Mail day dawned sunny and clear, like it's abnormally been for weeks here in formerly rainy Southeast Alaska. The tide was unhelpfully going to be out all day so my dad got in the skiff early to put it on the outhaul.
An outhaul is a rope and pulley device that allows us to keep our smaller boats floating during all but the lowest of low tides. A length of rope is run through two pulleys attached to trees above the high tide line, and to a pulley anchored to the seabed (and usually marked by a buoy so other boaters know not to run over the outhaul). We tie our skiff to a loop in one side of the line and pull it out as far as possible. When we need it, we simply pull it in.
However, because of our unusually hot summer, the outhaul line turned out to be completely overgrown with seaweed and algae. My dad attempted to clean it by tying to the outhaul and driving away from the beach in the skiff, running the caked rope through the pulleys.
A minute later he was on the VHF to me. "Tara, could you bring down the rope on the end of the dock? I just broke the outhaul."
Fortunately, the actual line that makes up the outhaul itself didn't break, it was just the smaller piece of rope that ties one of the pulleys to a tree that snapped.
So, while my dad sat in the skiff and took care of the tedious chore of picking off clumps of seaweed by hand and scraping the algae off with a knife (using a multi-tool that a Lower 48 friend named Russ gave both my dad and I for scouting floathouses for him earlier), I picked up the coil of rope and carried it down the beach, up onto the rock ridge, and then scrambled around wind-fallen trees until I reach the point of land where the pulley is. I hadn't gotten very far when I realized that in my sweatshirt I was way overdressed for how hot it was despite how early it was.
When I got to the broken part of the pulley and fixed it and was about to tell my dad on the VHF, I realized it had fallen out of my bag. I searched nearby but couldn't find it, then shouted and mimed to my dad for him to call me on the VHF so that I could hear his voice through its speaker. He counted slowly as I searched and listened. As it turned out I had to clamber back over the rocks and windfalls and down to the beach before I finally located it. By then I was having a low blood pressure attack aggravated by overheating.
I made it to the nearest bit of shade on a rock bench that overlooked Clarence Strait and Prince of Wales Island and called my dad to tell him my situation. I was about to pass out, but since I was lying down I wouldn't hurt anything.
All was not grim, though. Because I was on the outside of the rocky bight where our floathouses are, I had a clear line of sight to the mountain where the tower that provides us with an Internet signal stands. I had my cell phone with me, which is frequently useless at home, and as it happened my sister called. I chatted with her, explaining my situation, and then my dad called on the VHF checking on me, and asked if I'd call my brother Jamie who was out commercial fishing to ask him a mail-related question.
Jamie was feeling the heat himself. The wheel house of his fishing boat, the Isla, was cooking him like an oven. We carped for a while about the aggravatingly sunny streak we'd been having. As die-hard Southeasterners we liked our damp climate and suffered when the sun came out, even without adding in the fact that I was literally allergic to sunshine.
He said he was down at Caamano (Caamano Point) fishing near our Uncle Rory and Aunt Marion. That point can be a nightmare in rough weather, but I didn't get a twinge when he mentioned it because today the strait was mill pond smooth, not a breath of air stirring. Which, actually, made the heat even more oppressive.
Next I called the post office in Meyers Chuck to find out when the mail plane would be there--and wouldn't you know it? The ariline, which usually refused to come out during low tides, had decided to come out right when the tide was at its lowest today. We'd have to haul groceries and mail up a very long beach, in this heat. I passed the bad news on to my dad and when he finished cleaning off the outhaul he puttered by, going slow since the plane wouldn't be in for a while.
I headed for home shortly after that, deciding to wait for my dad's return at my parents' floathouse. My mom and I heard the mail plane land in the village a few miles to the south of us and almost immediately afterward we heard what sounded like a freight train rushing toward us.
In minutes the airless day was blown away by a winter-type gale. The trees bent and thrashed around and the strait swelled up with spitting white caps. It went from zero wind to forty knot winds, and then higher winds within half an hour. I thought about Jamie down at the dreaded Camaano Pt. and we tried to call him to find out his situation, and Rory and Marion's, but we couldn't get hold of him. We called the post office and told the post mistress Cassie to tell my dad how bad it was out here where we lived.
Unfortunately, he was already on his way. By then it was screaming, with seventy miles winds tearing at the trees. I went down the beach to meet him, and found myself pummeled by the wind. He pulled in down near the outhaul and everything was soaking wet, covered in salt spray. He said it was one of the roughest rides he'd ever had. On top of that, no one from the village had been there to meet the plane except him and Cassie so they'd hauled all the boxes up the low-tide ramp by themselves. His bad leg was in rough shape after all that.
The cardboard boxes were falling apart. Two of them, amounting to over a hundred pounds, were freeze boxes, but we discovered that for some reason nothing, none of the meat or frozen vegetables, were frozen. And they were cooking in the unrelenting sunshine. That meant we couldn't wait for the tide to bring the skiff up to the house--we had to get the perishable groceries up the long, hot beach sooner rather than later.
I hauled up some of the groceries in bags, and got the hand truck on the way back down--and fell through the ramp at the end of the dock. Unbeknownst to us the planks had been eaten through by the gribbles that eat any wood in the water. I scraped my leg up, but there wasn't a lot of blood. I went down for a couple boxes and dragged the hand truck back up to the floathouse over rocks and through tidal mud, and then went back down for another load. By then I was in low blood pressure mode and overheating again and my dad made me stop. He'd been in the hot sun for hours by that time, and was in bad shape after having helped haul all of the village mail up to the post office, and then the horrible ride home--he was so stiff he didn't even attempt to get out of the skiff.
The tide was coming in by then and I had to wade to get to the skiff. I went over my boots, but the water was so warm I didn't care, though the scrape on my leg stung a bit. The wind was literally screaming off the skiff's steel rails, that hurricane pitch that makes your hair stand on end. The strait was exploding against the rocks and my dad and I had to raise our voices to talk. I had to press against the skiff as the wind tried to push it away from the beach and my dad warned me not to get run over by it. Neither of us could remember a winter gale like this in the middle of summer. I again worried about my brother and aunt and uncle in their fishing boats.
As the tide came in I towed the skiff further up the beach shortening, the distance I had to haul the boxes up to the house. My mom met me at the dock and she hauled what she could into the house. I'd haul up groceries, go back and wade out to the skiff and pull it against the gale, and then haul up more groceries.
So that's what I did. In the picture above you can see me towing the skiff up to the house, telling myself "The mail must get through," over and over again.
At some points I was wading at waist level, but it was actually nice to get out of the sun and it was blowing far too hard for any bugs to be around. And then we heard from Jamie, that he and Rory and Marion were perfectly all right--the gale was blowing up the strait away from shore where he was and hammering us at the point that we live on. It was just a freak squall worse than most of our summer squalls.
One more mail day down!
I wrote my next column about the next mail day and you can read it at:
(No snow on even the highest mountains, which usually have snow all year around.)
Last week it sprinkled lightly for two days and I got such a rush! I felt energized for the first time this summer and ready to take on the world, blog it up like mad, write entire chapters in my book, put new logs in my float, re-build the dam....
And then, just like in that horrible Terminator-type song "Here Comes the Sun" it all went south again.
Yep. More sun. Non-stop sun. Sun even where the sun doesn't shine sun. It's been everywhere this summer, and it refuses to go away for more than a few moments at a time--and only then with a Teutonic, threatening "I'll be back" promise--and the oppression is wearing me down.
This is a rainforest! Or it's supposed to be. I grew up loving the sound of rain drumming on the roof, of roaming the beaches on a windy, rainy day. I have always loved the rain. And now that I can't drink the water in our dam, I'm reliant on rainwater for my very life.
("Here comes the sun!" Even the wildflowers have given up smiling about it.)
Yesterday when we crossed the strait to do a grocery, fuel, and bottled water run there were only the barest hints of snow on even the tallest mountains. In the store, one of the employees told me, as he brought out cases of water to put on a barren shelf, that he can't keep the water stocked. My dad was told by a local that they're rationing showers.
In one of the last great rainforests on earth!
At least we're not dealing with the fires that some of my friends in California are coping with. One friend, who lives in northern California, has been facing possible evacuation, and so has her sister. Alaskan firefighters have been flown down to help with the blazes.
Meanwhile, back in the "rainforest," in addition to unheard of temperatures every day in the Eighties (F) and higher, we had smoke from fires in British Columbia being funneled down the Inside Passage causing respiratory problems. One evening my dad came home and saw a spectacular sunset due to the smoke. He came and got me to take pictures of the enormous, cherry red sun just hanging there off one of Prince of Wales Island's headlands.
Unfortunately the tablet wasn't able to capture the scene the way the human eye experienced it, as you can see. In person, the sun looked as big as Jupiter hanging above the strait and made me feel like I'd transported onto another planet.
So, yes, the sun is being like the worst guest possible, paying no attention to that scripture that says "Make your foot rare at the home of your friend" and instead is waaaay outstaying its welcome in the rainforest. But at least the sunsets are glorious.
While there are a lot of wildfires burning in British Columbia to the east and south of our position, we were puzzled by the fact that the smoke seemed to be coming from the northwest and we've had weeks of northerlies blowing. My brother Robin just shared that the smoke haze we're seeing is actually coming from Siberia, Russia, where vast fires there are creating massive plumes of smoke that have crossed the Pacific to inundate Alaska, Canada, and states in the northwestern U.S.
I once had a kid's book rejected by a New York editor who insisted that my description of teenagers running around in T-shirts in Alaska in the middle of summer was unrealistic. Everyone knew it was far too cold in Alaska to EVER wear T-shirts. I explained that I'd lived in Alaska for most of my life and I knew from first hand experience that T-shirts were common wear at all times of the year here. She refused to believe it.
It's too bad I couldn't have sent her these pictures of fifteen-year-old Julian, who's been staying with us for the last week, wearing shorts in below freezing weather. Our first walk of his visit took place during a storm with 70 mph winds with the temperature at around 29 degrees F. The windchill was brutal.
At his blank refusal to put some pants on, I took him over to the beach that has southern exposure. It was a clear day and with the trees blocking the wind and the sun shining on us we were ready to break out the tanning lotion.
Looking at the frothing strait, Julian said, "I knew the waves were big, but I didn't realize they were THAT big." We watched as a large ship of some sort on the other side of the strait was hammered by giant seas. It was cloaked in spray, explosions of white water continually bursting at its bow.
Both of us were glad we weren't on board and said as much.
"Do you see that line of white going all the way down the strait that looks like haze or smoke?" I asked him. "The wind is blowing so hard that it's whipping the tops of the waves into the air and that's a curtain of spray."
Julian looked at it silently and for a moment I didn't think he heard me. Then he said, "Wow! We live in an amazing place."
The beach we were on was speckled white with quartz, which I showed him, and told him quartz could sometimes be an indication of gold. Instantly, Julian was infected with gold fever. He hunted down large rocks with veins of quartz in them, lifted them over his head and crashed them down onto bigger rocks hoping to break one open on a nugget of gold. It didn't work out the way he fantasized, but it was good exercise.
On our next walk, with him still insisting on shorts despite no warming of the temperature, I led him to a comparatively protected beach. "What's that?" he exclaimed, pointing at an alien looking artifact.
"The wall of a boat that wrecked," I said.
He investigated it more closely and I added, "You're standing where the pilot house door used to be. Look at that, you can see wiring still on the wall."
He shook his head and continued to circle around it. He'd watched or read something about the Titanic recently and he was impressed to find himself face to face with the remnant of another wreck.
We headed on down the beach toward a towering cliff with trees on top of it. "Look," I said, "a tree blew down." It was lying on the beach, its foliage still fresh and green.
Julian studied it. "Did it break?"
"No, it was uprooted." I showed him where its roots had been torn away from its cliff top perch.
During our most recent walk, Julian still in his shorts, we were graced with a gorgeous day. The strait was a deep rich blue, practically Mediterranean--looking, that is. Neither of us was tempted to swim in it. We hiked around some rocks and came across a field of gravel that the tide was swiftly claiming. It was apparently the favorite haunt of land otters--I found two giant sea urchin shells that the otters had left behind after having made a meal of the urchins inside them.
Julian searched diligently, and spotted a couple shells the same size as mine under the water. He waded out to retrieve them, nearly going over his boots. He carried them back triumphantly, knowing to be very careful with them. They crumble easily.
"I wonder how they eat the sea urchins without breaking the shells?" he marveled. "They're so fragile."
We lined them up on a log and I took a picture of them. Who knows what treasures we'll discover in our next walk?
Tara Neilson (ADOW)