LAKESIDE, Ore. – The wind reached 150 mph as the storm landed. Farther down the coast, the gale plucked trees from the ground like toothpicks.
It was Columbus Day 1962, and Marj Kilpatrick didn’t know what was coming. The driver of one of America’s only mail boats was doing what she did best: delivering the mail, rain or shine.
So far, Kilpatrick had felt more of the former. Tenmile Lake’s surface was dimpled with rain, light gusts tussled the fir trees. Kilpatrick clutched the side of her cedar vessel as she pulled up to her last mailbox.
She was motoring back to her own lakefront home, feeling confident, when the wind roared and the waves struck.
“There were two walls of water coming at me,” Kilpatrick, now 85, said, pressing her wrinkled hands into a V.
Kilpatrick did the only thing she could do: She ducked. Water rushed over her. She was soggy but unscathed.
For more than 60 years, Kilpatrick and a few hardy souls have battled the elements to deliver mail to the 50-odd residents of Tenmile Lake.
The mail boat is still a lifeline to these people. Some homes can be reached only by boat, others only by winding back roads.
But while the winter weather can get rough, drivers past and present say, the job at its best is a tour-de-force in relaxation.
Eliska Jacobsen has operated the route for the past three years. She has red hair and speaks with a clipped Czech accent.
“Sometimes, it’s so peaceful,” she said. “I’m just glad to be able to be out there. You see the fog when you’re driving through there. It’s beautiful.”
As her 16-foot boat pulls away from the launch, Jacobsen casually spins the wheel. Her outboard motor kicks a white tail over Tenmile’s glassy surface.
Most days, Jacobsen sees more animals than people. Ospreys and bald eagles fight over trout in summer. Bears and beavers paddle between the lake’s fingers.
As Jacobsen pulls up to a mailbox on a pier, a golden Labrador runs to her boat.
“Hey, how are you?” Jacobsen says, reaching for dog treats. “Good boy. You have to sit! Sit down.”
Jacobsen immigrated to America in 1985. She lived in California and Alaska before visiting Lakeside with her husband. The pair fell in love with Tenmile and bought a cabin by the water’s edge.
Jacobsen’s husband found work as a barge operator for Sause Bros. He insisted that Jacobsen get out into the community too.
They discovered the post office was looking for a new mail boat operator. Jacobsen didn’t know how to drive a boat but her husband offered to teach. It was a daunting prospect for a woman from a landlocked country.
“We don’t have a lot of water over there, like lakes, so I’m not a water person,” she said. “So this was totally different for me. I was so scared, really. Praying every time.”
She draws up to her last stop: a white mailbox with black numbers. Jacobsen says the job is more of a routine now.
Still, she’s uneasy about rumors that the U.S. Postal Service is thinking about cutting the route to save money.
“Everyone says it’s going to happen,” she said. “It has to happen one day.”
Ron Schaer, marketing manager for the Postal Service’s Portland District, said there’s no truth to those rumors.
“The mail boat, being the most economical way to deliver mail to that lake, it’s going to continue,” he said. “There’s no decision and talk about the mail boat run being eliminated.”
Kilpatrick said that’s comforting news.