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.
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.
My sister, Megan Duncanson, a successful artist, recently moved herself and her entire studio to Miami to begin a new chapter in her life. See her inspiring blog post on the subject here: http://www.madartdesigns.com/blog/irma-and-life-lessons-live-your-best-life
As anyone in touch with the news is aware, Irma, the record breaking Category 5 hurricane, is taking direct aim at Miami after decimating various islands. (Wendy, I've been thinking about you and hoping and praying that you and your loved ones are safe. If you are, please comment and let me know!) Megan had to evacuate, leaving almost everything she possesses behind. She'll be coming up to Alaska to be with us as we wait to see what happens. Foruntately, or unfortunately, she is no stranger to hurricane force winds as this latest post From the Dairy Crate of old school newspapers and items from our childhood shows.
Our youngest brother Christopher did this drawing of the old pilings from the burned out cannery where we lived, showing the storm surge and wind from a particularly memorable winter storm that my brothers called "Hurricane Union Bay." (We lived on the shores of Union Bay in a very exposed location.) In Chris' words:
"Hurricane Union Bay/blew us away/and we began to fly/away with the wind/and then we began to cry/as we went up very high."
In the far right corner you can see family members being blown away by the winds, metaphorically if not literally.
Here's my coverage of the same storm (I was apparently addicted to exclamation points, big words, and broad irony at the time) for the Meyers Chuck School Gazette circa 1984:
"The storm that struck Meyers Chuck and surrounding areas was a screamer all right! It didn't raise any roofs but it did raise a lot of hair.
"Meyers Chuck seems to have come through okay, what with only gusts up to 70 or more and a 19 ft tide! It seems that quite a few people were afraid their houses were going to float--houses that aren't supposed to float.
"I feel pretty sorry for anyone who stayed at their boats that night! Lots of people had an enjoyable time concerning docks and other floating objects (and some that weren't supposed to float) during the rather high tides and gusty winds.
"Unfortunately one of the out-lying areas that can easily be reached by a skiff, known as Union Bay (or unofficially as "Fools Paradise") has had a few problems.
"During the night there was a loud snap and the Neilson's floathouse was floating free of its imprisoning bonds. It seems as if their sawmill deck finally rebelled and it, too, has caused some vexation to the inhabitants of Union Bay.
"Otherwise our local storm was quite tame compared to the rest of the state. You'll have to find out about that on the News."
Another reporter, in first grade by the name of Josh, also contributed to the storm coverage with the following article:
"Steve Peavy lost his skiff. They looked for it during the night. It was stormy and rainy."
While we have never suffered the kinds of winds that people suffered from Harvey, or now Irma, I feel for all who have suffered through a high wind storm. Hold fast and don't give up.
Clockwise: Clarence Strait with the mountains of Prince of Wales Island towering above it; my brother Robin's floating cabin; my first floathouse, formerly our childhood homeschool before it was winched off land and onto a float.
NOTE: Since my sister will be staying with me in the coming days, and it's through her stable signal in Florida that my blog is normally posted, it may be a while before I can put up another blog post.
If you need more Alaska For Real in the interim, my column appears at www.capitalcityweekly.com every other Wednesday. My next column is titled "Floathouse Living" and comes out September 13, 2017.
For all of my columns Google: Tara Neilson Juneau Empire.