I’ve never been overly fond of chimneys. Maybe because I’ve always suspected chimneys are not very fond of me.
Alaska for Real: Procrastination doesn’t pay 011817 OUTDOORS 1 By Tara Neilson For the Capital City Weekly I’ve never been overly fond of chimneys. Maybe because I’ve always suspected chimneys are not very fond of me.

The roof-bound ladder is common to many rural Alaskan homes. Tara Neilson's made her worry it would be the cause of her doom. Photo by Tara Neilson

This rope served as a backup in case the rooftop ladder Tara Neilson was climbing broke. Photo by Tara Neilson

Click Thumbnails to View
Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Story last updated at 1/17/2017 - 7:33 pm

Alaska for Real: Procrastination doesn’t pay

I’ve never been overly fond of chimneys. Maybe because I’ve always suspected chimneys are not very fond of me.

On one hand I bear the scars of a past duel with a hostile piece of stovepipe. Anyone who has had to cut a piece of determinedly curling stovepipe to fit, then slot it together as it defies all the laws of reason and physics, not to mention good manners, and then adjust it between stove and adaptor, knows whereof I mutter.

One night recently, as the temperature dropped into the low 20s, smoke filled my house, especially whenever I opened the stove door. I had to throw my back door wide open to clear the smoke, and had to let the fire go out.

I had a guilty idea what the problem was, but I resisted the idea of climbing onto my high, steep roof to clean the chimney. For one thing I was concerned about the ladder. Not the ladder I’d use to get up to the roof, but the wooden ladder that lay on the roof, next to the chimney, hooked over the peak to hold it in place. Almost all houses in the bush have these roof ladders, mainly for chimney cleaning and repairs.

My concern was that the wooden attachment that hooked over the peak faced the sun. After a dozen years of alternating sun and rain, there was a good possibility that it had rotted. I lay awake at night thinking about rot. (Everyone in SE Alaska who’s lain awake thinking about rot, please raise your hand.)

I pictured myself climbing up to the roof ladder, gingerly making it up the rungs to the chimney....before the hook separated, spongy with rot, and I sledded off the roof to my doom.

Okay, I thought. How can I avoid this scenario? A possibility popped up, helped along by yet another day and night, in freezing temps, with no heat in the house.

I’d disassemble the stovepipe from inside and clean it!

This might actually have worked brilliantly if the chimney hadn’t, for years, been brooding and sullenly planning its revenge for my procrastinating neglect.

Let me describe my chimney. It’s four pieces of 16-inch lengths of Metalbestos (insulated stovepipe) adapted to a piece-and-a-half of regular stovepipe. My youngest brother Chris had given me two welded together pieces of Metalbestos of unknown vintage. It was very kind and generous of him--it would have been a crippling expense to buy it all new when I was first starting out, building my house from the float logs up. And they’d done their job well and conscientiously. A dozen years later, however, they were done playing nice.

I mean, it’s not like I hadn’t cleaned it periodically­—okay, not as often as I should have. And, yes, when the chimney cap blew off in a terrific gale, I didn’t climb up there to put it back on. So perhaps there was cause for complaint.

But still. The level of malice I encountered was mind-blowing.

When I removed the piece-and-a-half of regular pipe that connected to the Metalbestos via an adaptor...the insides of the Metalbestos avalanched down onto me and the stove. Fragments of the rusty lining (hmm, I thought, maybe I should have put that chimney cap back on, after all) and the silicon insulation poured out like coal down a chute. The silicon pellets, or whatever the insulation was made of, exploded on contact with everything it touched. I and my entire downstairs were coated in black dust.

Nice revenge.

Especially when you consider that we had no running water and were low on fuel so we couldn’t run the generator for very long, so a thorough cleanup with a vacuum cleaner and/or soapy water would be difficult.

I did clean-up as best I could and figured that what had probably been blocking the chimney was some of the debris that had just fallen down. Making the best of a bad business, I reassembled the pipe, built a fire for the first time in frozen days, and happily looked forward to warming my house.

As soon as I put a match to the kindling, smoke poured out the front of the stove. The Pipe’s Revenge was not done with me. Okay, fine! I can take a hint. Even if it killed me, I was going to have to climb up to the chimney and clean it from the top.

Fortunately for me, my nearest neighbor is my dad who’s had a lifetime of troubleshooting problems in the bush, and he has a mind like MacGyver’s. When I told him my fears about the ladder hook, he agreed rot was a possibility. His fix was to reinforce the bottom of the ladder, tie a length of rope to it, toss the rope over the other side of my house, and tie it down securely. So even if the hook gave way, the rope would hold the ladder in place. Simple but genius!

Just because of how things had gone so far, I probably went to overkill lengths by not only putting a couple wraps of the rope around a beam support under my house, but I also drove a logging dog into my float log and tied the end of the rope to it. That ladder wasn’t going anywhere.

My dad, ready with the stovepipe brush to hand up to me, held the twenty-foot aluminum ladder for me as I climbed up to the roof. When I started climbing the roof ladder I realized that some of the rungs were rotten. I made sure to stay away from the middle of them and inched my way up to the top. I looked at the hook and saw orange fungus growing on it. I could pull clumps of rotten wood off it. Yep. If my dad hadn’t thought of the rope save, I would have been a goner.

I looked in the chimney and saw that the top of it was so encrusted with creosote that the brush wouldn’t even fit down it--there was only a three-inch in diameter hole. No wonder the smoke had backfired.

The creosote was so baked on I couldn’t break it loose with my hands and I hadn’t thought to bring a hammer. There was no way I was climbing back down those rotten rungs and then back up, so I hunted in my pockets for anything that would work. Fingernail clippers? I don’t think so. I found my 5-inch pocketknife, a gift from my dad, and with the blade closed I used it to hammer the creosote into submission. It took quite a few minutes to get it all and was tiring, painful work as I stood as gingerly as possible on the rotten ladder, banging my hand into the encrusted creosote innumerable times.

By the time I was done and back down on safe ground, and had started a roaring fire in my stove, I couldn’t help feeling elated. Despite the chimney’s best efforts to humiliate, demoralize, and defeat me, I had triumphed.

And yes, I had learned my lesson. I’ll never procrastinate in cleaning the chimney again...I hope.


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