"I don't think we're going to survive this one," my dad said as we watched rapids boil around our floathouses in the most violent storm surge we'd ever seen.
I nodded. Watching that massive surge of water coming and going made it seem all too likely that every building, every float, would be wrecked by the time the tide went out enough for our houses to set back down on the ground. My dad calculated how long that would be. "Four hours."
It was going to be a very long four hours, I thought. Not that I got to spend much time lying around worrying about it. The greenhouse float was the first to come loose. Then the garden came loose. They were the two lightest floats so they were at the most mercy of the surge.
They came loose three times, pulling out a staple and two logging dogs, and worked another line loose as well. In the gusts and rain, I went from one float to the next to re-tie everything as best I could. The movement was too extreme for me to be able to pound any of the staples or dogs back in with a sledge hammer so I had to improvise. There were ropes everywhere, lashed down with quick half-hitches.
I balanced over my crazy walk plank, often walking at an angle on it, with the surging water, caked with spruce needles and drift, one slip of the foot away. One of my parents' front mooring lines worked a knot loose, but fortunately we'd put two knots in it and the second one seemed to be holding.
The four hours stretched and then went into another hour. The storm surge and terrific winds blew the tide up an extra two feet. Fortunately, it had been predicted to be a fourteen foot tide, so it was only raised to sixteen plus. We thought about what the damage would have been if it had been an eighteen or nineteen foot tide. An extra two feet would have done serious harm to the houses in the nearby village. And our mooring lines would have been so far under water that they'd have started to pull our houses under.
As it turned out, the higher tide worked well for us because it made our lines tighter, and our surge anchors worked better. On the lower tide we would have had too much slack in the lines and would have moved around more violently, causing far more damage. That extra two feet of tide saved us.
Darkness started to fall as the tide finally went out. The wind was still roaring at seventy miles per hour or more, with higher gusts, and I knew I had to secure the garden float better or when the tide came back in during the night odds were good the garden would break loose again and smash into my float, wrecking the outer flotation. I needed to hammer in a logging dog, but I couldn't do that until the tide went out. And I needed the garden to set down close to the shop float for me to work on it.
I went out into the darkness with my flashlight, grabbed the pike pole, and held the garden float in place against the surges. At least it had quit raining. The freight train roar of the wind through miles of unbroken wilderness rose and fell, but never quit. As I waited for the tide to go out I looked at the black silhouette of the forest, the apartment-building high trees bending and swaying in every torturing higher gust. Below the screaming wind I could hear the percussive boom of the strait relentlessly pile driving into the rocks outside our little bight. Stars peeked through the overcast, sparkling serenely far above the mayhem down here in the wilderness.
Even as my hands cramped from holding onto the pole, fighting every surge and every buffeting gust of wind, I couldn't help thinking how breathtakingly beautiful the night was, how amazingly tensile and strong the trees were to withstand decades of this kind of abuse. Sure, some had come down, but many more were holding fast.
When the garden float finally settled onto the ground, I unclenched my hands from the pole and went and got my dad. Between the two of us we managed to secure the garden with a logging dog, pounding it in with a sledgehammer by flashlight. We discovered that part of the walkway that led across the back of the shop to their house had popped up at a crazy angle. We fixed it, shining the flashlight as we took turns using the pike pole and then hammering in 16 penny nails.
I checked what lines I could with my flashlight and hoped for the best before turning in, exhausted enough that I thought I might actually pass out and sleep through the rest of the storm.
Some hope. A new stormfront piled onto the old one, and this one came with pyrotechnics. I had just closed my eyes, shutting my mind to the roar of the wind, the snapping of trees, and the damage my skylight was taking, when my whole house lit up. A second later a tremendous boom of thunder rolled over the area and kept on rolling for a long time afterwards.
"You've got to be kidding me," I said. Thunder and lightning have always been fairly rare in our part of Alaska, more so when I was a kid than as an adult. And what thunderstorms we have never occur this late in the year.
Lightning flashed again, turning the darkness into daylight for an eerie moment. Instantly the thunder boomed, rattling my windows and vibrating the walls and floor. I checked on Katya, who hated gunshots, let along the kind of cannonading we were getting. As I petted her and offered soothing comments, she stared at me with resigned endurance, with a hint of displeasure that I hadn't put a stop to all this nonsense several days ago. I sympathized.
After the next flash and boom the heavens opened up in a downpour so violent it made Katya jump and hide. We were used to downpours of every kind, including the tropical downpours in Florida when we visited my sister there. But we'd never experienced anything like this. I waited for my skylight to give under the deafening assault that seemed to go on forever. It was so loud that I barely heard the thunder after the next flash of lightning.
As it turned out, that was the final hurrah of our three-storm pile-up. The hurricane force winds gradually died to gale force. My parents hadn't had heat in their house for the last three days because the gusts blew smoke down their chimney, since they didn't have a chimney cap in place. We'd had to take it down to repair it. At the first amelioration in the wind I climbed up on their roof and screwed the chimney cap on while my dad stood on one ladder and held the other ladder in place that I was on, that lay on the roof. By the time I came down the two of us were pretty much feeling done.
Gale force storms were predicted for the coming week, but after the last three days, that sounded like a walk in the park. I was particularly grateful for my mom during these storms because she kept the hot food coming--the last thing in the world I felt like doing after being out in the weather all day was cooking a meal--and always lent a listening ear and sympathized, and could make us laugh. Best of all, she has a clear eye and offered suggestions that we were often too close to the problem to come up with ourselves.
Our houses were battered--and so were we. I was bruised all over and my hands were infected from rope slivers, my dad was nursing strained muscles, and my mom had a mild case of hypothermia from not having had any heat in the house for three days.
But we'd survived.
The first in a series of severe storms that pummeled us last week struck in the night, like a criminal. Typical behavior for our November weather.
I didn't even try to sleep through it. I turned on the light to read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court that a kind friend had sent me, and tried to pretend my house wasn't creaking and jerking like a tormented animal. I heard things crash and bang, but since I knew there was very little I could do on my own, with a flashlight, and I wasn't going to drag my parents out into the sotrm, I just hoped for the best and figured I'd clean everything up in the morning. My house shuddered as two long pilings tied to the front of my float, that were meant to replace the brow logs I had, rammed me in every surge and gust. All through the night I could hear the gunshot crack of trees giving in and falling before the roaring fury of the hurricane force winds.
As the tide went out and my float house started to settle on the ground I knew something was seriously wrong. My roof made a terrible cracking sound and the walls groaned. Things popped and shook. Older floathouses often made these sounds as the wood frame flexed as its float settled, but my house had never made them.
It was still blowing in the morning. At first light I went out to see what the damage was and immediately saw why my house had made so many hair-raising sounds. Our floathouses are tied and anchored so that they always sit down in the same place. Over the years the float logs have worn deep grooves in the mud that we call our "track."
During the storm one of my most important mooring lines had snapped and my house had skewed over toward the garden and green house floats. In fact, the garden float had rammed my float, damaged the outer, foam flotation. When the tide went out my house had sat down out of its track. It had knocked my center log onto its side, which might have contributed to all the crazy sounds my house made. My walk plank had come loose and had crashed down on the forward, outside foam flotation, damaging it.
My parents' house and my dad's workshop also took some damage. The shop roof had a hole in it, directly over my parents' large, well-stocked chest freezer, and the walkway from my parents' house to the shop had come loose and broke off a large chunk of their outer foam flotation. The boys' cabin and the generator shed came through unscathed. Some lumber fuel jugs, and various other items had been blown away and my dad spent the morning rounding everything up and re-tying logs.
I re-tied my snapped line, but I could no nothing about pulling the house into place until the tide came back in. Meanwhile, the storm was re-newing itself with a serious storm surge that made it imperative that my house be well secured. At least I could tie the pilings differently so they would no longer ram my float. I also tied my walk plank differently so that it couldn't break loose again.
On my way back to my house, a gust of wind, at least a hundred miles per hour, buffeted me, almost knocking me off my walk plank. A second later, I heard my screen door slam open and crash against my porch roof support. I hurried to get to it, half expecting the glass in it to be shattered. It was in one piece, but it had separated from its hinges. My dad came over and between the two of us we were able to screw it back into place. He then went to take care of the hole in his shop roof.
When our houses finally floated I tried to pull my house back over but found that the storm surge and gusts were too much for me. I kept timing it to pull on the rope when the surge went in my direction and then I had to be quick to put a wrap around the brow log as the surge and the wind pitted the whole weight of the house against me. Unfortunately, the rope was cumbersome and too stiff for me to work the surge like I needed. Eventually, I wore out and had to leave it with too much slack in it. I'd have to wait for the tide to go our, get a different rope, and do it all over again when the tide came in the next day.
Meanwhile, I saw that the greenhouse had come loose on one side and it and the attached garden float were swinging over and ramming me again, threatening to damage more flotation. I hurried over to it. Everything was surging in different directions and moving up and down. In addition, my one foot wide walk plank, which was in a different place due to my house being out of its track, was not only acting like a see-saw, but it had also situated itself on a knot on the log it rested on so that it rolled from side to side. I felt like a circus acrobat as I balanced over it and then went from one float to the next, timing the surges so I wouldn't fall in the water.
After tying off the greenhouse float it was just a matter of waiting it out, watching the forest sail past my windows in fierce gusts of wind. My house was moving way more than it should have because of the slack aft line. The surge was making the house rise and fall, as well. My mom, her own house moving around, came down with a severe case of vertigo.
In the photo below you can see the groove worn into one of my float logs by my front mooring line, caused by my floathouse moving in storm surges.
The days are short now, so I was unable to do anything more about my mooring line before night fell. It was another long, sleepless night, listening to trees come down and feeling my house move far too freely for comfort.
The next day a new storm front moved in, stronger than the last, with a far bigger storm surge. I had to get my house secured before the tide came in and the surge descended on us. My dad directed me to a hundred foot nylong line long enough for the job and more malleable. The only problem was, it was wrapped around every log and piece of drift on the beach. It took me a while to free it. I carred the coil to my house and clambered onto the back brow log. After securing the line to the brow log, I realized I had another problem. The seventy foot expanse between my float and where I needed to tie the line was nothing more than a bog of quicksand-like mud covered in seaweed. I couldn't cross it on foot. Which meant I'd have to throw the line across the distance.
My first throw, in the drizzling rain, balancing on the slippery log, came up short. I recoiled the line, a tiring business since it was so long, and threw again. And again, it came up short. I recoiled it. This time I looked around and saw that a snag, an ancient, fallen tree, was pointing to where I stood and bridged some of the distance. I thought that if I could just throw the line to it, I could walk down the snag to retrieve the line. I threw the line at it--the throw came up short, but was close enough that I was encouraged. I recoiled the line, my arms heavy and tired now, and threw it again. This time it landed right on the end of the snag.
I trekked over to it, circling the sinking mud, and found that the snag was incredibly slick with algae and slime. I placed my boots as carefully as possible but I kept slipping and I was afraid I'd fall and either wind up in the mud or break something. Finally, I got down on my knees and crawled down the muddly length of the snag until I could reach the line. Then I crawled back. I wished I had claws instead of boots--my Maine Coon, Katya, navigated the slippery snag with almost insulting ease.
When I secured the line I returned to my house. After all the damage to my foam flotation my house had gone down far enough in the water that the surges swept clean over my back deck. I decided to replace the damaged foam on the lowest side with a new piece. To do that I had to put a chunk of foam on the mud to stand on while I worked. Unfortunately, since the house was out of its track, the deep channel of the outside track had water in it and floated the foam I stood on.
Newton's old equal-and-opposite reaction (the bane of floathuse living) came into play. Every time I tried to push the unwieldy, eight foot, new foam block into place, the foam I stood on sailed in the opposite direction. I was under the gun to get it done, once I'd taken out the old piece, because the tide was coming in and would reach me in a matter of minutes. Without any foam on that end, my house would be in serious trouble. As I struggled against the obstacles, I started to laugh. By then I was so tired I was afraid hysterics were next and decided praying might be better than laughing. Finally, digging out a path for it in the mud, I got the new block into place.
I took a breather and got out of my wet, muddy clothes and put them to soak in the sink. I was handwashing everything because our generator situation wasn't allowing us to use the washer and dryer. When the tide came in around the houses, I walked around to check the lines and found my dad checking them, as well. He looked...odd.
"Look at that," he said quietly. He pointed toward a log in his house's float which wasn't floating yet. I watched as the tide poured over it in a tremendous rush, almost boiling. Even the largest of tides, coming in from a minus tide, didn't move that fast. We watched silently as, a few moments later, it rushed in the opposite direction just as fast.
We were looking at the biggest, most violent storm surge we'd ever seen.
"Can you tighten up the lines to the boys' cabin?" He asked. The cabin was tied to their float. In a surge like that, any slack would make the two floats tear at each other and slam each other to pieces. I went down their brow log and between surges put another wrap in the line. My attention was caught by something and I didn't get my hand completely out of the way before the line tightened and it pinched my thumb. It hurt, but I barely noticed it.
The storm surge was so huge that as it rushed around the boys' cabin it caused white water rapids to form. I stared at it, disbelieving what I was seeing. I pointed it out to my dad and he just nodded.
We stood there watching the incredible force of the storm surge, like nothing we'd ever seen before, and thought about what kind of movement that would cause in floating building tied together by ropes, with a roaring, hurricane force wind slamming the houses.
"I dont think we're going to survive this one," my dad said calmly.
We had three days of fuel left for our diesel generator, and it was forecasted to storm for the next week. This was obviously the day we needed to cross the strait in order to stock up on fuel for the month, since the water was glassy still.
There was only one problem. Fog.
I climbed over the rocks to see how bad the fog was and couldn't see across the strait to Prince of Wales Island where we'd have to go for fuel. I could hear way out somewhere in the mist a ferry or cruise ship blowing its lonely horn every minute. Closer to shore, where I stood on the seaweed-covered rocks, the diesel engines of seine boats rumbled.
As I stood there, a seiner appeared in the distance, ghosting through the opaque air, hardly seeming to touch the water at all.
My dad called the fuel station in Thorne Bay to find out how bad the fog was on their side and heard that it was about three hundred feet up. This was reassuring, but not a guarantee of safe passage. Even though we had a GPS, it wouldn't work inside the narrow, twisting channel that led into the town. If the channel was fogged in we'd be in trouble.
He tried calling again a little bit later and received good news. The floatplanes were flying into Thorne Bay again! This meant that the fog was down low and probably only on our side of the strait. We hurriedly put our gear on and steered for the whited out strait.
My dad steered the tiller handle outboard with one hand and held his GPS in the other, driving entirely by its direction. We were being guided by a satellite orbiting earth in the lifeless darkness of space as we drove blindly into the thick mist.
Without warning we broke through the fog.
The middle of the strait, we found, was swept clear of fog as what wind there was tunneled between the mainland on our side and the lengthy bulk of Prince of Wales Island on the other. The fog was heavy above us and on all sides. Horizontal bands of mountains appeared sandwiched between the overcast and the fog on the water. Heavy tendrils of mist streamed down mountains like huge, diaphanous rivers, lit by a yellow glow as the sun fought to shine through.
It was a strange, pewter-colored world and I couldn't help thinking about a description written of this strait (or so some scholars say) in the Sixteenth Century:
For the sun striving to perform his natural office, in elevating the vapors out of these inferior bodies, draweth necessarily abundance of moisture out of the sea:...and instead of higher elevation, to leave in the lowest region wandering upon the face of the earth and waters as it were, a second sea through which its own beams cannot possibly pierce, unless sometimes when the sudden violence of the winds doth help to scatter and break through it.*
Seiners crept in and out of the fog behind us, ahead of us, and up and down the strait, guided by radar, and like us, by GPS. They had it much better than the sailors of long ago.
Once we made it safely inside the town, my dad dropped me off on a grass and gravel beach to hike up to the store, while he went to deal with some other business. The town seemed oddly silent, locked in under heavy skies. I didn't hear any cars on the street above the creek as I climbed the rocks beside it. There were no planes, either, though I knew they must have been backed up by the fog and probably had dozens of passengers waiting to be flown in or out.
I was the only shopper in the small store and was able to get one of the cashiers, named Daniel, to give me a courtesy ride down to the loading dock where my dad had said he'd meet me. Daniel and I carried box after box down to the end of the dock until we had quite a nice pile.
He left and I sat down on the warped boards and waited in the locked in, damp heat of the day.
The heavy, unnatural stillness was shattered as one floatplane after another descended. I counted five in a row. The seaplane base in Ketchikan knew as well as we did that it was forecasted to blow and, after being backed up by the fog, they were trying to crowd in as many passengers as they could while the flying was good.
My dad arrived and told me he'd knocked at the boat of my fellow Alaskan blogger, The Beachcomber (www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com), but that no one was home. We'd missed meeting yet again! Hopefully, one of these days we'd manage to cross paths.
On the way to the fuel station we watched as the floatplanes acted as a conveyor belt, one landing and disgorging passengers as another took off with a full load. The one taking off was so heavily loaded that its tail was almost in the water and it took a long time for it to get in the air. And even when it was off the water, it hovered just above it for quite a ways before gaining altitude.
After getting 75 gallons of fuel (diesel and gas), we headed back home and had an uneventful, safe trip. The fog had cleared completely.
That evening the strait was glassy, the seiners traveling without impediment on a beautiful, champagne-colored sea.
*The World Encompassed and Analogous Contemporary Documents (Quoted in The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577-1580 by Samuel Bawlf).