I've been fortunate that for most of my life I haven't had to deal with environmental allergies. Food allergies, yes, by the gross, but usually spring presented no difficulties for me, let alone horrors. Until this year.
When I look in the mirror I see red, weeping eyes, a red, peeling nose and the expression of someone reading the latest Stephen King horror novel.
But maybe that's not surprising, since Alaska has been struck by a freakish wave of pollen that is shattering world records. Fairbanks, alone, recorded pollen levels twenty times above what is considered high. (A count of 4,000 was recorded. Anything above a pollen count of 175 is considered high.)
The experts are telling us that it's going to get worse before it gets better, and they're warning that "people without allergies will suffer, too." We are told to expect a prolonged period of very high pollen readings.
Unfortunately for me, I didn't know this pollen wave would be statewide, rather than restricting itself to Up North as it usually does. Since I can't drink the water out of our faucet (it's rich in tannins and I'm tannin sensitive), I collect rainwater to drink.
It wasn't until after I turned into a faucet myself, particularly in the nose region, that I realized I'd imbibed a good amount of pollen with my water. The next day this was visibly obvious by the pollen scum that encircled the interior of the rainwater barrel. Now, although I live in one of the rainiest corners of the globe, I'm having gallon jugs of distilled water mailed out on a floatplane.
Allergy tips: My sister suffers from environmental allergies all the time, since she lives in Florida where something is always pollenating, and she's found that drinking coffee can help. This sometimes helps me (though it's a tannin, plus, if you have a sinus infection it will make the symptoms worse), and so does horseradish mustard.
I can remember only one other year when we had extreme pollen, back in my early twenties. The pollen coated the beaches and our dogs became very sick. One of our older dogs died from it, and remembering that has made me try to keep my cat, Katya, inside as much as possible. As it is, she's a mirror of my own misery, with streaming eyes and nose and constant kitty sneezes.
The thing I remember most about that year was when we were in my dad's thirty-two foot troller/workboat on a trip to Ketchikan to stock up on groceries. As we entered the final stretch of our journey, and were heading for one of the boat harbors to moor at, we saw the sky turn a strange, dirty yellow. To the north, behind us and heading our way, was a wall of this dirty yellow fog that obscured everything, like a desert sandstorm.
We barely made it into the harbor and tied up when the wall of pollen struck. We closed every door and porthole and waited it out, watching it move on down the Narrows. Neither my dad nor I was too badly affected, as I remember. Things have certainly changed.
The curious thing is, I don't remember this incident being announced as record breaking, so what we have now must be many times worse. And it's true, I've never seen so much pollen speckling our decks or floating in a swirling scum on the waters that our floathouses rest on.
The constant allergies and sinus issues have taken it out of all of us--two-legged and four-legged allergy sufferers alike--and we're hoping it's over with soon. All we can do is hunker down and wait it out.
I woke up this morning to the sound of rain pummeling the roof. As I lay there listening, a sensation of comfort, well being and "home" warmed me. This is the sound of SE Alaska.
We live in a rainforest, and right in the rainiest part of it. A little to the south, Ketchikan averages 152 inches of precipitation a year, while to the north Little Port Walter on the southern end of Baranof Island averages 221 inches. The post mistress in the nearby village kept track of our rainfall one year and we had 172 inches.
If you read John Muir's explorations of Alaska from 1879-1899, you will find that he devotes many pages to all the different kinds of rain that he experienced here and he rhapsodizes about all of them: "This rainy weather, however, is of good quality, the best kind I ever experienced."
When we came to SE Alaska my two youngest brothers were babies, and the very young have short memories.
One day as Robin, my second youngest brother, was playing on the floor, after days and days, perhaps weeks of steady rain and overcast, a terrifying, supernatural phenomenon crept slowly but surely toward him.
He backed away from the glowing movement, but it continued to creep toward him.
He panicked and screamed, "What is it? What is it?"
It was a ray of sunshine.
When I worked as cook on a guide boat I told the clients this story, of my brother losing all memory of sunshine, to prepare them.
They didn't believe me, laughing at my attempt to put one over on experienced world travelers.
After a week on the boat one of them joined me as I stood at the rail hauling up a bucket of seawater to cook crab in. She contemplated the rain dripping steadily from the top deck, and then looked across the bay we were anchored in at the forested shoreline barely discernible, cloaked in rain fog.
"You know that story you told about your brother forgetting what sunshine looks like?" she said. "I believe it now."
The reality of all this rain is you are almost always caught by it, whatever you're doing. If you need to haul boxes of groceries up the beach, you will inevitably wind up clutching soggy cardboard, hoping the bottom doesn't fall out. (The tiny store in Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island provides courtesy large plastic bags for skiff patrons who have to take their groceries out into the elements.) Our mail is tucked inside layers of plastic. In my previous blog post I tell how the Mail Services librarians in Juneau learned to put the books in plastic before mailing them to me.
You cut and haul firewood in the rain, build in the rain, picnic in the rain, play in the rain. One young couple with little ones made it a rule, to make all the rain fun, that whenever there's a big summer downpour they would all go out, the whole family, and jump in the biggest puddle they could find.
When we were little and there was a huge, thunderous downpour in the summer my parents would send us out with soap.
The least fun reality of all this rain, is the inevitable leaky roof.
Every house has to deal with this at some point and ongoing roof repairs are just a way of life. In the meantime, while waiting for the leak or leaks to be dealt with, the plastic containers and cans and jars come out.
I remember, as a kid, putting paper towels in the can in my bedroom to muffle the dripping so I could sleep (and to contain the splatter).
A floathouse with a screwed down metal roof is particularly vulnerable to leakage because as the house floats as the tide comes in and then sets on the ground as the tide goes out, the house is constantly shifting and settling. All the movement slowly works the screws out and lets the rain in. We are on a constant quest to find the sealant that will forever end the need for rain catchers.
We haven't found it yet.
When I was a kid I saw rain barrels on everyone's porches before the village waterline was installed in the Eighties. You still seem them, for those times when the waterline goes down, or when it freezes.
I have one myself because I can no longer drink the tannin-rich water of the muskeg lakes and streams around here, but the weight of it presents problems for a floathouse. It is currently surrounded by the blocks of foam needed to refloat the section of the float it sits on and is sinking.
It's true that in the winter months, when the days are so short, that the rain and overcast contribute to the darkness and makes it tough on the people who suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), but it makes the spring all that much more welcome.
"He took in a deep breath of damp, salty air. Scents of seaweed and marine life mixed with the smell of cedar trees and rain to give an odor that was quite unique to Southeast Alaska. Despite the rain and [winter] darkness, Jim loved the smell of his home.
"'But not to worry...spring is on the way. It'll still rain almost every day, but at least we'll start to get a little more daylight around here.'" --TSUNAMI WARNING by Brent Purvis.
People have told me that they couldn't imagine living with "all that rain." But I couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
One hazy, overcast day I hiked over the rocks to pull the skiff in on our outhaul (a rope and pulley system for keeping skiffs offshore).
I didn't feel right, almost as if someone was watching me. But who could that be in winter in the middle of the wilderness? The crisp day was very quiet with a strange stillness. I shivered a little, but not from cold...something was very wrong. Alien.
When I looked up from the steep rocks, there were two suns in the sky.
They burned side by side, one smaller than the other, in the hazy cloud cover.
The disorientation was severe and complete. It was as if I'd gone from my planet to another in an instant. I wasn't frightened, I was awed. Impressed and struck with a sense of wonder. I was living in a sci fi drama, I had traded places with an alien who lived in a world shaped by two suns, perhaps in a galaxy far, far away and a long time ago.
But there, when I dropped my gaze from the eerie spectacle in the sky, was the skiff. Floating placidly, normal and workmanlike with nothing bizarre about it.
Moving gingerly, as if gravity might go at any minute, I clambered down to the water, shooting constant glances at the two suns, imperturbable as if they'd always been there and I was the one who'd changed.
When I got back to my house the first thing I did was search through my science books until I found this:
Sun dogs, also known colloquially as mock suns or phantom suns, is an atmospheric phenomenon that belongs to the halo catalog, and is created by light interacting with atmospheric ice crystals which act as prisms that bend the light rays passing through them with a minimum deflection of twenty-two degrees. Scientific name: parhelia.
I was both relieved and slightly disappointed to find such a mundane, terrestrial explanation. I was more pleased to find that my sighting was rare, usually there were two sun dogs, one on either side of the sun.
Over the years Alaska has gifted me with many amazing sights.
When we were kids one night we saw above the vast wilderness we lived in, a swath of white light scything across the pre-dawn sky, back and forth, as regular as a metronome. To this day I don't know what it was. A form of Aurora Borealis? If somebody out there knows, please tell me.
One of my favorite memories is flying through the rugged, high mountain passes on Baranof island in a floatplane, sometimes so close to the granite and snow sides of the mountain that we were almost eyeball to eyeball with the agile mountain goats enjoying the brilliant alpine sunshine. At one point I looked out the window and down. Directly below me was a perfectly circular rainbow. The silhouette of the plane was inside it.
I have seen water devils, eclipses, countless stunning sunsets and northern lights. And what about those clear winter nights when you can see, sometimes riding close to the full moon, another planet, with your naked eye? We've seen Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn without even the aid of binoculars...and again I've had that sense of living in a sci fi drama.
I remember one late evening in winter very well. My oldest brother, James, and I had been out to dinner at my parents' house. I was housesitting for someone in the nearby village where Jamie lived, so he gave me a ride in his skiff back to the roadless village.
It was a beautiful night, the cool wind pressing against our faces in the pearly blue twilight. Jamie slowed the skiff when he saw a promising looking firewood log. It wasn't until we had it in tow that we both looked up and saw beside the full moon, sailing low on the horizon, a small, perfectly formed planet beside it. To our awe it was not overwhelmed or blurred by the powerful luminescence of its bigger neighbor. It held its own, round and sure, as if it had always belonged there, riding shotgun with the moon.
My parents, since they live right next door, have shared many of these sights with me (though I missed the black and white rainbow). One night stands out more than any other for the sheer abundance of riches. When we returned home after our sojourn into an altered state of reality, my mom drew and colored a stylized rendering of the night and wrote her account in a stream of consciousness eulogy that I don't think can be improved upon. Here it is.
....my husband leads me down the beach in the dark at 10:00 PM. Alaskan sky against black rocks, blacker cedars silhouette those stars and Hale Bopp! Plus northern lights, rose and green and white, a rainbow shape unraveling through night...our moon's just a sliver but the light from it meets the comet's tail on the water and ripples down the strait bisecting all those other lights. Ratz Mountain beacon and McHenry Ledge buoy lights and a rare golden-eyed car miles across the bay travels down the mountain to where boat lights glimmer on the water and those myriad stars all together dizzy me, till one breaks off and comes fast and quiet. Then comes sound, the buoy bell rings and rings, ringing clear and silver as stars in all the black, and with my head way back I stand and stare and listen and smell that freshening breeze...a water wind and star scent no one could bottle, like ripest watermelons, cool cucumber and cottonwoods and you can almost feel the northern lights dancing with the moon and water and the comet blurs it all together. You can try to focus but you can't see at all because the water gets into your eyes.
...our daughter comes so quietly up and softly says if we walk over to Half Moon Bay we can also, in an embarrassment of riches, see the ending of a sunset all glowing rose in that black and the sky--it's like a flower burning in coals and it hurts to overflowing.
....All this and one can only THANK. Thank God for eyes and feelings and all these senses for creating us and all on this night for just this night we lived to see a night for the gving of THANKS in one of the last days of this old century.
And if we turn there is home golden lamplight glowing, floating in the darkness. We can guide ourselves back up the beach by it and go inside and say our prayers and trust and sleep and know the sun will set the moon will rise 'forever and ever, world without end.'....Amen.
Photos: Top: I was fooling around with the photo editing tools on this picture and something I did brought out a tiny sun to the left of the real sun. Was it the moon, invisible in the unedited picture? Or a sun dog? Or just a result of the tinkering? Second photo: I was disappointed when I got home and saw the picture I'd taken hadn't captured the perfect color spectrum in the rays of sunshine shooting through the forest. But the editing options brought them back into focus. Third picture: My mom's rendering of an unforgettable night. Bottom: My sister's panoramic shot of an Alaskan sunset. No matter how many you've seen, each new one takes your breath.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)