Outdoors
My sister wouldn’t take no for an answer. In fact, she set me up with a blog almost the very instant I got internet for the first time, in July 2015.
Introducing Alaska for Real 010417 OUTDOORS 1 By Tara Neilson For the Capital City Weekly My sister wouldn’t take no for an answer. In fact, she set me up with a blog almost the very instant I got internet for the first time, in July 2015.

Tara Neilson's dad tows the family floathouse to a new location. Photo by Tara Neilson.


Tara Neilson's floathouse. Photo by Tara Neilson.


Clarence Strait, the passage through which Tara Neilson motored herself, her brothers and her sister to school in a 16-foot wooden skiff as a teenager. Photo by Tara Neilson.


Clarence Strait, the passage through which Tara Neilson motored herself, her brothers and her sister to school in a 16-foot wooden skiff as a teenager. Photo by Tara Neilson.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Story last updated at 1/3/2017 - 1:35 pm

Introducing Alaska for Real

(A Daughter of the Walrus)

My sister wouldn’t take no for an answer. In fact, she set me up with a blog almost the very instant I got internet for the first time, in July 2015.

“There are all these reality TV shows about Southeast Alaska now,” she told me. “People obviously want to know what a real Alaskan bush perspective is.”

Although she now lives in Florida with her family, she knows what a real Alaskan bush perspective is. My parents moved our family of seven up here when my sister was five and I was six. We landed in Meyers Chuck, a small fishing village of 29 year-round residents situated about halfway between Wrangell and Ketchikan.

My parents loaded us aboard a floathouse, which, in the next few years, they towed from one place to the next, including a logging camp and the burned down, abandoned cannery where we did most of our growing up. We were the only humans for miles around. We had plenty of bears, wolves, and whales for company though.

Later, we skiffed to school in the nearby fishing community. My dad did four trips every day rain or shine, snow or hail, in a 16-foot wooden skiff he built himself. When I was sixteen the job of doing the school run fell to my lot. Many were the times we ran into squalls so bad that waves breached the bow and rushed into the skiff, soaking my brothers and sister, and I’d pray that we’d make it safely to school.

As it turned out, we missed almost as much school as we made due to weather. My sister tells a story about when she was in college in Florida and she gave a talk about this aspect of our childhood. One student scoffed at the account. She said she grew up in Alaska, too, and she never missed that much school due to weather — nobody did. She refused to be convinced of any other reality of Alaska but her own.

We had two full sets of school textbooks, one for school and one for home. When it blew, or the forecast sounded dicey, we got our lessons over the C.B. (Citizen Band) radio. Learning algebra in those circumstances was challenging, to say the least.

On the plus side, we learned that we could procrastinate on homework by listening to the weather forecast. If it was predicted to blow I happily curled up with a novel and read it by kerosene lamplight, rather than do my math homework. Every now and then, though, the weatherman proved himself a false friend and I had to face the music. To this day I bear him a grudge and I don’t trust him.

The entire area during this time (the 1980s) communicated by C.B. radio. My dad’s handle was a nickname he’d picked up in the U.S. Army: “The Walrus.” One long, boring winter evening my parents — egged on my Uncle Rand — called the nearby village. Disguising his voice, my dad said he was aboard a 100-foot vessel named the Seacucumber in rough weather with engine trouble. We all provided sound effects, rattling aluminum flashing for thunder, banging on a bell to mimic the sound of a ledge marker in rough weather, not to mention throwing in a few lonely sea gull cries for color. My dad asked if there was room at the village dock for his boat.

The locals got on the radio to confer with each other and discuss which boats to move to make room for the huge Seacucumber.

My grandmother, who lived in the village, recognized her son Rand’s laughter in the background when my dad was talking. She immediately got on the radio. Donning a Texas twang and calling herself “Clam Digger,” she pushed my dad to more and more ridiculous heights of fantasy. Finally, the locals caught on — fortunately, before they went out into the night to move the boats around at the dock — and everyone got a laugh out of it.

Of course, when my dad rebuilt a 32-foot fishing boat by hand there was only one possible name for it: Seacucumber.

At bedtime everyone in the area would get on the radio and wish each other goodnight, like a scene out of The Waltons. We made up songs to celebrate anniversaries and caroled them over the air. It kept us all connected despite the roadless wilderness between us, especially during the storm season, when we rarely saw anyone.

The C.B. radio saw us through times of tragedy as well. We were talking to my Uncle Rand on it the night his fishing boat went down in a horrific fall storm on the bay we crossed to go to school. We were talking to him right up until he said the boat was sinking and he’d have to abandon it. Despite a courageous search by local fishermen, including Rand’s brother, my Uncle Rory, and my parents going out in a 13-foot Boston Whaler, he wasn’t found.

Years later a woman on Prince of Wales Island told me she never forgot listening to the C.B. radio that night, safe in her home sipping cocoa — and feeling completely helpless.

At the end of the ‘80s, my parents left the old cannery site and moved their trusty floathouse closer to the village, but in one of the worst weather spots in the area. I joined them after living in Ketchikan for a while.

I built my own floathouse with my father’s help, with lumber he milled from his mobile sawmill, and have found that floathouse maintenance — particularly during the storm season — is unending. My oldest brother lives in the village in his own floathouse and can be relied upon to help when sheer brawn is called for. We’ve weathered some hair-raising storms lately, and hope to weather more.

I now share our floathouse-living adventures in this area, where there are no roads and the only mail comes by floatplane, once a week, weather-permitting, here and on my blog at www.alaskaforreal.com, thanks to my sister’s insistence.

“Someone has to tell them about our real bush Alaska,” she said.

 

• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.