According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, “The most common form of sun allergy is polymorphic light eruption, also known as sun poisoning. … People who have a severe sun allergy may need to take preventive measures and wear sun-protective clothing.”
That’s me. I have a severe reaction to sun exposure, which usually makes me a good fit for rainy, overcast Southeast Alaska. But with this summer’s ruthless stretch of sunshine, it’s often seemed like I have no place to hide. Especially on mail day.
Mail days are an ordeal at the best of times because the tide, the weather and the floatplane company’s priorities all have to line up. That rarely happens.
If the weather is nice, the tide may be too low for the floatplane to land in Meyers Chuck’s small harbor. If the tide is right, there may be fog, snow or high winds in Ketchikan that prevents the floatplanes from flying until later — when the tide is wrong. Or it might keep them in town for days. They get backed up with passengers and freight deliveries and Meyers Chuck, with its small population, becomes a very low priority.
Then there’s the floatplane company’s way, it often seems to locals, of putting paying passengers ahead of mail and groceries. Despite the difficulties bush people can have getting groceries out here, the floatplane company has no compunction about bumping them in favor of a paying fare. Our groceries might sit in their freezer for days until they drop them off whenever it’s convenient to them. While this is understandable from their perspective (they make most of their money off passengers in the tourist season to tide them over in the lean winter months), it does make things tougher for us.
This week’s mail was supposed to be coming in on the regularly scheduled mail day — Wednesday — in the morning. That worked great, since the small summer tide was in during the morning. All lights were green for a go!
Until the floatplane company called and said they had fog in Ketchikan. They wouldn’t be coming out until 4 p.m. This meant that I spent the rest of the day, covered up in layers to protect my skin from the sun, moving the skiff down as the tide retreated during the hottest part of the 80-degree day, until finally my dad and I climbed in and headed for Meyers Chuck.
On the way there’s an island called Misery that my dad ducked in close to in order to hide from the sun. We idled along the side of it — a large chunk of granite that rises up so sheer from the water that we can drive within arm’s reach of it. The trees grow straight up on top of it, thin and hardy and probably over a century old: scrub hemlock, cedar and spruce that have withstood innumerable storms.
Out of concern that the floatplane might be late — it usually is — we decided that instead of waiting at the dock in the full glare of the sun, we’d toss the anchor out on Misery Island and ride the waves in the lee of it, basking in its cool, protective shadow.
As we sat there and chatted, the wind started picking up, little whitecaps kicking up on the water, light green with glacier silt from melting glaciers to the north. Our fear was that the floatplane company would call off their stop in Meyers Chuck. That worry increased when 4 came and went with no sign of the plane.
The rocky island blocked the mountain that has the lone cell tower that serves this area, so we pushed the skiff out just enough to catch a smidgeon of a signal. I called my mom and asked her to check with the post office to find out if the flight had been canceled. Her voice was breaking up so I told her to text me with an answer, since texts could get through easier.
A little while later, just as I received a text from her saying the flight was still on, we heard the plane and then saw it circle above Meyers Chuck. I hauled in the anchor and we throttled up, speeding toward the village.
By the time we got there the plane was docked and a couple of locals were helping the post mistress, Cassie Peavey, unload the plane and haul freight up to the tiny post office. When my dad parallel parked at an outside log, I hopped out and went through the boxes, looking for ours. I cut the tracking numbers off and handed them to Cassie so it wasn’t necessary to haul the heavy boxes up the ramp and then back down.
To my dismay, after having finally given in and ordered groceries from Ketchikan (and paying the expensive freight) when we couldn’t cross the strait to shop in Thorne Bay, my groceries weren’t there. The pilot had already climbed back in the plane and fired up the engine, so I called the floatplane company’s office. All I got was an answering service.
Up at the post office, I helped Cassie scan the smaller packages, and everyone commiserated with me about my missing groceries. It was the second time in a row the floatplane company had not delivered my groceries. “I think they hate me,” I joked — though I was beginning to wonder.
Everyone laughed, but with real sympathy. They’d been there.
The weather had picked up and the ride home was bumpy with some spray. By then the tide was all the way out and it was a long trek up the beach in the searing sun for multiple trips. Despite the heat, I didn’t dare take off any layers. And, at the end of it, no groceries as a reward.
We called the floatplane company in the morning and they said they’d bring my groceries out tomorrow … or the next day. Weather and tide permitting. That meant more fuel spent by us on an extra trip, when fuel is even harder to get out here than groceries. Oh, well, I guess it’s popcorn and Spam for dinner, again.
• 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.