"I don't think we're going to survive this one," my dad said as we watched rapids boil around our floathouses in the most violent storm surge we'd ever seen.
I nodded. Watching that massive surge of water coming and going made it seem all too likely that every building, every float, would be wrecked by the time the tide went out enough for our houses to set back down on the ground. My dad calculated how long that would be. "Four hours."
It was going to be a very long four hours, I thought. Not that I got to spend much time lying around worrying about it. The greenhouse float was the first to come loose. Then the garden came loose. They were the two lightest floats so they were at the most mercy of the surge.
They came loose three times, pulling out a staple and two logging dogs, and worked another line loose as well. In the gusts and rain, I went from one float to the next to re-tie everything as best I could. The movement was too extreme for me to be able to pound any of the staples or dogs back in with a sledge hammer so I had to improvise. There were ropes everywhere, lashed down with quick half-hitches.
I balanced over my crazy walk plank, often walking at an angle on it, with the surging water, caked with spruce needles and drift, one slip of the foot away. One of my parents' front mooring lines worked a knot loose, but fortunately we'd put two knots in it and the second one seemed to be holding.
The four hours stretched and then went into another hour. The storm surge and terrific winds blew the tide up an extra two feet. Fortunately, it had been predicted to be a fourteen foot tide, so it was only raised to sixteen plus. We thought about what the damage would have been if it had been an eighteen or nineteen foot tide. An extra two feet would have done serious harm to the houses in the nearby village. And our mooring lines would have been so far under water that they'd have started to pull our houses under.
As it turned out, the higher tide worked well for us because it made our lines tighter, and our surge anchors worked better. On the lower tide we would have had too much slack in the lines and would have moved around more violently, causing far more damage. That extra two feet of tide saved us.
Darkness started to fall as the tide finally went out. The wind was still roaring at seventy miles per hour or more, with higher gusts, and I knew I had to secure the garden float better or when the tide came back in during the night odds were good the garden would break loose again and smash into my float, wrecking the outer flotation. I needed to hammer in a logging dog, but I couldn't do that until the tide went out. And I needed the garden to set down close to the shop float for me to work on it.
I went out into the darkness with my flashlight, grabbed the pike pole, and held the garden float in place against the surges. At least it had quit raining. The freight train roar of the wind through miles of unbroken wilderness rose and fell, but never quit. As I waited for the tide to go out I looked at the black silhouette of the forest, the apartment-building high trees bending and swaying in every torturing higher gust. Below the screaming wind I could hear the percussive boom of the strait relentlessly pile driving into the rocks outside our little bight. Stars peeked through the overcast, sparkling serenely far above the mayhem down here in the wilderness.
Even as my hands cramped from holding onto the pole, fighting every surge and every buffeting gust of wind, I couldn't help thinking how breathtakingly beautiful the night was, how amazingly tensile and strong the trees were to withstand decades of this kind of abuse. Sure, some had come down, but many more were holding fast.
When the garden float finally settled onto the ground, I unclenched my hands from the pole and went and got my dad. Between the two of us we managed to secure the garden with a logging dog, pounding it in with a sledgehammer by flashlight. We discovered that part of the walkway that led across the back of the shop to their house had popped up at a crazy angle. We fixed it, shining the flashlight as we took turns using the pike pole and then hammering in 16 penny nails.
I checked what lines I could with my flashlight and hoped for the best before turning in, exhausted enough that I thought I might actually pass out and sleep through the rest of the storm.
Some hope. A new stormfront piled onto the old one, and this one came with pyrotechnics. I had just closed my eyes, shutting my mind to the roar of the wind, the snapping of trees, and the damage my skylight was taking, when my whole house lit up. A second later a tremendous boom of thunder rolled over the area and kept on rolling for a long time afterwards.
"You've got to be kidding me," I said. Thunder and lightning have always been fairly rare in our part of Alaska, more so when I was a kid than as an adult. And what thunderstorms we have never occur this late in the year.
Lightning flashed again, turning the darkness into daylight for an eerie moment. Instantly the thunder boomed, rattling my windows and vibrating the walls and floor. I checked on Katya, who hated gunshots, let along the kind of cannonading we were getting. As I petted her and offered soothing comments, she stared at me with resigned endurance, with a hint of displeasure that I hadn't put a stop to all this nonsense several days ago. I sympathized.
After the next flash and boom the heavens opened up in a downpour so violent it made Katya jump and hide. We were used to downpours of every kind, including the tropical downpours in Florida when we visited my sister there. But we'd never experienced anything like this. I waited for my skylight to give under the deafening assault that seemed to go on forever. It was so loud that I barely heard the thunder after the next flash of lightning.
As it turned out, that was the final hurrah of our three-storm pile-up. The hurricane force winds gradually died to gale force. My parents hadn't had heat in their house for the last three days because the gusts blew smoke down their chimney, since they didn't have a chimney cap in place. We'd had to take it down to repair it. At the first amelioration in the wind I climbed up on their roof and screwed the chimney cap on while my dad stood on one ladder and held the other ladder in place that I was on, that lay on the roof. By the time I came down the two of us were pretty much feeling done.
Gale force storms were predicted for the coming week, but after the last three days, that sounded like a walk in the park. I was particularly grateful for my mom during these storms because she kept the hot food coming--the last thing in the world I felt like doing after being out in the weather all day was cooking a meal--and always lent a listening ear and sympathized, and could make us laugh. Best of all, she has a clear eye and offered suggestions that we were often too close to the problem to come up with ourselves.
Our houses were battered--and so were we. I was bruised all over and my hands were infected from rope slivers, my dad was nursing strained muscles, and my mom had a mild case of hypothermia from not having had any heat in the house for three days.
But we'd survived.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)