I’ve been watching my dad build ladders for most of my life. With a handsaw, that almost seems like an extension of his arm at this point, he swiftly cuts the treated, two-by-four cedar sides to the desired length.
He had a friend, he says, who asked him why he always used the “little saw” rather than a skill saw.
“Because it’s faster,” my dad told him.
“You’re crazy. A skill saw is way faster than a handsaw.”
“All right,” my dad said, “let’s make it a contest. My handsaw against your skill saw. Whoever saws through this piece of plywood first, wins.”
“You’re on!” The friend grinned in anticipation. “Just let me get my skill saw, an extension cord, and start the generator.”
“Nope.” My dad held up the handsaw. “It’s having to do all of that to get the skill saw running that makes my ‘little saw’ faster.”
Next, as he lays the ladder out on makeshift saw horses — an empty garbage barrel and stack of whatever comes to hand on the dock to bring it up to the height of the barrel — he screws down pre-cut yellow cedar rungs that he’s treated with used engine oil to slow the ravages of rot.
Out in the bush, ladders are impressed into service for a multitude of jobs.
A ladder can be used as a litter for a fallen warrior, for example. One of my most vivid memories as a child is of my dad going out for the evening fish that he’d catch for our dinner. One night he came back with a giant lingcod that overfilled the skiff. Its head was so huge it looked like it could swallow any of us kids. Its long tail made it look like a wingless dragon. It was clearly an ancient warrior of the deep.
It was so enormous that my entire family was forced to use the nearest ladder to haul it up to the house: my parents on either end of the ladder and us five kids on each side, like pall bearers.
Kids need ladders too. Treefort ladders, for example. My oldest brother, Jamie, found a huge and tall cedar stump that was partially rotted in the center. He dug out the center and put a ladder in the hollow and then built his fort on the sawed-off top of the stump. The only possible access was up the ladder to a trap door. Only those he deemed worthy could enter. It was considered, in those parts, a great honor to climb the ladder and pass through that hallowed portal into the inner sanctum.
Many houses in the bush are one-story with a loft that is accessed by a ladder. To save space, some of these ladders are hinged, harnessed to a rope and pulley, and pulled up into the air above everyone’s heads to be tied off to a cleat nailed to a ceiling rafter or wall stud.
Ladders can also be used for mysterious purposes. Near where I live, a tall cedar tree with a deep groove running up it has ancient, rotting rungs nailed to it — going so high that it’s impossible to see to what they lead. Was it a lookout tree? Looking out for what? The ladder goes up so far into the branches that it wouldn’t work well for hunting. So what was the tree ladder’s purpose? No one seems to know.
And, in an earlier column, I recorded the re-purposing of an old ladder into a food cooler.
Of course ladders are used for more mundane reasons out here, too, like for painting, construction, shoveling snow off the roof, and for bunkbeds.
But the ladder my dad is working on now is for the quintessential bush home adornment: a roof ladder.
These ladders are permanently attached to the roof by a hook that goes over the ridgepole, next to the chimney. A roof ladder’s main role is to act as a stairway to the chimney (though they can be used to repair the roof as well) in order to keep it in good health: to clean it or to replace the chimney cap, roof jack or sections of stovepiple.
The ladder currently residing on my roof has done its job without complaint for more than a dozen years, weathering every kind of insult the climate could throw at it until, finally, the nemesis of all wood in Southeast Alaska triumphed. The ladder was too rotten for me to trust, and I had a whole set of new stovepipe to put in. It was retirement time.
Retirement involved breaking its neck. So to speak.
We’d tied a rope to the bottom rung, thrown it over the roof of my house and while I held onto the rope to keep the ladder from sliding off, my dad hooked the bottom rung with a long pike pole. He slid the ladder up and then yanked back hard, slamming the rotten, wooden hook at the top of the ladder that kept it attached to the roof, against the ridgepole. One side of the hook broke off easily, but the other side was apparently made of sterner stuff and held.
We got out another ladder, set it against the side of the house and I climbed up to roll the roof ladder on its side. Then I climbed back down and went around to the rope on the other side of the house that I’d tied off to a log dog in my float log and slowly let out rope while my dad pulled the ladder down with the pike pole.
When it was finally down we found that we could easily pull chunks off the rungs with our hands. It gave me a shiver to think of climbing rungs that rotten on my steeply pitched roof. Still, there’s some good wood left and we’ll find a way to re-purpose it.
Now all we have to do is put the brand new, freshly made ladder on the roof and put in the new stovepipe, climbing two sets of ladders to do it. ut that’s an ordeal for another day.
• Tara Neilson grew up in a burned cannery in a remote area of Southeast Alaska. She still lives in the wilderness, in a floathouse near Meyers Chuck. She blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com and readers can reach her at email@example.com.