Story last updated at 1/30/2013 - 2:12 pm
Alaska is full of people who came here from somewhere else and it seems that any new friendship pretty quickly gets around to the "How did you get here?" question. It's no surprise that many of us came for a job, or maybe came up just intending a short visit but then found ourselves stuck to the place like a burr on a coattail. Now, we look up every once in a while and wonder where all the time has gone. When we do go away, nine times of 10 it's because we have to for one reason or another and when the tasks are done we come scurrying back as though pulled by an invisible insistent spring. Those burrs have long stretchy stickers. This is a story about a couple that came as mid-life explorers, got stuck and stayed.
In a rural backwater of Puget Sound there lived a couple that was in one of those middle stages of mid-life. You know, kids gone, no serious money in the bank but the property paid for, no debts and no health problems. They had both been through most of life's rough patches of career changes, fires, deaths and disastrous romances but by the time that this story begins they were doing pretty well and life was going along OK. Each of them felt that they had at least figured out how to be good partners and, as far as you could tell, they were mostly right about that.
Between them, they only had one seriously bad habit but it was a pretty bad one. Time after time since his 30s, he'd been swept off his feet by the possibilities that lay hidden in one or another old derelict wooden sailboat. A couple of times the possibilities turned out to be so well hidden that no amount of his sweat, bad language and bloody knuckles ever could uncover those hidden virtues that he knew were there. In those few cases, he had been forced to compromise: he'd wished the old girl well and passed her along to a new dreamer, consoling himself that at least she was in better shape than when he had found her. Several times, though, he had managed to pull off the boat guy's classic fantasy and the derelict had emerged in a year, or two, or three, as a showpiece and he had come out ahead of the game - which meant that he could start all over again on a bigger old derelict.
As this story begins they had just finished their latest old boat rescue. He had been saying that this would be his last big project so they thought it might be a good time to take that sailing trip to Alaska they had always thought about. Why not? They had no serious obligations; the boat was up to it and as sailors they were plenty experienced enough so there was little to do except set their few business affairs in order, gather a bunch of tools and spare parts and stock the boat with staple groceries - well, and persuade two country cats that they'd like a life afloat. It turned out that the biggest job, and almost the most expensive, was collecting all the necessary charts.
Let the grown-ups be patient for a moment here while I explain to the children that charts were the big paper maps used in olden times when sailors had parrots on their shoulders and wore eye patches. Charts took up a lot of space on a small boat and you needed a big table to spread one out. The worst part was they were so expensive. Buying only three or four would set you back as much as a basic multi-tasking "me-phone" costs today, and they didn't even have screens or icons, or digital voices to warn you of dangers. It was all pretty primitive. Nobody blogged. It was even before Twitter. Can you imagine? It must have been, oh, 10 or 15 years ago. Anyway, they bought a few new charts and scrounged and borrowed more until they had most of the ones they would need. Finally, with all their friends waving, they cast off and headed north.
The boat voyage was wonderful. Every mile further north opened vast new spaces with nothing in them that hadn't been there a hundred years before. They spent lots of their time "up the inlets" as the locals called the heads of the uncountable little bays and waterways that lined their way. Sometimes they would anchor in a tiny un-named cove for days at a time and do nothing but count bears and watch the tide come and go. When they'd had enough of that and the itch for human contact returned they'd pull in at an isolated village and soak in different sensations for a week or so.
They had read the guidebooks, of course, but Native culture they found, the real thing, was a new reality. Once, on the coast of British Columbia, they found themselves welcomed into an isolated Haisla community where, in the local language, one word could express the complex notion of "keeping a welcoming eye open for the approaching stranger." In another Native settlement on the North Coast they exchanged smiles with a small boy with a puppy. "Nice dog," they said, "Is he yours?" The child, maybe 6 years old, looked at them solemnly for a moment as he considered how to properly answer these pale people from a far-away place. Finally, he said, "Well, yes, he's my dog...but I didn't create him." They could almost feel those backwater inlets working like gentle crowbars to stretch and un-bend their minds. They definitely knew they were not in the land of lattes any more.
Before they knew it, though, fall was coming on but they weren't ready yet to think about going back to that civilization they had just managed to escape. They counted their money and figured that, with care, they could be good for another year. Blessedly, by now they had proven that they could live together in a space about the size of an average suburban bathroom without divorce or homicide so they had only the practical problem of finding a place for the boat and themselves for the winter.
"Thus it was..." as a good story goes, that they came into a tiny community that was little more than a line of houses strung out along a narrow flat of beach. The harbor was snug and cheap and all the basics: a store, a post office and a nice little library were just a short walk away. They put out extra mooring lines, strung a big tarp over most of the boat and hunkered down for the winter. It was during that first long, dark and quiet winter, without their even realizing it was happening, that those stickers were reaching out and grabbing a good hold on them.
By the time spring came the next year, he was in the Fire Department, she was on the library board and they were both volunteering at school. It was as though roots had grown out from the bottoms of their XtraTufs. They began to think that maybe, just maybe, they should stay on here...if they could find a real house. Easier said than done, though. No walking into a real estate office and browsing through pictures. The way it worked here was that every once in a while, someone would casually mention in the store or in the bathhouse that they were thinking about selling -maybe - and the word would get around. No "listings" here; no "broker's fees." In fact, if you happened to be the occasional standout jerk that came through casually Shopping for Rural Property, chances are the word would never get to you at all.
They had to spend another winter on the boat but they did find a nice hillside building site, but it came with an old cabin on it that happened to be right in the way of the only natural access to the spot they'd picked out further up the hill. It was also a local landmark so simply knocking it down was not an option. There was enough room to move it over a bit but they were sailors, remember; they could handle a fouled anchor or a torn sail but move a house, even a little one, even a short way? They would need help.
He inquired around town.
"Need to move a heavy object, eh? Sven is your man." Sven turned out to be a character straight out of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, the Norwegian Bachelor Farmer who lived a few miles out beyond the edge of town and grew legendary vegetables. In the conversation that eventually took place, Sven grunted now and then while the new guy talked a lot more than he needed to but finally, due more to Sven's patience than the new guy's explanations, a wage was struck and a day picked. On the appointed morning, Sven showed up with ropes, various heavy, strange looking, logger's tools and a big chain saw. Several of the other big town guys showed up, too, each one lugging his own selection of ropes, chains and heavy implements. The new guy wondered how this was going to work.
First, came a period of standing around chewing and spitting and smoking hand-rolleds then Sven disappeared up the hillside with a chainsaw and in a few minutes was skidding a couple of small tress down to where they could be slid under the cabin for rollers. Midway though the process, Sven kind of pulled the new guy aside and mumbled that he wasn't going to take any money for his help. The new guy objected with, "A deal is a deal" and all that. Sven mumbled some more but then finally solved the problem saying, "Look, you can even it out. Just come give me a hand sometime." The new guy could agree to that but after a moment's thought he pressed back with, "OK but don't forget, you live way out east there so you've got to promise to tell me when you need the help." "Ya, sure," Sven agreed, then shuffled his feet some more and added, "Well it doesn't have to be me that you help." To the new guy it was the best kind of reassurance that those new roots had found fertile ground.
Brooke Elgie writes from Tenakee Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.