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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper:
In Which TKH Nearly Gets Washed out to Sea,
Chases Her Bunny Barn Around the
Back Acreage in a Blizzard, and Gets
Swarmed by Flying Ants

So there we were...

People are always asking me how I write what I do.  Simple:  I'm really only reflecting what my life has been like.  Take the sea-urchin adventure.

It was this one time on the coast, in Charleston, Oregon, in December.  Mike Roberts (where are you now, Mike?), a grad student in marine-biology, asked if I wanted to help him collect sea urchins for an experiment (yes, we had a permit).  The only thing was, it was winter, dusk, with rough surf, freezing wind, chilling rain, and another winter-storm bearing down hard on the coast.  Yes, it was stupid to go, but that 1 to 2 hours was a tiny window, the only chance we'd had in two weeks, and likely the only chance we would have for several more because the storms were so harsh that year.

Cliff, another grad student, stayed on the beach to watch for danger.  In truth, he stayed primarily because we had only two 5-gallon buckets for collecting, so if I was going out, there was nothing for him to do till Mike and I got back.  

So there it was, getting dark, while Mike and I worked out way out on the slick, submerged rocks and tried to see into the deeper pocks of purple-black water between them.  It was pretty clear we'd have no luck, but we had to try.

We'd been out perhaps half an hour when Cliff started waving frantically at us from the shore.  He was shouting, but the wind stripped his voice away.  We caught only two words:   "...watch...out."   I looked at Mike, then back to the sea:  And saw this:  A wall of water was surging in around the island like a stampede of thunder and foam.  It was massive.  Thunderous.  Blasting up over the edge of the island like a tsunami.  And we were maybe 100 yards from shore, across blind rocks in the treacherous near-dark.

I looked across at Mike, and he shouted, "Just hunch where you are."   There wasn't anything else to do.  So I wedged my rubber boots into the rocks, took a death-grip on the bucket (those buckets cost five dollars apiece!), and half-hunched and braced myself for the wave.  It came on hard and fast with a strong wind before it, racing toward us with its smashing edge all white-gray, churning, tearing in the dark.  Closer, close, on top of me, and then it hit.  It smashed into us, surged up to my chest, plunged into my boots, dragged at the bucket, tried to rip me away.  I tightened up and held with even my toes gripping the rubber inside my boots.  I knew I wouldn't be able to do it.  There was no way I could hold against that power.  I was leaned out against the surge like a stick in the current.  And I was slipping.

And then, faintly, there was a lessening of power.  I tried to wedge my right boot, the one that was slipping, back into the crack.  The ocean seemed to hesitate, swirling around my chest, and then it began sucking back.  Now I was leaned out the other way, angled into the pull.  It dragged at my ribs, my stomach, then it dropped to my waist and streamed past my legs.  Finally surged down to my knees.  I dared to shift position and look back.  Another wave was coming in around the island.  I looked over to where Mike should be.  I knew he'd be gone.  There was no way he could have held against that wave.

Then the father held out the golden scales, and in them he
placed two fates of dread and death.

                    - the Iliad, Homer

Do you know what you look like when you know someone's dead?  I know what my face is like. I saw my own expression on Mike's pale face as he stared over at me, clinging to his own submerged rock, knowing with the same certainty, that I had been sucked out to sea.  His pants were wet-stuck to his legs.  His shirts and coat were sodden and dripping, and he stared across at me and realized I was still there, and yelled over the surf, "Why the hell aren't you wet?"

It wasn't what I was expecting.  Maybe, "Thank God, we made it."  Perhaps, "My God, are you alright?"  Even, "Oh, sh--.  Brace yourself.  There's another one coming in."  But no, it was, "Why the hell aren't you wet?"

I was wearing Dutch army woolies, the thick wool army pants you can get for a few dollars at the military surplus stores.  My shirt was just as sopped as Mike's, and even though my braids were soaked, they looked no different than usual--straight hair in braids has that advantage.  My pants were completely dry.  They had shed the water like a waterproof roof.  My socks, the long underwear I'd put on for insulation, and the rest of me was now soaked with gritty salt water, but the pants themselves were dry.  I'll say this for the Dutch.  They really know wool.

I had enough time to shout back, "It's the woolies.  There's another wave coming in."  (Always attend to the stupid issues first.)  We hunched up and dug in our boots, and the second wave roared in and hit us.  Seven waves (they don't always come in sets of seven, regardless of the old wive's tale).  A classic storm set for a storm that would, a day later and at 80 to 105 mph, rip the side off a cliff, tear away the boat docks, destroy four homes and countless roofs and windows, and sink three boats in a single stretch of marina, along with the institute cruise launch.  Seven waves under a gray-black sky, hanging onto the rocks with our toes and praying the sea wasn't hungry.

God was definitely watching over us.  We held through each wave as it suged in on the remnants of the wave before it.  When they receded, I did ask Mike--out of some idiotic sense of obligation to finish what we started, even though I dreaded the answer--if we should try for any more sea urchins.  We agreed with more than a little relief that it would be hard to see the urchins in the dark, and the tide was now coming in hard on the heels of the storm set.  Besides, we saved the 5-dollar buckets.  That was important.

So we gingerly, carefully made our way back to the beach.  We could see our footing only by guessing at the glints beneath the water.  It's an odd way to go, feeling your way blindly across submerged black rocks under glistening purple-black water.  

A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be
drownded for he will be going out on a day he shouldn't.
But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be
drownded now and again.

                    - The Aran Islands,  John Synge, playwright
                                   {probably best known for The Playboy of the Western World)

Of course, that wasn't the only stupid thing I've done on the coast.

I think it was a few days later when it was my turn to watch for waves while the others climbed out on something.  Cliff and Mike and Fred the Fisherman climbed out in a deep cut to harvest mussels off the outermost rock in a string of volcanic stepping stones that stretched out into the sea.  It required them to jump-climb a channel that churned with violent current between a slick rock island and a bit of volcanic rock that thrust out into the ocean.  The rocks hid their view of the sea, so they had to trust whoever was on watch to let them know when they'd have enough time to climb down in the narrow cut, jump the seething water, and climb back out before the sea smashed back in and tore them away.

It was terrifying to watch them do this.  The waves were strong against the rocks, and even if you have an eye for the way waves will hit, the sea is unpredictable and can tear in suddenly with a cross-wave.  Even after they jump the channel, they have to race out to the end of that rock and jump to another to get to the protected pocket where the grandfather of all mussels grow.  That day was too rough, and they couldn't make it all the way out.  It was hairy enough just for Cliff to get back to the main island rock, to safety.  Of course, he was all pumped up with the adrenalin rush.  It's so different, when it's you doing it, not watching.  I hate being look-out.  I hate the heart-attacks.

There was this one time, I went kayaking in the Puget Sound in a borrowed kayak.  Ben the Musician had a jam session on one of the islands.  We jammed for a while, and when we took a break, I just couldn't stay away from the water.  I hadn't taken my own boat, so it was a borrowed kayak or nothing, and the water was just calling my name.  Yes, stupidly, it was another storm day, but then, it always seems to be raining or storming when I'm out.  If you wait for good weather, you'll wait forever.  You just have to take it in stride.

At any rate, I was out in the swells, heading for the channel and the gray, Seattle skyline, having a blast in the wind.  I didn't have an apron, and her float bags had had leaks, so I'd left them behind, but I was careful.  The waves were just rolling off me, sweeping past.  I made it several miles before I decided to turn back.  Even I don't go so far against wind and current that I can't get back without a comfortable margin of strength.

What I didn't know at the time was that I'd given everyone on the shore a four-hour panic attack.  The waves had risen into massive swells, and they couldn't see me.  I disappeared for long moments at a time.  They never knew if I would reappear.  The poor woman who had loaned me her kayak sans apron thought she'd sent me out to drown and was nearly beside herself until I came back in again.

The interesting thing to me was that I never had a sense of the swells being that big.  I could always see the shore when I came out of the trough up onto the next crest of a swell, and I wasn't in any danger of drowning.  From the shore, I could see what they were talking about, but in the water itself, it just wasn't that bad.  After she calmed down, the woman said she was now completely confident that she could loan me any gear and I'd not kill myself with the using of it.  But I did take my own kayak after that.  You can't argue with the security of a good pair of float bags, not when the waves come up.

There was this other time last year with my goddaughter (my niece).  I took her canoeing, but a storm blew in over the mountains (we were near St. Helens), and the wind came up more suddenly and strongly than I expected.  I could see it rising like a bear, and the water chopping up into white caps and starting to seethe.  My niece couldn't understand why I was so unmoveable about leaving the island early to head back. Truth to tell, she was a bit peeved with me.  But it took three extra miles of paddling to position us just so I could bring us back in without being flipped by the waves or swept into the log debris.  By the time I got us into  the docks, the canoe was no longer riding the waves, but beginning to swamp from the chop.  My niece, she's a Harper, all right.  She was still peeved at me for bringing us in.  She loved the big, gray waves just like me.

Then there was the first time my o-rings blew on scuba.  That happened more than once--bad batch, it turned out.  Good thing, too, because it gave me some daytime experience in ascents.  When I had to do an emergency ascent on a night dive, the disorientation from the pitch darkness (my dive light burned out 5 minutes into the dive) wasn't so frightening, and I was at least somewhat prepared for the ballooning of air out my lungs.  

I will say though, that it was disconcerting to find myself in miles of icy black water, on a moonless night with the stars hidden by heavy clouds, and with no lights to show me which distant shore would be which.  I'd lost my dive buddy in the blackness, and there were only more shades of black vs. black to guess which direction was which.  I mean, in darkness, without stars, without distinct shore lights or skylines, without buoys or navigation markers, you can't tell north vs. south except by a compass or the current, and my compass didn't glow in the dark.

I had to take off my mask so that my night sight kicked in.  That wasn't pleasant, not with the chop.  But the current was strong enough to tell me with fair certainty that I was facing southwest.  I corrected to west and stayed in the stream for a few minutes studying things until I finally found two bearings:  one a light on a distant shack near a dock to the south, and the second a tree ridge skylined against a lighter black cloud just enough to define it, pretty far to the north.  I aimed for a point a third of the way along that, where I figured we'd gone in.

It took forever in that frigid, oily-black, seething, ice-slick water.  I had no idea we'd gone so far out, but the current was always strong in that area, and darkness is deceptive.  Time and distance mean nothing when you have no measuring stick.  Eventually, swimming along the shore and fending myself off the rocks with the waves, I saw a glint off the side of the truck we'd parked just outside of the trees for exactly that reason, and some time after that, my dive buddy joined me.  But oh, aside from the cold and the sharks (did I forget to tell you about the sharks?) and the disorientation at night, it was a spiffy dive.  I've used scuba and free dive adventures in more than one book over the years.

I sometimes think every adventure finds its way into my books.  Not just the physical ones, but sometimes the absurd ones too.  For example, there was the winter my hair froze solid, and I couldn't move till it thawed for fear it would break off.  That was completely my fault.  The wind chill was 30 below zero, and I was an idiot.  Thought I could just lean out and see if the dog dish was too fozen to bring it in.  Instead, my waist-length hair froze instantly into a solid mass of ice.  I was stuck standing in the living room for over 40 minutes till it softened up.  Someday, I'll use that incident in one of my books to poke fun at my characters.

The novelist, afraid his ideas may be foolish,
slyly puts them in the mouth of some other fool and
reserves the right to disavow them.

                                - Diane Johnson, New York Times Book Review

There was this other winter when the winds hit particularly hard, although they seemed to hit hard in the hills every year.  We'd had cold, cold weather for a while, but one night a storm blasted in with a fury.  Everything that could be lashed down was, and every plant worth saving was bagged and buried in piles of straw and leaves.  But around one o'clock that night, the wind grew suddenly stronger, and it howled up the hill like a charging demon.  The house shuddered, and I jerked awake.  Then my bunny barn tore loose from its foundation, all metal screaming and doors ripped away.  The whole structure was slammed over on its side, across the snow till it rolled end over end, thrown over by the wind like a cardboard box down a street.  I shoved the curtains aside just as it crashed past the window.  Ben was groggily asking what I thought I could do.  I didn't know, but I had to do something, so I jerked on my rubber boots and ran out in my bathrobe.  I chased the barn all the way to the west treeline till it fetched up on the wire and stuck like paper on a comb.

I couldn't leave it there.  It was straining the trees, and with the wind that strong, any trees that broke off would crush the barn past any hope of salvage.  So I climbed up on the fence, braced myself against the trees, and heaved and fought till I started the barn rolling back.  When the wind slacked off, I managed to slam it back over on one side.  When the wind gusted again, I braced myself against the barn and dug into the snow drift to hold it in place.  Snow was dropping down on my bare feet in those clammy rubber boots, and I remember the wind cutting at my bare legs as if my skin was already freezing.  I was grateful my hair was braided, or I'd have been blind as well.  But I fought the wind and braced myself, and shoved the barn over  and over, on another side, roof, or floor each time the storm gusted, till I finally got it back to what was left of the foundation.  Then I got all the cinder blocks, beams, and plywood I could find, weighted it down, told Ben everything would have to be fine since there wasn't much else I could do, and went on back to sleep.  The bunny barn always leaked a little after that.

(I suppose I ought to let you know that all the bunnies were safe in the garage, their cages stacked every which way to make them fit.  I'd had a bad feeling about that night, and I hadn't wanted to leave them out in the barn, even with blankets.  They had a cozy night inside, while I fought with their house in the storm.)

I know I'll use that story in a book.  Most readers will think, that's ridiculous, that that could never happen in real life.  But almost every scene I write is based on true stories of absurd, idiotic, gruesome, strange and dangerous things that have happened to me over the years.

For example, I've been swarmed five times by bees and yellow-jackets--and flying ants.  Getting swarmed isn't that uncommon, although the number of swarmings might be excessive in my case.  But who gets swarmed by flying ants?  They were huge and black and heavy-winged, and they lifted off the roof and descended on me like a thousand thousand wild dogs on a deer.  When I opened my mouth to scream, they went in in a flurry.  Black, sharp whizzing wings against my teeth, cutting at my tongue, fluttering at the sides of my mouth.  I could taste wings and legs and bodies.  They were in my eyes, my hair, crawling into my ears.  It was one of the most horrifying things that ever happened to me.

And there are more, many many more stories.  The time I walked off a cliff and didn't know it because the salal was so thick.  The time I got caught in a river-bottom run and nearly drowned.  The time I was nearly electrocuted.  And so on and on.  Makes me wonder how I've survived this long.  The most amazing thing is that I lead a fairly quiet, sedentary life!  All I can say is that, at least it makes for good stories.


Copyright 2004 by Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.


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