Long past dark and late last night my dad called me on the VHF handheld radio and said two words: "It's time."
It had been a long day of waiting around. He'd gone to the nearby village to pick up our groceries and mail, which were several days late due to a series of storms here with hurricane force winds. While he was gone, my mom and I did what we usually did when we waited for the mail to arrive--we talked about everything and anything under the sun, like we hadn't seen each other in years rather than living only a few yards away from each other.
Meanwhile, my dad had also been asked by the post mistress if he'd take a look at her washing machine which had quit working. He was the go-to guy in this area for those kinds of problems. Usually, and spookily, all it took for him to fix anything mechanical was to lay his hands on it. And in this instance it was no different. Somehow his vibes speak to mechanical things and they cooperate immediately. Her machine worked perfectly.
He probably wished it had taken more of his time and attention because he was left sitting around waiting for the mail plane which became more and more overdue. We all understood why that was. When we have storms the floatplanes can't fly and all the towns and communities that rely on them end up getting their mail and travel plans backed up. Since our village is so tiny (twelve year-around population) we're low man on the totem pole. They fit everyone else in before us.
The problem, though, was that with every minute my dad waited, the tide was creeping out. The further out it crept, the further up the beach we'd have to haul heavy boxes of groceries. When the plane finally came and my dad made it back to our place, the tide was quite far down the beach. He had to sit in the skiff for half an hour waiting for it to go completely dry so I could get to it and haul groceries and mail up to our houses. While I was hauling the boxes, my dad tied a series of ropes to the skiff's anchor-line and dragged the line up the beach to a log he could tie it to. The skiff would have to be retrieved when the tide came back in lat that night.
Which was when my dad called me.
The temperature had dropped from earlier in the day and when I crossed over the series of planks and boardwalks between my floathouse and my parents' floathouse, I found that the boards were covered in frost. My dad was on his way to turn the generator off as I headed down their little dock. We had to shout over the racket of the generator. Despite my flashlight I couldn't see where the tide was, how close it was to the dock.
My dad fetched his stronger flashlight and shone it out toward the mouth of our little inlet. A thin layer of ink black water stretched toward the dock. It was so thin that I knew I would probably have to do some waiting of my own in the skiff before the water was deep enough that I could bring it up to the dock. But I set out then, anyway, climbing over the rocks and, like usual, trying not to crunch the limpets and barnacles underfoot, an almost impossible task.
My flashlight revealed a jumbled mass of logs that had been battered and thrown about by the huge storm surges we'd had. My nephew's skiff was caught in the tangle, its outboard engine tilted up crazily on one log. I was surprised its mounts hadn't been broken. I crawled under and over the criss-crossed maze of logs in the dark with my flashlight playing over their strange configurations.
I found the rope my dad had tied to one of the logs and started pulling in the skiff. I turned off my flashight and worked by starshine. There was no moon, just the Milky Way overhead. By then my dad had turned off the generator and all I heard was a soft surge washing against the outside rocks that protected us from the strait.
The anchor-line bummped along underwater as I pulled in the wet. dripping line. Suddenly the line went tight in my hands and I couldn't move it another inch. The anchor must have gotten caught on something, a rock or submerged log, maybe. This wasn't good. If I couldn't budge it I'd have to leave the skiff there--since I wasn't about to swim for it in that chilly water--and we might get another powerful storm.
In an effort to budge the anchor I walked along the gravel shoreline and came to a stretch of heaped up rocks. I turned my flashlight back on to make sure of where I stepped on the seaweed-covered rocks, pulling the line the whole way. I had to climb pretty far over the rocks before the line finally gave and I was able to pull in the anchor again. Back over the rough ground I'd just covered I went, until I got back to the gravel beach where the skiff was easily beached. I threw the rope and anchor in the bow and carefully followed. The bow was dangerously slick with frost.
The pike pole is aluminum and I was already regretting that I'd forgotten to wear gloves. The pole was also wet and my hands, already cold from pulling in the wet line, got even colder as I used the pole to push the skiff off the beach and then guide it around the rocks--shining my flashlight periodically to see where they were--and toward the house.
I took my time, waiting for the tide to get further up to the dock. In front of me my parents' floathouse provided the only source of light, yellow brightness shining out their front French doors and reflecting on the thin layer of water just touching their dock. Above them the mass of stars shone, framed by the black silhouettes of the trees.
It reminded me of all the times since I was a child that I'd love the night sky, with its Big Dipper and North Star that my dad had pointed out to us when we'd first come to Alaska. The immensity of the quiet sky, after days and weeks of stormy overcast, was full of mystery and wonder.
Smoke from both our chimneys, weighted by the cold air and lack of wind, eddied and glowed through the light. When I turned my flashlight on I could see its perfect funnel of light thanks to the smoke surrounding me like fog.
I didn't mind standing in the skiff and waiting for the tide--it gave me the chance to put down the icy pike pole and warm my hands as I gently drifted forward, occasionally bumping on the ground and then moving again as the tide crept in.
My dad came out of the door, silhouetted against the warmth and hominess of the house. He shone his powerful light out to see where I was and I had to look away to avoid being blinded. Then it was just a matter of both of us waiting as I now and then picked up the pole to straighten out the skiff as the tide carried it slowly toward the dock.
Long, quiet moments later I had the bow tied to the very end of the dock. I said I'd come back later when the tide was further in and tie it in its usual, secure place, fore and aft, but my dad said I'd done enough for the day and he'd come out and take care of it when the water was deeper. I headed back to my house, picking up an armload of wood as I went, careful on the icy walkways. I sent one last glance up at the beautiful, star-strewn sky and called it a night.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)