Mail day dawned sunny and clear, like it's abnormally been for weeks here in formerly rainy Southeast Alaska. The tide was unhelpfully going to be out all day so my dad got in the skiff early to put it on the outhaul.
An outhaul is a rope and pulley device that allows us to keep our smaller boats floating during all but the lowest of low tides. A length of rope is run through two pulleys attached to trees above the high tide line, and to a pulley anchored to the seabed (and usually marked by a buoy so other boaters know not to run over the outhaul). We tie our skiff to a loop in one side of the line and pull it out as far as possible. When we need it, we simply pull it in.
However, because of our unusually hot summer, the outhaul line turned out to be completely overgrown with seaweed and algae. My dad attempted to clean it by tying to the outhaul and driving away from the beach in the skiff, running the caked rope through the pulleys.
A minute later he was on the VHF to me. "Tara, could you bring down the rope on the end of the dock? I just broke the outhaul."
Fortunately, the actual line that makes up the outhaul itself didn't break, it was just the smaller piece of rope that ties one of the pulleys to a tree that snapped.
So, while my dad sat in the skiff and took care of the tedious chore of picking off clumps of seaweed by hand and scraping the algae off with a knife (using a multi-tool that a Lower 48 friend named Russ gave both my dad and I for scouting floathouses for him earlier), I picked up the coil of rope and carried it down the beach, up onto the rock ridge, and then scrambled around wind-fallen trees until I reach the point of land where the pulley is. I hadn't gotten very far when I realized that in my sweatshirt I was way overdressed for how hot it was despite how early it was.
When I got to the broken part of the pulley and fixed it and was about to tell my dad on the VHF, I realized it had fallen out of my bag. I searched nearby but couldn't find it, then shouted and mimed to my dad for him to call me on the VHF so that I could hear his voice through its speaker. He counted slowly as I searched and listened. As it turned out I had to clamber back over the rocks and windfalls and down to the beach before I finally located it. By then I was having a low blood pressure attack aggravated by overheating.
I made it to the nearest bit of shade on a rock bench that overlooked Clarence Strait and Prince of Wales Island and called my dad to tell him my situation. I was about to pass out, but since I was lying down I wouldn't hurt anything.
All was not grim, though. Because I was on the outside of the rocky bight where our floathouses are, I had a clear line of sight to the mountain where the tower that provides us with an Internet signal stands. I had my cell phone with me, which is frequently useless at home, and as it happened my sister called. I chatted with her, explaining my situation, and then my dad called on the VHF checking on me, and asked if I'd call my brother Jamie who was out commercial fishing to ask him a mail-related question.
Jamie was feeling the heat himself. The wheel house of his fishing boat, the Isla, was cooking him like an oven. We carped for a while about the aggravatingly sunny streak we'd been having. As die-hard Southeasterners we liked our damp climate and suffered when the sun came out, even without adding in the fact that I was literally allergic to sunshine.
He said he was down at Caamano (Caamano Point) fishing near our Uncle Rory and Aunt Marion. That point can be a nightmare in rough weather, but I didn't get a twinge when he mentioned it because today the strait was mill pond smooth, not a breath of air stirring. Which, actually, made the heat even more oppressive.
Next I called the post office in Meyers Chuck to find out when the mail plane would be there--and wouldn't you know it? The ariline, which usually refused to come out during low tides, had decided to come out right when the tide was at its lowest today. We'd have to haul groceries and mail up a very long beach, in this heat. I passed the bad news on to my dad and when he finished cleaning off the outhaul he puttered by, going slow since the plane wouldn't be in for a while.
I headed for home shortly after that, deciding to wait for my dad's return at my parents' floathouse. My mom and I heard the mail plane land in the village a few miles to the south of us and almost immediately afterward we heard what sounded like a freight train rushing toward us.
In minutes the airless day was blown away by a winter-type gale. The trees bent and thrashed around and the strait swelled up with spitting white caps. It went from zero wind to forty knot winds, and then higher winds within half an hour. I thought about Jamie down at the dreaded Camaano Pt. and we tried to call him to find out his situation, and Rory and Marion's, but we couldn't get hold of him. We called the post office and told the post mistress Cassie to tell my dad how bad it was out here where we lived.
Unfortunately, he was already on his way. By then it was screaming, with seventy miles winds tearing at the trees. I went down the beach to meet him, and found myself pummeled by the wind. He pulled in down near the outhaul and everything was soaking wet, covered in salt spray. He said it was one of the roughest rides he'd ever had. On top of that, no one from the village had been there to meet the plane except him and Cassie so they'd hauled all the boxes up the low-tide ramp by themselves. His bad leg was in rough shape after all that.
The cardboard boxes were falling apart. Two of them, amounting to over a hundred pounds, were freeze boxes, but we discovered that for some reason nothing, none of the meat or frozen vegetables, were frozen. And they were cooking in the unrelenting sunshine. That meant we couldn't wait for the tide to bring the skiff up to the house--we had to get the perishable groceries up the long, hot beach sooner rather than later.
I hauled up some of the groceries in bags, and got the hand truck on the way back down--and fell through the ramp at the end of the dock. Unbeknownst to us the planks had been eaten through by the gribbles that eat any wood in the water. I scraped my leg up, but there wasn't a lot of blood. I went down for a couple boxes and dragged the hand truck back up to the floathouse over rocks and through tidal mud, and then went back down for another load. By then I was in low blood pressure mode and overheating again and my dad made me stop. He'd been in the hot sun for hours by that time, and was in bad shape after having helped haul all of the village mail up to the post office, and then the horrible ride home--he was so stiff he didn't even attempt to get out of the skiff.
The tide was coming in by then and I had to wade to get to the skiff. I went over my boots, but the water was so warm I didn't care, though the scrape on my leg stung a bit. The wind was literally screaming off the skiff's steel rails, that hurricane pitch that makes your hair stand on end. The strait was exploding against the rocks and my dad and I had to raise our voices to talk. I had to press against the skiff as the wind tried to push it away from the beach and my dad warned me not to get run over by it. Neither of us could remember a winter gale like this in the middle of summer. I again worried about my brother and aunt and uncle in their fishing boats.
As the tide came in I towed the skiff further up the beach shortening, the distance I had to haul the boxes up to the house. My mom met me at the dock and she hauled what she could into the house. I'd haul up groceries, go back and wade out to the skiff and pull it against the gale, and then haul up more groceries.
So that's what I did. In the picture above you can see me towing the skiff up to the house, telling myself "The mail must get through," over and over again.
At some points I was wading at waist level, but it was actually nice to get out of the sun and it was blowing far too hard for any bugs to be around. And then we heard from Jamie, that he and Rory and Marion were perfectly all right--the gale was blowing up the strait away from shore where he was and hammering us at the point that we live on. It was just a freak squall worse than most of our summer squalls.
One more mail day down!
I wrote my next column about the next mail day and you can read it at:
It's that time of year...my sister is in the midst of non-stop snow shoveling and ice chipping, whilst I languish in the hot Miami sun :) This is Megan, Tara's sister, posting from sunny Florida, to let you all know that Tara is swamped with winter maintenance and won't be able to get to any emails right away, but once the snow lets up she will get back with all of you, thank you!
This is our busiest time of year as we gear up for the winter storms and snowfall to come, tightening up or putting in new shorelines, putting new surge anchors on them, cutting out worn pieces of rope, and checking to make sure all the knots are secure. We also work on adding flotation to our houses, new logs added to the outside or slid into bug-eaten openings.
But preparation for winter isn't all about hard labor. We also have to prepare our minds for the coming short days and diminishing sunshine. Even my Maine Coon Katya feels this urge. I catch glimpses of her quietly meditating on the last days of overhead sunshine and I wonder what she's thinking about the changing season.
At this time of the year I make a point of going for long rambles over the rocks, soaking in the piercing, poignant fall sunlight often framed by approaching storm clouds. I let the world fall away, forget the coming winter, and absorb the trenchant reality of the vast wilderness with my aloneness as a human being standing on the edge of the world.
We're surrounded by evergreen conifers so there are few trees that change colors, just the alders and crab apple trees, mainly, and those that do leap out from the endless variatians of perennial green. There's one evergreen, though, that works as a bridge between them--the western red cedar as it displays patches of brilliant orange, known as flagging.
Flagging is the red cedar's way of prioritizing its resources. It lets the inner foliage, that receives the least sun and doesn't get washed as often so it's the least productive, die off. It's alien but beautiful, and doesn't last for long. In the first big storm all those orange needles are blown off and mark the tideline for weeks to come, a reminder that the warm days of summer are gone.
On one of my long rambles I came across a red cedar log that the tide had perched, just for me, like a park bench between rocks overlooking the strait. I seated myself and soaked in the spash of the waves with the sun sparkling down on them as the bull kelp, rooted to rocks below, bobbed carelessly as if unaware of the storms that would eventually tear them loose and toss them on the shore. Geese flew over, black silhouettes against a perfect blue sky, waving goodbye to me as they headed south like the summer people and tourists that were absent from the strait after roaring up and down it all summer long. It was just me and the whales now.
It's at times like these that I know I'm the richest human on earth and can only thank God for these treasures that I'm storing up for the coming winter.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)