We were let out of school at 2:30 pm because the teachers of the small Alaskan bush school my four siblings and I attended knew that during mid-winter, by the time we made the nearly half-hour skiff ride home, it would be dark.
As soon as the clock’s hands hit 2:30, we donned our cold winter gear, grabbed our backpacks, and ran down to the dock to wait for our dad.
The village kids either took the small, winding trail home (there were no roads in the 29 population fishing community) or accompanied us down to the dock that was lined with our relatives’ trolling boats, to jump in their small skiffs.
They only had to cross the harbor. We had to head out onto the open strait in a sixteen foot, wooden skiff our dad had built himself, and cross an unprotected bay before we reached our home in the ruins of a burned cannery.
We chopped up slimy, iodine-scented bull kelp and flung it at each other as we waited. By the time we heard the distinctive sound of our dad’s 50hp Mercury outboard and saw the silhouette of him at the back of the skiff as he approached the entrance, the sky behind him was ruddy and rapidly darkening.
When he pulled up to the dock we saw his beard was encrusted with frozen salt spray. We glanced at each other before settling into the skiff and braced ourselves for what we knew was going to be a rough, cold ride. We’d be splattered with icy Alaskan water and be so stiff when we climbed out at home we could barely walk. By then dusk had set in and when we crossed the sawdust trail through the forest to get to the house we’d just built, we had to follow our white dogs: the last bit of light made them glow.
We raced each other the last distance to be the first ones in the house to plunge our frozen hands into the canner on the woodstove that was always full of hot water. Sometimes I didn’t bother to jostle my way through the bodies to get to it. Instead, I’d run upstairs to my room and with chattering teeth and numb, shaking hands, I’d light my kerosene lamp and grab the western I’d been reading the night before.
I always chose westerns that were set in the desert. Nothing felt better than putting myself in the hero’s creaking saddle as his horse plodded across the shimmering sand. The more he sweated, the more parched he became, the more I liked it.
As soon as I finished one, I’d pick up another. My two favorites were WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND and THE DESERT CRUCIBLE by Zane Grey. No one wrote with more detail or gusto about the deadly heat of the desert than Grey. I listened to German pop group Nena as I read, and the desert became eternally imprinted on their music.
These days, after shoveling snow off the deck of my floathouse from morning till evening so it doesn’t sink under the weight, I turn to Tony Hillerman. In the middle of an Alaskan winter, I love to read his Navajo mysteries set in a hot and dusty corner of Arizona.
If I’m too tired to read after scraping snow off the roof, or spending hours firewood logging in 20 below wind chill, I’ll watch the three movies PBS made from Hillerman’s novels. My favorite is “Coyote Waits.” The first words spoken in it are: “It’s a hot, hot day on the rez.”
The more arid scenes there are of red-stone rock bluffs, desert scrub plants, basking lizards, and humans complaining about the heat, the better.
It’s no accident that the only house plants I own are a cactus and an aloe vera. When I buy calendars I spurn ones with seasonal photos. Instead, I gravitate towards ones that have titles like “The Tropics” or “American Deserts.”
People often ask me how I cope with Alaskan winters out here in the wilderness, since most people who own homes here make sure to only visit during the temperate summers. I tell them I was fortunate enough to grow up out here so I’m used to it. But the underlying truth is that at a young age I discovered that the key to coping with anything is how well you can manipulate your own mind.
As a child I recognized that if you can engage your mind in an experience that is different from what your body is experiencing, your mind can find a way to free you from the environment and moment you’re stuck in.
Now, on this cold winter day as I sit inside my floathouse with the sleet hammering the roof and obscuring the view out my window, I’m going to find my battered 80s cassette of Nena’s album “99 Red Balloons” to play on the stereo.
And escape to the desert.
"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.
Well, the daylight is dwindling and fall is heading into winter. I've gotten behind while dealing with combined health and technical difficulties which have conspired to keep me off-line. I'll use this post to get everyone caught up with life out here.
As usual, we're woodlogging all the time, and working on flotation projects, the typical floathouse year-around work. The weather is being oddly cooperative for the most part. At this time of the year we're usually getting pummeled by constant gales and hurricane force storms. It's a little unnerving how quiet it's been, but here's hoping it stays that way.
We had our usual fall stock-up trip. My brother Jamie took his fishing boat across the strait and allowed us to load it up so my dad was free to load the skiff with fuel. In addition to that, a local summer resident who didn't use all of his fuel has donated around 60 gallons of gas to our ongoing survival out here. So all things considered, we're feeling pretty good heading into winter.
Here's a link to the column about the fall stocking up trip: www.juneauempire.com/news/alaska-for-real-case-lot-stock-up/
Speaking of my column, I just received word that it will be terminated. The new editor is taking Capital City Weekly in a new direction and my column is no longer suitable for its new "mission statement." I've been told that two more columns will go up before the end of the year, and nothing after that. I'll be sure to link those on here, if they are, indeed, posted. (It's been hit or miss for a while, please accept apologies to those who look for my column and haven't been able to find it on its usual day.)
I've had such a fun time writing the column and hearing from readers over the last two years--it's been a delightful adventure, one I hope to continue elsewhere, as well as continuing to write about "Alaska for Real" subjects on here. Thanks to everyone who's helped and encouraged me to keep writing, even when it meant braving the elements to get to the good signal beach to send my column and photos in! Thanks especially to MC Martin who first hired me to write the column, and Clara Miller who has been a staunch supporter. Both of you have helped me to become a better writer, I appreciate you so much!
In other news, the floatplane company has switched our once-a-week mail day (weather permitting) to Thursdays! For as far back as I can remember, for decades, Meyers Chuck's mail day has always been on Wednesday.
It would probably be a bigger shock to the system, except that the plane is almost always late and we're accustomed to it being on Thursday. Still, such an epochal moment is worthy of notice.
Readers may also remember that the BBC contacted me about a possible show about the off-grid lifestyle in Southeast Alaska. A few producers even came out and did a film test and interview with my brother Jamie. Well, they've contacted me again and are interested in finding a large family in Alaska that lives off grid. If any of my readers know of such a family who would be interested in being part of a quality documentary-style TV show (the BBC does "Port Protection" and "Life Below Zero") please contact me through my blog, or at email@example.com.
That's it for now, folks! I hope to get back to a more regular posting schedule in upcoming months.
All photos are of the Meyers Chuck Post Office area; landscaping by the post mistress Catherine Peavey.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)