Floating Houses

Living in a houseboat is like inhabiting a shell, like a nautilus moving through chambered rooms worn smooth by use and bathed by water music. An empty houseboat, like an empty shell, inspires daydreams of refuge.

Snow on Lake Washington houseboats. Photo attribution: Cap’n Surly on flickr

There is something about water that compels us to dream. I’ve dreamed of a house where the kitchen floor remains partially unplanked and a stream flows through it. On crisp mornings fog would rise from the water and condense on the window glass; frogs would croak; the kitchen would be full of water music. I’ve seen a house on Bainbridge Island made from a covered bridge that spanned a creek. Transparent panels were set in the floor. It must have been like walking on water. And at Point No Point on the Kitsap Peninsula the bridge of a tramp freighter has been made into a house with running lights. I wonder if the steel still smells of salt.


The community of houseboats on Lake Washington is like a dream in bright colors. Photo attribution: Ambrosia apples on flickr

Perhaps there is a lingering, molecular memory of the time before we crawled out of the sea onto the shore, surrendered weightlessness and succumbed to unconscionable gravity. Perhaps the sound of water invokes that ancient memory. We have no adequate words; the memory precedes language. Even poets describe only its shadow.

Fish nor Fowl

A houseboat is neither one nor the other, neither house nor boat. A house isn’t meant to float; a boat isn’t meant to remain fixed to the shore. A houseboat doesn’t wholly belong to concrete earth or mutable water. Instead, it occupies the borderland, the crack between worlds where it is possible to dream without constraint. What more perfect shell for dreams is imaginable than waves lapping against the hull, fog rising from the water, a fire burning behind the grate and shadows polishing the walls?

Houseboats are populated by lawyers, doctors, dentists, tax accountants but are still considered bohemian by most of us. We look askance at the impracticality, the impermanence, the lack of real estate or resale value. Communities of houseboats occupy the periphery, the edge of respectability, like trailer parks. Marin County redefined them as landfill in order to remove them from Sausalito’s waterfront view.

Perspective of a houseboat sailor. Photo attribution: Bev and Steve on flickr

In The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard mentions a mollusk called the Grand Benitier (Great Baptismal Font) so large each bi-valve weighs 500 to 500 pounds. Wealthy Chinese mandarins made bathtubs from the shells. Such a bathtub would perfectly furnish a houseboat.

I’ve lived onboard boats and I suspect my dreams have been more compact, more seaworthy. A houseboat allows more room to dream. And what dreams might be imaginable immersed in a Mandarin’s bathtub floating on the water?

Houseboats reflected on Lake Washington. Photo attribution: Jonathan Hanlon on flickr.

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A Mythical Bridge

image  Hood Canal Bridge. Photo attribution: timtim 011 on Flickr.com.

The Hood Canal is a narrow body of water extending about 50 miles from its entrance at Foulweather Bluff, past a hard turn to the northeast at The Great Bend, and another 15 miles to the shallow tideland at Lynch Cove. It has an average width of 1.5 miles, a mean depth of 177 feet, 212 miles of shoreline, a surface area of 148 square miles, and it’s spanned by a mythical bridge.

Certainly the Hood Canal Bridge has a concrete reality, not to mention construction. It’s supported by cement pontoons that float, mostly, above a depth of water between 80 and 340 feet, water subject to a tidal range as much as 18 feet. It spans the 7,869 feet between the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas. Together the two spans weigh almost 5,000 tons. You can find all that on Wikipedia. But the bridge floats upon a fjord, has foundered and been refloated, and even its current reconstruction has resurrected the dead.

A Historical Misnomer

Hood Canal Bridge from a distance. Photo attribution: keistersmom on flicker.com.

But first, a bit of background. The Hood Canal was named by Captain George Vancouver, one of the first cartographers to Puget Sound and therefore entitled to name things indiscriminately. Of course, those same things had been named by the people who already lived here but, frankly, they weren’t English. Vancouver named it after Samuel Hood, Lord of the Admiralty and one of Britain’s few competent commanders during the American Revolution. Actually, he named it twice—Hood Canal and Hood Channel. Both were wrong.

Outside of Puget Sound,
bridges rarely float.

A canal is an artificial waterway used either for navigation or transporting fresh water. A channel is typically a navigable passage between larger bodies of water. The Hood Canal was shaped by glaciation utterly without the help of humans. It doesn’t connect one body of water with another. It’s an inlet or, more exactly, a fjord. And a fjord, to restate the obvious, is a valley carved by ice and drowned by the sea. The fact that it’s called Hood Canal has led to some puzzlement in other parts of the world. In Puget Sound, we’ve gotten over it.

Bridges usually soar above an obstruction. Outside of Puget Sound, they rarely float. There is a floating bridge that across Dubai Creek (who knew they had creeks in Dubai?) but it’s temporary. And until 1992, a floating bridge spanned the Golden Horn in Istanbul. But the only other part of the world to make common use of floating bridges is Norway where they have even more fjords than Puget Sound.


image The Hood Canal Bridge in a breeze. Photo attribution: Chimacum Joy on flickr.com

The Hood Canal Bridge hasn’t always floated. Eighteen years after it had been launched, it sank in a storm. Sustained winds of 85 mph scoured the Hood Canal. Gusts of 120 mph buffeted the bridge. Pontoons lost their anchorhold and drifted free. Hatches were blown open, pontoons filled with water and sank. The western half of the bridge to the drawspan foundered. It was three years before the damage was repaired. And it’s not the only time a local bridge has sank.

The lifespan of a bridge floating in salt water is longer than that of a Portuguese water dog but less than a Galapagos tortoise. Fewer than thirty years after its resurrection, the bridge builders began building its replacement. In those intervening years the population of Puget Sound has blossomed like pond scum and the industrial waterfront succumbed to gentrification. There was no place near Seattle to build the massive pontoons. Instead, Port Angeles was chosen.

Port Angeles was much further from the Hood Canal than Seattle but had the advantage of poverty. Since the timber industry and commercial fishing had shriveled, there was plenty of waterfront property available in Port Angeles and a desperate desire to utilize it. The people of Port Angeles saw the construction as their bridge to prosperity. But when the construction equipment began clearing away the industrial remnants of the timber industry from the shore of Ediz Hook, they began unearthing bones. Human bones. A lot of them.

Village of the Dead

It was Tse-whit-zen, the ancestral village of the Klallam people occupying the Lower Elwha River. The Klallam had lived on Ediz Hook for generations prior to first contact with Spanish explorers in the 1770s. Then they began to die from smallpox, influenza and measles. They had no immunity, no protection. Entire villages of First Peoples were decimated throughout the Pacific Northwest. In some places there was no one left alive to bury the dead. There may have been 3,200 Klallam before 1770; by 1880 there were 485.

The ruins of Tse-whit-zen. Photo attribution: nwpainter on flickr.com

At Tse-whit-zen, the dead were stacked like cordwood. They embraced one another, husband and wife, mother and child. Among the dead was a mother with an unborn child in her womb. There was no ceremony in their burial. They were hurried into the ground by the few who remained alive but those few may have taken revenge upon the shaman and medicine men who failed them. Skeletons were found beheaded, buried face down, their hands covering their face.

The Washington State Department of Transportation finally abandoned the site have disinterring 335 intact skeletons. The construction equipment fell silent, the workers left, and the dead reclaimed their land. The bridge was built in Tacoma.

A Mythical Bridge

The bridge spans more than the Hood fjord. It’s footed in time as well as space. It guards the western approach to a land that is itself mythical, a land form by the c
ollision of the sea and the shore where mountains rise like stone waves, forests are entangled in cloud, and people hunt whales with clam shells.

A Eulogy Before Its Time

My dog is dying. Her hind legs have become unmanageable, unruly. She can no longer hold her water through the night. She pisses in places that offend her dignity. Her body has become more rebellious than her will to control it. Her life is accelerating relentlessly toward its ending.

To watch her suffer would be painful but to hasten her end, unbearable.

Our lives have been entangled for 16 years. Since we waited for her arrival in summer, in South Florida, in the heat and humidity, waited day after day until the temperature fell to a range safe for her to fly. Since she was a compact bundle of black hair and sharp white teeth streaking around the foredeck and occasionally falling off, falling into the foul water sluggishly ebbing and flooding through the canals of a sailors’ ghetto. Since she chewed my freshly varnished bright work and I chased her around the deck, threatening to pitch her overboard intentionally this time, stubbing my toe on a cleat, adding injury to insult. Our lives have been entangled for a lifetime, her lifetime, a lifetime almost run.

Together we have seen life threatening disease, injury and loss. As well, joy and comfort. Her passing will be a deep wound but I beg a non-existent God that it will be swift, and soon. To watch her suffer would be painful, like drawing a shard of broken glass across my skin, but to hasten her death would be unbearable.

My mind is a simple thing and easily fooled. It can’t tell the difference between something thought and something lived. My dog is still alive but thinking about her death is like living it. The sorrow, the sense of loss, the tears are the same.

Portuguese water dogs have a unique, escalating bark. The third stage is like an ice pick driven through your ear drum.

She’s a Portuguese water dog, a breed we thought appropriate to live onboard a boat although she doesn’t deign to wet her head. Perhaps it was the number of times she fell overboard or the times I threw her overboard, hoping to cool her in the summer heat. South Florida in summer isn’t the place for a black, waterproof dog.

We lived onboard a boat in summer in South Florida, a boat with only one air conditioning unit, a swamp cooler squatting on the hatch over a cabin amidships—two berths stacked like cord wood—with Mizzen in a crate on the cabin sole. I had to sleep in the lower bunk with my hand resting on her crate to keep her quiet, to reassure her I was close throughout the night, or she’d bark. Her bark was like an ice pick driven through your ear drum.

We lived onboard a ketch and named her after a mast because it had fewer syllables than spinnaker and seemed less pretentious than top’sl. The meaning of the word is no longer commonly known, rather like the word grok. We might have named her Grok which has only one syllable but it suffered the same liabilities as top’sl and sounded too much like grout.

Water dogs have a unique, escalating bark. The first stage is deep and threatening, the second alarmed or excited, and the third is an ice pick that will shortly leave you deaf or insane. Water dogs can bark all day without remitting. The kennel attendants as Disney World can confirm. When we came to claim Mizzen at the end of the day, they seemed shell shocked and stuporous and suffering from survivor’s guilt.

I think she enjoyed watching him gasp like a fish on a dock. Retribution!

The deep, defensive bark she mostly reserved for mail carriers. For a time we lived in a house with a plate glass window beside a front door with a mail slot. Mizzen was left home weekdays to guard the house. Each day she watched the mail carrier approaching from a distance and then rattle the metal mail slot, trying to get it. We often found teeth marks on the first class mail scattered around the front room. There was bad blood between her and the Post Office.

I was once home on a weekday with Mizzen off leash in the front yard when the mail carrier’s rounds intersected with fate. Mizzen saw her first, across the street and down the block—her ancient enemy. She charged with unmistakable intent. I’m not sure she would have done harm, she’s never bitten anyone except in play, but the mail carrier was forearmed with pepper spray. I spent the next 30 minutes rinsing it from her eyes.

She made no distinction between FedEx and the USPO. I took her to work with me at Hall of Fame Marina. She slept curled at my feet when I worked at my desk, unconcerned with the public coming and going, except for FedEx deliveries. Then she materialized from behind the desk and delivered a single, deep, menacing bark that would retract the delivery man’s testicles like a snapped shade. She never approached him, never bared her teeth, and it was never more than a single bark. I think she actually enjoyed watching the FedEx guy gasp like a fish on a dock. Retribution!

She will not survive life.
No one does.

She has survived to the old age of 16 despite the odds. She’s survived a dreadful disease transmitted by the Lone Star Tick, vehicular hit and run, breast cancer and toe cancer and liver disease. She used to be terrified by the sound of smoke alarms but now she’s nearly deaf. And, of course, her hind legs have rebelled against central control. They slide from beneath her when standing on tile or hardwood until her belly meets the floor.

She will not survive life. No one does. I understand that intellectually but it doesn’t reach my heart. I’ll miss her most at 4:00 am when I wake and she’s not lying on the floor at my side of the bed.