself to death. At the time only the tip of the rock was exposed, the size of a Volks Wagon.
I was trying to put out a mayday when the back door blew out, then the seas smashed the window's out. The waves even knocked the Pacific cook stove loose and I never saw it again. A huge swell came in and lifted the whole boat and dropped her... This blew out all the floorboards and I was walking on the frame above the engine.
The Coast Guard cutter Plaintree was passing on the way to Ketchikan and heard my call. The Captain said there were not enough lives in jeopardy and he would not send a boat or crew till morning.
We were not on the same schedule--we needed help NOW.
As I was calling him every choice name I could muster the Post Master from Meyers Chuck, Steve Johnson on the vessel Grizzly Bear, broke in and said he'd help us since the Coast Guard would not. He and another guy in a 16 foot Boston Whaler came out that night in the storm and got us.
When we got to Meyers Chuck a Coast Guard skiff dropped a pump on the dock. A crewman said the Plaintree was going to Ketchikan and was wasting no more time. It would not have mattered as the Daybreak was a total loss.
If not for the Post Master Steve Johnson and Art Forbes I think was the second man, we would for sure have died.The Post Master and his wife Ruth even let me stay in their home before taking me to Ketchikan. What truly kind people.
Dan is correct--the locals he mentions are kind people. Steve and Ruth ran the small market and fish buying station in Meyers Chuck when they lived here in the Eighties. During school we'd run down during the lunch break and buy candy from Ruthie, who was a lovely, generous and supportive woman. Their son, Ryan, was best friends with Noah Forbes, who was the son of the other local mentioned in Dan's story, Art Forbes (we now own his Boston Whaler mentioned in Dan's account).
Art is married to Linda, who features prominently in my memoir Raised in Ruins. I also talk about taking my siblings to school in a homemade 16-foot wooden skiff on this very stretch of water that has caused more than one shipwreck. (My memoir is available for pre-ordering by clicking on the cover of the photo top right, or at https://www.westmarginpress.com/book-details/9781513262635/raised-in-ruins/ )
I asked Dan if he had any photos of the Daybreak and he replied: "No I have no photos. I lived on the Daybreak and only had one boat payment left. I lost absolutely everything including photos. And I had no insurance, just a borrowed pair of boots from [Steve]."
He helped fill out the details, though: The Daybreak was a 36 foot Columbia River freighter for the canneries and logging outfits. It was built in Oregon in 1935 and modified to a pleasure boat in the 70's. Jim and Gayle Eastwood of Petersburg purchased it and made a longliner out of it. Dan bought it in 1985 or 1986.
I asked Dan what he did after the wreck of the Daybreak and he replied: "I fished every fishery from Puget Sound salmon to 14 winters in Dutch Harbor and I was the deckboss on the world's biggest Longliner in Siberia Russia right after communism fell. 7 years in Bristol Bay and every longline season in the Gulf and Southeast salmon and 3 salmon season's in Kodiak. I'm getting seasick just thinking about it."
I'm encouraging him to write his memoir; he has an amazing fund of true life adventure stories to tell. (Dan Pryse also became a tenacious whistleblower whose testimony helped bring down an official seeking a presidentially-appointed position. You can read about it here: https://www.alaskapublic.org/2011/09/26/former-crew-members-attempted-to-turn-in-fuglvog/ )
The kind and talented Grace Augustine at the website Originality by Design, asked if I would do a guest blog to help promote my memoir Raised in Ruins (due out April 7, 2020) and I agreed. When it was posted and the editor of my memoir read it she said she loved it and would be delighted if I'd make it the new opening to the book. See what you think:
Every day as a child was an adventure for me and my four siblings as we lived in the burned ruins of a remote Alaskan cannery. Some days had more adventure in them than others. Mail day was a day that promised parent-free adventure.
Our mail arrived at a nearby fishing village by floatplane once a week, weather permitting. We only lived seven miles of water away from the village—there were no roads, or even trails—but the route was hazardous, even deadly, because of the mercurial nature of our weather. What had been glassy water an hour before as we made the trip in a thirteen foot open Boston Whaler could turn into a maelstrom of seething white water only an hour later to catch us on the return trip.
Tides, weather forecasts, and local signs had to be carefully calculated before the trip could be made. So, it sometimes happened that we would miss several mail days in a row and get three weeks’ worth of mail all at once. My parents usually made the trip by themselves, leaving us kids behind in our floathouse home. (A regular wood frame house resting on a raft of logs.)
Our sense of adventure, always present since our family comprised the entire population of humans for miles in any direction, quadrupled as we waved good-bye to them. We watched them turn into a speck out on the broad bay with the mountain ranges of vast Prince of Wales Island providing a breathtaking backdrop for them.
Then we cut loose. We ran around the beaches, jumping into piles of salt-sticky seaweed and yelling at the top of our lungs, the dogs chasing us and barking joyously. We tended to do this every day, but this was different. We lived in an untamed wilderness that could kill full grown adults in a multitude of ways and we children had it all to ourselves.
At our backs was the mysterious forest that climbed to a 3,000 foot high mountain that looked like a man lying on his back staring up at the sky that we called “The Old Man.” In front of us was the expanse of unpredictable water with no traffic on it, except for the humpback whales, sea lions, and water fowl.
And we were the only humans to be seen in all of it.
As we scattered, my littlest brother, Chris, wound up with me in our twelve-foot, aluminum rowing skiff. I was twelve and he was seven, and we were buckled up in our protective, bright orange lifejackets that we never went anywhere without.
“Where shall we go, Sir Christopher?” I asked in a faux British voice as I sat in the middle seat with an oar on either side of me. “Your wish is my command.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Where do you want to go?”
I looked around. The floathouse sat above a small stream below the forest, its float logs dry, since the tide was halfway out. Opposite it was a smaller floathouse we called the wanigan that we used to go to school in, before our dad built a school for us on land, but was now the washhouse.
The small, sheltered cove suddenly felt restrictive since it was the only part of the old cannery we saw on a regular basis, and there wasn’t much of the old cannery to see, just some pilings sticking half out of the water.
“Let’s go to the ruins,” I said.
The rest of the post can be read at: https://originalitybydesign.blogspot.com/2019/09/to-ruins-by-tara-neilson.html
Tara Neilson (ADOW)