In the far corner of the cabin, where darkness deepened, there could be barely decerned a dim patch of white. Shiloh curled with her back to the wall beneath a drafty window where she monitored everything, all the smells and sounds of a dark winter night in Southeast Alaska, far more than we knew.
Be it grizzly bear, a human, or a harem of Sitka Black Tailed Deer, what the dog understood of darkness versus what Ross and I, mere humans, understood, there was a gulf.
She raises her head, lifts her nose, and inhales.
Perhaps what caused her to raise her head was only the scent of a mink, up from the beach to crack open the fat pink-neck clam scrounged from the surf which was crashing on the beach in the darkness below, downhill a bit from the cabin.
More likely it was deer, seeking the shelter of the windfall next to us.
One winter a family of mink took up residence beneath a corner of our cabin.
Mink, clever and sleek as they are, were not welcome guests. They smelled bad, and fought like cats. Fortunately, they moved out in the spring after Shiloh served them with an eviction notice.
Shiloh’s, black fur blended perfectly with the darkness. And, except for the white blaze on her chest, she was invisible.
The kerosene lamp, bright enough for the kitchen table, did not fill the room yet the soft yellow glow comforted us.
Darkness there in the Alaska wilderness, deep in the magnificent rainforest, miles from nowhere, was of a friendly kind.
We never regarded darkness as a stranger. When we got used to it, we could negotiate our way around quite nicely.
Besides, it was never truly dark. There is always a source of light, even if only the Northern lights through the clouds. On the darkest cloudy night, deep in the tall old growth forest giants, the trail from the cabin to the beach was invisible to the eye, rough as it was on it’s crooked way.
We learned to see with our feet and our ears, although a flashlight or a Dog made all the difference in the world.
In the kitchen, on the old drop leaf table next to the wood stove, sat an old kerosene lamp. Ross kept the glass chimney polished with newspaper and the wick neatly trimmed. The flame was tuned to a bright glow.
A Kerosene lamp was more than sufficient for reading and for relaxing at the table when outside on a night like this it was 20 degrees and blowing 50 knots out of the North.
The blackest moonless night can’t compete with even the dim light of a Kerosene lamp,
On such nights, moonless, the large windows of the cabin appeared opaque as if painted black. You could use them as a mirror.
The penetrating warmth and the occasional crackling sound from the wood stove added almost a festive mood, certainly a comforting one.
Perhaps a certain loneliness crept in with the darkness. And quiet.
Shiloh was a Mountain Dog. In her linage the dogs of the Old People, the Norse, a great granddaughter of the great Janipan, Hero of the Day. The Norse said their dogs could talk. Some, the uninformed or over-educated, may say these are fables.
She rarely barked. Instead, Shiloh looked directly into your eyes expressing some unease or curiosity or hurt, but mostly, in her eyes, was deep adoring unconditional love and devotion.
If you were to ask if we were ever afraid out there, miles from no-where, surrounded by salt water and wilderness, on a dark night alone, the answer would be not even once, not when Shiloh was with us and she was always with us and always on the job.
Her level headed analysis was good enough for us and stilled our imaginations.
Besides what are the chances that a Mad Killer could even find our place in the tall woods or even care?
From our perch where the cabin sits on a rocky knoll, on dark winter nights like this, we could see the lights of occasional tug boat negotiating Stephens Passage. But from their point of view, our dim light was not discernible.
Occasionally, the marine radio would crackle to life as the pilot of the tug boat communicated with another of the conditions, if they were building on their tow, where they might tuck in and anchor up for the night if conditions worsened. The tone of their voices, speaking to us out of the darkness on the radio from out of the storm, were quiet. Even and serious.
Who even knew Ross and I were there listening in? Who would even guess that someone might be living there on that little island?
If a stranger in distress came to our door and needed something we had, we would give it to them if we could. We would help them out of their fix, just as we had been helped out of serious fixes many times by our selfless neighbors.
It was only later that we purchased a solar panel (then two, then three) and wired the cabin for light switches and lights.
Having electric lights was a mixed blessing. And we suffered the loss of that innocence that we deserved. With enough effort and money, one could live in the wilderness and not know it.
Our first boat was 15 feet in length and plywood and peeling paint, Ross asked Gunnar Ohman, the old timer that lived on the opposite side of Admiralty Island, what size outboard motor he needed.
Gunnar was nearly blind, and spoke with a thick Scandinavian accent. Not being a man of quick words, he shuffled his hands and thought for a moment and then said, “well for a boat as large and heavy as that, I imagine you would need a big motor, nine or ten horse power.”
Ross sheepishly admitted that he was thinking of 50 horsepower. Would make that boat GO! Eventually we settled on a new 35 hp Evenrude. That old boat would scoot pretty good when he opened the throttle. But it was painfully slow and embarrassingly small compared the big aluminum sport boats of the current generation, some with huge twin and even triple outboards that fill the harbors and boat launch ramps today.
Gunnar told of rowing to town, and questioned Ross closely on this as he mused whether we needed anything other than a good row boat.
So what force is it in our impure hearts, we humans that compels us to subdue the wilderness. To map it’s boundaries, to carve a trail through it and charge admission? To buy ever bigger boats with ever bigger gasoline guzzling motors?
Stay well, guard your hearts, subscribe, comment,
Your Friends, Devita and Ross Writer, Juneau.