One of the things that struck me when we first moved here were all the graveyards.
And by that I mean the skiff, boat, and outboard engine graveyards. They were everywhere.
There was something strange and mysterious about skiffs, small water vessels, resting in tall grass, on solid ground. Like spawned out salmon. No longer a thing of speed and grace, swooping and jumping from wave to wave in breathless freedom...instead, they were pulled out far above their natural element and left to decay under the skirts of the indifferent, superior spruce.
The abandoned skiffs were sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. We played around them and clambered in them, pretending to take them out onto the strait to have wild adventures. They were our playgrounds, but no matter how familiar they became, I always viewed them with a sense of wonder and mystery.
SE Alaskans are hard on their skiffs, especially the teenagers. It was considered a point of honor, for example, when I was a kid for the local teens to "jump the dock." This was when the airplane dock that jutted out from the main dock, had a ramp on one side for floatplanes to haul-out on.
The trick was to come at this ramp full throttle (after manually disabling the locks on your outboard). Your skiff shot up the ramp, the outboard kicking up, and you soared over the floatplane dock, perhaps waving to the locals as you went, and landed hard in the water on the other side.
Flourishes were optional, and sometimes if you flourished too hard--say, doing a sharp turn on the landing--the outboard came off your stern and sank to the bottom. You wound up looking more dumb than debonair, so flourishes were added with caution.
In at least one case a couple of teens wound up adorned with sheepish grins when their skiff refused to go the distance and landed in the middle of the floatplane dock with a bone jarring thud. Naturally, they pushed it off in the water and tried again. As with all worthwhile pursuits, if at first you don't succeed: try, try, and try again.
Two local teen boys (Matt and Dan Peavey by name) had their own outboard graveyard mouldering in the tall grass up behind their house. I used to wander around it in the golden summer silence when I was a wide-eyed six-year-old, as if I was taking a tour of Egypt's ancient monuments. I could only imagine the adventurous, painful stories those outboards could tell. One of these brothers had an engine right inside his bedroom, an oil-soaked floor beneath it, as he operated on it without a license. Even if the engine could be resurrected it would eventually end as all Peavey outboards ended: in the outboard graveyard unmourned and untended.
The young people, pre-TV (which didn't arrive in the bush until the Eighties) saw "hopping swells" as high entertainment. My mom, new to this pastime, said that one of the local guys invited her out on a sunny day when the waves were white-capping, and she, always up for an adventure, hopped in his skiff.
The deal was that once again the driver went at full throttle, in this case without regard to wave height. You stood in the bow, where the waves hit the hardest, holding onto the bowline as the skiff slammed into the waves. Hulls of fiberglass and of human flesh were known to separate under this brutal treatment. You had to have good flexibility and balance--the key was to bend your knees to absorb the impact. My mom caught on quickly and thought it was great stuff, yelling her encouragement to continue as the spray flew and the skiff WHOMPED down violently on wave after wave.
When they finally returned home, the local guy looked at her and said, "You're crazy."
I guess SE Alaska was the only place for her.
After hard work, and even harder play, skiffs and boats are literally put out to pasture here. If you visit SE Alaska in the bush, you will see them and wonder, as I do, what stories they have to tell.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)