I expected to leave in a flood of emotion — a flood of tears, even — not in an actual flood. As the days in our little cabin waned, in number and length, a heavy cover of clouds darkened our daylight and obscured our mountains. Rain melted the termination dust and flooded land already saturated. Three windstorms hit in rapid succession. And the river flooded its banks.
After a rainy summer, a few teasing autumnal beauties yielded to more rain: heavy rain, light rain, and precipitation neither cold as sleet nor hard as hail — white, but lacking snow’s delicacy. We took sawdust from where Gary had been milling lumber and spread it on the muddy drive to keep us from slipping, but by Thursday, September 20th, we had more pond than walkway. And still it rained. I lay awake much of that night, listening to the barrage on our metal roof. Another sound caught my attention: a thump and vibration not unlike the first jolt of a small earthquake, or distant cannon fire. I held my breath to listen. Every time I started to relax, I would hear it again. It was the sound of boulders tumbling downstream; the water’s fury kept them noisily on the move for more than a day.
Ella’s bark woke us early on Friday. My cousin Glenn, on a last visit to his cabin at the end of the season, had come to say goodbye. He had been up since 4:00, watching the river. We went online to check the roads before he left; sure enough, his route was blocked where the waters had destroyed a culvert.
We took a walk to see the river in this rare mood. It had flooded its banks where it could and tore the banks down where it couldn’t, topping out at bridge level. Even after it dropped and slowed, the river continued to erode banks and take down trees. We walked through the campground. The crest had occurred in the night, and we could see from its traces how much more had been flooded a few hours earlier. The old cabin up the path from us lost its front yard and bank. It sits on cliff’s edge; the big old spruce that had so faithfully harbored squirrels for Ella to chase had disappeared downstream. Ella’s favorite path, the one she took me on as many days as I would go, was gone with it.
We were originally planning to leave on the 25th, but Gary lost a couple of days dealing with truck problems. Our friend Mark — Gary had helped him out last winter — was glad to return the favor by picking up a needed part and dropping it with Jayne in town where I could pick it up. (https://indeep-alaska.com/2012/01/12/tonight-will-be-a-stormy-night/) So we moved our date to the 27th. But then the road closed, blocking our way to town and the vital truck part.
A water shortage is the irony of floods. The water looked like liquid mud, and had a crisp, spring-like smell. I could filter or boil it, but it would be mud all the same. The Bureau of Land Management had taken the handle off the campground’s well pump two days earlier; my buckets were full, but I needed to refill them nearly every day. So we stopped showering, did dishes only when we ran out of clean ones, put rainwater in Ella’s bowl, and I started drinking the non-alcoholic beer I found in Glenn’s cabin instead of water. Hardly desperate measures, clearly, from the perspective of Sandy’s aftermath, and made easier perhaps by our quiet isolation.
We made it through a week with about 40 gallons of water, at which point Marcia from the BLM came by to check on the campground. She saw our dilemma and quickly offered to put the well’s pump handle back on overnight. I filled every bucket and stock pot I could get my hands on, giving us enough to last until we left.
I made two trips to town, loaded with packages to mail, and returned with the truck part. The road had suffered from the storm, which coincided with the busy end of the caribou and moose hunting season. There were potholes within potholes, as our friend Harold says, and where there weren’t potholes there were fields of rocks. As I returned from my second trip I got a flat tire about five miles out of town, twenty-five miles from home. My little air compressor was having no effect; there was no cell service and no traffic. As I pondered what to do, a large pink commercial truck drove by and waved. As I followed it with my eye, I read its signage: “Tew’s Tire Service.”
“Hey!” I shouted, running after the truck, not quite believing my luck.
It stopped. Hearing my story the driver, Steve, backed up the truck to my car. From the passenger seat Paul emerged. I had just met Paul at the café, where he had helped me carry my food out to the car. This was because I had ordered one too many milkshakes to carry out by myself. Steve and Paul quickly found the gash in my tire and put on my spare.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“Nothing. Have a safe drive.”
I’m going to miss Alaska.
Ella and I got home after dark that night, and embarked on a two-day trip to Fairbanks the next day so I could get a proper set of tires for a 3,300-mile trip. It was another delay, but it gave me the chance to see Gary’s sister Tina and her husband Craig one more time.
I drove back with Ella on Sunday the 30th under a bright moon and an aurora. Perhaps the most amazing aurora I ever saw came the following night, an ephemeral dance of scarves of pink and green just above our cabin. That next morning, October 2nd, we woke to the silence of snow. By afternoon we had an inch or more. Ella danced and pranced, rolled and ran and grazed on the soft, cold bunting of white that heralded her favorite season. I laughed through tears to see her joy.
On October 3rd we drove out the gate, Gary leading the way with his now-functional truck and a four-horse trailer overloaded with everything from a lumber mill to bicycles. I followed with a light load: Ella and our camping gear. After the tense and hectic days of packing and loading, choosing and abandoning, the drive was a peaceful change that day. Prints of caribou and moose in large numbers and a solitary bear with enormous paws caught our eyes as we drove through the new snow. Bald eagles and their young flew over and around us, tormented by ravens.
The drive took twelve days. We slept in the back of my Forester, Ella’s bed up front. We stayed in campgrounds or RV parks where we could, turn-outs where there was nothing better, and motels as we got into more populated areas where turnouts offered even less privacy than up north. As we drove into warmer weather and an earlier season, our radios began to pick up signals and news of a wider, busier, more anxious world.
Chimney Rock, our new home, is a quiet retreat, an oak savannah interlaced with pines and huge meadows amidst beautiful hills and striking basalt rock formations. One of these, Chimney Rock, gives this 160-acre ranch its name. We arrived around 11 a.m. on Sunday, October 14th. About 100 yards into the 3/4-mile gravel drive, Gary took a sharp, narrow turn. The truck made it fine, but the trailer hung with two wheels in the air over the culvert. I wanted to take a picture, but unloading the trailer and trying to keep it from tipping into the ditch seemed more important at the time.
As promised, our good friend and neighbor Harmon came along a couple of hours later with some propane to start us off. Eyeballing the situation, he fetched other neighbors, the Morrisons, and their giant forklift, which they used to gently set the trailer back on solid ground. We’re lucky, once again, to have such wonderful neighbors.
Aunt Vee and Uncle Keith built this as their winter home here in the late 80’s; it sits above the urban fog, full of light and windows to take in the views. Though we’re only a half-hour from Medford or Ashland, we can’t see a single light from the property; we look up at the night sky and imagine ourselves back at our cabin. But the wildlife is different, their night calls new to us. Ella is learning about deer and turkeys and, yes, skunks. She got away easy, but her face smelled pretty bad one night. After I examined her I didn’t smell too good either.
Our days have been busy with all the things that settling in requires. I hope to write a final piece or two for indeep (Alaska) before starting a new blog, indeep (Outside). (If the new name confuses you, check out the Alaskan glossary!) Our adventures will be of a different nature, to be sure. Now that I have a telephone and am within visiting range for many of you, the blog is no longer a necessity for staying in touch. But it has come to be like writing letters home; I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy hearing back from you.
Sunrise: 9:41 a.m. (indeep Alaska); 7:47 a.m. (Chimney Rock)
Sunset: 5:38 p.m. (indeep Alaska); 6:03 p.m. (Chimney Rock)
Weather: High 8° (indeep Alaska); 65° (Chimney Rock). Low -2° (indeep Alaska); 45° (Chimney Rock)
What we’re reading: Invisible Man, H.G. Wells (Gary and Barbara); The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron (Gary).