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When I was a kid I thought of it as like living in an elevator. Our house rose and fell daily with the tides. Now, I hardly notice the elevator-element until in the middle of summer after a long series of low tides where my house might not float at all for a week. Then one day there’s a large high tide and I get a sudden sensation of height, as if my house is floating on air, as if there are a zillion colorful ballons tied to it about to waft me on my way to Paradise Falls.
Alaska for Real: Floathouse living 091317 AE 1 Tara Neilson, For the Capital City Weekly When I was a kid I thought of it as like living in an elevator. Our house rose and fell daily with the tides. Now, I hardly notice the elevator-element until in the middle of summer after a long series of low tides where my house might not float at all for a week. Then one day there’s a large high tide and I get a sudden sensation of height, as if my house is floating on air, as if there are a zillion colorful ballons tied to it about to waft me on my way to Paradise Falls.

Drying laundry outside at high tide isn't without its perils. More than once an entire wash has ended in the bay as the tide rose. Greenhouses and gardens also float and are tied alongside the houses. Photo by Tara Neilson.


View out the front door of the author's current floathouse. Photo by Tara Neilson.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Story last updated at 9/12/2017 - 7:12 pm

Alaska for Real: Floathouse living

When I was a kid I thought of it as like living in an elevator. Our house rose and fell daily with the tides. Now, I hardly notice the elevator-element until in the middle of summer after a long series of low tides where my house might not float at all for a week. Then one day there’s a large high tide and I get a sudden sensation of height, as if my house is floating on air, as if there are a zillion colorful ballons tied to it about to waft me on my way to Paradise Falls.

Sometimes I get that sensation of height along with some vertigo when hurricane force winds blow up a big storm surge that makes my house test the slack in its mooring lines. Washing dishes, I’ll look out the kitchen window and see solid land slide past, the wind-blasted trees bowing to me in frazzled camaraderie.

It’s the winter storms that make floathouse living the most challenging — and interesting. The challenging part is keeping up with the snowfall, to keep our houses from sinking under the weight of it. As for interesting, sometimes I’ll just stand outside and watch the forces at work as the various floats in our entire, small floating community work against each other, bumping and rebounding like they’re playing a huge game not of bumper cars but of bumper buildings.

I was about 10 the first time our floathouse home broke its mooring lines in a winter storm. There was no one to call for help since we lived so far out in the wilderness. It was the middle of a pitch black, howling night and all we had were flashlights for illumination against the wind, rain, and spray. My dad got in the skiff and used it to push against the float to try and keep it in place against the powerful storm surge. My mom and us five kids, in a row from oldest (12) to youngest (5), held onto the shoreline with all our strength, knowing that if we let go our home would be washed out into the storm-lashed bay.

On the plus side, what kid wouldn’t love the long summer days when we fished off the front deck of our house, or swam off it, or lazed about on inner tubes on tinsel bright water, bobbing and nuzzling against the side of our floating home like baby whales against a matriarchal humpback.

My mom went to great lengths to impress upon us the danger of drowning and made it a law that we never step foot outside without our lifejackets on. (We took this so seriously that sometimes we slept in our lifejackets.) Even then, accidents happened and one day my mom happened to look outside to see her second youngest son, Robin, about four years old at the time, floating past on his way out to sea.

She and my dad ran outside and managed to hook him with the pikepole and drag him in. They demanded to know why he hadn’t shouted for help. “You told us not to yell and panic if we fell in,” he said. She had to clarify her floathouse/water survival instructions after that.

One of the challenges of floathouse living is that the rafts that our houses sit on are log floats and there are many sea bugs that love nothing more than to spend their entire lives burrowing into and chowing down on our float logs. It’s a never ending battle to put in more flotation and repair the floats as they are eaten into mere skeletons of their former, robust selves.

In the first floathouse I lived in as an adult (our former homeschool dragged off land and onto a float) I found myself rearranging my furniture as the logs were eaten. One side would get eaten up more than the other so I’d have to move my books and other heavy items from one side of the house to the other to maintain a level home. Even then, I had to employ certain “tricks” of floathouse living, such as when baking a cake, putting a table knife under one side so it baked evenly. And always arranging my bed so that I slept with my head “uphill.”

In my blog at www.alaskaforreal.com there are several accounts of the battle we wage against the sea bugs, and the shifts we’re driven to in order to keep our homes afloat. In one account I described how my dad made a log out of foam blocks, which the bugs won’t eat. Unfortunately, foam has a mind of its own and the log has had to be re-made at least once, and will have to be re-built again soon.

We recently had a family reunion and one of our main concerns was how much everyone weighed. We also had to take into account their luggage, and the extra food we’d have to stock. During one summer family reunion the deck surrounding my parents’ float went under water on one side and even their bedroom was in danger of the floor going under.

Perhaps the best part of floathouse living is that the homes are mobile, uniquely suited to Southeast Alaska’s watery highways. My childhood floathouse home was towed from one place to another by boats and skiffs. Crossing Clarence Strait was an epic journey.

I remember lying in my bed, feeling the water rocking us, listening to the thrum of the boat’s engine towing us and the wash of the water on the decks outside as our house traveled through the marine wilderness to a new destination. Out one window I could see the sun setting on the water and out the other I could see a moon rising in the periwinkle sky, and couldn’t imagine a more amazing, adventurous life than living aboard a floathouse in Southeast Alaska.

Tara Neilson blogs from her floathouse located between Wrangell and Ketchikan at www.alaskaforreal.com.