KUHB: The Voice of the Pribilofs

It’s the only radio station. If you hit the seek button, it’ll just keep going around and around except for this one place it stops: 91.9 KUHB, the Voice of the Pribilofs.

You don’t have to be on St. Paul very long before you realize that the whole town – the whole island – is listening to the same thing. If there’s a radio on in the grocery store, the post office, the maintenance shop, in someone’s car – it’s playing KUHB.

A-Dorm doesn’t have a radio, so all my listening happens when I’m out driving around, and only when I don’t have tour clients. KUHB is a National Public Radio affiliate, so it has a few old familiar NPR standbys, like Marketplace, All Things Considered, Alaska News Nightly, and National Native News. They play eTown on Saturday afternoons and I’ve caught Mountain Stage once or twice. But mostly it’s all local. The underwriters are boats: “This and other programming is brought to you by the fishing vessel _______.” The Pribilof Postcard is an exclusive for KUHB listeners. Announced on the hour, it’s dedicated to local events, classes, and potlucks; the hours for bulk sales (beer and wine), the gas station, and summer kids’ curfew; phone numbers for the quit smoking and 24-hour crisis lines; and the job postings. When do the kids go back to school? What are the rules for reindeer hunting? The Pribilof Postcard will tell you.

But KUHB brings us the world, too. On a rainy Saturday, after I drop some clients off at the airport, I turn the radio on and hear a guitar that’s unmistakable. Ani DiFranco plays like no one else, and although I haven’t heard her for a while, I know her style instantly. The first time I heard her she was playing at Kalamazoo College. We’re the same age, give or take a few months. She was just starting out, driving around with a trunk-full of cassettes of her first album. I was in my sophomore year, and about to get hooked on this “righteous babe” singer-songwriter. For a solid decade, the 1990s, I bought every one of her albums, and went to so many of her concerts I stopped counting. But I know it was at least fifteen. Her music was a continuous thread, woven through my early adulthood, and she still means a lot to me.

And here she is, playing live, broadcasting out over this island in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of everything. I park at the top of Black Diamond Hill, and turn the engine off. The view is to the south and east, out over the endless Bering Sea. Northern fur seals are hauled out on Lukanin Beach, and the hills are covered with tundra wildflowers. Rain lashes the windshield. Ani DiFranco, coming to you live from the Bering Sea. I get a kick out of the certain knowledge that her voice is being heard right now, on the radio in the St. Paul Island grocery store. But it’s weird, too. A juxtaposition of places and times that makes me feel a little bit dizzy. Where am I, exactly?

It happens again, some other Saturday afternoon. A Michigan band, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, are on eTown. Mark Lavengood, also known as Huggy Bear, is the dobro player. I hung out with that guy once, walking down to the beach in Empire, Michigan, back when the Dunegrass music festival was right downtown. And here he is, playing live, broadcasting out over this wee speck of land halfway between the Aleutians and the Bering Strait. Mandolin and dobro, banjo and close harmonies, the sound of Michigan roots music transports me. I’m sitting on a bale of hay, light filtering through the cracks and dust motes of an old barn, tapping my foot on worn wooden floorboards. Ian’s up in the loft, working his magic on the soundboard. Seth will soon be gathering everybody up for Waltz Hour.

But wait. I’m actually driving by the edge of Salt Lagoon, peering through the airborne road dust at all the Rock Sandpipers out on the mud flats. The halibut boats came in today, and are now tied up in the small boat harbor. The fishermen who are cleaning their boats, putting gear away, are subconsciously absorbing Michigan soulgrass right now, if they have the radio on.

One evening on the drive home I cut through Old Town, not my usual route. The weather is fine, and I have the windows down, driving slow with KUHB on in the van. There are some people in their yards playing horseshoes, having a barbeque. As I get closer, I can hear that they’re listening to KUHB, too. The music from my van speakers merges with the music from their boombox. Horseshoes clank, and the summertime smell of burgers on the grill floats in the open window. Their boombox gets quieter as I move on, but the music keeps going on the van stereo, until the next time I pass someone else who’s listening, and the sound fades in, merges, and fades again. The music ties us all together.



Roxanne — The Police


Fly Like an Eagle — The Steve Miller Band


Aeroplane – Red Hot Chili Peppers


Lithium – Nirvana


Big Yellow Taxi — Joni Mitchell


Been a Fool Too Long — Little Mike & the Tornadoes


You Sexy Thing (I Believe in Miracles) – Hot Chocolate


Shining In the Distance — Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys

Following is a playlist of songs that have had a role in this summer’s soundtrack. There’s not enough space for details here, but every song has a backstory about why it made the list. Get in touch with me if you want to know the inside scoop.

*An asterisk indicates that it was heard on KUHB.


Amiq Summer (mix tape)

Roxanne – The Police

Dreamweaver – Gary Wright

Double Dutch Bus – Frankie Smith

*The Thong Song – Sisqo

I Got You Babe – Sonny & Cher

Don’t Worry Be Happy – Bobby McFerrin

Fly Like an Eagle – Steve Miller Band

*Allergic to Water – Ani DiFranco (Live on eTown episode #1725)

*If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) – Mavis Staples (Live on eTown episode #1725)

Ouroboros – Ray LaMontagne Entire album, over and over, but especially: “Homecoming” “Hey No Pressure” and “Another Day”

*Aeroplane – Red Hot Chili Peppers

*The Cave – Mumford & Sons

Pass You By – Gillian Welch

Lithium – Nirvana

*Shine On – Humble Pie

*Long as I Can See the Light – Joe Cocker cover of CCR tune

Black Hole Sun – Soundgarden

*Take the Money and Run – The Steve Miller Band

These Are the Days – 10,000 Maniacs

Big Yellow Taxi — Joni Mitchell

Fogtown – Michelle Shocked

*Shining in the Distance — Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys (Live on eTown episode #1731)

When I Paint My Masterpiece –  Emmylou Harris’s cover of Bob Dylan’s song

*Liza — Leftover Salmon (Live on Mountain Stage)

*Been a Fool Too Long — Little Mike & the Tornadoes

*Truckin’ (What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been) – The Grateful Dead

*Rhinestone Cowboy – Glen Campbell

You Sexy Thing (I Believe in Miracles) – Hot Chocolate



B-List (Songs that didn’t make the playlist, but that pop into your head unbidden):

[The Sun’ll Come Out] Tomorrow from the musical Annie

Wind Beneath My Wings

*Don’t Fear the Reaper (this seems to be a KUHB favorite)

*Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head

Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go

Everything Is Awesome (from the Lego movie)

Posted in Alaska, Birds, Culture, Islands, Michigan, Music, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Questions Frequently Asked by Tourists on St. Paul Island, Alaska

One reason I haven’t posted much lately here is that I’ve been working on this FAQs document for my job with St. Paul Island Tours. The idea was that, as a newbie tour guide, I would learn the answers if I had to do the research myself and write a “paper” to share with future tour guides. The catch-22 is: how do I know which questions are most frequently asked until I’ve been here for a season? Nonetheless, certain patterns have emerged after just two-and-a-half months here. I thought I’d share the questions, and answers, with you. This is certainly not creative writing (and I’d even say it’s still in draft form) but there might be some tidbits in here you’ll find interesting. I’ve done my best to make sure these are true facts, but bear in mind that tour guides are known to make shit up now and then.

So far, the tourists seem most interested in me, their tour guide. I feel a bit incredulous about this — “What’s the big deal? Why don’t you ask me something about the island?” I want to say — but usually there’s a barrage of questions like this at the beginning of every tour: What’s your story? How’d you get to be a guide? How’d you get this job? Where do you live when you’re on the island? Where do you live in the winter? Where are you from? How did you end up in Alaska? What do you do for work in the winter? What do you do on your days off? How did you end up on St. Paul Island? How long will you be on the island?

By this time, I’m already talked out, but now we move on to more pressing matters (and unanswerable questions) such as: Where are all the boats that I see on Deadliest Catch? Why aren’t there any puffins, auklets, or red-legged kittiwakes on the cliffs? Does the sun ever come out? Is it always foggy? Where is my luggage? When will it get here?

(Sigh… Please ask me something that’s more cut-and-dried…)


What are the meal times? (that’s more like it)

Breakfast 7:00-8:00; Lunch 11:30-12:30, Dinner 5:00-6:00.


What time zone are we in?

Alaska Standard Time (AKST), which is UTC -9:00 hours. This is the same time zone as Anchorage, and is one hour behind Pacific Standard Time.


How much does it cost to mail a postcard?

Small postcard $0.34; Large postcard or US letter $0.49; International for both sizes of cards, and letters $1.15.


How big is St. Paul Island?

St. Paul Island is 42 square miles in area. This is about twice as big as Manhattan Island, NY, and half the size of Martha’s Vineyard, MA. By contrast, the island of Oahu, Hawaii, is 14 times the size of St. Paul. The island is 12 miles from Northeast Point to Reef Point; 9.7 miles from east to west; and 4.6 miles from north to south.


How many people live here?

About 430 (in 2017), and in decline. The population is 76% Native Alaskan, 11% white, 13% other (or mixed race).


Why is the population in decline?

Halibut and crab fisheries are in decline, and those are the main economic resources here.


How many kids are in the school?

St. Paul Island school is pre-K thru 12, and has about 60 students.


What do people do here? (How do they make a living)

They work for TDX and the Tribal Government (Environmental Conservation Office, the clinic, the grocery store), the City (public works, power plant, maintenance, gas station, police), the airport, Pen Air, the Post Office, and fish for halibut. TDX shareholders receive an annual dividend (I think, but I don’t know how much this is). As Alaska residents, they are also eligible to collect the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend ($1,000 per person in 2016). The locals don’t work for Trident, probably because the pay is Alaska minimum wage ($9.75/hour in 2016). Trident employees are mostly seasonal Filipino workers. Tour company guides, Fish and Wildlife (seabird researchers), and Fisheries (seal researchers) are generally not locals, either. Other seasonal workers include construction contractors in the summer and crab fishery workers in the winter.


What do people do here? (Local art, culture & recreation)

There are several artists who sell their art locally. The Community Advocacy Center (CAC) has art classes and open studio hours. There’s an Unangan (Aleut) drumming and dancing group. Kids play basketball and ride bikes (mostly between 9 pm and midnight). People watch satellite TV, and have Facebook, smart phones, and video games. For kids, there’s SCUBA camp, Seabird Camp, and a Summer Enrichment program. There’s a tavern (beer and wine, pool, darts, shuffleboard) and sometimes the local rock band plays. People drive around, ride ATVs, go beachcombing, have bonfires, potlucks and barbeques.

Also, June 14th is the Evacuation Day memorial and walk to East Landing. Fourth of July is one of the biggest events of the year, with softball games, a community barbeque with halibut, reindeer, and crab, The Grease Pole, horseshoes, a dance, and other festivities. TDX has their Annual Meeting after the Fourth. There’s a craft and food fair in mid-August. (Homemade fish pie by Zee is the main attraction.) Folks participate in subsistence harvests: wild celery harvest, murre egg collection, fur seal harvest, reindeer hunting.


Where are we, exactly?

57 degrees North latitude = Drawing a line at this latitude around the earth, we’re actually south of Juneau, more in line with Sitka, Alaska, and northern Scotland and Denmark. An equivalent latitude in the southern Hemisphere would pass through the Southern Ocean between the tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula.

170 degrees West longitude = Going north, you’d hit mainland Russia a bit west of the Bering Strait. Going south, you’d be west of the main Hawaiian Islands, east of Midway and New Zealand. Otherwise, there’s just water on the 170th meridian (until you hit Antarctica).


How far away is the nearest land?

It’s approximately 230 miles north to Nunivak Island, 250 miles south to the Aleutian Islands, and 300 miles east to mainland Alaska. Anchorage is 770 miles away.


How far away is Russia?

About 500 miles to the nearest point of mainland Russia, going north. Traveling west to Kamchatka, Russia is about 975 miles away.


Who owns the island?

Tanadgusix Corporation (TDX) owns the vast majority of the island. The US Department of the Interior owns the seabird cliffs and US Fish and Wildlife manages them as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Other US government properties include the research station on Salt Lagoon (Dept. of Interior and Dept. of Commerce), the US Coast Guard LORAN station by Pumphouse Lake, and the National Weather Service Station. Lots and houses in town are privately owned.


What is TDX?

The local tribal corporation, Tanadgusix, which was formed as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA).


When did the seabird cliffs become part of the AMNWR?

In 1981 US Deptartment of Interior acquired the seabird cliffs from TDX in order to establish the Pribilof Islands Subunit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. The Secretary of the Interior paid TDX (and St. George’s Tanaq Corp.) $5,200,000 for “specified shoreline from mean high tide to a point 150 feet inland from the top edge of the cliffs as well as other lands on St. Paul and St. George Islands, and the entireties of Walrus and Otter Islands.”


Where is the town water supply?

Pumphouse Lake, between the Airport and Telegraph Hill.


Where does the town get its power?

City diesel generators, located behind the gas station (near the crab pots and Black Diamond Hill).


What’s the story on the wind turbines?

The wind-diesel power system was installed by TDX Power and Northern Power Systems of Vermont in 1998 to run the industrial facility and airport complex on the island, for the cost of $1.2 million. Currently TDX is working with the community of St. Paul on a plan to bring a lower cost energy source to all members of the community, with a goal of eventually reaching 80% of all energy consumed on the island to come from renewable energy sources by 2025. (TDX Newsletter, May 2017).


How old is the Russian Orthodox Church?

A chapel was built out of driftwood around 1821, when the Russians first started transplanting Aleut people here to harvest the fur seals. This was replaced with a larger chapel, built by the Russian American Company in 1840. A more substantial church was built in 1873 by island residents. This one could not withstand the elements, and the current church was built in 1906 and restored in 2001. It did not get its large golden “onion dome” until sometime between 2001 and 2017.  Church services are in English, Aleut, and Slavonic and occur on Saturdays at 6 pm (Vespers) and Sundays at 10 am (Divine Liturgy). The church plays a strong role in the Native community; for example, it was the only place the Aleut people were allowed to speak their own language. Church tours are available. Preferred times are non-flight days, either before or after lunch.


Where did the Aleut people who were brought here by the Russians come from originally?

Atka and Unalaska.


Russian history & influence

Although the Aleut people knew of the islands, no permanent settlements or villages were here prior to 1786 when Russian fur trader Gavrili Pribylov traced the fur seals to their rookeries on St. Paul Island. In 1788, the Russian-American Company enslaved and relocated the native people from the Aleutian Islands to the Pribilofs.

The United States purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867, for 7.2 million dollars. Known as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox” the purchase price has been repaid many times over by the fur trade, gold rush, timber extraction, oil boom, and fishing industries. The government’s revenue for a  single 20-year fur seal lease to the Alaska Commercial Company (1870-1890) netted over $6 million, paying for the total Alaska purchase. Alaska became the United States’ 49th state in 1959.


What are those structures on the beach?

Catwalks and towers so researchers can safely study the fur seals.


What kind of research are they doing?

Counts of adult males. Counts of dead pups. Pup production estimates. Satellite tracking of females to determine foraging behavior relative to prey distribution. Flipper tags to assess survival and reproductive rates. VHF tags to assess migration rates and attendance patterns (time at sea and on land).


How many fur seal researchers come to the island?

Maybe six? It varies depending on project demands.


How many northern fur seals are in the rookeries on St. Paul Island?

Approximately 350,000.


Where are the seals when they’re not here?

They leave Alaska rookeries in October-November and remain offshore until March-June. Adult males overwinter in the North Pacific. Females and subadult males spend the winter offshore from SE Alaska to California.


How many pups does each female have?

One per year. Pups are born within 48 hours of the female arriving in the rookery, in mid- to late-June. Mating occurs immediately afterwards. Gestation period is 11.8 months. Mothers nurse pups for about 4 months.


How much do fur seals weigh?

Male fur seals weigh 300-600 pounds; Females 65-110 pounds; newborn pups 11-12 pounds. Potentially, a large male could outweigh a small female by almost ten-to-one.


How is the fur seal population doing?

In serious decline. Since 1998, pup production in the Pribilofs has declined by 45%, or at an annual rate of 3.7%.


Why are they in decline?

No clear answer, but it is likely a food-supply issue. “Significant data gaps still exist in our understanding of relationships between northern fur seals and their primary prey, walleye pollock.” (Alaska Fisheries Science Center, 2016). Walleye pollock is one of the primary target species for the Bering Sea industrial fishing fleet.


What other marine mammals are around in the summer?

Steller’s Sea Lion and Harbor Seal. Orcas appear occasionally, more often in the fall when the seal pups start learning to swim.


Are there walruses here?

No, although they may occasionally be sighted in the winter.


What’s the water temperature of the Bering Sea?

34°F (1°C) in the winter to 50°F (10°C) in the summer.


Are the reindeer native to the island?



Then how did the reindeer get here?

In 1892, the idea for introducing reindeer to Alaska came from US Revenue Cutter Captain Michael A. “Hell Roaring Mike” Healy with support from Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson. This was meant to be a humanitarian effort to save Native Alaskans from starvation. Throughout the mid to late 1800s, whaling ships moved up and down the Bering Sea coast of Alaska.  By the time they left, the local populations of marine mammals had been severely impacted, leaving the Alaskan Natives without some of their major food sources. In 1911, the US Bureau of Fisheries introduced twenty-five reindeer from Russian stock to St. Paul Island. The herd increased to over 2,000 reindeer by 1938, triple the carrying capacity of the island. By 1950, the herd became severely depleted (down to 8 individuals) due to harsh winters, poaching, and starvation. In 1951, thirty-one reindeer were brought to the island from Nunivak Island. Nunivak’s reindeer were also of Siberian stock, but had been crossed with Alaskan caribou. So, St. Paul’s reindeer have more caribou blood and are larger than typical domesticated reindeer. The herd, as of 2017, is about 300-400. They are seen more often in the spring, moving between Pumphouse Lake and Antone Lake area and Southwest Point. They are harder to find later in the season as hunting is allowed by permit and the reindeer stay more to the interior of the island, out of view of the roads. The meat is an important subsistence food source for the local people. Since introduction, the reindeer have depleted almost all the lichen on the island, and now graze on grass and dig for roots.


Aren’t reindeer and caribou the same thing?

Yes, sort of. Reindeer and caribou in Alaska are the same species, Rangifer tarandus. There are seven subspecies found globally. Alaska’s native mainland caribou are the barren-ground subspecies, Rangifer tarandus granti. The introduced domesticated reindeer are the Siberian subspecies, Rangifer tarandus sibericus.


Are the Arctic foxes introduced?

No. They made their way here over pack ice/floating ice, and are a native species. The Pribilof fox is actually considered to be its own unique subspecies. They were here when the Russians arrived, and between 1871 and 1930s, foxes were harvested for their fur, with up to 1,000 animals taken annually.


Do the foxes have any predators?

Not really, although circumstantial evidence in 2017 (plucked fur pile and half a fox carcass) would indicate that White-tailed Eagles eat them now and then. People can get a permit to hunt or trap foxes.


What other land mammals are here?

Pribilof shrew – Sorex pribilofensis, is a St. Paul Island endemic. May find under boards out on the tundra.

Domestic cat – big & fluffy!

Rats — not here. There are on-going prevention, monitoring, and control efforts to keep them away, as they would devastate seabird populations if introduced.

House mouse – introduced in Russian times.


Why aren’t dogs allowed?

The US Secretary of Commerce banned dogs in 1917 “In order to prevent the molestation of the fur-seal and fox herds.” Also, dogs can transmit disease to seals and foxes. These include rabies, canine distemper, canine hepatitis, and leptospirosis.


Will I find any Woolly Mammoth tusks here?

Probably not, although St. Paul Island was one of the last strongholds of Woolly Mammoths. Radiocarbon dating shows that they were here as recently as 5,400 years ago. Only on Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia, did mammoths last longer, until about 4,000 years ago.


Who owns Trident?

Trident Seafoods is an American company, based in Seattle, WA.


How is the fish/crab shipped out of St. Paul?

On barges.


When is crab season?



Are these the boats they use for crab fishing?

No, these are halibut fishing boats.


What kind of rock is this?

The island is volcanic, and formed about 14,000 years ago. It is the youngest eruptive center in the Bering Sea basalt province. The last eruption was at Fox Hill (west side of island) approximately 3,200 years ago. The island has scoria and spatter cones, and “hoodoo”-shaped vents. Because St. Paul was never glaciated these features are still present. By contrast, St. George Island was glaciated and doesn’t have any cones.


How many plant species are on the island?

Approximately 195.


Are there any invasive plants on the island?

There are approximately 11 non-native, common weed plants on the island, but none are considered particularly invasive or a threat to the ecosystem. These include common dandelion, Kentucky and annual bluegrass, chickweed, common buttercup, white clover, and common plantain.


Why aren’t there any trees here?

In order for them to reproduce, trees need a minimum number of warm days annually. There aren’t enough warm days here per year. Climate change might make a difference, though. (No, it’s not because it’s windy, or cold, or too far north, or because of salt spray.)


Were there ever any trees here?

No. Pollen cores show that this has always been a tundra environment.


Where does all this driftwood come from?

Most likely from Southeast and South Central Alaska. It is brought north on the Alaskan Stream Current, which flows from the Gulf of Alaska and then west along the south side of the Aleutian Islands. It then passes through several breaks in the Aleutian Island Chain, and joins the counterclockwise Bering Sea Current.


Is there any radiation from Fukushima in the water or seafood here?

No.  Check out this Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute page.


How many species of insects are here?

About 276.


What’s this beetle?

Carabus truncaticollis. Its range is Russia and the East Palearctic.


And finally: this is the one question we tour guides wish someone, anyone, would ask, but no one has yet: Would you like us to leave you this extra whisky?





Posted in Alaska, Culture, Fauna, Flora, History, Islands, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife, Work | Tagged | 2 Comments

Beachcombing on the Bering Sea


Only my own footprints mark the volcanic sand beach on the north shore of St. Paul Island, Alaska. The nearest land is almost 300 miles away across the Bering Sea.


Tiny crab, in delicate peach and blue.


Bull kelp all a-tangle.


Blob of goo — what is it?


Two kinds of seaweed.


Red Phalarope, shifting into winter garb.


Worn by waves and sand, driftwood fibers mat like fur.


The beautiful wreckage of a Fork-tailed Storm-petrel.


Amidst the black scoria rocks and sand, the colors of these pebbles stand out like gems. Glacier-worn and frozen into river-ice, spring breakup carries them from the rivermouths to the sea. They float here on ocean currents, ground out on the beach, and when the ice melts, decorate the shores of their new island home. 

Posted in Alaska, Birds, Islands, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

380 Horses

“Those birds are pretty dumb. Why don’t they get out of the way?” We are bouncing down a narrow two-track road, headed to the north side of the island for a walk along the shore. I’m guiding two clients, who came to the island to take photos of puffins and Arctic foxes. We’re driving slowly, because there are lots of fledgling Lapland Longspurs and Rock Sandpipers on the road, and I’m trying not to run over them. “Well,” I explain patiently, “they’re young birds and they’re just learning how to fly. Some of them might not even have all their flight feathers yet. The road is smooth and is a good runway for them to practice taking off and landing. See how thick the vegetation is, off to the side? That probably looks like a wall, a big forest, from their perspective. Maybe they’ve never seen a car before. We don’t drive out here very often. They don’t know what a car is.” I stop the van at one point, get out and chase a fluffy Rock Sandpiper chick down the road for a bit, and am able to catch it and set it gently off to the side. Otherwise, it may have kept running down the road ahead of us until it exhausted itself, or we ran over it. “Sorry, little one,” I whisper to the chick, as I release it from my big paws. “Take it easy, and watch out for foxes!”

The birds aren’t dumb. Their reality is simply different than ours.

Last week, a cruise ship visited the island. I rode along in the bus with the visitors, on the way out to the seabird cliffs. Neon, one of my co-workers and a local who grew up here, was driving the bus. The cruise ship people asked me questions. One of them was: “How do people make a living here?” Sometimes I feel funny, answering questions about the locals (since I am not one), so I yelled up to the front of the bus, “Hey, Neon! How do people make a living here?” He answered, “We fish, and hunt reindeer, and order groceries from the internet.” The cruise ship folks looked puzzled, so I said, “People work for the Tribe, the City, the airport, the grocery store, the clinic, do construction, fish for halibut…” But I was smiling inside, getting a kick out of Neon’s answer. “How do you make a living” to him means “where do you get your food.”

On my day off, I stop in at the civic center, where the Pribilof Islands Aleut Community of St. Paul Island holds language classes. I’m interested in learning some Unangam (Aleut), especially words for birds, plants, and animals. When I open the door to the Arctic entry, there are lots of shoes and boots lined up. I slip off my shoes and leave them with the rest. Reaching for the interior door, I see a small poster showing two Native Alaskan women, dressed in traditional clothing. They are hugging a Holstein calf. The poster says, “Don’t Kill Baby Veals!” and across the bottom, “Be aware of cultural differences.” I laugh out loud, which goes to show that my attitude has changed since I was a kid, when I had a baby seal poster on my bedroom wall. Yep, humans’ interactions with animals are complex; as a cornfed mid-westerner who drinks milk and eats a lot of cheese, I probably shouldn’t judge those who use animals in different ways. If anyone offers me a baby seal shoulder at the Labor Day barbeque, I will definitely try it.

Cultural sensitivity. Is it learned? Can it be taught? I think so, but, unless there is behavior occurring that’s negatively affecting the wildlife or the human community members here, I’m not sure being the teacher is necessarily my role this summer. As a guide, the clients are my customers, and I feel uncomfortable correcting them. Most of the clients are lovely, or at least okay to be around. But occasionally I find myself gritting my teeth and faking my laughter. Some clients tell stories like this: “I was in a village in ______ (names African country). The people there live mostly in a state of undress, and I mean that literally. One woman was flirting with me – at least I think she was – and asked me how many horses I have. I told her I had three-hundred and eighty: they’re under the hood of my Lexus! Heh heh heh! She was impressed. And I don’t think she even knew what a Lexus is.”

I’m certainly not perfect, but I try to be aware of others’ perspectives and my own errors, and learn from my mistakes. When I was seventeen, a friend and I took a road trip to the East Coast, and eventually ended up in Charleston, South Carolina. We were walking through a market and crafts area, and I took a photo of a woman who was sitting and weaving a basket. She yelled at me. “What’s wrong with you, taking my picture without asking? I’m not on display here!” I was mortified, and a little scared, and shamefacedly walked away without apologizing. But now I’m glad she taught me that lesson. I never made the same mistake again!

In my defense, what experiences had I had up to that point in life? I grew up in a mostly-white, suburban community. I was the photographer for the yearbook, and my schoolmates were used to having me around, snapping photos. I’d been to a few living history museums, and Disneyworld and Epcot Center, and the Renaissance Festival, where hired performers act out traditional crafts. And my mom is a basket weaver, so I was genuinely interested in the work that the Charleston lady was doing. I felt too shy to actually speak to her. So, I hid behind my camera. But I didn’t hide quite well enough.

Now, I could say that she was a big mean black woman who yelled at me and didn’t understand my culture or respect where I was coming from, but that would be absurd. I was in her town, invading her privacy, and had behaved badly. That’s how she saw it. And she was right.

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Freedom Is In the Freezer: Subsistence Fishing for Halibut

Here’s a link to my essay “Freedom Is In the Freezer: Subsistence Fishing for Halibut,” published in the summer 2017 issue of Edible Alaska. The essay originally appeared on this blog back in October 2016, in slightly different form.

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Evacuation Day

A single drumbeat, loud as a cannon shot, shakes the room. Everyone jumps, and a framed picture falls off a shelf. “We’re here!” somebody says, and we all laugh. With that powerful opening beat, and amidst the echo of laughter, they start again, and begin drumming, singing, and dancing: nine women and four men, dressed in Unangan (Aleut) finery. Three of the women, the younger generation, wear seal skin dresses, pieced so the different colors of fur are in a block pattern showing tan, dark brown, and black. Beaded head-dresses cover their hair. The men wear colorful bentwood hunting visors and carry carved wooden kayak paddles. Gold embroidery decorates the high stand-up collars on their off-white shirts, with additional adornments made of fur and bone. Two big frame drums keep the beat, and the women rub together seal scapula scrapers to add another percussive layer to the rhythm.

They share a Memory Song, a Harvest Song, a Song for Walking, and a Song About Unangan Values. Ugunuǧnaaǧnaagnaǧulux, ataqakun, an’gixtalix. It’s impossible not to tap your foot to the beat.

“Commemorating is not performing. It’s about keeping our story alive,” says Aqualina Lestenkof. “Today, when we walk down to East Landing, we are re-enacting the story.”

On Sunday, June 14, 1942 – seventy-five years ago today – the U.S. Army Transport vessel Delarof arrived at St. Paul Island in Alaska’s Pribilof Island archipelago. Interrupting an island baseball game, the authorities told the people: “You are being evacuated. You have one hour. You may bring one suitcase. Then you’ll board the ship at East Landing. Better get packing.”

The United States had been at war with Germany and Japan for just over six months. In early June 1942, Japan had attacked the Aleutian Islands, bombing the American military bases at Dutch Harbor, and invading Kiska and Attu. Forty-two residents of the village on Attu had been taken as prisoners of war, and transported to captivity in Japan. It is not a stretch of the imagination to say that the safety of other Aleutian and Pribilof Islanders was at risk. And so, the four hundred and seventy-seven St. Paul islanders packed their bags, their cardboard boxes, their flour sacks, and walked down to the ship.

“People didn’t have suitcases; they didn’t go anywhere,” says Aqualina, at today’s commemorative ceremony of the 75th Anniversary of the Evacuation. “Imagine that: taking one bag and carrying it down to East Landing. Getting on the Delarof, looking back, maybe for the last time, leaving this place that you love.” She has to pause for a moment. Tears spring to everyone’s eyes. “How do we grasp that story? It’s so big.”

The people boarded the Delarof, destination unknown. They spent eight days at sea, then landed at Admiralty Island on Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska, where they moved into an abandoned cannery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was in charge of the camp, and the St. Paul islanders were wards of the state. It may as well have been a different planet: giant trees, a rainforest environment with salmon, bears, and Sitka black-tailed deer. Unfamiliar surroundings, weather, plants, and animals.

Greg, who was a child during the evacuation, tells us what it was like: there was no fresh water supply. No cooking facilities. No beds, or partitions for privacy. No sanitation – people collected any kind of cans or containers they could find to use as honeybuckets. But soon their ingenuity took over and they built an outhouse over the tide zone so when the high tide came in it could take away the waste. They put together pipes for water, hung blankets for privacy, made beds out of chicken wire. “They built things, helped themselves.” The pride is evident in his voice. Greg quotes his mother-in-law, Mary Bourdukofsky, “Don’t forget who you are. Come together and work together.”

The St. Paul Islanders were interned at Funter Bay for two years. One out of ten died there, of measles, tuberculosis, flu, exposure, malnutrition. And yet, the fur seal harvest, a U.S. Government for-profit venture, continued even during war time. “They came and took the men back to the island to harvest seals in 1943, despite the dangers of Japanese attack, and left the women in the camp. If anything had happened to the men…” He shakes his head. “Let’s not let it happen again,” says Greg, quoting Mary B.

Jason, also a child during the evacuation, recounts a different part of the story. “The Tlingits [Native Alaskans] of Southeast Alaska brought fish to the Aleuts. Taught them how to fish and hunt in that area. Taught the St. Paul Islanders that we have freedoms that we didn’t know about. Even today, the Juneau dancers sing an Aleut song …about the birds flying… the Aleuts gave the song to them, gave them permission to use it.”

Aqualina tells us that those lessons about freedom came back to St. Paul Island when the islanders returned home. “Not only was it about the hardships, but when they returned they were a force to be reckoned with. They worked for four or five decades to gain the freedom that we have now.” Mary Bourdukofsky’s name comes up again and again. The island matriarch, her tireless work inspired many. “Might as well make use of myself,” she once told Aqualina. Carrying on the tradition, two younger women have taken over the planning of the annual commemoration event. “They are like this,” says Aqualina, interlocking her fingers in two loops, like links in a chain. The links go back in time, connecting us to the past, taking us into the future.

After the commemoration, we all walk together down to East Landing, carried by the drumbeats from Barbara and Aqualina’s big frame drums. Father John from the Russian Orthodox church gives a blessing at the commemorative plaque. Some of the people walk to the landing and place flowers in the water. There is grief and an honoring of the dead, as well as an acknowledgment of the strength of the survivors. Even under the weight of history and through the tears, there is a sense of pride. Music, laughter, playfulness, and lots of hugs balance (and even overwhelm) any lingering sadness.

At the end of the ceremony someone shouts, “Play ball!” In memory of that long-ago interrupted baseball game, the islanders go back to the playing field and pick up where their ancestors left off, all those years ago.

“What happened to us shouldn’t have happened to anybody. Maybe it helps to remind people. Americans need to stand up for each other.” — Mary Bourdukofsky, from a February 28, 2006 interview with the Seattle Times.


Walking (and riding) down to East Landing together.


Aqualina, with her drum and her “one packed bag.”


East Landing.


Father John gives a blessing.


The people who died at Funter Bay are still buried there. This plaque, located near East Landing, serves not only as a historical marker, but also as a memorial.


Mary Bourdukofsky, who later became a leader and matriarch figure in the community, was a young mother and only eighteen years old when the evacuation occurred.


Interpretive sign showing the routes of the Aleutian evacuations. St. Paul Islanders were not the only people to go through this experience. Note the arrows showing Attuans’ journey to Japan as POWs. (Source unknown.)

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No cloud touches the sky.
Instead of summer fog and driving wind, the Bering Sea gives diamonds.

Pup-sized, sun-bleached seal scapula lies at the top edge of the cliff.
Bones go to the earth
To the sea
To the animals and birds
To the plants
Death, rebirth, death again, birth again

Puffins dive, orange feet glowing underwater, sleek bodies gliding down, down for 38… 28… 27… Two puffins, two quick breaths on the surface, then diving together again.

Fur seals roar, moan, moo, growl, huff. Surf breaks over shining rocks, rhythm and motion. Crested auklets bark. Kittiwakes squeak. A fox yips five times, high lonesome sound. Five more. Five again.

Trident fish processing plant rumbles diesel. Airliner high up crosses over, Hong Kong to Anchorage.

Bumble bee, fly, spider travel a slower speed, a different dimension. Fox fur and feather float on the silent air currents.

Kelp is washed by the waves and warmed in the sun, iodine fragrance-of-the-sea. A whiff of guano drifts from the seabird cliffs. Foxes leave traces of musk and trouble as they travel along secret lines. Lupine, that sweet, wild pea, flowers with abandon.

Sea salt caresses all.


Posted in Alaska, Birds, Fauna, Flora, Islands, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , | 3 Comments