In the evenings, we worked on the much more pleasurable task of learning to navigate the labyrinthine networks of straits and fjords and islands that stretched for watery miles away from our place. Initially, we stayed inside an area known as Skowl Arm; we were afraid to cross into the treacherous waters beyond, known as Clarence Strait, because of a nautical chart that someone had nailed to the wall of the shack with the words DO NOT GO written across the entrance to the strait in red marker. But of course our curiosity overrode our caution, and one night we found ourselves out there in a 16-foot open-bowed skiff with a stalled engine and no radio. We were drifting so fast on the outgoing tide that it felt like we could pull a skier. Just as I began calculating how long the 10-pound halibut in the bottom of the boat would stave off starvation as we drifted toward death on the open sea, the engine popped to life with a puff of black smoke and we beelined for the safety of sheltered water. At the end of that month, when the float plane finally picked us up for the trip back to Ketchikan, we circled around and passed over the shack. I looked down at it like a rodeo rider might view a bull that had just bruised him up. He knows it’s a lot of trouble and that it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but he’s already planning another ride.
WHEN I STARTED DATING Katie, I would try to impress her with stories of the cabin. I promised to take her up there and get her hooked into a halibut that was so big we’d have to sink it with a harpoon in order to drag it into the boat. She now admits that the bravado kind of turned her on, though she has a hard time explaining how my stories resulted in her mistaken impression of the shack as some kind of classy Aspen-style retreat where you stroll out to the hot tub in a white robe with a wine glass dangling between your fingers.
In reality, the hot tub that we rigged up prior to Katie’s first visit was a livestock watering tank that we had shipped up on a barge from Seattle and then set out on some rocks by the stream. It was powered by an ingenious woodstove that circulated water through a heating box by means of its own convection currents.
Other improvements over the years included an adjoining workshop to store boat engines and tools. This freed up space in the shack’s sleeping area so that it could actually be used for sleeping. Also, we’d worked out the problems in our plumbing system, which meant you could more reliably take warm showers using water that was diverted from the creek and heated with a propane burner.
In fact, the place had gotten so comfortable that my two brothers figured it would be a perfect time to introduce their significant others to the shack as well—along with Danny’s three-year-old daughter. And in case things weren’t quite cozy enough with seven people sharing three bunk beds and well under 500 square feet of space, we extended an invitation to our friend Brandt and his new girlfriend.
I was a tad worried about the crowding issue, but in hindsight I should have been much more concerned that it was midwinter. The area gets an average of 160 inches of precipitation per year, about four times as much as Seattle, and the bulk of that seemed to fall during Katie’s stay. On her trip out to the cabin, she got stuck in a Ketchikan hotel because of the weather. When it finally cleared enough for her to get to the shack, it promptly turned shitty again once she landed. For days, the wind howled and snow dumped. We got out in the boat only a few times. Once, when we took a ride to set crab traps and ran out of daylight about two miles from home, the engine hit a submerged log with such ferocity that the bow of the boat dipped below the surface and scooped out a wave’s worth of water, which flooded through the vessel like a tsunami. We bailed it out with a solemnness that came from knowing that we were maybe just a few gallons away from a capsized boat and possible death by hypothermia.
Another outing in the boat occurred during a storm surge that pushed the high tide up over the porch, and we had to chase down all the gear and food that had been swept into the ocean. The surge also caused a temporary shutdown of what so far had been the trip’s one salvation, the hot tub. Its creekside location offered scenic views plus a handy source for changing the water. But when the high tide backed up the creek, all you could see of the tub was the top of the chimney. When the tide fell we moved the tub to higher ground and filled it with water siphoned from the creek with a long hose. Then the improperly drained hose froze and ruptured, so we were unable to change the water when it became soiled with dirt and spruce needles and the general funk caused by nine human inhabitants and a spilled White Russian that gave the water a milky tint. The tub’s popularity waned significantly after that, though not as badly as my own after announcing that I’d miscalculated the kerosene usage and we’d soon have no way to heat the shack.
ONE OF THE BEST things about life is that now and then, when we’re lucky, the reality of a situation rises up to meet our hopeful expectations. I thought of this a couple of summers ago, when Danny and his significant other, Corrina, got married on a grassy beach across the cove from our shack under sunny summer skies. Well over a dozen friends and family were gathered for the celebration. Salmon rolled in the stream mouth and flashed spectacularly during the ceremony. A bear sow and her two young cubs appeared down the shore and seemed to pose, as though Steve Irwin had been resurrected as a wedding planner. In the evening we gathered on the deck, drinking beer and boiling crabs and expecting at any minute the deck to finally collapse beneath the weight of all our friends.