Alaska for Real: Bridging the wilderness

Jamie watches as his dog Moby notices the cat (out of frame). Photo courtesy of Tara Neilson.

One year we lived in the only remaining, standing building in the old, burned cannery where I grew up. We were fixing up our floathouse to sell and the only place left to live was the small, one-room-with-a-loft, dilapidated cabin. My dad shored it up and extended the front of it so that it sat right over the creek. He put in Visqueen (plastic sheeting) windows and added another loft.

 

The main problem with the cabin wasn’t how small it was as all seven of us, plus cats and dogs, crowded inside — it was the fact that it was on the opposite side of a substantial creek from the main cannery site and where our floathouse, sawmill, and moored skiff were located.

There was only one thing to do: build a bridge.

My dad, Gary Neilson, was regularly called upon to be a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician, a window cutter and framer, a house builder, dam-builder, freight-hauler, sawmill operator, engine technician, boat builder, math teacher…everything you could call a professional or specialist to do in a town, he had to do himself. So why not build a bridge?

He gathered what he needed: poles for the support (trees he downed and de-limbed); cast-off swifter cables from his logging job in Thorne Bay; boards he milled himself; leftover mooring hausers from the floathouse; and nails of varying sizes. The nails were the only things bought.

I remember watching him make calculations, mostly in his head, occasionally scratched out on the back of an envelope with a carpenter pencil, as he figured out what support he’d need and where to place it in order to span the creek. It never crossed any of our minds that he wouldn’t be able to do it. After all, we had a family saying: “Where there’s a Gary, there’s a way.”

With what help his wife and children could provide, the bridge went up.

When it comes to bridge memories, my mom, Romi, and my sister Megan both remember the time two of our male cats faced off on opposite ends of the bridge and met in the middle for a hissing, tooth-and-claw battle, while one of our female cats, over whom they were dueling, daintily groomed herself on a rock below. Every now and then she’d flick them supremely indifferent glances as they yowled, clawed, and clung to the bridge above the rumbling creek.

Creosote Bill sauntered away as the victor and, minus some patches of black fur, he strutted down to the rocks below to claim his prize. Duchess rubbed against him, clawed his face, and marched off with her tail in the air. Bill was left sitting on the rock with a bemused air.

When I asked my brother Robin what he remembered of the bridge he wrote back: “Fishing off it. Bouncing as much as we could to launch ourselves in the air. The biggest thing was when all the boards got blown away and there were only cables left. James, Chris, and I would scale across it with our hands and legs. Once the creek was so high that when I was scaling across it I was at the mercy of the creek’s current. I lost my grip with one hand and was pulled under. It was all I could do to hang on. I drank a ton of the creek before I gained enough strength to pull myself across. It was pretty much a dare game after that.”

He adds, “I also remember that it was the favorite perch of the kingfisher that hung out there.”

My own most memorable moment on the bridge was when we were working on the floathouse. My mom sent me back to the cabin to pick up a few things that had been forgotten. I was 12 at the time, intent on juggling everything in my arms, and was halfway across the bridge when I realized I was being watched. I looked down, straight into the unyielding eyes of a massive brown bear.

I froze. It was obvious the bear didn’t like the bridge planted in the middle of his favorite fishing stream. He paced back and forth below me, his fur bristling and the sunshine glinting on his hump as he splashed forceful, clawed paws down amidst the gleaming fins of the swimming salmon. He raised himself every now and then to sniff the breeze and glare at me. I held still and prayed that the bear wouldn’t try to climb onto the bridge, that the bridge would hold up if he attacked the supports, that someone would come looking for me.

Finally, the brownie turned away and began fishing further down the creek. I waited, trembling with pent-up adrenaline, until I was sure he wasn’t paying attention before I crept across the bridge. As soon as I was in the concealing woods I flew through them to the other side where the floathouse, my family, and safety were waiting.

A memory most of us have is of when it rained heavily for weeks, so heavily that the creek rose higher than we’d ever seen it. We watched as a downed alder tree from somewhere upstream washed down toward the bridge. It bumped into rocks, got wedged into place just above the cabin and held there for a day, its leafless limbs trembling at the force of the water pushing against it. My dad paced, muttering, willing the rain to cease. It didn’t.

The alder, after holding against the pummeling creek, suddenly popped free and plunged down on the bridge. We stood pressed against the plastic windows, the creek swirling below the floorboards beneath our feet, holding our breaths, united in willing the bridge to hold. With a crack that we heard over the rain and the thunder of the rushing water, the pole supports gave way and an entire section of the bridge was torn loose, tumbling and splashing into the creek. It was soon washed away, along with the tree.

As soon as the rain and creek subsided, my dad rebuilt the bridge. He built it this time so that there were supports on either side of the creek and the center part, where the waters rushed the fiercest during heavy rainfall, he supported entirely on swifter cables.

The bridge had to be rebuilt again, and the final version remained for years, even after we rarely had a need for it. But eventually the elements had their way with it, too, until only the strung cables remained.

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

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