Playtime in the Alaska Bush

People sometimes have this idea that living in the bush is serious business, and it can be. But I rarely got that impression growing up miles out in the wilderness with mostly just my family for company. We did a lot of playing — and it wasn’t just us kids, either.


I recall a dinner with my family and two of my parents’ friends. My mom had put out quite a spread in our floathouse home and the kids were partaking heartily when suddenly the adults went out of their minds and started throwing food at each other. My dad, inspired, leaped up from his seat, grabbed a huge bowl of mashed potatoes and upended it over my mom’s head. Not content with that he screwed it down on her head as potato clumps fell about her heaving shoulders as she shrieked with laughter and so did the other couple. Another time they had a water fight, chasing each other right inside the house with hoses opened all the way.

Us kids had fun on our own sans adult supervision.

Lynching, for instance, was a pastime some of us indulged in. One day, my mom realized her two youngest sons, Robin and Chris, were being suspiciously quiet somewhere in the house. She found them in the living room just standing there.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Nothing,” they chorused.

Rightly suspicious, my mom looked around and saw a rope tied to the stair railing. She followed it up to the high beam overhead. And met the eyes of one of our longsuffering dogs. The rope was tied around its waist.

“Let her down, now! You don’t hang dogs!” she yelled at them.

They responded with their catch-all, verbal-shrug phrase: “Well, what.”

I had a similar experience to my mom’s as I strolled through the woods, enjoying a moment alone in the trackless wilderness, the vast adventure of Alaska calling to me…until I realized what I was hearing were the cries of my sister, Megan.

I tracked her down to a tree where my three brothers, led by my older brother Jamie, and my cousin Shawn, had strung her up. Fortunately, they’d hung her by the waist. I managed to get her down despite their strong disapproval at my buzz-killing interference.

We spent our summer days building rafts and forts, practically living in the water, log rolling, playing log tag and tree tag, having skunk cabbage and kelp wars and wooden sword fights, spear fights, stick fights, and playing “run the gauntlent.” We had swings of every description: buoy, rope, tire, wood, and some death-defying ones that only the adults were supposedly allowed on. One, off a sheer rock cliff, was banned entirely when a local kid broke her arm on it. We played around amidst tide pools and derelict boats, having a variety of adventures, and now we watch as our children, nephews and nieces, do the same.

Often the kids and adults joined forces, like when we invented a simple game called circle tag on the sandy beach below our house, drawing a huge circle with random lines in the center of it connecting to the outside circle. You had to keep on the lines — if you fell off one as you were chased you became “it.” Much to our surprise, the adults joined in this game, cat-calling and laughing as they chased each other and us.

In the winter we had the usual snowball fights, but we also had competitions seeing who could throw a snowball and drop it perfectly down the chimney. And there was every kind of board game and card game played by kerosene lamplight. Not to mention Trivial Pursuit, charades, Pictionary, and Foosball. And dancing. Later on, another inside game we enjoyed was couch-jumping.

I have no idea who had the first inspired idea, but we all took turns leaping the couch to see who could do it with the most grace, style, and flair. My youngest brother Chris won the lifetime achievement award for couch jumping when, one night, he leaped in the air yelling the classic, “Look at me, Ma.” He had some Nijinsky-style air under him as he reached the zenith of his jump…when my dad shut the generator off.

The room was pitched into darkness. In front of our eyes remained the epic image of that magnificent leap of Chris’ over the back of the couch. What we heard, though, was a tremendous rolling crash amidst grunts and exclamations.

I’m happy to say that Chris survived to jump the couch another day. In fact, we all survived, somehow, and the next generation after us, our playtime in the bush.



• Tara Neilson blogs from her floathouse at




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