My thirteen-year-old friend, A.C., went with me today to fix the waterline and pump water to our holding tank on a hill above our floathouses.
Wearing a Hoonah Fisheries bill cap, pink flannel work shirt, and a wispy black chiffon skirt, all she needed was to shove on her XTRATUF rubber boots and grab the vegan, cruelty free purse my artist sister, Megan Duncanson, had painted and sent her as a gift. A.C. goes nowhere without it, or the valuable contents it carries. But we'll get to that in a minute.
When we got to the waterline that follows a trail through the woods, we found that the wildlife--deer or a bear--had knocked it down. After leveling it we found that a connection was leaking. A.C. handled it. "Duct tape can fix anything," she insisted, and took charge of a large roll of it. Who's arguing?
When we got to the dam, she asked if I'd allow her to start the pump. "Jamie taught me how to start the generator," she said, mentioning my oldest brother who she lives next door to in the nearby village of Meyers Chuck. "This looks like the same sort of thing."
It pretty much was, so I told her to go for it. She just needed to fill the tank with gas first, which she promptly did, looking quite fashionable in her wilderness-girl-chic style.
Once she'd filled the pump she went about starting it. Happily, since it was summer it didn't have to be primed, like in the cold winter months. It also didn't need ether to kick it in the pants. A.C. pulled on the recoil a few times but the pump was positioned too high for her to be able to pull on it as strongly as needed.
I changed places with her and it started instantly. I told her, truthfully, that she'd warmed it up for me. It doesn't usually start that easily, even in the summer months.
We escaped the racket of the pump by going down on the beach and I suggested she reveal what she had inside her purse. I'm sure my readers would be fascinated to know what a wilderness girl thinks is essential, especially if she was to get lost in the woods and thrown back upon her own resources.
A.C. obligingly pulled items out, noting them aloud as she perched them on a drift log: "...a pack of cards, a foil packet of Pop Tarts, assorted bracelets..." Then she held up two small bottles with an air of significance. "Two different shades of fingernail polish."
"A girl likes to look her best, even if she's lost in the wilderness," I suggested.
"That's very true," she agreed without smiling.
A.C. pulled out a large, roughly cut...black rock?
"And a large chunk of obsidian," she remarked.
"What's that for?"
"You never know when you might need to make a bunch of arrowheads." She pulled out a wad of napkins that had ink stains on them--I thought. She corrected this impression. "They're napkins with symbols written on them. In case I get lost in the woods I can leave them behind so that people can follow me and find me."
"Smart," I said, wondering why I'd never thought of it.
The was more: jewelry, hair pieces, a gigantic play diamond ("A girl can never have too much diamond"), a solar-powered, hand-crank flashlight, a mirror ("To help people find me when the sun flashes off it") and so many other items that I lost track. I kept expecting her to pull a floor lamp and a potted palm out of it.
Finally, though, we had to shut off the pump and then head home before the tide came in and cut us off from the floathouses. Before we left, I took a final shot of A.C. with one of Megan's Florida Flamingos. If you'd like to know more about Megan's purses and/or art, check out these links: www.livinthemadlife.com - www.madartdesigns.com
It's funny now, but as a kid I didn't think anything of it that my dad's best friend, when he was logging on SE Alaska's vast Prince of Wales Island in the Seventies and Eighties, was called Pitch. All of my dad's stories, when he crossed the strait to be with us out in the wilderness on the weekends, featured things Pitch had said and done that week. Pitch was a giant in my mind.
He was the shovel operator to my dad's scaler/bucker and we kids heard with awe the stories of Pitch picking up tiny coins with his giant grappling tongs. My dad would shake his head in wonder, not only at how smoothly and fluidly Pitch operated the shovel, but also at how it was even possible that he could see the coin to be able to pick it up from his seat back there in the cab.
Pitch operated a "Triple 6," the 666 Koehring on an 866 undercarriage. Because of the three sixes, whenever anything went wrong, as it inevitably would at some point, Pitch and my dad would assert "Satan has it in for us today!" The shovel, a modified excavator, weighed 70 tons and could easily pick up, with Pitch at the controls, an 8 foot in diameter, 40 foot long spruce log.
My dad had such trust in Pitch's precision and situational awareness that he'd buck the logs off with his chainsaw while they were in the clutches of the shovel's grapples. This was impressive because he'd had logs dropped on him by another shovel operator. (By chance he'd fallen into a hole in the ground just before the load dropped on him so he wasn't hurt.) There was no one who could match Pitch's skill--he manipulated the huge machine with its load of heavy logs with complete ease and control. This particular model was considered "slow," but as my dad said, "It was never 'slow' with Pitch at the controls."
Pitch and my dad worked together at Winter Harbor on Prince of Wales and though their crew was small, only five men, they managed to out-log the other much larger crew by a lot. My dad gives the credit to Pitch. He said that once the logs were sorted Pitch had the trucks lined up and could fill and dispatch them so quickly that no other team on the island could keep up. If there was an Olympics for shovel operators, Pitch would have taken Gold home every time.
When I saw Pitch as a kid, I was impressed by how he and my dad complemented each other--they were a lot alike in a lot of ways, but different enough that they could get a kick out of the other guy's perspective. They'd shared a lot of extraordinary life experiences, both being Vietnam vets who became loggers in remote Alaska and who built their own homes themselves. They worked together in Thorne Bay, on Prince of Wales Island, when it was the largest logging camp in the world.
One of my favorite memories of Pitch was when my mom, my sister and me, and two other kids from our bush school, crossed the strait to attend the prom in Thorne Bay. Pitch and his first wife Dale and their three daughters Cheri Dee, Kimery, and Kristi, were kind enough to open their home to us. Before he knew it, this rough and ready logger found his kitchen turned into a beauty salon.
I remember perching carefully on a chair in the living room, trying not to disturb my finery and hairdo, while Pitch entertained us with deliberately hair-raising logging tales. There was a twinkle in his eyes and a rich appreciation for the incongruity of the teens decked out in full prom regalia, the hairspray hanging heavily in the air, politely listening to his stories while my mom finished beautifying the other girls in the next room.
He was good at telling stories. Boom man Tim Lindseth recalls: "Every machine in the sort yard and on the pond had a CB radio and often there would be kind of a topic for the day as chatter, besides the important work stuff. So work stuff could be happening and a story or some ad lib comment going on all through the day.... Pitch made the comment (on the CB) that the Gov. was keeping tabs on who was sitting on a pile of money [through the strips inside $50.00 and $100.00 bills]. To that, every one yakked about this, off and on for an hour and the general consensus was that it must be some sort of tracking device! Pitch chimed in, if you bit the edge off the bill you can pull that strip right out. Now came all of our comments one by one what happens to the strip when the government finds out? Pitch says, he puts it in the cat's food...let 'em track that."
Pitch had a soft spot for cats and kittens. My dad tells the story of how Pitch invented a game that his cat's kittens adored, a little something he called "Cat Darts." He marked out a huge bull's eye on the living room curtains and would toss one of the kittens at the bull's eye. They would stick with their tiny claws to the fabric for a moment or so, then drop down and scamper back, crawling up his leg to have another turn, in the way kids the world over say: "Do it again, Daddy, do it again." He'd tire before the kittens did.
Chris Lewis, who worked as scaler/bucker with Pitch after my dad, told me this funny story about Pitch's soft heart for baby animals: "In the spring every year the area does would bring their fawns into the sort yard and hide them in and around the log decks, etc. Pitch always made sure that at least one skid had logs laid out so the does could hide the fawns against where the skid and the logs intersected and every morning while his shovel was warming up he would check to see if any fawns were hiding along his skids. Well, one morning as I was gassing up and getting my saw ready I noticed Pitch about halfway down a skid looking down at the ground...obviously looking at a fawn, when all of a sudden the little fawn got up and went right between Pitch's legs and tried to start nursing!! Well you can imagine the look on Pitch's face!! I'll never forget it. Of course Pitch just stood there trying to convince the little thing he wasn't its mama. Big tuff logger Pitch. Yeah, I believe he had a very kind heart."
He did have a kind heart. And he liked to share tips that made a person's life or chores easier. My dad was splitting firewood recently and he said, "Pitch taught me to do this better." He said he was chopping wood in the sort yard for the burn barrel one day, driving the ax into the center of a round the way he learned as a kid, when Pitch, who was watching him from the cab of the shovel, said, "There's an easier way to do that." He suggested my dad chop from the outside of the round inward. Sure enough, the tough rounds split far more easily that way and my dad uses the technique to this day.
Wherever Pitch went he was always willing to give of his time and his experience, and many people over many years have reason to be grateful.
After a long illness, lovingly tended by his wife Kathryn, Gerald Pitcher died on April 4, 2018. Pitch was a big guy in the ways that mattered: a man with a big heart, and with an enormous personality, and no one who ever met him will forget him.
An early memory that I treasure and often revisit is of when I was about eight years old and I was staying with my grandparents at their cabin in Meyers Chuck on a dark fall or winter day. It was overcast, windy, and raw outside. The water was a dark, angry grey, slapping at the boats moored at the dock across the harbor and rocking them, making the bells on the tops of the trolling poles ring out. Inside the house the wood stove was crackling and a pot of fragrant coffee perked on top of it. My grandparents were quietly reading books and exchanging comments while I was curled up on the couch coloring.
The waxy smell of the crayons, the rough texture of the paper in the coloring book about fairytales, the picture of a young man attempting to strike a flint stone and my grandmother's explanation of what a flint stone was and why it had been so important--she knew that as a bush kid I'd appreciate the need for fire in heating, cooking, and lighting--all come back to me in a flood of warmth accompanied by a deep sense of security.
It's not a lone memory. My mom always loved coloring and she brought us kids up to color alongside her, particularly during those cold, dark days when we couldn't play outside. I have many memories of all of us grouped around the table or on the floor with the stove emanating heat and an audiotape playing The Lost World or Wind in the Willows as we shared stubby, broken crayons, squabbling over whose turn it was to use the peach or sky blue.
We were in perpetual awe at my mom's intricate coloring and asked her how we could color like she did. Her reply was always the same, "It's just practice. The more you do the better you get at it."
We all tried, but I don't think any of us ever really believed we'd be as good as she was. And, to be honest, we never did attain to her level. Her ability to put light and shadow into a bland, flat drawing, to bring people and images vibrantly to life, is, in my opinion, without parallel. Many was the time I'd give up coloring for the greater pleasure of watching a scene come to life under her skillful fingers.
All of the children who have stayed with us get hooked on the joys of coloring. Twelve-year-old A. C. Darden, who visits us regularly and spends summers with us (along with her brother), asked if we'd get her a coloring book based on the Archie comics, her favorite reading material. We were able to do so and when she visits us in these cold days she takes pleasure in spending quality time with Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and Reggie in summery Riverdale.
"What's your favorite part of coloring?" I asked her.
"The colors," she said firmly.
My mom said she'd have to agree. "It's all about the colors. I can remember the very first picture I colored," she added. "I was about three, I think. It was of a chicken and an egg. I remember trying really hard to get the colors just right and I must have colored it really well--I think I was shading even then--because the adults all raved about it."
With that kind of validation, not common from adults to children when she was growing up, she became addicted to coloring, and not just for the pleasure of it.
Long before the current adult coloring book fad, before therapists found out the soothing qualities of coloring and recommended it to their patients, my mom always turned to her coloring books whenever she was going through a stressful time (being often entirely alone in the wilderness with five kids, for example), and especially when she's coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Dr. Nicki Martinez, Psy.D., LCPC, writing for The Huffington Post, says that "There are many times when I suggest adult coloring books to patients and they look at me like perhaps we should be switching seats. However, time and again, they come back to me and tell me how beneficial they find them to be. Many psychologists and therapists 'prescribe' these to patients for various reasons, and many occupational therapists presribe them as well!"
As additional good news--my mom is always worrying that she's on the verge of complete cognitive disintegration--Dr. Martinez also maintains that "coloring has intellectual benefits as well. It utilizes areas of the brain that enahance focus and concentration. It also helps with problem solving and organizational skills. This may sound strange, and like perhaps the usefulness is being stretched, but it is all true. Our frontal lobes are responsible for these higher level activities and functions of the brain, and coloring detailed pictures activates all those properties."
Plus, she adds: "Coloring utilizes both hemispheres of the brain, right and left. When we are thinking about balance,color choices, applying colored pencil to paper, we are working on problem solving and fine motor skills."
My sister, Megan. A Duncanson, a world-renowned artist, created her own coloring book titled "In the Garden." (Available at Amazon and elsewhere.) In the front matter she wrote a dedication to my mom, saying, "She raised my four siblings and me to appreciate the arts and we would spend endless hours coloring in stacks upon stacks of coloring books as children. It was one of the most memorable and enjoyable parts of my childhood growing up in the remote bush of Alaska."
I feel the same way, and, in fact, I'm getting the urge to pick up a coloring book and start coloring to ward off the cold and short days of winter.
Note: A version of this story appeared previously in Capital City Weekly.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)