Alaska for Real: The fall floathouse stock-up

Unlike most people, I imagine, I have a case of Spam under my bed and cases of tomato sauce, mayonnaise, and canned fruit in my closet. There isn’t room for it in my kitchen and pantry since it’s Stock-Up Season. Stocking up on groceries for winter is a very serious part of wilderness living at this time of the year—we found this out when my dad was working at the logging camp across the strait, coming home on weekends with groceries and supplies. Inevitably there came a weekend when the weather wouldn’t let him cross. And then another. Pretty soon my mom was scraping the bottom of the barrel with five voracious kids to feed.

 

I vividly remember poring over flour-encrusted pages of “The Joy of Cooking,” reminiscing hungrily with my brothers and sister about the chocolate mayonnaise cake and other favorites we used to make, back when we had food. After some dedicated scavenging we did find an ancient package of spinach noodles at the back of a barren cupboard, but when we tried to cook them they all clumped together into a solid, olive drab mess that tasted like stale cigarette butts.

My oldest brother, barely in his teens at the time, took up his gun and headed into the woods behind our house where the wolves constantly howled, and shot his first deer. That tided us over until the floatplane my dad chartered could deliver a month’s worth of groceries to our beach.

Later, when my dad rebuilt a 32-foot wooden boat he named the Sea Cucumber, he’d take it to town in the fall and load its cabin, hold, and deck with — literally — a ton of supplies.

Before there was a dock in front of my parents’ floathouse he’d bring the Sea Cucumber right up to the front door and we’d start unloading. Their float would drop perceptibly, several inches, as we relayed the cases from hand to hand into the house.

We originally took the boat to Ketchikan, docking at Bar Harbor and then trekking to the nearest market, where we kids wandered the aisles in awe at how much food, particularly candy, was on display. When my mom was done shopping her manuscript-length list, instead of transferring the groceries to the store’s van and then unloading it a couple of times, the store allowed us to take box-filled carts down to the dock as the groceries were rung up.

Each of us kids would take a cart and wheel it down the sidewalk, absorbing the alien sights and smells: the cars whizzing past with curious drivers and passengers staring at us; breathing in the city scents of traffic exhaust and fast food steam. We steered our carts down to the dock where my dad waited and handed him the boxes. He had the Tetris-like job of fitting everything into our limited boat space. By the time he was done there were few clear surfaces in the cabin, none on the deck or in the hold, and the guard rail was flirting with the water.

In later years, when I returned to live out near my parents and my two youngest brothers were still at home, we took the more protected, if slightly longer, trip to Wrangell to stock up.

The local newspaper, getting wind of our assault on City Market’s shelves, wrote an article about the thousands of dollars we’d spend in one day with high-piled carts lining the walls in choo-choo train formation near the checkout stands.

We’d dock at Reliant Harbor, on the outside of another boat, and enjoy Wrangell’s small town feeling, not to mention the pizza parlor within walking distance. At night we liked to wander around the totem poles on Shakes Island — then, to us, they felt mysterious — right next to the dock, as the city lights scribbled wavering colored lines on the black water.

On one trip as my brothers and I crossed the unfamiliar boat we were tied to and stepped down onto the dock, something went wrong. My foot went between the boat and the dock rail as I fell forward. There was a distinctly unpleasant sound and sensation. I sat immediately on the bull rail of the dock and stared in disgust at my broken ankle.

We had no time for this kind of problem. It was forecasted to blow and we had to shop, load, and get out of town in a few hours.

My brothers Robin and Chris helped me hop the few blocks to City Market one-legged. I sat on the bench outside and watched the cars go by, not feeling all that great. One of the boys returned with Tylenol, a bottle of water, and an Ace bandage. I swallowed a couple of pills, strapped the ankle as tightly as I could, and went shopping.

It helped being able to lean on the carts as we pushed them down the sidewalk to the boat, where we unloaded them and went back for more — passing the store’s forklift, which held an entire pallet of fifty pound bags of dog food destined for the Sea Cucumber. We hauled down hundreds of pounds of potatoes, onions, flour, sugar, popcorn, apples, produce, cases and cases of canned goods and — memorably — four cases of cheese that were accidentally ordered and paid for ahead of time.

After loading everything, we got out of town and back home before the storm struck. I never did go to the hospital for the ankle. It eventually healed well enough, and to this day it rarely gives me trouble.

The worst part of getting home to unload was that more often than not a downpour dropped on us. Or the tide was out and we had to pack box after box up the beach. I got in the habit of asking boxers to put a mixture of light and heavy items in every box. Now, they do it automatically when they see me at the checkout.

This summer, when I was at the market in Thorne Bay, everyone exclaimed in admiration as a husky guy in logger’s suspenders hauled out a fifty pound bag of dog food on his shoulder. I smiled to myself, thinking of my sister and me as teens lugging those heavy dog food bags up a rocky beach and then going back for more.

Today, now that it’s just my parents and me, our stock up sessions aren’t quite so strenuous or impressive, but we still do it, crossing the strait as inevitably as salmon spawning and geese migrating, to pick up our cases of Spam and ramen and ward off winter hunger.


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


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