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:
In 1995 I had an article published in a national publication with an international circulation. In it I described living and writing out here in the bush and it seemed to strike a chord. Hundreds of people wrote to me from all over the world. One woman, a lovely older lady named Donne, wrote to me from where she lived in Johannesburg, South Africa. We wrote back and forth for years and then, on a visit to family in Canada, she made a side trip out here.
We were supposed to pick her up at the dock in Meyers Chuck, but we couldn't due to the weather. (Because we live on the tip of a high, forested peninsula it can be screaming a gale on one side and calm on the other side.) We contacted the airlines and their pilot agreed to drop her off in a bay close to us. She told me later that they were already in flight, late in the day, and the pilot turned to her and said, "Keep an eye our for a cabin in the woods, that's where I'm taking you."
He had only a general idea of where we were but managed to find us. We pulled our skiff up to the pontoon of the floatplane and I met Donne (and her grandson) in the skiff. She said she'd been on some great adventures in her life (including being treed by a rhinoceros), but that her floatplane ride in the Alaskan bush was the greatest.
My cousin, Mark Morse, told me he wanted to write about his first experience of flying into the remote community of Meyers Chuck, where I lived as a child. He said it was something he'd never forgotten.
I don't think anyone forgets that first floatplane splashdown in the Chuck, and, in fact, airlines regularly schedule pickups in the Chuck after they've dropped off their other passengers elsewhere to avoid scaring them. You'll see why that is in Mark's guest blog below.
As the son of divorced parents I spent the school years in Atlanta and the summers with mom in Michigan. In 1977 as a third grader we learned that Mom had moved to Meyers Chuck, Alaska. Living with a father who was successful in the city, my younger brother Alex and I had no clue what it meant to live in an Alaskan bush village.
My first memory was the excruciatingly long flight from Atlanta to Seattle which ended in the flight attendants cutting gum out of Alex's and my hair. Mom met us in Seattle and we took the Alaska ferry system from Seattle to Ketchikan. We didn't get rooms or berths, instead we slept on the top deck under the Solarium in sleeping bags with lots of 1977 hippies also ready to check out Alaska.
The ferry was great and I remember it like yesterday, but the real thrill of Alaska bush living was still ahead of us.
We arrived in Ketchikan and made our way to Tongass Airlines. For the first time ever I saw a plane floating on water and was then instructed to get on it. Your first time taking off on water seems impossible, but soon you're airborne and in the hands of some of the best pilots in the country.
For some reason I always sat in the copilot seat and mom and my brother sat in back. Invariably the pilot would let me take the controls and push the yoke up and down, actually moving the plane. What had been so scary was now kind of cool.
First Time Landing in Meyers Chuck:
As we closed in on our new home, we saw some really tall trees surrounding a tiny bay, guarded by rock reefs on both entry and exit. The pilot flies around the tall trees and cuts the engine too quickly loses altitude, then, just before crashing, re-fires the Cessna engines, floats over the rocks and short bay and slams on the brakes.
Alex and I had ridden every rollercoaster in Georgia. But this was insane.
It's probably a five second maneuver but it's a five minute five seconds as you see every ripple of water, feel the crosswinds, and see the quickly approaching reef. The plane calmly turns toward the float dock, you unload your luggage and meet 10-15 people all willing to help you get to your new log cabin home in the sticks.
It's hard to describe the joy of that first summer, but getting there is something I will always remember minute by minute.
Most people boat into Meyers Chuck, which is around four to five hours from Ketchikan--or a 40 minute flight. But shortcuts in the bush always come at a price!
NOTE: Photos 1, 3, 4, and 5 are by Jo Wendel who lives aboard a boat with her husband in a small community on Prince of Wales Island. She blogs at www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com where you can see, in my opinion, the best photos of rural SE Alaska.
"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.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)