A couple of years ago a woman I'd just met was fascinated with our way of life and she asked me, "So where do you go to buy your eggs?"
I said, "We cross the strait."
She looked blank. "Really? I was expecting something more epic."
I realized she'd misheard. "The strait," I said, emphasizing it.
She laughed then, because her brother had just been regaling her with hair-raising tales of his own frightening experiences on the strait in question. "I thought you said 'the street'! Oh, okay, crossing the strait to get eggs is plenty epic."
Maybe not epic, but it was expensive. Considering how much fuel cost, and how much fuel it took to cross the strait both ways, if all we did was buy a dozen eggs, which, according to my last receipt, cost $4.29, they'd probably be the most expensive eggs in America.
Which was why we hadn't made this simply a grocery run, we'd arranged to pick up my mom's antique rocker from the barge line, and then bought gas and propane. With those tasks behind us, we idled past the city float in our sixteen foot Boston Whaler and turned the corner to the creek that, at this tide, would allow us to drive the skiff right up to the store's parking lot.
We passed houses that sat right on the water with evergreen trees shading them from the sun. The large, boxy orange store sat just across the street from where we'd lived for a time when I was very young, when my dad worked for the logging company that had been based in Thorne Bay. My only childhood memories of regular TV viewing in Alaska are from when we lived here. The creek we traveled up was where I'd learned to swim.
My dad drew the skiff up to the gravel incline just below the store's parking lot and I jumped out with the bow line. The current from the creek was strong so I tied the line to a chunk of rusty metal poking out of the landfill.
When I hiked to the top, I got a surprise. The parking lot was paved! It had always been bare dirt before this. It reminded me of the surprise we'd gotten several years ago when the town's roads had been paved.
On the side of the store that faced away from the sun, preserving it, was a long sign that said Thorne Bay Market. I liked to look at it whenever we visited, since it brought back memories of my uncle, Lance, painting it. He's an artist who's had showings of his art in galleries in Ketchikan.
I grabbed a cart off the covered, wood porch, and pushed it inside, going over my plan of attack in my mind. I'd head for the tiny produce section first, to the right of the door, and then circle around the entire store, dodging down abbreviated aisles, before winding up back at one of the two cash registers.
Although we'd made good time getting the rocker and fuel, we were past the high tide mark. The changing of the tide could affect the weather on the strait, plus we wanted to get to the house before the tide went out. Nobody wanted to haul the rocker or the groceries up the beach.
Fortunately, I had the store pretty much to myself, only needing to dodge a few lackadaisical shoppers who hadn't bargained for a NASCAR cart burning up the aisles. I tossed the items from my mom's short list into the top of the cart and my items in the bottom.
The store, though small, had everything on our list, including lighter fluid for the barbecue. It even had specialty items, like a few gluten free offerings, and diabetic-safe ice cream. They also had a small "Cost-Co style" section where you could buy industrial-sized items for fairly cheap.
This small store had such good prices, in fact, that people from communities all over Prince of Wales Island (where Thorne Bay was located), some fifty or more miles away, and on the other side of a mountain range, drove to buy their groceries here rather than at the stores in their own communities.
The only thing the store had a problem with was keeping fresh produce on hand. We called that part of the store Shangri La, since, as soon as you took the lettuce, carrots, and so-on out of the artificially cool environment they began to wilt, shrivel, and age rapidly, just like the characters in the book Lost Horizon who could stay young and fresh forever as long as they stayed in Shangri La.
At the cash register the girl deftly separated my order from my mom's and the guy from the other cash register came over, since no one else was in the store, and asked: "Boxes or bags?"
"Boxes," I said. "And please try to equal out the heavy items with the light." Sometimes the boxers put all the heavy items in one box, which made hauling them out of the skiff not a lot of fun. They usually offered to put the boxes in large plastic bags for the "skiff shoppers" but they forgot this time and I didn't worry about it, since we had the tarp from the barge line to protect the boxes from rain or spray.
When everything was rung up and paid for--over a hundred and fifty dollars for two boxes of groceries and some cleaning supplies--the two of them kindly hauled the boxes to the skiff for me, leaving the store, with the door wide open, completely empty. All I had to carry was a bag with some chips and drinks for my dad and me to partake of, fortifying us for the trip back across the strait.
I got in the skiff and they handed me the boxes. I thanked them, very glad I hadn't had to haul them myself. The young guy had handled the two heaviest boxes as if they were nothing at all. They waved off my thanks and wished us a good trip back across the strait.
We arranged the boxes around the rocking chair, tucking them under the tarp. Then we used lines, tied permanently to the skiff's rails for this very purpose, to lash down the rocker and groceries so they couldn't move, no matter how rough the strait was.
And by now we were more than a little concerned. It was blowing a good twenty-plus mph in Thorne Bay. We kept reassuring each other that this didn't necessarily mean anything. Because of the long, winding passage into Thorne Bay, the weather out on the strait could be entirely different from what was happening in here.
On the other hand, the tide had changed, and the strait was nothing if not mercurial and uncooperative. One time my dad had been forced to spend the night on an uninhabited floathouse porch when the strait was too rough for him to cross, and he hadn't wanted to waste the fuel running back into Thorne Bay. I had no urge to repeat his experience.
We headed back out into the winding passage, skimming past serene floathouses, munching our chips and sipping our beverages, and hoped that when we turned that final corner and got a glimpse of the strait that we wouldn't see whitecaps.
And then, there it was: the strait.
"Yay!" I pumped my fist. "Look at that!" My dad grinned in relief. The strait looked even better than when we'd crossed it! However, the day had cooled and completely clouded over. Grey curtains of rain obscured both the southern and northern ends of the strait. Odds were good we'd get wet before we got home. At least there was no traffic to impede us as my dad turned up the throttle and we set out across the easy waves, pointing the bow toward the trip of the peninsula where we lived. We had the entire, lonely strait, to ourselves.
On a previous trip, when we'd gone to pick up a freezer from the barge line, we'd been on an intersect course with an enormous cruise ship plowing up the strait. Rather than let it pass and have to deal with its massive wake, afraid it would damage the freezer, my dad had gunned the throttle and we'd nipped across the cruise ship's towering, cliff-like bow. We were so close we could look up into the observation lounge at the wide-eyed tourists. I was pretty sure the captain was not one of our biggest admirers at that moment, but we did get the freezer safely home without damage.
And on this day we managed the same with my mom's antique rocker.
A special thanks to my readers who hung in there to read "the rest of the story," despite delays due to my bad signal. And a special hello to two Welsh ladies in the Caribbean. Thanks for tuning in!
Tara Neilson (ADOW)