The ringtone of the emergency boat phone woke me sometime after midnight.
It's an ancient flip phone that we take with us when we go anywhere in the skiff, but I keep it at my house beside my bed in the event of a family crisis since my parents don't have a signal in their bedroom. I sat up instantly, wide awake, my mind flashing from one family member to the next. When I saw the caller ID was my older brother Jamie, my heart sank. My nephew Sterling (Jamie's oldest son) and his entire little family, were in the process of moving South--had something horrible happened?
It was actually a momentary relief when Jamie said laconically, "There was an 8.2 earthquake in the Gulf, off Kodiak. A tsunami warning has gone out."
When the size of the earthquake and the position of it registered I realized we'd definitely be in the path of any tsunami from it. My first thought was, "Oh, great. Now I won't be able to make the dinners for my parents' 50th Anniversary."
My sister Megan had ordered the makings for a lobster tail dinner, while my second youngest brother Robin, who is renowned far and wide for his incredibly scrumptious coffee-rubbed prime rib roast, was sending out the makings for a second dinner. After all, a 50th wedding anniversary deserved to be recognized twice!
I already had the dessert Megan had sent in my freezer, but the makings for both dinners were supposed to come out in the mail tomorrow on our once-a-week, weather permitting mail day.
After I got off the phone with Jamie, I tried getting enough of an Internet signal to find out what was going on with the earthquake. The official tsunami warning was on my tablet but I couldn't find a usable signal. I called my sister Megan in Miami. There's a four hour time difference between us so it was pushing five in the morning her time and she's an early riser--but she's well aware of the time difference and would know something was wrong with me calling at the hour. I could hear the expectation of something bad in her calm voice, much like the time I'd had to call her when Robin was in a near-fatal car crash.
While I talked to her I slipped on warm clothes and put things in my two emergency backpacks that were already stocked with survival supplies and important documents--we'd been through tsunami warnings before. My Maine Coon, Katya, wasn't in the house, but I trusted that she'd get to high ground in time to avoid being swept away.
I went over to my parents' house to wake them up, though I hesitated. We had a tsunami safe spot, the only high spot on the tip of this peninsula where we live, but it was quite a trek up a rocky, seaweed strewn beach, around and over a tangle of drift logs, a long walk and then a steep climb up to Tsunami Hill. Both of my parents have mobility issues and I didn't think either of them would be able to make it through the obstacle course of the drift logs, let alone the rest of the way. So should I just let them sleep? Odds were the tsunami warning would be a false alarm, like all the others we'd gotten over the years.
But the size of the quake and the position of it were just too ominous. I decided they had to make the choice themselves of whether they'd try to get to our tsunami safe spot or not.
I woke them up and gave them the bad news. My mom, for one, felt the same relief I had. She said she thought I was waking them up at that time of the night to tell them something bad had happened to one of their kids. Her mind went immediately Megan and her daughter Aroon for some reason--maybe because of the worries we had when Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Miami a few months back.
When I told her the even worse news, that if there was a tsunami they wouldn't get their anniversary dinners, she laughed and then added wistfully, "And no dessert!" She shared that she and my dad had been brooding about the dessert they knew was in my freezer for the last week. When you live out in the bush, locked in by winter, these are the sorts of things that can quickly develop into an obsession. It sounded like they'd been planning a commando raid on my freezer to liberate the dessert before their anniversary.
Both of my parents were matter-of-factly certain that they wouldn't be able to make the Iron Man trek to Tsunami Hill. My mom insisted that I go, though. I knew it was a mother's need to keep her children safe, but she cunningly added, to get me to comply, "That way someone will survive to help me and Dad." I couldn't fault that logic.
I contacted my sister again to get more information before setting out into the cold night, and to relay to Jamie who lives in the nearby village. He had a woman and two kids staying with him and had to worry about the need to get them to high ground in time. My dad was working the other phone, too. At one point we heard that the city of Seward, the first place that would be hit by a tsunami, had been evacuated and/or already wiped out. Megan's next news to me confirmed that there was definitely a tsunami. A tsunami buoy in the Gulf of Alaska near the epicenter of the quake had detected a thirty-five foot change in sea level.
Again, my first reaction was relief. "A thirty-five foot tsunami headed our way? Good. Now I don't have to climb Tsunami Hill." The hill was only thirty feet high--at low tide. And the tide was coming in. I might as well stay with my parents.
We figured out that their house would probably be the safest. Mine was closest to the trees and would be crushed into splinters by the weight of my parents' house and their large workshop. I carried my backpacks over there and heard that the wave was due to hit us four hours after the earthquake. We worried about all of our friends in Alaskan towns that were right on the ocean, like Sitka and Craig. At that time the warning was going out for the entire West Coast of the U.S. and I worried about friends and family in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Around three a.m. the tsunami warning was canceled for our area. As it turned out, despite the massive, shallow quake--later downgraded to a 7.8, followed by hundreds of aftershocks--only a few small waves, under a foot high, were generated. The tsunami buoy that registered the 35 foot wave was actually so close to the epicenter that what it recorded was seismic energy affecting the seafloor rather than the surface.
Katya seems to have suffered the most from the false alarm. She has some post traumatic issues from returning home in the middle of the night to find me gone, all the lights on, and the hated, horrible backpacks out (which usually means I'm going somewhere). In the nights since the tsunami warning she's taken to lying on my boots so I can't leave and glaring at me. When I try to reach for them she swats at me, or lightly bites me. Unbeknownst to her they're actually my summer boots--my winter boots are a couple sizes too big so that I can wear bulky, warm layers of socks in them. But whatever gives her peace of mind is fine with me.
At any rate, the anniversary dinners were back on!
Robin rubbed his roast the next evening, despite a sleepless night and a long day at the Shipyard in Ketchikan where he works. He packaged it up, put in some wine, garlic cloves, mashed potato mix, and--being the bush kid he is--threw in a bunch of flashlights. You can never have too many flashlights in the bush. He got up at four a.m. to get the package to the floatplane airlines to make sure it got out on the mail plane that day, and we'd be able to cook it as soon as we got the mail. He was assured that the weather was good and the plane would be on its way that morning.
However, our community is so tiny--only about twelve year around residents--that the sole floatplane company that handles the mail for this entire outlying region, routinely puts us on the back burner. We rarely get our mail on the scheduled mail day. Sometimes that's due to bad weather, but far more frequently it's because the airlines will put other community's needs, and paying customers, ahead of our mail. Which was exactly what happened this time.
Both anniversary dinners, having survived a tsunami, were now sitting in storage. (We weren't even sure that Megan's dinner had made it to the airlines. My parents called them, and then the store she ordered it from, but no one seemed to know where it was.) The next day the floatplane came out, but by then the tide was out and our skiff was high and dry and wouldn't float again until after dark. We wouldn't be able to pick up the mail from the post office. Jamie picked it up for us, having to break through ice with his skiff to get to the post office, but after he took the mail back to his place the tide went out on him, too. The dinners were a little bit closer to us, but were still in transit. We were most concerned about the pre-rubbed roast--it had been traveling for longer than most roasts are intended to travel--or marinate.
But finally the roast made it to us, a couple days before my parents' anniversary. Rather than wait until the day, we cooked it almost as soon as it came in the house. Marinating it for that long in the coffee rub turned out to make the roast even more succulently tender and flavorful than usual--and that's saying something! I've included Robin's recipe below. But I'm not sure you'll enjoy it as much as we did without the tsunami warning, floatplane hassle, and tide issues!
ROBIN'S COFFEE-RUBBED PRIME RIB
This recipe is for an 8-pound prime rib roast cooked to medium rare.
Combine the following:
1 cup instant coffee ground to a fine powder
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon Lawrey's season salt
1 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon sage
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
Pat the roast dry and then liberally apply the coffee rub to the entire roast with your hands until the rub stays dry. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes as you preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.
Put uncovered roast in a skillet or roaster [we put a rack in and film of water under it] and surround with garlic cloves. Cook for 20 minutes.
Remove roast and re-seal using some of the remaining rub any place that has peeled back. Replace in 350 degree oven. Check every 30 minutes for peeling back outer shell and repair with rub. Cook until center of roast reaches 120 degrees.
Remove from oven and let sit for 10-15 minutes. Roast interior will continue to cook. [Ours was a little too rare and we had to put it back in for another 10 minutes.[
"Cut huge chunks of flesh off and enjoy the juices running down your chin as you devour it!" --Conan the Barbarian (a.k.a., my brother Robin.)
Dear Reader, I just attended the social bush event of the Winter Season.
My invitation came personally from Lady A. Darden, one of the hostesses of the elite event. The occasion was, in fact, so elite that I was the only one invited.
Twelve-year-old A. Darden has been on an extended visit at the next floathouse over from mine (my parents' house) and she had the inspired idea of having my mom put on a "Bush Tea Party." This was probably a result of her getting hooked on one of my mom's favorite shows, "Downton Abbey," which they've been binge watching together; that is, when A. isn't watching "Gilligan's Island."
On the menu was pumpkin pie with whipped cream, tiny cheese sandwiches--the crusts fastidiously removed--green olives, chocolate chip cookies delicately removed from the mass packaging bag they came in, banana slices, carrot sticks, and a variety of teas to choose from.
Here are some juicy snippets of conversation from this exclusive social gathering:
"So, where do you stand, Lady Darden, on the subject of keeping the village hospital or moving the patients to a larger city hospital?" my mom asked as she sipped her tea, pinky finger elegantly elevated. Apparently that was where they were at in their binge-watching of Downton Abbey.
"They need to keep the village hospital," A. said, decisively slicing into her pumpkin pie. "It's closer, they need a small hospital in the village, and the doctors know the people."
"It appears that you side with the Dowager," my mom noted.
My dad wandered by on his way out the front door. "And here," I said (as official tea party chronicler), "we have an exile from the Bush Tea Party, a veritable barbarian. We should ask him to join us. Oh. He's giving me a death glare, so perhaps not."
"It's a Tea Party Death Glare," he corrected, and carried on about his barbarous way.
From there we discussed the sad news that Jerry Van Dyke had died. "He turned down a starring role in Gilligan's Island," I said, knowing that Lady Darden would find this Important News. We tried to figure out which role he would have played and finally decided that because he'd been typecast early on as not overly bright, or at least naive, it would have been Gilligan himself.
"Gilligan," Lady Darden explained dryly, "isn't as smart as he thinks he is."
Her other favorite show is "I Love Lucy" and she was excited that the ladies of Downton Abbey were going to be visiting New York City where Lucy lived. "They better be prepared," she said darkly, having no illusions about the kind of manic madness that Lucy managed to inject into every occasion.
My mom and I had to break it to her that the ladies lived in different eras. We tried to figure out the time difference between Lucy and the Downtonians as we finished off the tea. A little math in the proceedings was fitting since this was the time of day when I'd agreed to tutor A. in her math homework. I'd even suggested that we make it a "Math Tea Party." I received a death glare in return. (They're fairly common in the long dark winter days of the Alaskan bush.)
As we were discoursing in this vein, Lady A. Darden managed to sneakily separate the cheese from the sandwiches, leaving the little squares of bread still tooth-picked together and apparently unmolested to the unsuspicious, benign eye.
Apropos of nothing whatsoever, Lady Darden volunteered that if she ever wrote a book it would be titled: The Mystery of Who Stole the Cheese.
Alas, the tea party came to its conclusion, as all good things must. But it's an occasion that will be talked about in local gatherings to brighten the many dark winter days still to come.
It's that time of the year again when we do our usual Fall things, but there was nothing usual about the bullets coming at me as I hid behind an inadequately-sized tree.
The day started out windy, chill, and overcast, blowing from the north. I needed to pump water to our holding tank, and also walk the waterline to level it. Soon enough I'd need to be draining the line every time I pumped so it wouldn't freeze; it's important that the line is level for it to drain properly. I found that many of the support boards that keep it level had rotted and fallen. We'd have to replace them.
The week before, my dad had replaced the recoil cord on the pump, but even with that helpful accessory, the pump was resistant to starting. After a dozen yanks and two squirts of ether it finally caught and ran smoothly. I noted the time and strolled through the woods toward the beach where I'd wait for thirteen minutes to let the pump fill the tank before I turned it off.
I was almost to the beach when I heard nearby shots and bullets strike close to me and I dropped instinctively. Out on the bay a fishing boat had crewmen on deck with guns in their hands aimed toward shore. Apparently they were getting ready for hunting season by sighting their rifles in at the trees around me.
I ducked behind the nearest tree. I didn't dare go on the beach to reveal my presence because with their fingers on the triggers they might think it was a deer and only notice it was a person after they shot me.
My handheld VHF was in my pocket and my dad demanded an answer to his first call. I fumbled for it, realizing that of course they thought the shots were from me. There were still bears around and I never went anywhere without the .44. Not to mention there shouldn't have been anyone else in the area.
In addition, the guys on the boat had just measured off three deliberate shots, apparently unaware that that's a universal signal of distress. My parents had brought all of us kids up to know that, so they would naturally assume I was signaling them. (I later found out that when they heard the first shot my mom grabbed her cane--she has severe knee problems--and started hobbling for the door. I don't know what she thought she could do, but obviously she wasn't going to let the bears have her daughter without some kind of a fight.)
"It's not me," I said into the VHF. "It's some idiots on a boat shooting into the woods."
They continued to shoot, firing off multiple rounds fairly quickly as I remained as still as possible behind the not very big tree. My dad suggested I fire off my gun to let them know I was there, but I didn't think it was a good idea to move that much. I was too close to the beach and they could see the movement and fire at it.
My dad, instead, took one of his rifles and stepped outside to shoot. It had the desired effect. The fishermen were obviously not locals and had no idea people lived in the area and they quickly put their guns away. I remained in the woods just to be safe and turned off the pump when it was time. (Because it was blowing a strong northerly with the pump situated to the south of them, they wouldn't have heard it over the sound of the waves striking their anchored boat.)
I returned home, happily un-perforated but with a serious adrenaline rush.
At this time of the year we're also busy stocking up on fuel and propane and especially winter groceries, which means taking advantage of the case sales offered by the store in Thorne Bay. The last time I was in Thorne Bay, one of the cashiers asked me how much it took for us to stock up for winter. I told her, "Not nearly as much as it used to."
When there were seven of us and we had around twenty dogs our fall stock-up amounted to probably a ton of supplies which we'd buy all at once and then have to unload and put away all at once, as well. These days we don't have as much to deal with and we make sure we do it in installments.
Of course the tides never cooperate and this time, as per usual, we wound up hauling the perishables, the produce and the frozen foods up a low tide beach. Happily, the hand truck with the oversized wheels made tackling the mud flats and rocks fairly easy. We left the cases of dry goods in the skiff until the tide came in (covering the boxes with a tarp to protect everything from the predatory ravens and crows) and then hauled the boxes of cans, jars, etc., into the house. They wound up stacked on every available surface, waiting until they could be put away...or eaten.
It's also time to work on corralling as many firewood logs for winter as possible. While my parents and I were scoping out the beaches slightly to the north of the village, my cousin Darrell approached us in his skiff with a log right inside it. He and my brother Jamie are both strapping six footers and when they find themselves without lines and logging dogs, they don't hesitate to pull a log out of the water and into their skiff and take it home.
In this case Darrell generously offered his catch to us. While myd ad pounded a logging dog in it, after Darrell rolled it back into the water, my mom chatted with Darrell, asking after his mother, her sister Shirley who used to live in the village with her husband Herb. After catching up on all the news, we went our separate ways and we had one more log to tow home behind us.
There are still many more projects to do to prepare for winter....