The story I heard was that when the Sea Bear dropped anchor in Little Vixen, a bay five miles to the north of us, they let out too much line and when a gale came up they got blown onto a steeply inclined beach. The bow planks opened and the sea poured in. The pumps couldn't keep up and the Sea Bear sank bow first. When the tide went out, the boat broke its back on the rocks and became a total loss.
Although it must have been a frightening experience, fortunately everyone got off safely. The insurers hired a local to retrieve personal items and do clean-up on the surrounding beaches, and then, as the locals waited to hear, they declared the Sea Bear open salvage.
In the bush, nothing is allowed to go to waste and everyone in the area took turns descending on the wreck. My brother went straight to the engine compartment and made a haul in tools. Another local removed the propeller. Terry Johnson, known for her green thumb and landscaping skills, came away with the zippered stern deck enclosure made of clear plastic panels, as well as the skylight--she promptly turned these into a shipwreck salvage green house.
I got there fairly late. A ladder was placed against the high, jutting stern, and even though we got there at low tide, the bow was under water. The Sea Bear was about 54 feet long, a former racing tug that had been converted into a live-aboard yacht. I clambered up the ladder and inched along the steep slope of the stern. On a previous visit my dad had told my mom to be careful, everything was slippery--coated in diesel and oil. She took one step and fell hard, hitting her head. Not that a possible concussion slowed her down. She came away with various charming fixtures, doors (including a small Dutch door they wound up using in their bedroom), and other items.
The stench of diesel was overwhelming. Little had been done by anyone to clean that up, or the sludge circling the wreck. And although the local man hired by the insurance company had cleaned up the first debris off the beaches, more floated out all the time. (I picked up a chipped, gold painted porcelain vase with STW Bavaria, Germany stamped on the bottom, with a Fragonard painting on the front of it. An extremely incongruous sight on a wild and remote Alaskan beach.)
I made my way to the wheelhouse and had a disorienting moment staring straight down into the bay, with the bow submerged, as if I was plunging down the hundred foot wave in "The Perfect Storm." I looked away and was immediately drawn to the bookcase. Someone had been there before me and had tried to get the books out, possibly the local hired by the insurance company. But the books had swollen from seawater and were locked in place. Whoever it was had tried to break the bookcase but it was a built-in and they had little success freeing the books. The saddest part was seeing family photo albums trapped in there, destined to be submerged for years on that lonely shore as the boat slowly disintegrated.
I found, lying nearby, an old book of German fairytales with gorgeous color plates. It looked like a family heirloom so I took it home and tried to salvage it, thinking to return it to the owners if I could. But it was so heavily impregnated with a soupy, slimy mixture of seawater and diesel that it was beyond saving. Besides the vase, and a few other small items I found on the beach, I ended up with a small jade green bathroom sink ("Accent" by SeaLand Technology) which I incorporated into the floathouse I was building. To tell the truth, I felt too sad looking at the remains of someone's dream to want to pick it over, even though I knew that if it wasn't salvaged by the locals it would all be lost.
When I returned home it was to a point of land bracketed by two more shipwrecks. I wrote in a previous blog about salvaged wood from one of the wrecks, the Daybreak, to build an outdoor cooler. The other wreck is much, much older than either the Sea Bear or the Daybreak. It's nameless and only the huge deck remains.
Before the locals began to saw into it to recover the still good steel pins (from one to five feet in length) the portion of the deck that had washed ashore was about sixty feet long, and showed openings for two enormous holds, indicating that the ship was over one hundred feet, possibly as much as two hundred feet long, and around forty feet wide. It was held together with giant turnbuckles and had been built with massive 12x12" and 12x16" fir beams stacked on each other and pinned.
The ship's deck is a treasure trove of still useful, hundreds upon hundreds of railroad-style spikes and the long pins. Even the mutlitude of steel hatch cover cleat/saddles are valued as anchors.
In my research I couldn't find mention of a wreck that fit the description in this area, so who knows how long it wandered or where the deck floated in from, or where the remainder of the ship now lies. (The shipwreck that sounds the most likely by the description, the Pacific Steamer Redwood, commissioned in 1917, sank in Greville Channel far to the south of us in Canadian waters.) The ship was so well constructed that it takes a lot of effort and energy to free the steel pins, but they've been essential in the construction of our floathouses in holding our float logs together.
There's an old North Sea islander prayer that goes: "Not that there should be wrecks, Lord, but if there are, please let them come to our shores." When you live in the Southeast Alaskan bush, where you don't have easy access to stroes or materials, shipwreck salvage is a way of life.
Note: A version of this story first appeared at www.capitalcityweekly.com during the week of Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2017.
When I told my friend Jo (who blogs at www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com) that I was building an outdoor cooler to refrigerate my perishables she said: "When I was a kid we lived for a while in a house that had one under-counter cabinet that was a cooler. It had a screen-covered opening to the outside. It was alternatively a freezer, cooler, and warmer, and it took us a while to learn to manage it."
We had one of those, too, when I was a kid, mounted to the wall in my parents' floathouse. I thought about making one like that, but in the end decided I didn't have the kitchen space to spare so the cooler would have to go outside. I've also used plastic and styrofoam coolers over the years but they have a tendency to mold and don't work well with produce.
The problem was in getting material out here to build it, but that wasn't a new issue. I did what we always do in these situations. I turned to what we had on hand: an old, weathered ladder; beachcombed dairy crates; weathered cedar shakes left over from an old project; the handrail from an old dock ramp; and the remains of a shipwreck on a nearby beach.
After checking the homemade wooden ladder for rot and finding it still in good shape, my dad hand-sawed it in half, at an angle in order to give the cooler its own little roof to keep the rain off. He cut it at high tide and said we'd have to wait for the tide to go out before he used his battery-powered screwdriver to attach the two pieces to the side of my house. (I didn't want to nail them on--everything on the other side of the wall would react to the hammering, so that what was on the shelves inside my kitchen would be tempted to fall off.) We've learned, after losing various tools and other items overboard, to not build anything on the houses when they're floating, if possible.
When the tide went out we arranged the two halves of the ladder at the side of my house that faces away from the sun. Even on the hottest days, it's still cool on that side, especially when the tide is in. We measured the beachcombed dairy crates to find out how far apart we needed to put the ladder halves and then screwed them in place.
We had to take a few days off from the project as other things intervened. In the meantime, I gathered a weathered and worn handrail from an old dock from the nearby village, and a T-shaped piece of wood that used to be part of the roof to a shipwreck--a commercial fishing boat named Daybreak that listed Petersburg on its battered stern as its home port.
I've heard conflicting reports on how it wrecked. Some say it tore its bottom out during a winter gale when the waves and tide were so high the owner couldn't see the rock right outside where I live and ripped the bottom out. Another story says he was setting his gear, unaware of the rocks in this area--though the one he hit is on all the maps and is quite large, always visible even during the highest tides--and ran aground, holing his boat.
Whatever the case, nearby locals came to his rescue and pulled his boat off the rock. It started sinking and they beached it about a 10 minute walk from my house. He escaped with his life, but the boat was a dead loss. It's been stripped by locals for salvage materials and battered by successive winter storms and tides ever since. It probably has only a few years left before it disappears entirely.
As I carried the piece I wanted for my cooler from the beach and through the woods, I thought how the owner of the Daybreak could never have imagined that a part of the roof above his head as he steered his boat would one day become a part of some floathouse dweller's refrigeration unit.
I measured and sawed the T-shaped end from the shipwreck and fitted it under the forward 2x3s of the two ladder sides to support it in front. Afterwards, I gathered up shakes that my dad had cut years ago--they were nicely weathered, and would go well with the weathered siding on my house.
As I gathered them I remembered when I was a kid watching my dad the first time I'd seen him cut shakes and how fascinated I'd been to see such perfectly flat rectangles fall at his feet from a round of wood. It was like watching a machine as he smoothly sliced, with a froe and mallet, through the rounds of cedar he called shake bolts. He could tell just by looking at a log whether it was good shake bolt material or not.
Now he picked through what I'd brought, considering how to place them as shelves and for the roof. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle, and occasionally he had to trim a piece with his pocketknife before he screwed them in place on the rungs of the old ladder. Since they were old they'd warped quite a bit and I found that I had to shave them down in some places with my pocketknife in order for the dairy crates to slide across them without getting hung up.
Next, I sawed the handrail to the lengths needed to support the shake roof, which my dad screwed in place, putting the largest shakes down first and then lapping over the seams with narrower shakes.
I loaded up the dairy crates with groceries and slid them in place. I now had a new outdoor cooler to put my produce, dairy, and beverages in to keep them cool. On the hotter days I'll put a jug of frozen water in with them to keep the temperature down. It may not be the ideal refrigeration system, but in the wilderness you make do.
Note: A version of this story first appeared in Capital City Weekly, July 5-11, 2017.
After reading this story in the paper, one long time resident of Juneau wrote and told me that coolers like this were common in the Fifties, but instead of jugs of frozen water to keep things cool, chunks of ice off the Mendenhall Glacier were used.