My mom bought an antique rocking chair from a cousin of hers who had been living in Ketchikan, about thirty-seven miles to the south of us. The problem after that was getting it out here to us in the bush. My dad arranged for the rocker to be taken down to the barge line, which sends a tug and barge on a weekly basis to various ports on Prince of Wales Island, including Thorne Bay, the closest large community (population around 500) to us.
Once the rocking chair arrived in Thorne Bay, the next problem would be for us to cross the treacherous and unpredictable strait. Not only did we want good weather to cross when the water was calm, and predicted to stay calm, but we also wanted a day with no rain, since we weren't sure how well the rocker had been packed. We also needed a day when the tide would be in all day.
It took two weeks before it all lined up and we were able to cross.
Before leaving we checked the strait and saw a black line, indicating rough water, but it seemed to be only on this side of the strait, where tide rips are common. We could see clear water on the other side of it. My dad decided that it would be safe to go, since the tide rips would moderate when tide change occurred, before we returned.
Once past the tide rips we had a smooth trip under a huge blue sky with the sun shining down. Toward the south we could see rain obscuring the horizon. It was blowing from the north, though, so as long as the wind didn't change direction we should be able to get back across wtihout worrying about getting wet.
After getting safely across the strait, we entered the long, winding passage into Thorne Bay that is dotted with floathouses (regular, wood-frame houses on large rafts), nestled into almost every hollow and curve. When I was very young our floathouse (one of the first here) had been tucked back in a small cove along this channel.
The channel gives way to a broad bay. The community hugs the shoreline below a section of logged hills. At the head of the bay is Thorne River and a huge flat area that had once been a "sortin' yard," for the logging company my dad had once worked for. When I was a kid and into my twenties, log rafts filled this bay, and the sound of heavy machinery and backup alarms from the yard was a constant background sound. With the logging company gone and only occasional, limited logging now, the bay seemed eerily empty and silent.
We passed the community dock and went around the corner to the landing site of the barge company (Samson Barge and Tug). The colorful containers were stacked above the beach, looking like toys, or crayon boxes. Towering steel pilings propped up by stifflegs and padded with tires stood in the water to the left, where the tug and barge moor as they are offloaded. My dad gently drove the skiff onto the gravel beach and I got out.
At the top of the incline the yard, cloaked in a haze of dust, was spread out. A big forklift was transferring containers, stacked two-high, from one place to another. I stayed out of its way and passed stacks of lumber and then the storage shed, which was an old barge that had been turned upside down. Beyond it and a stack of wooden pallets was the trailer with the office in it.
There was a customer before me, chatting with the woman behind the desk, but she smilingly stepped aside, saying she was finished with her business and was just socializing. It's such a small community that everyone knows everyone else.
I stepped up to the desk and explained why I was there. The woman behind the desk lit up. "The rocking chair! Good." I was a little surprised by her enthusiasm, but smiled and asked if I could get someone to give the chair a forklift ride down to the skiff. She said I could ask any of the guys outside.
Back outside, with the receipt in my hand, I flagged down a man driving by on the small forklift. "I'm here to pick up a rocking chair, and I wondered if--" I didn't get a chance to finish. The guy lit up just like the woman in the office had.
"The rocking chair! Great! We can't wait to get it out of there. We've been terrified of damaging it--it looks like a family heirloom, and if we nicked it or scratched it, we figured the family could get after us. It's just sitting there on a wood pallet."
I was surprised. "It's not wrapped in plastic or anything?"
"No, it's just sitting on a wood pallet, not even tied down."
That didn't sound good, since it had been sitting over here for a couple weeks. My mom had been worried that it might get moldy in our damp climate. I stood back and watched as he drove the forklift into the overturned barge and shifted things until he could gingerly pick up the rocking chair on the pallet.
I walked behind the forklift driver as he slowly headed down to where the skiff was. We passed one man who gave a celebratory wave of his hard-hat when he saw the rocking chair being escorted off the premises. The man operating the big forklift leaned out and yelled something about being glad to see the last of it as we went by.
I felt a shade notorious as I trailed behind in a walk of shame. The rocking chair rocked imperturbably on its pallet as the rusty forklift trundled over potholes. We reached the top of the incline that led down to the skiff. The driver jumped out and lifted the rocker over his head and carried it down for me. I climbed into the skiff and took it from him, glad to see that other than some dust, it seemed unharmed.
"You'll have a nice ride home sitting in that," the forklift operator, Jeff, joked. Unbeknownst to him, when we'd first moved to Alaska, my mom and wound up sitting in a rocking chair in a skiff when her furniture was delivered to her new floathouse home in the Alaskan version of The Beverly Hillbillies. But I thought I'd give the opportunity to repeat history a pass.
My dad was suprised at the chair's bare state and asked if there was any plastic lying around we could wrap it in, in case there was spray or rain. Jeff said he'd go find something, but before he could good-naturedly make the trek back to the storage area, my dad pointed toward a pile of broken crates and other junky looking objects. "Is that a discard pile? Can we use that tarp?"
"Sure." Jeff hiked up to grab it and we shook dust and rainwater out of a green tarp that was still in fairly good shape, and put the dry side down over the rocking chair.
"Thank you so much for all your help," I said to Jeff.
He grinned. "We're just glad to see the last of it."
Now we just had to get the antique rocking chair across the strait and into my parents' floathouse. Already we could see that our sunny day was clouding over and a wind was picking up.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)