One of the things I've always loved most about Southeast Alaska is the Alaska Marine Highway System. When most towns are on islands unconnected by roads, it only makes sense that the Inside Passage of intertwining waterways would become our road system. On this most scenic of all highways, our ferries--more like small cruise ships--locals and tourists alike travel.
When we were kids, nothing delighted us more than when our entire tiny bush school would go on a field trip to somewhere in Southeast Alaska or to Canada, traveling on the ferry. It was an adventure none of us will ever forget.
Here's the story of a visitor to Alaska who also got to enjoy our unique marine highway during her Alaskan adventure.
When I was on Top of the World by Carla Kirkland
It was a clove of seasons when I boarded a train in Thunder Bay, Ontario and rode through some of the most breathtaking natural sites in Canada with the overstuffed backpack I had lived out of, in Minnesota all summer. When I walked onto a ferry in Prince Rupert, BC, it was the closest thing to a cruise ship I had ever been on, then or since. I’d had a magical year at Touch of Nature Environmental Center in Carbondale, IL, and summer at the Environmental Learning Center in Isabella, MN as an intern. When they ended, I was looking forward to fall in southeast Alaska.
I walked off the ferry in Petersburg, Alaska, and for the first time in my life I wasn’t a student. I was 24, full of wanderlust, and free. I wasn’t worried I had no job or place to live. Heck, I couldn’t see past one day at a time. When my boyfriend (later husband), Jim, of five years met me at the dock and told me he had secured a friend’s small 1940s style houseboat for three days before we embarked upon the 33-mile trek along the historic Chilkoot Trail, my problem was solved. Temporarily, anyway.
Jim did seasonal surveying with the U.S. Forest Service for the last three years and had government-issued housing. I couldn’t stay there. I supposed I could always set up a tent in Tent City, where the town’s cannery workers lived, but I’d face those issues when we came back to town from the backpacking trip.
First things first, though. I went down to Hammer’s (Hammer & Wikan) Hardware and bought myself a pair of brick-colored rubber boots known by everyone in the fishing town as red rubbers. The only sure bet about the weather was that it would rain and knee-high red rubbers with pants tucked into them, were a constant fashion staple. By the time I got back to the boat, Jim ran down the hill from the Forest Service office saying someone had quit and they were looking to hire a replacement on a recreation crew. I didn’t know what it would really entail, but since I had just completed my bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation, it seemed like an answer to a prayer. I went as fast as I could up the hill, afraid someone else would beat me to the job.
The day after I arrived in Petersburg, I had a position on a recreation crew and government housing. I would begin when I returned from the Chilkoot. There were three good months left in the work season and I was on top of the world. Since Jim and I were going to be working on separate crews, it was going to be common to only see each other occasionally.
When I came back to town, I met the other two people on my crew: a Vietnam Vet named Jimmy and our crew boss, Doug. We were given the task of building a new recreational cabin at Kadake Bay and doing maintenance at several other recreational cabins within the Tongass National Forest. We traveled by helicopter, ferry, or skiff to the various locations, but most trips were to our camp at the old Kadake Bay Cabin by skiff, loaded with building materials, tools, and groceries. The cabin had bunks, a wood stove, a table, and benches. Jimmy and I stayed in the cabin with no electricity or running water, while Doug preferred to sleep in his own tent outside the cabin.
We worked hard building the cabin, clearing trails, and chopping wood by day and reading by candle or flashlight at night. Jimmy did most of our cooking and I cleaned up the dishes while Doug brushed up on his Spanish in preparation of spending his winter in Mexico. On our days off, we would fish or go back to Petersburg when we could. The fishing was the most incredible I’ve ever experienced. When we were able to smoke the fish, we did. We ate and lived, worked and played together, and became family in some of the most beautiful wilderness I’ve ever seen.
When Jim and I and friends boarded the ferry to leave Alaska to go south at the end of the season, it was Thanksgiving Day, 1983, during the first snowfall. I remember peering into the distance as the town of Petersburg grew smaller and the snow fell harder. I felt confident we would all be going back the following season, not knowing it would be the last time we ever worked and lived in southeast Alaska with the wild abandon that only youth exudes.
NOTE: All photos courtesy of Carla Kirkland. Carla is a uniquely compassionate and insightful writer who considers the crossroad moments in life in a way that resonates with people who care about the world and each other. Check out her wonderful blog at carlakirklandwriter.com.
"I forget sometimes," my mom told me recently, "that we'ved lived such a great adventure, and then I read the reviews of your book and it all comes over me again and I think: We really did that!"
My dad calls me on the handheld VHF radio in the mornings and asks if there's been a new review. Since I often can't access Amazon because of my poor signal, a kind friend emails me whenever new reviews pop up and I pass them on to my parents.
In fact, one of my favorite things since getting my memoir Raised in Ruins published, about growing up in the ruins of a remote Alaskan cannery with only my family, is sharing reviews of the book with my parents. It's really the only way I have of thanking them for gifting me with the adventure of a lifetime.
The reviews by women often say something like this one by Cynthia Yoder: "Maybe it's because I'm a mom, but by the end of the book, I found myself awed by the author's mother, who continually worked to protect her children while her husband was away logging."
Male reviewers identified with my dad, such as Benjamin Scribner: 'I could relate to her dad, a Vietnam veteran, as I myself am a veteran of the war in the Persian Gulf. I felt I understood him in ways only another veteran could. Over all, I felt this book down to my soul.'
Nancy Guess focused on both of my parents: "Meet the Neilsons: a father who is a Viet Nam war vet with PTSD and a real-life MacGyver; a young mom of 5 kids who is tasked with protecting her children from the dangers of the wilderness and both parents ensuring that the children have childhoods."
One review is now part of family lore, the one by Ann C, who wrote: "The writing is rich with detail and the personalities of family members are vivid, irritating, lovable and more--in a word real." After I read it I asked my family who they thought was the "irritating" one. Each of us laid claim to it, trying to top each other by pointing out our most irritating traits and actions. I'm sure it will come up in family reunions for years to come.
Like many parents, my parents think their children are the most talented. Many of the reviews didn't mention how I did with the actual writing, so they were pleased when Terry Levin, an accomplished writer himself, wrote: "It gives a very real sense of what it was like to be a kid growing up in the wilderness and how such a kid could develop a profound love of life that, objectively, was filled with backbreaking labor, few comforts of modern civilization, significant dangers to life and limb and a great deal of isolation. And like the best storytellers, she SHOWS us how this happened, not just telling us that it did. In reading her blog, I sometimes noticed upon finishing an entry that I had become so enthralled that I forgot I was reading: that it seemed I had just soaked up information.... There were portions of this book where she achieved this same effect, especially the lengthy chunk about dealing with an invasion of wolves. Writing that seems effortless is, we all know, often the writing that requires the most effort."
hile I was writing down my childhood memories, I didn't think that much about how those in my family would react to what I wrote about them. I was told repeatedly by the experts, when I researched writing memoirs, that in order to write your truth, you needed to shut out the awareness of family and friends reading and judging it later.
After it was published, I did wonder how my family would receive it. I soon found out how at least one of them felt about it as my second youngest brother, Robin, shared with me his reactions in real time as he read Raised in Ruins.
"You would be amazed at the memories my brain is remembering by reading your book!" he texted me as he read. "You have no idea how emotional I am right now! Good though! I feel young! I have energy I haven't felt in forever."
Twenty years ago, Robin nearly died in a catastrophic car accident that left him with permanent pain and he was put on highly addictive prescription medication to deal with it. Like many in America, he suffered from addiction. "Living in pain every single day of my life for the past twenty years," he texted, "and being drug free for over a month and fighting that battle, I don't feel any pain right now! ...I even remember the smell of finger paint.... This is amazing. It's a roller coaster. Man the ups and downs! I'm crying one minute and laughing hysterically the next. Your writing is awesome! I can't compare it really to any one writer I have ever read. I have never thought of writers as artists but you truly are. You paint a picture of our upbringing. At times I forget I'm in it till my name comes up! Fantastic!"
I had never imagined when I was writing the book that it would affect anyone this way and actually, physically help them, let alone someone I loved. Finally, after he finished the book, he wrote me perhaps the greatest compliment I'll ever receive that left me--and continues to leave me--in tears.
He texted: "Your book has taken me out of deep depression.... Your book is changing my life! What a relief! ...It's amazing how we forget who we were and who we are."
Robin said that he didn't have to be depressed because he realized he was essentially a good person and it was because of how we were raised. I can agree with that. So thank you, Mom and Dad.
I can't imagine any review I receive ever topping that one, but if you read Raised in Ruins please consider leaving a review. I promise to share it with my parents.
Raised in Ruins US link: amzn.to/2UQHxKs UK link: amzn.to/2QMMdxW (or post on whichever site you prefer)
We were let out of school at 2:30 pm because the teachers of the small Alaskan bush school my four siblings and I attended knew that during mid-winter, by the time we made the nearly half-hour skiff ride home, it would be dark.
As soon as the clock’s hands hit 2:30, we donned our cold winter gear, grabbed our backpacks, and ran down to the dock to wait for our dad.
The village kids either took the small, winding trail home (there were no roads in the 29 population fishing community) or accompanied us down to the dock that was lined with our relatives’ trolling boats, to jump in their small skiffs.
They only had to cross the harbor. We had to head out onto the open strait in a sixteen foot, wooden skiff our dad had built himself, and cross an unprotected bay before we reached our home in the ruins of a burned cannery.
We chopped up slimy, iodine-scented bull kelp and flung it at each other as we waited. By the time we heard the distinctive sound of our dad’s 50hp Mercury outboard and saw the silhouette of him at the back of the skiff as he approached the entrance, the sky behind him was ruddy and rapidly darkening.
When he pulled up to the dock we saw his beard was encrusted with frozen salt spray. We glanced at each other before settling into the skiff and braced ourselves for what we knew was going to be a rough, cold ride. We’d be splattered with icy Alaskan water and be so stiff when we climbed out at home we could barely walk. By then dusk had set in and when we crossed the sawdust trail through the forest to get to the house we’d just built, we had to follow our white dogs: the last bit of light made them glow.
We raced each other the last distance to be the first ones in the house to plunge our frozen hands into the canner on the woodstove that was always full of hot water. Sometimes I didn’t bother to jostle my way through the bodies to get to it. Instead, I’d run upstairs to my room and with chattering teeth and numb, shaking hands, I’d light my kerosene lamp and grab the western I’d been reading the night before.
I always chose westerns that were set in the desert. Nothing felt better than putting myself in the hero’s creaking saddle as his horse plodded across the shimmering sand. The more he sweated, the more parched he became, the more I liked it.
As soon as I finished one, I’d pick up another. My two favorites were WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND and THE DESERT CRUCIBLE by Zane Grey. No one wrote with more detail or gusto about the deadly heat of the desert than Grey. I listened to German pop group Nena as I read, and the desert became eternally imprinted on their music.
These days, after shoveling snow off the deck of my floathouse from morning till evening so it doesn’t sink under the weight, I turn to Tony Hillerman. In the middle of an Alaskan winter, I love to read his Navajo mysteries set in a hot and dusty corner of Arizona.
If I’m too tired to read after scraping snow off the roof, or spending hours firewood logging in 20 below wind chill, I’ll watch the three movies PBS made from Hillerman’s novels. My favorite is “Coyote Waits.” The first words spoken in it are: “It’s a hot, hot day on the rez.”
The more arid scenes there are of red-stone rock bluffs, desert scrub plants, basking lizards, and humans complaining about the heat, the better.
It’s no accident that the only house plants I own are a cactus and an aloe vera. When I buy calendars I spurn ones with seasonal photos. Instead, I gravitate towards ones that have titles like “The Tropics” or “American Deserts.”
People often ask me how I cope with Alaskan winters out here in the wilderness, since most people who own homes here make sure to only visit during the temperate summers. I tell them I was fortunate enough to grow up out here so I’m used to it. But the underlying truth is that at a young age I discovered that the key to coping with anything is how well you can manipulate your own mind.
As a child I recognized that if you can engage your mind in an experience that is different from what your body is experiencing, your mind can find a way to free you from the environment and moment you’re stuck in.
Now, on this cold winter day as I sit inside my floathouse with the sleet hammering the roof and obscuring the view out my window, I’m going to find my battered 80s cassette of Nena’s album “99 Red Balloons” to play on the stereo.
And escape to the desert.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)