It's that time of year...my sister is in the midst of non-stop snow shoveling and ice chipping, whilst I languish in the hot Miami sun :) This is Megan, Tara's sister, posting from sunny Florida, to let you all know that Tara is swamped with winter maintenance and won't be able to get to any emails right away, but once the snow lets up she will get back with all of you, thank you!
Although Southeast Alaska is famous for being temperate, and even in winter we don't get the kind of snow and cold common to the Far North made famous by Jack London and others, the past couple of weeks have had a decidedly Arctic attitude. Today is the first day since the cold snap set in that I've been able to get the indoor temperature above 45 degrees Fahrenheit and haven't seen my breath inside my house.
The cold spell has been particularly tough on my mom who has circulation issues that make her extremities especially sensitive to the cold. My dad came up with the idea of heating a stone on the stove for her to rest her feet on. Julian, the fourteen-year-old boy staying with his sister and mother in Meyers Chuck, came out to spend a week with us. He accompanied me to the nearby beach where large, flat stones were common. In previous years my dad had harvested such rocks to build my grandmother's hearth.
Julian and I clambered over the beach in the chilly air. A rumble sounded in the distance and Julian asked what it was. "The ferry," I said, pointing toward Prince of Wales Island where one of Alaska's state ferries steamed down the strait toward Ketchikan.
"But it's so far away," he said, squinting to make it out. "How can we hear it so loudly?"
"Sound carries really well over the water. The tide's coming in so we better find some flat rocks before we get cut off from the houses."
He pounced. "I found one!" He held it triumphantly over his head.
In a few minutes we found three different rocks of varying shapes, each about an inch and half thick. My mom called on the handheld VHF radio just then, saying that Julian's breakfast was ready and about to get cold. I told her our mission was accomplished and we were on our way back.
We carried the heavy rocks through the woods, across the beach and into the house. My dad chose the largest and put the other two aside. I decided that it was a good idea since I'd been having a hard time keeping my feet warm, especially after wearing my boots outside doing firewood and other chores, and took one of the smaller ones home.
It worked perfectly for my mom and she was happy to finally have warm feet again, though she had to be careful not to let the rock get too hot. Once it began to burn the soles of her slippers. It didn't work so well for me. Granted, the first time I used it I definitely luxuriated in having warm feet again. But the moment I got up to do something I returned to find that my stone had been stolen!
Katya had it staked out. She was lying on it and stared up at me with slitted eyes, her tail twitching just daring me to do something about it.
I could take a hint. I wrapped it in blankets and stuck it in her bed and she rewarded me with some head butts and loud purrs that sounded louder than the ferry had. I tucked her hotwater bottle in with her, too, and it's been a rare day when I've seen her come out from under the blankets. When she goes out at night it isn't for very long and when she comes back in she gives me filthy looks and puts her back to me, letting me know just how much she doesn't appreciate the freezing weather.
But as long as I keep her hotwater bottle filled and keep changing out the hot rocks in her bed, I think she'll forgive me. Fortunately, things have warmed up, but I'll keep the rocks on the stove just to be safe.
This is our busiest time of year as we gear up for the winter storms and snowfall to come, tightening up or putting in new shorelines, putting new surge anchors on them, cutting out worn pieces of rope, and checking to make sure all the knots are secure. We also work on adding flotation to our houses, new logs added to the outside or slid into bug-eaten openings.
But preparation for winter isn't all about hard labor. We also have to prepare our minds for the coming short days and diminishing sunshine. Even my Maine Coon Katya feels this urge. I catch glimpses of her quietly meditating on the last days of overhead sunshine and I wonder what she's thinking about the changing season.
At this time of the year I make a point of going for long rambles over the rocks, soaking in the piercing, poignant fall sunlight often framed by approaching storm clouds. I let the world fall away, forget the coming winter, and absorb the trenchant reality of the vast wilderness with my aloneness as a human being standing on the edge of the world.
We're surrounded by evergreen conifers so there are few trees that change colors, just the alders and crab apple trees, mainly, and those that do leap out from the endless variatians of perennial green. There's one evergreen, though, that works as a bridge between them--the western red cedar as it displays patches of brilliant orange, known as flagging.
Flagging is the red cedar's way of prioritizing its resources. It lets the inner foliage, that receives the least sun and doesn't get washed as often so it's the least productive, die off. It's alien but beautiful, and doesn't last for long. In the first big storm all those orange needles are blown off and mark the tideline for weeks to come, a reminder that the warm days of summer are gone.
On one of my long rambles I came across a red cedar log that the tide had perched, just for me, like a park bench between rocks overlooking the strait. I seated myself and soaked in the spash of the waves with the sun sparkling down on them as the bull kelp, rooted to rocks below, bobbed carelessly as if unaware of the storms that would eventually tear them loose and toss them on the shore. Geese flew over, black silhouettes against a perfect blue sky, waving goodbye to me as they headed south like the summer people and tourists that were absent from the strait after roaring up and down it all summer long. It was just me and the whales now.
It's at times like these that I know I'm the richest human on earth and can only thank God for these treasures that I'm storing up for the coming winter.