A skiff is a small boat, usually powered by an outboard motor, and it is to rural Southeast Alaska what cars are to the rest of the world. There are no roads here, only waterways.
I was taught to drive a skiff when I was 13, but didn’t graduate to skiffing myself and my siblings to school until I was 16.
This was a major responsibility since we lived one side of a peninsula jutting out into one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waterways in Alaska, and the school was in a village on the other side of the peninsula. Many was the time when we left home in flat calm water only to smash into severe weather once we rounded the point–or vise versa, on the way home. Sometimes we’d be shipping water over the bow as we were caught in terrific tidal combers and the youngest would be crying, at least one of us would be bailing, and all of us were praying.
It was an open skiff, meaning it had no cover, so we were prey to whatever the weather wanted to throw at us: rain, fog, snow, hail, freezing spray, and even, on rare occasions as a special treat, sunshine.
We were often accompanied by playful porpoises who loved to drench us with their spray, or we’d surprise a deer swimming from the wolf-infested mainland to a safe haven island. Sea gulls loved to play a contemptuous game of chicken with us and would only take off in flight seconds before we reached them.
In the spring and fall the humpbacks lazed about and I’d make a wide, respectful berth around them. Killer whales (orcas) sailed past with high fins, spouting with majestic indifference. Sea lions roared and snorted in bad tempered aggression while naive seals relaxed on the rocks. When the herring spawned in the spring there were ducks of every description everywhere.
In the winter we’d be so cold from the skiff ride that we walked stiff-legged up the dock and then up the stairs to the school like arthritic old people and had to thaw our hands out under warm water before we could hold a pencil. In the shortest days of winter we left home as it was just getting light and on the return trip we reached home as the sun set on the horizon.
My brother Chris recently reminded me of those early, early morning wood logging days when, to catch the right tide, we’d have to get up at the crack of dawn to help my dad. To save time we slept in our clothes and lifejackets and got up stumbling and yawning in the eery, lemon gray light. My mom would stick hot pancakes in our hands, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, to warm us up.
The cool, forest-scented breeze quickly woke us up, though the younger ones liked to go turtle, burying their heads down in their lifejackets and eking out a few more minutes of sleep.
When we got to the desired prey, it was our job to run up the beach with a line and hook it around the log. Sometimes my dad had to buck one end off with the chainsaw first, and use a logging peavy to work it out of the rocks. Then we’d piled back into the skiff and my dad would run out the line. I always shuddered when all the slack snapped out of the line as it sprang out of the water, spray bursting from it. I was afraid the line would part and hurt one of us, but I don’t think it ever did. Usually the log bounced obligingly down the beach and gave a huge splash as it hit the water.
Then we’d move on to the next one.
My dad built his own skiff, a 16 footer with layers of plywood for the hull, bent over a form he made from lumber he’d milled. His design was a winner and the skiff held up through many years of rough weather and hard usage, as a packhorse and for dragging logs off the beaches and towing them home. This was the skiff that I used to skiff us to school. What I loved most about it was its flat bottom–on a flat calm day, turning a tight corner at high speed you slid for yards. The exhilaration was addictive.
For wrangling logs once they were gotten home, my dad has always preferred a smaller, more agile skiff for close work, so he built a smaller one, that we called the WE Craft (for Walrus Enterprises; my dad’s CB handle was “the Walrus”). Now he has a 16 foot Boston Whaler for the heavy work and a 13 footer for log wrangling.
My brother Chris (who is now a journeyman carpenter) went on to build his own skiff, adjusting my dad’s design to his liking. His version was a ten footer with a platform bow. He painted it red with black trim and, thanks to a popular movie at the time, named it the Red October. A name like that was just asking for trouble.
So perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when it and my brother Robin’s skiff broke loose one night and disappeared into the endless waterways of this area. There wasn’t much hope held out for ever recovering either of them, but my dad and the boys went on an epic, week-long Hunt for the Red October. They searched miles and miles of rocky beaches and circled entire islands. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Red October was found not much the worse for its adventures. However, Robin’s skiff remained MIA.
Skiffs are essential to this lifestyle and losing one is a big deal. I go more into that in my next post.
My oldest brother, Jamie, after a fuel and grocery run.
Skiffs are used to haul supplies and do the work of heavy machinery out here. Before Robin’s skiff went AWOL, he kindly stopped by where I was housesitting and helped me put the owner’s private dock back together after a storm. He used his skiff to push the float back under the anchoring stiff-legs. His skiff was a 16 foot Whaler with a 90 hp outboard for power and he finessed the tricky operation like a pro.
It was Robin’s first skiff and everyone felt for him when he lost it. But the truth is, most skiffs have short lifespans due to the constant work they’re put to and the dangerous rocks, sandbars and driftwood lurking everywhere. Not to mention the pounding they take in rough weather. Robin went through two more skiffs before he eventually moved to Ketchikan where he now works in a position of oversight at the shipyard there.
My brother Jamie who still lives out here, has gone through even more skiffs. He lost his first one, too, a brand new riveted aluminum Lund, when he was a teenager. On a cold, wintry day, he and a friend decided to liberate some crab from someone’s pot. As they pulled the heavy pot aboard, however, the lightweight craft heeled, and, with the weight of the pot pulling it down, promptly sank.
They had a hypothermia-inducing swim to shore and then had to walk a mile over frozen, rocky ground in bare feet, since they’d been forced to kick off their boots when they’d filled with water. My mom didn’t believe their crazy story until they showed her their icy, mangled feet. Amazingly, they were none-the-worse for wear once their feet healed.
This same friend became a commercial fisherman and when his boat hit a submerged reef and began to sink, Jamie was the first one on-site, despite increasingly bad weather, and his friend was able to step off his completely awash boat into Jamie’s skiff. He’s never forgotten that, and told me how much it meant to him to see Jamie there when he was needed most.
The skiff Jamie has now is a welded aluminum work skiff that is often pressed into service on the behalf of others as he generously hauls fuel and groceries and gives people rides to the nearest town. It’s only a matter of time, though, before it, too, is put out to pasture…..
My next blog post will go into more skiff facts, plus moments of terror, moments of fury, moments of chagrin, and moments of sheer glee that are a part of any skiff culture.
Spawned out skiffs. They’ve done their duty and earned their rest.