When my dad worked at the logging camp across the strait, my mom let us kids take turns calling him, collect, to update him on how we all were doing. This was high adventure for the eight-year-old that I was at the time.
This was because the only phone in the entire village was at the other end of the trail where we lived, near the one room store.
One evening sticks out in my memory. We lived in a floathouse in a tidal lagoon behind the village and the trail to the village led me past an old, rotting wooden barge, a grassy dike, and then through a patch of strange, dead-seeming forest that often struck me as extremely creepy. That summer evening, though, the sun was glowing brilliantly through the stark trees, silhouetting them.
When I stepped out of the woods, the intensity of the sunlight pierced me and gilded everything in gold, including the long, slim trees lying on top of sawhorse alongside the trail. One of the fishermen had been peeling them to make trolling poles for his boat. The fisherman was nowhere in sight. The partially peeled logs gleamed in the light, the long peels lying under them.
The trail wound past the state-installed community dock. People were visiting each other--some lived full time on their fishing boats down there--and holding barbecue dock parties. The scent of barbecuing chicken reached me on the trail as I continued along the narrow, gravel path with its potholes and occasionally planks to cross a stream that wound up granite inclines, past more forest and salal brush. Woodframe houses were tucked back in the woods or above the trail on one side. On the other side they were built on pilings, or stilts, on the beach.
When I finally approached near the end of the trail there were steps that led down to a wooden platform. Ahead of me there was a line of people, locals and tourists. They were all waiting for their turn at the telephone that was mounted to a spruce tree.
The telecommunications tower was the most striking and out-of-place object in the village and us kids were fascinated by it's anomalous, urban presence. It was tucked back on the very outskirts of the village, beyond the trail's end, and encircled by a tall wire fence. It's huge diesel generators rumbled 24/7. The older kids told us spooky stories about what happened in that secretive compound. They claimed spies lived in the operations building attached to the generator shed.
At night the light at the top of the tower strobed ruby red. When our floathouse was moored in the village proper, directly across from the telephone tower, that red strobe would fill the bedroom and I'd count the seconds of complete darkness in between until I fell asleep.
Later, the tower light was replaced with a stuttering white one that was apparently easier for pilots to see in all weather.
The tower and its light often guided us and fishermen home on a bad weather day or in the dark of night. It was the only landmark in miles and miles of unbroken wilderness.
Those whose houses were closest to the phone were called upon to go and answer it when it rang, regardless of time of day or weather. The caller knew to let the phone ring and ring until someone could get to it. The neighbor who took the message passed it on by C.B. (Citizen Band) radio, which every villager owned. I experienced this first hand when I house sat for someone who's house was closest to the phone. It really made the community feel like a family, since everyone knew everyone else's business, hearing it over the radio all the time. This state of affairs continued well into the Nineties.
The telephone company did put in a phone booth at the head of the dock, next to the community bulletin board, for the boaters/tourists, which cut down a lot on the long line at the phone mounted to the tree.
Shortly after this, the telephone company started laying line to every house in the village. The houses where line wasn't feasible had phones connected to a radio box that needed line of sight to the tower to work.
We lived far out of the village by then so we didn't imagine we'd ever have a landline phone. But in 2001 my dad was hired and trained by the telephone company to be the local phone maintenance man. The phone company figured out that if we put a radio box on one side of the peninsula we lived on (facing the tower), then ran 2,000 feet of wire through the forest to our houses, we could have telephones for the first time in our Alaskan bush experience.
The first thing we had to do was clear a trail through the woods and string the wire up hill, down dale, cutting through mossy dead falls, climbing over roots and other obstacles. My dad had a frightening fall down a cliff at one point, but was okay. Then we attached the radio box to a post, positioned above a driftwood-strewn, rocky beach with a clear line of sight to the tower a couple miles away. Then my dad had the honor of installing his own telephone. Those are the sorts of skills you learn when you live in the bush with no expert readily available.
The first wire we strung we kept off the ground, tying it from tree to tree. But we found this didn't work when trees fell on it in high wind storms. In addition, mice and squirrels chewed through it.
When that first line shorted out my dad and I strung a second line (after re-clearing the trail--the forest never stops trying to take over). I remember skiffing over to work on the line and finding a group of kayakers on the beach. They were suprised to see us, thinking they were entirely alone in the trackless wilderness.
They wanted to know what we were doing, and when we said we were laying a telephone line they didn't believe it. How could there be a landline telephone in such a remote place?
I remember one man saying to me, "It must have been a culture shock for you to suddenly have the world able to contact you at any hour." It was, indeed. I never really did adapt to having a phone and being accessible to anyone who called. And even putting the ringer on its lowest setting always made me--and the cat--jump. I was actually glad when the radio telephones went the way of the dodo, replaced by cell phones. Even though our cell phone reception is very irregular and dropped calls are common. We only have one cell phone that we keep where the signal is best and we don't dare move it by so much as an inch from the "hot spot." I use it for messages and stick with snail mail and email to have real conversations.
There are many fond memories for me of the old, lone telephone in the village. Like the time our tiny school participated in the Battle of the Books. We kids, dressed in our winter coats, huddled around the phone, our breath hanging in the air as we took turns answering the questions. The number for that phone will always stick in my mind, even though it was such a difficult one: 946-1234.
Now even the phone booth at the head of the dock is gone--after the phone company abandoned it and said it was up for grabs, a local marched off with it, intending to make it into an outdoor shower.
Sometimes when I'm in the village, and it's a really quiet day, I expect to hear the phone ringing and ringing from its perch on the tree.
Photos: Top: Alaskan artist Rie Munoz painted this image of one of the local fishermen--the father of two girls I went to school with--making a call at the old phone. Rie Munoz painted it after visiting friends in the village. This painting hung in my grandmother's house for years. Second: The telephone tower is the only landmark in the wilderness to indicate a community. Third: A tourist at the old phone booth at the head of the dock (note the moss growing on top of the booth), next to the community bulletin board. Fourth: the telephone wire we strung through some pretty wild country. Fifth: My dad hooking up our radio telephone in the woods. Bottom: At the head of the dock.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)