My Childhood Spent Preparing for the Apocalypse
Tara Neilson on Escaping into the Wilderness With
Her Family in the 1980s
“It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”
–slogan on T-shirts sold at the Meyers Chuck store
Every day as a child was an adventure for me and my four siblings as we lived in the burned ruins of a remote Alaskan cannery. Some days had more adventure in them than others. Mail day was a day that promised parent-free adventure.
Our mail arrived at a nearby fishing village by floatplane once a week, weather permitting. We lived only seven miles of water away from the village—there were no roads, or trails—but the route was hazardous, even deadly, because of the mercurial nature of our weather. What had been glassy water an hour before as we made the trip in a thirteen-foot open Boston Whaler could turn into a maelstrom of seething white water an hour later to catch us on the return trip.
Tides, weather forecasts, and local signs had to be carefully calculated before the trip could be made. So it sometimes happened that we would miss several mail days in a row and get three weeks’ worth of mail at once. My parents usually made the trip by themselves, since freight and groceries would fill the skiff, leaving us kids behind in our floathouse home.Every day as a child was an adventure for me and my four siblings as we lived in the burned ruins of a remote Alaskan cannery.
Our sense of adventure, always present since our family comprised the entire population of humans for miles in any direction, quadrupled as we waved goodbye to them. We watched them turn into a speck out on the broad bay with the mountain ranges of vast Prince of Wales Island providing a breathtaking backdrop for them.
Then we cut loose. We ran around the beaches, jumping into piles of salt-sticky seaweed and yelling at the top of our lungs, the dogs chasing us and barking joyously. We tended to do this every day, but it was different on mail days. We lived in an untamed wilderness that could kill full-grown adults in a multitude of ways, and we children had it all to ourselves.
At our backs was the mysterious forest that climbed to a 3,000-foot-high mountain that looked like a man lying on his back staring up at the sky. We called it “The Old Man.” In front of us was the expanse of unpredictable water with no traffic on it, except for the humpback whales, sea lions, and water fowl.
As we scattered, my littlest brother, Chris, wound up with me in our twelve-foot aluminum rowing skiff. I was twelve and he was seven, and we were buckled up in our protective bright-orange lifejackets that we never went anywhere without.
“Where shall we go, Sir Christopher?” I donned a faux British voice as I sat in the middle seat with an oar on either side of me. “Your wish is my command.”
He sat in the stern seat and chortled. Whereas I was blonde and blue eyed, he had almost black hair and green-flecked brown eyes. Despite the surface differences, we had a lot in common, being the most accommodating and easygoing ones in our family. Chris was always smiling and I was always reading. We usually let others take the lead, but this time we would make our own adventure.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Where do you want to go?”
I looked around. The floathouse sat above a small stream below the forest, its float logs that made up its raft dry, since the tide was halfway out. Opposite it was a smaller floathouse that we used to go to school in, before our dad built a school for us on land.Despite the surface differences, we had a lot in common, being the most accommodating and easygoing ones in our family. Chris was always smiling and I was always reading.
The small, sheltered cove suddenly felt restrictive since it was the only part of the old cannery we saw on a regular basis, and there wasn’t much of the old cannery to see, just some pilings sticking half out of the water.
“Let’s go to the ruins,” I said.
He gazed at me raptly. The main cannery site had been built next to the large salmon creek and sat on the other side of a high-ridged peninsula from the little bay our floathouse was in. We rarely got to visit it because the salmon creek was where the bears roamed. But we would be safe in the skiff, I told him.
Chris bounced on his seat and nodded excitedly.
I dug the oars into the silky green water and we headed for the big rock that partially protected our little cove from the storm-prone bay. Mom had made it a law that we were never to get out of sight of the floathouse, but Mom wasn’t there.
I dipped the oars into unexplored waters, rowing past the weathered grave marker of some unknown cannery resident. Tall black bluffs loomed up at the same time a swell rocked us. There was nowhere to beach the skiff now, if we needed to… we were committed to continue.
Chris gripped the aluminum seat and stared at me, silently asking if we were really going to do this. I nodded.
Each pull of the oars took us farther away from the homey familiarity of the floathouse and its confined bay. We were exposed to the full effect of the wilderness now, the enormous sky above, impermeable, towering bluffs washed by waves to our left, and the endless waterways of Southeast Alaska on our right.
My back was to the view ahead of us as I rowed. I was getting tired, but I didn’t want to admit it to my little brother.
Chris sat up straight on his seat and pointed. “Look!”
I turned my head. Up on the rocky bluffs ahead of us was a huge steel cylinder with a peaked roof. Its original, unpainted gray could be seen through the rust of untended decades. It had sat sentinel there, below the tall mountain, with few humans visiting it or seeing it since the cannery burned shortly after World War II.
Awed, we stared at it, and then I turned to the oars with renewed energy. I kept throwing glances over my shoulder. I didn’t want to miss the first glimpse of the ruins.
And then there it was, the old cannery site.
A forest of fire-scorched pilings, one with a stunted tree growing on it, stood between the forest and the bay. The blackened timbers of a building’s foundations remained below the evergreens’ skirts and giant concrete blocks stood out whitely above the rust-colored beach. Amidst the pilings were strange, rusty skeletons of former machinery. The creek rumbled past all of it.
“It looks like it was bombed,” Chris said. “Like an atom bomb was dropped on it!”
“It does.” I tried to picture what it would have looked like when it was whole and people lived and worked at this remote location. The buildings, like all the canneries in Alaska, would have been cannery red (the color of chili peppers) with white trim, glowing in the water-reflected light. The sound of machinery would have competed with the constant rumble of the creek and men and boats would have been working above and around the pilings of the wharf as clouds of shrieking gulls filled the air.
“If we could time travel,” I said, “we could step into their world when the cannery first operated and watch the fish being packed into cases to be sent out into a world that didn’t know atom bombs could exist.”
I didn’t try to row us closer and Chris didn’t suggest getting out on shore. We could see big, dark moving things in the creek that we knew were bears. I didn’t want to draw their attention because, although I didn’t mention it to Chris, I knew they were powerful swimmers and could probably overtake us if they’d wanted to.
We sat in the small skiff with the water lapping against the aluminum sides, rocking in the swell, and gazed at the ruins of a former world, gone long before we were born.I didn’t try to row us closer and Chris didn’t suggest getting out on shore. We could see big, dark moving things in the creek that we knew were bears.
Then I turned the skiff around and we headed for home, promising each other we wouldn’t tell anyone about this adventure.
This one was just ours.
Meyers Chuck, Alaska
35 Miles North of Ketchikan Spring 1980
We were supposed to be a group of intrepid families braving the apocalypse. Our unified mission: to homestead the ruins of a bygone civilization and resurrect and transform them into an off-the-grid, self-reliant wilderness community.
The adults spent long kerosene-lamp-lit hours poring over the maps, studying the remains of the old cannery that had burned nearly half a century ago. None of them had seen it in person, but they marked out where each home would go, the supplies they’d need, the school they’d build. They figured out how they would barge fuel in, what kind of generators they’d need for electricity, if they could arrange a mail drop way out there in the wilderness far away from all human industry.
When I overheard the talk, I felt like I was overhearing plans for moving aboard a generational starship that was going to explore and colonize deep space.
My family of seven in our tiny thirteen-foot Boston Whaler skiff, overpowered by a fifty-horsepower Mercury outboard motor, went alone on the reconnaissance expedition. Together, we would be the first ones to scout the old cannery.Our unified mission: to homestead the ruins of a bygone civilization and resurrect and transform them into an off-the-grid, self-reliant wilderness community.
We whipped past the green forest that seemed to stretch from here to the moon as it climbed a ridge on one side. Across the glassy strait was a vast island covered in snow-capped mountain ranges, headland after headland disappearing into a pearly blue distance.
That was Prince of Wales Island where Dad worked as a logger at the largest logging operation in the world. There were enormous bald patches in the dense green hillsides, giving the island a mangy appearance at odds with the pristine, breathtaking beauty of sea, sky, and the unmolested mainland we skimmed along beside.
Our uncovered skiff, about the length of a Volkswagen Beetle, was a speck.
The world was big; I knew that from school lessons. But the wilderness was bigger. There was no end to it. We were the only humans in it as we sped across the gigantic white-cloud reflections. Ahead of us, a mountain lay on its back, a giant Easter Island head with its stern nose pointed toward the sky, toward space, toward the orbiting planets around the sun, and beyond.
And my family was heading toward it and the slumbering ruins that it had shadowed for decades.
I turned my face into the wind, my hair whipping into a knotted mess around my head as I leaned forward. The bearded man with his hand on the tiller handle of the outboard had decided he was going to go to the ruins, and I knew nothing, not even all this wilderness, was going to stop him.
This was, after all, a man who had stopped the Vietnam War.
For an entire day.
He told me years later that when he’d just turned 21, married one month, he had arrived in Vietnam during Phase 1 of the Tet Offensive. In the span of 24 hours he saw a bustling metropolis, the Asian people living in it as they had for generations, become a bomb-blasted landscape of skeletal buildings and streets filled with smoking rubble.The world was big; I knew that from school lessons. But the wilderness was bigger. There was no end to it.
After seeing the effects of war close-up, one of the first things he did was to build himself and his fellow grunts a sturdy shelter—a bombproof igloo, so to speak—out of cast-off rocket ammo boxes that he directed his companions to fill with sand for the walls. For the roof he used PSP (perforated steel plating) with more sand-filled rocket ammo boxes on top.
No one had thought of building such a thing, even with screaming missiles and mortars constantly overhead. Everyone else sweltered in flimsy tents or buildings with uninsulated steel roofs that acted like ovens. His igloo was the only comfortable building in the muggy jungle heat. He and his friends had it for three months before the officers evicted them and took it over for themselves.
Dad was a helicopter mechanic (the sole mechanic available for the Huey; a group of mechanics serviced the other helicopters) and it was his job to say which helicopters were fit for duty on any given day. Every day some helicopters didn’t come back—and friends and companions disappeared or were brought back bleeding, maimed, or dead. One day one of his best friends was killed.
The next morning he put an X on every single Huey, grounding them all. Without the support of the Hueys none of the other helicopters could fly, and without air support the ground war couldn’t progress. That day he wasn’t going to allow anyone else to die in an ugly war no one really believed in or knew what they were fighting and dying for.
His commanding officer said to him, “You know you can’t do that, Gary. You have to take those Xs off.”
Dad just looked at him. The Xs stayed. There was no war that day. Across from him in the back of the skiff, hugging her youngest child, Mom couldn’t believe she was there, that she was living her childhood dream of Alaska as few people had ever gotten to experience it.
Despite her obsession with fashion, music, the arts, and her dream to become a Parisian club singer, she had always felt a fey-like affinity for wild creation and the animals in it. As a teenager she’d gone for day-long walks in the rural Montana countryside with her Belgian Shepherd named Gretchen, spinning dreams out of the Big Sky sunshine.
In her own words:
“We lived on a ranch high in the hills. I would get up early, have breakfast, feed Gretchen and the horses, then I would sit my record player on an old wooden chair on the porch, put my Bob Dylan album on at ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ and Gretch and I would go, hearing the music all down the old dirt road.”
Her most thrilling moment in her dawn-to-dusk rambles with Gretchen was when the deer came over the mountain.
“It was a large group of deer—until that moment I hadn’t realized that they would all travel together like that. Bucks, does, and babies. They all came straight to where Gretchen and I stood, quivering. I stretched out my arms to them and they walked quietly on both sides of me. Not as if I wasn’t there, but as if they understood that I belonged to, and with, them.
“I stood there with my arms outstretched for quite a while as the herd passed on either side, my hands on their backs as they went by, one by one, my hands sliding along backs and haunches. Bucks, does, fawns.
“They felt like… ‘alive’ feels. The only alive I wanted to be. I never wanted anything so much as to turn and go with them…”
And now here she was an adult, with her husband, a man she barely knew after Vietnam—they’d married one month before he went, and the man who came back was not the funny, laughing man she’d married—and five children, heading into the heart of the most remote country she’d ever seen, setting out on an adventure to rival any adventure or experience she’d ever had or read about. She was so excited she was shivering.
From Raised in Ruins, ©2020 by Tara Neilson, West Margin Press, reprinted by permission.