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
The question was: how to move a building from point A to point B in the bush with only one or two men?
In 2006 longtime Meyers Chuck residents Ed and Marian Glenz sold their property and moved to Wrangell. Marian had been the village post mistress for many years, going from one building to the next, until an official post office was built on the end of their false island. ("False" because it's reachable by foot when the tide's out.)
After the Glenzs left, the couple who bought the property didn't want the post office building on their land so another resident, Al Manning, acquired the building from them. My dad had built his summer home, so when it came time to move the building, Al approached him. Rather than disassemble it and then reassemble it on Al's property, my dad proposed moving the building intact.
But how? Especially since there was a shortage of manpower and it would just be my dad and my oldest brother Jamie doing the work.
First, with Jamie's help, he took everything moveable out of the post office, including an old, very heavy glass and wood counter that had been salvaged from the Bay of Pillars cannery decades before, and a pool table that the locals had played at while waiting for their mail to be sorted.
I asked him how he knew what it would take to move it and he said he had an approximate idea of how much it weighed, which was more than it looked. "It's well-made," he said appreciatively, then added meaningfully: "Ed Glenz built it." He noted that, "When we lifted one corner, the opposite corner lifted. That's how well made it was."
Next, my dad pulled the sway bracing off the two outside rows of the pilings that the building was pinned to. He left the two inside ones for stability. After that, using a cumalong, he pulled two 50 foot long, eight-inch in diameter logs under the building.
To make sure the house slid on the logs, he oiled the logs and fitted homemade plastic sleeves around the four-by-eight timbers that the floor joists sat on. To stop them from falling over as they were slid down the logs, he put stiffeners between the four-by-eights. On the outside of each log he nailed two-by-sixes to keep the building tracking. To stop the logs from pulling together he put 2 four-by-six spreaders between them at the top and bottom.
He jacked up the logs until they lifted the post office just off the pilings. He had to cut off all the steel pins, that attached the building to the pilings, with a sawzall. Next he tipped the pilings in their holes and dragged them out. He did all of this prep work on his own over a couple of weeks.
Now, ready to move the building, he called in my brother Jamie again.
Together they put rollers (smaller logs) on the ground and then dropped the logs the post office was sitting on, down onto the rollers, and then moved everything until the support logs were hanging out over a sheer drop off above the water.
When the tide was right they floated the logs underneath the support logs. They secured the support logs to trees behind where the building had originally stood and then pulled the post office farther onto the supports. As neat as can be, the building (on its support logs) sat down on the float logs that were tied together with ropes so they wouldn't separate.
With Jamie on one side at the back of the float in his 13 foot Boston Whaler, and our dad on the other side in his 16 foot Whaler, they pushed the building across the harbor toward Al Manning's property. As they turned the float, ropes hanging off the logs got caught in my dad's propeller. Pausing to free the prop, the breeze took them where it willed and the tide began running out.
"There's always something," my dad says. No matter how much you think things through, nothing ever goes as smoothly as it could.
They got the float into position and let it "go dry" as the tide receded. Then they jacked up the support logs to the height of where it was going to be by putting blocks under it--six cedar blocks two feet in diameter and six inches thick--two at a time, using double jacks. They got it to the height they wanted it to be and floated the float logs out from under the two long support logs.
They dug holes to put the pilings in and leveled them by setting one of the pool table balls on the floor. "When it quit rolling," my dad says with a grin, "we knew we were getting close."
They put the pilings under the timbers, took the blocking out, and pulled out the support logs. After that, all they had to do was put the sway bracing in and they were done. The old post office had a new home.
Archimedes once said: "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum upon which to place it and I shall move the world." I think my dad and Archimedes would have had lots to talk about.
"Tell me about the time you sat on a pitchfork."
My three-year-old charge, Hadley Pack, is always fascinated by the adventures I and my four siblings had on the very property she calls home, that used to be my grandparents' house. It's a small, story-and-a-half house that my father helped build, with a view of the state dock and most of the thirty or so houses that make up Meyers Chuck, Alaska.
I show Hadley and her year-and-a-half sister Emma the infamous spot where, at the tender age of seven, I sat on a pitchfork.
"How could you sit on a pitchfork?" Hadley asks, big gray eyes full of curiosity, mischief, and skepticism.
"It was easier than you might think," I recall. "My uncle Lance, who was a teenager at the time, found a nasty, rusty pitchfork head. My grandma told him to get rid of it immediately. He buried it behind the house and somehow the tines--the points--wound up sticking straight up. While we were tilling the dirt for a garden the pitchfork head was exposed but no one noticed because it was the same color as the dirt."
Hadley hangs on my words, gripped by the coming horror. Emma, perched on my hip, is more interested in stuffing the end of my braid in my mouth, with a look of scientific curiosity, than in hearing the story.
"Then what happened?" Hadley presses.
"I was pretty tired from gardening. Hauling salal brush and salmon berry bushes away and finding all the rocks and stacking them in a corner. So I decided..." I draw it out. "To...sit...down."
Hadley doesn't speak, her eyes fixed on my face.
"I looked around for a good spot." I push the braid out of my mouth. "Should I sit on that tree root over there? No. That would be too uncomfortable."
Hadley giggles under her breath.
"That nice patch of dirt looks soft and inviting. I think I'll sit...right...OUCH!"
Hadley jumps, then explodes into infectious convulsions of mirth. For a moment Emma is fascinated by Hadley's borderline control of her laughter. She smiles, then turns back to her scientific studies involving my hair and mouth.
Hadley insists on the rest of it. The sorry account of a little blonde girl like herself, dragging herself into the house, pitchfork protruding, sobbing for her mommy. How the next door neighbor Cassie (who used to give me cookies and now gives them Hadley and her sister), volunteered to take me on a floatplane to Ketchikan to see the doctor, since she already had a flight scheduled.
Hadley's satisfaction with the conclusion of the story, I suspect, has as much to do with her relief that someone had disposed of the submerged threat before she came along, as in her pleasure at her favorite story being told again.
We decide to adventure farther afield and traipse down the wooden walkway that leads to the new post office. Beyond that is the beach where I used to play as a child, where my parents' floathouse used to be, before it was towed to several different locations.
We scamper over the rocks, Hadley insisting that she is Sleeping Beauty to my Prince Charming (regardless of her sister still on my hip).
I breathe in the pungent tidal scents of seaweed and mud, the angle of the light bringing back a childhood full of sunshine and a village that was at one time full to capacity with fishing boats; when the laughter and shrieks of children floated across the water.
I remember climbing over these very rocks, immersed in the wonders of Alaska, knowing, at the age of six, that I had found where I wanted to live for the rest of my life.
I try to imagine that little girl picturing herself grown up, sharing her first discoveries with two other little girls. I often get this feeling, ever since I was hired to be a wilderness nanny for Dan and Kerri Pack two years ago, when Kerri was pregnant with Emma and she and Dan were operating a kayak lodge out of their home.
The cabin Hadley and I shared, away from the kayak guests, had no in-door plumbing, wasn't wired for electricity, and was, in short, exactly the environment I'd grown up in.
Kerri had warned me that Hadley didn't like brushing her teeth, which I found to be true. So I took her to the front door of the cabin and sat her on the top step. I put bubblegum flavored pink toothpaste on her tiny brush and poured water from a thermos on it.
It was dusk, with late rays of sunshine fingering its way through the thick, dark trees. We could hear generators rumbling across the bay, and a seiner dropping its anchor. Night birds crooned in the evening and squirrels chattered.
"Did you see that baby squirrel?" I asked Hadley. "It's come to find out how to brush its teeth. Now, if you show it how it's done, it can go back and show its mother how good it is at brushing its teeth."
Hadley eagerly peered into the woods to catch a glimpse of the squirrel. She heard one chatter and excitedly applied the brush to her teeth, working up a mouth full of pink foam.
The squirrels, as it turned out, also needed to learn how to brush their hair, eat all their food, and go to bed right after their bedtime story.
Now, with an older and wiser Hadley and a tag-along little sister, we have more exciting adventures, leaving the squirrels far behind. These days we pack a lunch and head into the rain forest that covers the island Hadley's home is on. We head past the wooden sign branded "Hadley's Pathway" and emerge onto a beach that gives us a panoramic view of a white-capping Clarence Strait, the only access, besides air, to Meyers Chuck. Waves explode against the protective arm of rocks that shields the Chuck, and salt spindrift is flung a dozen feet into the air.
Every step I cover is full of memories, of a childhood I'd thought forever gone in the past, but which is brought closer every day I spend exploring Alaska anew through the eyes of Hadley and Emma. Every time Hadley asks me to recall my childhood, I feel as if she is giving me a gift, something precious I once had but had somehow allowed to drift away from me without knowing it.
We duck into a gravel alcove, sheltering near a pile of weathered drift logs. To our right is an eagle tree, with a nest in it. For a moment we are hypnotised by the gray and white fury of the pounding surf. Even Emma remains still and silent, awed by the elements. Hadley huddles close to me, shivering at the bite of the wind.
Almost immeditately, though, she recalls our purpose in braving this exposed shore.
"We were in a boat, remember," she says.
"That's right," I duly remember. "We were in a terrible shipwreck and just barely managed to make it ashore before the boat broke up. All we have left is this bag of food."
"We better eat it," Hadley says practically.
We settle on the beach and spread out the meal. Emma stays on my lap, trying to be fair about how much she eats and how much she smears onto me. Hadley chews on a sandwich, her eyes going far away.
It is just the three of us left in the world, everything and everyone forgotten. We could be living in any time, castaways from what is happening elsewhere on the planet. I have been granted this break away from the usual concerns and involvements of an adult in today's world. For a moment I feel the presence of a little girl in blonde pig-tails soaking in the rawness and freshness of Alaska. Almost, I am her again.
Hadley stirs, turning her eyes away from the water to look at me, searching my face. "Tell me about when you were a little girl," she says.
Note: A version of this story was originally published in ALASKA Magazine, May/June 2004.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)