- Associated Press - Sunday, August 31, 2014

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) - Biz Robbins and her husband, Don, were teachers in Colorado when Don told Biz he was moving to Alaska.

His question: Did Biz want to go, too?

For Biz, who’d become aware of his Alaska dream during their three years of marriage, there was but one response.

“Our marriage was good, and I wanted to keep it, so I followed him,” she wrote.

Their arrival in Ketchikan on July 31, 1978 - their fifth anniversary - set in motion the events detailed in Biz Robbin’s new book, “Life Jacket: A Memoir of a Float Camp Teacher.”

Published through the Book Publishers Network, “Life Jacket” combines two threads.

One is Robbins’ personal journey adjusting to life as she and Don taught in logging camp schools, then as she continued on in that vocation following his 1991 death from cancer. This thread is woven tightly with the other: a firsthand account of life and teaching students on the large floating camps that once housed timber industry workers and their families in remote areas throughout southern Southeast Alaska.

Those camps are gone now, their absence a sign of the timber industry’s decline since the mid-1990s. What remains are the smaller, barge-based bunkhouses that house individual workers.

Robbins said part of her interest in writing ‘Life Jacket” was to preserve a piece of the float-camp history.

“To try to record what that lifestyle was like, because I think it has disappeared,” said Robbins, who now resides in Ketchikan and teaches at the University of Alaska Southeast, Ketchikan campus.

When the couple first arrived in Southeast Alaska, Don Robbins began teaching high-school-level students at the land-based camp at Labouchere Bay on Prince of Wales Island. Biz Robbins followed as a special-education aide.

They soon built a geodesic-dome house in Ketchikan, and their first few years saw them spending time in Ketchikan and at Lab Bay, where Biz had begun teaching elementary grades.

In 1984, they began teaching at a Gildersleeve floating camp at Fire Cove north of Ketchikan. They were with the Fire Cove school for six years.

This early section of the book is enhanced by excerpts of letters written by Don and Biz to Don’s mother, Laurell. She had saved all of those letters over time, and, when she died, the saved letters were sent to Biz.

Don Robbins retired from teaching after he was diagnosed with cancer in 1990. Biz Robbins took a job teaching at a smaller floating camp owned by Keaton Gildersleeve and operated by Richard Gildersleeve in Polk Inlet.

A poignant section of “Life Jacket” describes Don’s death from cancer in March of 1991, and of Biz’s subsequent return to teaching at the Polk Inlet Camp. A photograph shows her walking, alone, to the float-borne trailer that she once had shared with her spouse.

The second half of the book, in part, relates how Robbins drew from the students, residents and colleagues involved with the close-knit, floating-camp world to help cope with the loss. In that sense, it had become as a life jacket in troubled times.

The concept became the title for the book, an idea Robbins credits to Laurel Lindahl, who suggested it during a conversation with Robbins and Deby Slagle.

It’s also a reference to the fact that the floating camps required youths who had not yet passed the required swim test, to wear life jackets at all times when on the floats outside of the buildings.

The Polk Inlet camp was moved to Dora Bay. Robbins details aspect of the teaching life, and her interactions with students and others in the camps before she moved back to Ketchikan. An epilogue focuses on a 2010 visit to a much changed Polk Inlet, and on what directions the lives of some of her students and colleagues had taken in the years since the float camps.

“Many of them still remain in my life,” she wrote.

Robbins said she started thinking about writing the book after she’d begun teaching a developmental English class at UAS Ketchikan. Part of the curriculum involved writing about memories, and she participated along with the students.

“That’s when the camp memories flooded back,” Robbins said. “When they were writing their memories, I was writing mine. So I think it just started there.”

The arrival of all of those letters that she and Don had written to her mother-in-law also triggered memories - and provided a first-hand look at what the couple were doing, seeing, thinking and feeling at the time each letter had been written. Robbins decided to include items from the letters in the book.

“It gave it a sense of authenticity, when (things) actually happened, you know,” she said. And it was nice to have Don’s voice, because he wrote the early letters.”

Robbins became involved in a writers’ group in Ketchikan. One of its members is Mike Harpold, who brought his novel “Jumping the Line” to publication in 2013 through the Book Publishers Network.

Robbins was impressed with the quality of the Harpold’s results, and chose to go through the same process for “Life Jacket.”

The process included everything from editing to book design, and Robbins appreciates the book that was 10 years in the making and now is available locally at Parnassus Books, The Point, and Jerry’s Books and Games.

“I don’t expect to get rich from it, but it was on my bucket list for so long that it feels really good to have it crossed off,” she said.

Robbins was asked whether she would consider going back to camp life at this point in her life. She paused a few moments before answering.

“I’d like to say, ‘yes,’ because it was a life that was good for me at the time,” Robbins said. “Like everything else, we pass through stages. And I think that’s a part of life that has come and gone. I would wish for other people to be able to experience that kind of life.”

It’s an experience that one can catch a glimpse of in “Life Jacket.”


Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, https://www.ketchikandailynews.com



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