"There are plenty of reasons to sympathize with our pal [in] Alaska. Just the thought of her running through a blizzard with an armload of firewood while being chased by a pack of howling otters just waiting for her to stumble makes me tremble for her safety."
A friend wrote this on a message board I subscribe to but can rarely post on. I thought about expanding upon this on my blog because of its astounding accuracy, but unfortunately I don't have any photos to accompany it.
So, instead, I thought I'd catch everyone up on a very common wilderness concern in Southeast Alaska: firewood.
Typically, everyone who lives in the bush and especially those who live here year around (a very small minority) owns a well-stocked woodshed. People spend a good part of their summer stocking up the woodshed in preparation for winter and then all winter long they try to, if possible, keep it topped up. Everyone fears an accident that will leave them dependent on the woodshed without the possibility of replacing what they've burned.
As a kid, a big thing our whole extended family did was have a day where we filled up the space below my grandparents' house and their side porch with firewood. It was a lot of hard work, but fun, too, with the guys trying to outdo each other with how much they sawed and split while us kids hauled and stacked, and our mother, aunts, and grandma made a huge, delicious meal inside.
Before the Forest Service claimed the land our floathouses are attached to, we had a woodshed on land that held several cords of firewood and we did our best to keep it stocked up. We had to dismantle it and since then we've been limited as to how much firewood we can have on hand, since the weight is a problem for floathouses. My dad, for the last few winters, has split wood every other day, enough for two houses. For a guy in his seventies who has only limited use of one leg, I've always thought this an impressive accomplishment.
Three weeks ago he accidentally leaned on an unlatched door and suffered a severe fall that effectively sidelined him in the firewood gathering department. Fortunately for us, our winter had been fairly mild up to then (with huckleberries still on the bushes in December), and we did have a small woodbox and the front of their floathouse stocked with firewood. In addition, last summer he and a young friend had split a pile of wood that they'd had to leave on the beach under a tarp to avoid having it on Forest Service land.
That had worked fine in the summer and fall months when the tides are fairly low, but we had big winter tides coming, including a nineteen footer that would wash the wood away. I paddled the skiff over to the beach with the split wood (my dad didn't think I'd be able to start the outboard since it had been acting up) and tossed in as much of it as I could. I had to go back every day to get more as the tide rose higher, until on the nineteen foot tide I was in a flat out race trying to get the last of the wood into the skiff before the surging tide carried it away.
I was also gathering driftwood poles that could be sawed into rounds, often as dark fell since there were only short hours of daylight and the tide came and went as it liked without reference to my needs. I knew I didn't have the upper body strength to split enough firewood for two houses the way my dad did, so my plan was to find small enough poles that I could pull them onto our dock so they could be sawed up with the small chainsaw.
This worked well for my smaller house, but when my parents ran out of wood and the temperature dropped to below freezing with a nasty northerly dropping the temperature even further with its icy windchill, I had to start towing in larger logs, up to 7-8 inches in diameter. These bigger logs I needed rope and tackle in order to pull them onto the dock. My dad, who was healing faster than any of us expected, sawed round after round as I pulled a log forward. My mom, who has limited mobility herself and asthma, came out into the chill wind and hauled as many of the rounds as she could.
In this manner we've managed to keep on top of the firewood situation, though we try to be careful about how much we burn. My house is often kept in the 50-60F degree range. My Maine Coon Katya isn't a fan of winter weather, so her answer to the problem is to crawl into her little house. I put a heated, flat stone under the pad inside and in addition I add a hot water bottle and a fleece blanket. She hates to come out, even to eat.
A cozy, purring cat almost makes up for the ongoing cold and constant scavenging for firewood poles.
I've been trying to get a blog to my sister to post from Florida as per usual, but technical problems and an extremely poor signal have made that difficult, so I thought I'd try to send off a short one just to let everyone know what's going on, and to apologize for my delays in responding to emails.
We're working on our floathouses, hoping to get them in the best shape possible before we get any snow fall that sticks. Yes, I wrote about doing the same thing last winter, but we have to do this every year because that's the nature of floathouses. They're always losing flotation for one reason or another. My oldest brother Jamie, who also lives in a floathouse, was visiting the other day and describing all of his plans to get his place into snowfall shape, too.
A few weeks before that, I was sitting at my laptop, writing on my memoir, when my whole house shook so hard that things fell off the walls. This was right around the time of the big earthquake up in Anchorage, which wouldn't normally affect us at this distance, but earthquakes were on my mind. But when I checked outside to see what kind of damage was done, I found that a vital piece of my flotation had broken, dropping the back of my float about six inches underwater.
I couldn't leave it like that, but with our early nights I didn't have much time to do anything too permanent. Still, I rounded up extra foam, a heavy board, a drill, a spike, and a sledgehammer while my dad quickly put together q partial cradle to keep the foam in place. I managed to get the new piece of flotation in place just before darkness fell, but I need to work on something more permanent.
So that's what we're busy with right now. Usually it's pouring down rain and blowing a gale so I can't take pictures, which is why I'm posting a couple of dawn photos of the little tidal bight we live in on a gloriously unrainy, unwindy day--something we haven't seen in weeks. Hopefully the technical and signal issues get fixed soon and I can post a regular blog. Thanks for everyone's patience!
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:
Tara Neilson (ADOW)