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The thing I love most about living in a floathouse is how relaxing and idyllic it is. We spend our days in a state of perpetual “summertime, where the living is easy” relaxation. Just sitting on the front deck fishing, gazing at the glorious scenery. The only upkeep-stress we have is remembering to water the flower in the window. Record scratch. I wish.
Alaska for Real: Floathouse maintenance and B-horror movie frights 013118 AE 1 Tara Neilson, for the Capital City Weekly The thing I love most about living in a floathouse is how relaxing and idyllic it is. We spend our days in a state of perpetual “summertime, where the living is easy” relaxation. Just sitting on the front deck fishing, gazing at the glorious scenery. The only upkeep-stress we have is remembering to water the flower in the window. Record scratch. I wish.

Gary Neilson saws the knots and bumps off the new float log. Photo by Tara Neilson


Gary Neilson pulls up the bug-eaten remnant of a former float log. Photo by Tara Neilson


Gary Neilson tows the new log to put into place behind his floathouse. Photo by Tara Neilson

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Story last updated at 1/31/2018 - 2:38 pm

Alaska for Real: Floathouse maintenance and B-horror movie frights

The thing I love most about living in a floathouse is how relaxing and idyllic it is. We spend our days in a state of perpetual “summertime, where the living is easy” relaxation. Just sitting on the front deck fishing, gazing at the glorious scenery. The only upkeep-stress we have is remembering to water the flower in the window.

Record scratch.

I wish.

The truth is, the wood-eating bugs that infest our waters are like something out of a B-horror movie. They visit us in swarms, unseen, unheard, but felt. When our once stalwart float logs become emaciated skeletons they tend to roll and the whole house shudders as the tide comes in or goes out. Floathouses will also start tilting, thanks to these nightmarish swarms that seem to eat and breed like piranha-toothed Tribbles.

I’m not exactly sure what kind of bug they are — the word on the strait is that they’re sand fleas. (Speaking of B-horror plots: As a kid my big brother Jamie maintained a “sand flea pit” where he’d throw carcasses. It was instructional to see just how fast they’d get eaten. He’d threaten my little brothers with being tied to a stake in there if they didn’t behave — or do his bidding, I can’t remember which — and I’m sure they have nightmares about it to this day.)

During this last summer we worked on filling out, with foam blocks, some of the spaces that opened up in my parents’ float because of the log shrinkage. This winter we’ve been putting logs in other spaces. We’ll have to do it again all this coming year, too. (One of the problems is that the spaces aren’t big enough to put in major logs that will last for years, so we’re forced to use smaller logs that get eaten up fairly quickly.)

Here’s the story of just one of these logs:

After finding it and yanking it off the beach and towing it home, my dad bucked off any rotten or broken ends with his chainsaw and then sawed off any knots or bumps that might impede its movement when we slid it under the house. He pointed it on the end so it would fit under the brow log, the cross log that ties all the other logs in place.

He put a pulley on one end of it and then towed it to the back of their house with the skiff and we got it into place, wedging the point under the brow log and then tying guy-lines from the opposite end to the brow log to make sure it’d stay in place as the tide ebbed.

When the tide went out it was long after dark, and long after we’d shut off the generator, so I clamped a clip-on battery light to the eaves of my parents’ bedroom roof. While my dad pulled on the pulley line I used the pike pole as a lever, being careful where I stepped in the shadowy light.

At first the log slid along pretty well — a little too well. The pike pole tip pulled out of the log and since I was using all of my weight to pull on it, I went flying. Fortunately I was able to catch myself and fall on the brow log rather than in the icy water. But every second counts, and when I got back into position it was to find that the tide had gone out too fast and the log refused to budge. We tied it off and called it a night, agreeing to meet back at the log in the morning when the tide allowed us to work on it again.

Once again we tried the pulley and pike pole gambit, but we only got a few inches out of it before the log got pinched by the tide. Something wasn’t working. We took the pulley off and put the cumalong on it for extra power, but during the next tide cycle we only got a few feet before the log stopped again with only a third of the log under the house.

We figured that the end of the log sticking out must be sitting up on a mudbank, driving the other end down into the mud. So on the next low tide I went out with a shovel and dug the mud out from under the end of the log. Which made it hang in the air.

Obviously the problem was closer to the house. I waded through the mud and found that the log was jacked up on a chewed up chunk of a former float log buried in the mud. I dug the mud off of it and then tied a buoy to it. When the tide came in my dad took the skiff around to the back of the house, hooked the buoy, and got ready to use the outboard’s 60 horsepower engine to yank the log remnant out of the mud. To his surprise — usually things aren’t that easy — the remnant came up easily by hand.

We had to wait a full day before we could work on it again because by then the tide was going out in the early morning hours. The next time, as the tide was coming in, I found that I didn’t need the cumalong (hand winch) to make it move, just the pike pole. I took the cumalong off and the log glided easily under the brow log as I levered my weight against the pole, standing on the log.

The pointed tip of the log banged into the foam log we’d put in at the other end of the float and the log that I was standing on bounced backward and rolled. The tip of the pike pole jerked out and once again I went flying. This time I wasn’t able to save myself and landed in the water. It actually wasn’t as cold as I’d thought it would be, maybe because the air was so cold in comparison.

At any rate, the log was finally in place and my parents’ house gained several inches of flotation. Now it’s time to move on to the next log that needs to go into the float. In the meantime, I gaze enviously at a children’s picture my mom made of fantasy floathouse life and picture myself sitting on the front deck fishing, my house floating on completely reliable logs wherever the whim takes me.

• Tara Neilson writes from a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.