Since my dad's injury I haven't had a chance to work on my memoir, Raised in Ruins, about growing up with only my family in the ruins of a salmon cannery that burned druing WWII. But now it's time to get back to work, and to get myself in the mood here is an excerpt from a recent chapter:
As preteens, my sister Megan and I dove headfirst into the world of Barbara Cartland and became enamored of the Regency period. We developed as a character a snobby, aristocratic matriarch named Madame Moonlea. We'd swish majestically around our Alaskan floathouse home that was perched above the tide surrounded by evergreens, and we'd peer down at our younger brothers through pretend lornettes, saying all manner of stuffy superior things to them in our best upper crust British accents. We let them know that odds were not great that they'd be invited to Almack's for the supper dance.
We tooled around outside on driftwood logs, pretending we were in phaetons and curricles, snapping riding whips (thin, red cedar limbs divested of needles) over the horse's backs and chatting about the latest balls, and plays at Covent Garden. Or we sat side saddle (in our ragged jeans that magically transformed into gorgeous riding habits of the finest satins and silks) on logs with weathered, broken branches, hooking our legs around ones that took the place of a saddle horn, and trotted around Hyde Park exchanging witty remarks and the latest "on dits"
"Lady Dalgliesh has behaved insupportably," I shared, my voice a languid, congested drawl. I moved my body on the log as if I was aboard a walking horse. "She was quite in her cups during the Michaelmas Ball, I gather."
"Oh, not Lady D. again." Megan yawned delicately, patting her lips with her pinky raised. "If I hear another word about her I daresay I shall be bored to distinction!"
I cleared my throat in my most genteel manner. "Pray forgive me, m'lady, but I believe you mean bored to distraction, or possibly extinction?"
Megan caught my eye and we burst into laughter.
We also had a few duels. We stood back to back holding our driftwood guns sternly in front of us, while our little brothers Robin and Chris stood by as our seconds (the individuals responsible for the duel being conducted honorably). As one of the boys counted off we marched with measured strides away from each other, the gravel beach and clam shells crunching underfoot, the musk of seaweed in our nostrils. Off to the side, the tar-blackened pilings of the old cannery haul-out marched down the beach in soldierly formation arranged by size from tallest to shortest.
On the count of ten we turned and shot. Somehow we survived to do it all again, though we weren't so bourgeois as our brothers who ran around shooting each other with their fingers yelling "new guy" every two minutes.
During school, Megan and I appropriated the clay sent out by SISD (Southeast Islands School District) to mold an entire London Season's worth of "ton" people.
We had men in tails and top hats tapping crops agains their high Hessian boots. Ladies who perched side saddle on prancing steeds (splay-footed so they'd stay upright) wore flowing riding habits and hats with veils. Little boys in sailor suits chased after barking dogs, and people of all descriptions in their Regency attire (and occasionally Victorian dresses complete with exaggerated bustles) strolled about or rode in two-wheeled, open vehicles pulled by one or more horses.
We filled the Plexiglass windows that overlooked the raw beach and bay with these preening clay people from Barbara Cartland's world.
I sometimes wondered what the refined Barbara Cartland would think, as she drifted about her ornately decorated British mansion, if she could see two ragamuffin wilderness girls lifting lines from her books to put in the mouths of our clay people.
While my sister was up here last fall we played around with some clay I'd bought to try our hands at re-creating our Regency clay world. She held the clay up to her nose and smiled. "Wow, my whole childhood comes rushing back!"
"There are plenty of reasons to sympathize with our pal [in] Alaska. Just the thought of her running through a blizzard with an armload of firewood while being chased by a pack of howling otters just waiting for her to stumble makes me tremble for her safety."
A friend wrote this on a message board I subscribe to but can rarely post on. I thought about expanding upon this on my blog because of its astounding accuracy, but unfortunately I don't have any photos to accompany it.
So, instead, I thought I'd catch everyone up on a very common wilderness concern in Southeast Alaska: firewood.
Typically, everyone who lives in the bush and especially those who live here year around (a very small minority) owns a well-stocked woodshed. People spend a good part of their summer stocking up the woodshed in preparation for winter and then all winter long they try to, if possible, keep it topped up. Everyone fears an accident that will leave them dependent on the woodshed without the possibility of replacing what they've burned.
As a kid, a big thing our whole extended family did was have a day where we filled up the space below my grandparents' house and their side porch with firewood. It was a lot of hard work, but fun, too, with the guys trying to outdo each other with how much they sawed and split while us kids hauled and stacked, and our mother, aunts, and grandma made a huge, delicious meal inside.
Before the Forest Service claimed the land our floathouses are attached to, we had a woodshed on land that held several cords of firewood and we did our best to keep it stocked up. We had to dismantle it and since then we've been limited as to how much firewood we can have on hand, since the weight is a problem for floathouses. My dad, for the last few winters, has split wood every other day, enough for two houses. For a guy in his seventies who has only limited use of one leg, I've always thought this an impressive accomplishment.
Three weeks ago he accidentally leaned on an unlatched door and suffered a severe fall that effectively sidelined him in the firewood gathering department. Fortunately for us, our winter had been fairly mild up to then (with huckleberries still on the bushes in December), and we did have a small woodbox and the front of their floathouse stocked with firewood. In addition, last summer he and a young friend had split a pile of wood that they'd had to leave on the beach under a tarp to avoid having it on Forest Service land.
That had worked fine in the summer and fall months when the tides are fairly low, but we had big winter tides coming, including a nineteen footer that would wash the wood away. I paddled the skiff over to the beach with the split wood (my dad didn't think I'd be able to start the outboard since it had been acting up) and tossed in as much of it as I could. I had to go back every day to get more as the tide rose higher, until on the nineteen foot tide I was in a flat out race trying to get the last of the wood into the skiff before the surging tide carried it away.
I was also gathering driftwood poles that could be sawed into rounds, often as dark fell since there were only short hours of daylight and the tide came and went as it liked without reference to my needs. I knew I didn't have the upper body strength to split enough firewood for two houses the way my dad did, so my plan was to find small enough poles that I could pull them onto our dock so they could be sawed up with the small chainsaw.
This worked well for my smaller house, but when my parents ran out of wood and the temperature dropped to below freezing with a nasty northerly dropping the temperature even further with its icy windchill, I had to start towing in larger logs, up to 7-8 inches in diameter. These bigger logs I needed rope and tackle in order to pull them onto the dock. My dad, who was healing faster than any of us expected, sawed round after round as I pulled a log forward. My mom, who has limited mobility herself and asthma, came out into the chill wind and hauled as many of the rounds as she could.
In this manner we've managed to keep on top of the firewood situation, though we try to be careful about how much we burn. My house is often kept in the 50-60F degree range. My Maine Coon Katya isn't a fan of winter weather, so her answer to the problem is to crawl into her little house. I put a heated, flat stone under the pad inside and in addition I add a hot water bottle and a fleece blanket. She hates to come out, even to eat.
A cozy, purring cat almost makes up for the ongoing cold and constant scavenging for firewood poles.
I've been trying to get a blog to my sister to post from Florida as per usual, but technical problems and an extremely poor signal have made that difficult, so I thought I'd try to send off a short one just to let everyone know what's going on, and to apologize for my delays in responding to emails.
We're working on our floathouses, hoping to get them in the best shape possible before we get any snow fall that sticks. Yes, I wrote about doing the same thing last winter, but we have to do this every year because that's the nature of floathouses. They're always losing flotation for one reason or another. My oldest brother Jamie, who also lives in a floathouse, was visiting the other day and describing all of his plans to get his place into snowfall shape, too.
A few weeks before that, I was sitting at my laptop, writing on my memoir, when my whole house shook so hard that things fell off the walls. This was right around the time of the big earthquake up in Anchorage, which wouldn't normally affect us at this distance, but earthquakes were on my mind. But when I checked outside to see what kind of damage was done, I found that a vital piece of my flotation had broken, dropping the back of my float about six inches underwater.
I couldn't leave it like that, but with our early nights I didn't have much time to do anything too permanent. Still, I rounded up extra foam, a heavy board, a drill, a spike, and a sledgehammer while my dad quickly put together q partial cradle to keep the foam in place. I managed to get the new piece of flotation in place just before darkness fell, but I need to work on something more permanent.
So that's what we're busy with right now. Usually it's pouring down rain and blowing a gale so I can't take pictures, which is why I'm posting a couple of dawn photos of the little tidal bight we live in on a gloriously unrainy, unwindy day--something we haven't seen in weeks. Hopefully the technical and signal issues get fixed soon and I can post a regular blog. Thanks for everyone's patience!
Tara Neilson (ADOW)