Tara Neilson's dad, Gary, scrapes snow off the roof. Behind him the picnic table and a chair on her parents' front deck, which Tara swept earlier, are once again covered. Photos by Tara Neilson.
An alley of snow clogged water between Tara Neilson's parents' floathouse and her dad's shop. The shop's little front deck is at least three inches underwater and lapping just below the front door. Photos by Tara Neilson.
Tara Neilson's parents' deck under about an inch of water. Not as bad as it could have been. Photos by Tara Neilson.
Story last updated at 3/14/2017 - 4:23 pm
A friend just sent me a book of the very first Superman stories to appear in Sunday comic strips, and it got me thinking about how curious it was that the originators of Superman decided to make an element from his home planet be his Achilles heel, something that could undermine his powers and drain his strength.
But then I look out the window and think: they were right on target. Because there’s an element of this planet that is a floathouse’s Achilles heel, and it definitely drains our powers and strength dealing with it.
Average snow, we are told by the experts, can weigh as much as 15 pounds per cubic foot. The wetter the snow is, the heavier it becomes. So if your house floats, gratuitous weight dumped on it from the sky does not thrill its resident’s heart.
What snow usually means for us is that we need to spend the day, or days, however long it snows, out there ridding our roofs and decks of as much of the white stuff as possible. My dad has built a long handled aluminum pole with a plastic scraper at one end to reach as far up a roof as possible to pull the snow off. Then, of course, there are our snow shovels (three of which we claimed as beachcombing finds); but my favorite snow-fighting tool is the humble broom. As long as the snow isn’t too wet, a broom is the quickest way to get rid of snow. We’ve also been known to use five gallon buckets to scoop up saltwater when the tide is in and splash it on the decks—that will melt snow quickly.
Of course, we could just wait for the tide to come in over our decks and the saltwater will melt the snow off and re-float us, as long as the snow load on our roofs isn’t to heavy. (As a side note, a friend of mine was telling me about a couple who lived in a floathouse farther to the north of us: when the tide went out their float logs would, in the low temperatures, freeze to the ground. When the tide came in they’d stay stuck, the water rising up inside their house, until the saltwater thawed the ice and they pulled free of the ground, the water sloshing around and then rushing back out. My mom wouldn’t go for this option, she informed us. It was where she drew the line in floathouse living.)
I almost thought we’d get away with no snow this winter. As March approached I was beginning to breathe easy.
And then we got dumped on.
It wasn’t light flurries, either. When we woke up one morning we found we had a foot of snow on our houses with more falling heavily all the time. My dad estimates that it added close to four tons of overall burden to their float.
Fortunately, the tide was out and it was powder snow, so I bundled up and started sweeping. I did a complete tour around my parents’ floathouse. When I got back to where I’d started there was no sign of the path I’d made—more snow had fallen, obliterating it.
So, I swept it again. Then, while my dad was using the scraper on the roof of the main part of the house, and on his shop roof, I climbed a ladder and swept a foot of snow off their bedroom roof. (They have an add-on master bedroom lower thanthe rest of their house, which is most in danger of going under water.)
As we struggled against the pretty, delicate enemy, I thought about the famous fact that Eskimos have so many words for snow. I wondered if one of them was “kryptonite.”
Before the tide got up to the houses we figured out a way to lift their bedroom a little, and a few ways to add flotation where it was most needed (foam blocks wedged into slots between logs, tightening up a brow log), because we knew there was no way we could keep up with the amount of snow that was falling. Then it was a matter of waiting.
When the tide came in I found that my deck, for the first time ever, was under water. My house is built on a high sled so I wasn’t concerned about it going under, but I couldn’t say the same for my parents’ bedroom. I swept my way over to their place—and sure enough, their decks were under (though not as badly as they could have been), but, happily, what we’d done to increase the height and flotation under their bedroom, and sweeping the snow off the roof of it, kept it several inches above the water.
As I write this, more snow is falling on top of the snow we weren’t able to completely rid ourselves of from the last dump.So it’s time to bundle up again, gird myself with my trusty broom, and tackle this planet’s floathouse kryptonite.
Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.