A Love Letter to My Friend BERTIE, Who Was Lost at Sea

“At approximately 8 pm on the evening of Wednesday, May 29th, 2019, our home and sailboat, The Bertie, was knocked down by a “White Squall,” and capsized, 65 miles offshore of the New Jersey coast. We were literally swamped and swallowed under within 60 seconds; water rushed in and we were catapulted off the boat and into the ocean. We were able to climb up on to the bottom of the boat and see if we could dive for the emergency epirb device. No luck, it just was not within reach for the breath we had. About 30 minutes later, the boat started to roll back up, leaving the port side with access, and miraculously with the epirb in view, we grabbed and activated it. That was the last offering of life that Bertie gave us. Peter built Bertie with his own hands and poured years of blood, sweat and tears into her being.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of the US Coast Guard, we are still alive! We were plucked from the water, placed in a basket, hoisted up to the helicopter and shuttled to the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center with nothing but our lives and just the clothes on our backs!”


I have lost a friend. Although I’m so thankful that Heidi and Peter are safe, my heart is broken. I ache for BERTIE, and for Heidi and Peter’s loss. Hand-built by Peter to the tiniest detail, BERTIE had the wooden hull of Joshua Slocum’s SPRAY, and the stern of Amundsen’s GJOA. Her rig included a 1,000 square foot Swatow Chinese junk mainsail. BERTIE was unique, truly one-of-a-kind. She was beautiful. And she was not just a boat; she was family.

For four weeks in the winter of 2018, I lived aboard BERTIE in Mexico. It’s an intimate thing, living on a boat. You and the other humans and the boat start out as friends, or maybe just acquaintances. Soon, you begin to operate as a community, then as a collection of symbiotic beings. If all goes well and it’s a good fit, you actually end up functioning as a single organism. I’m grateful and still a bit mystified by the way Heidi and Peter welcomed me into their BERTIE world, and how it just worked. I had looked forward to being part of that world again sometime soon. Now it will never happen.

From the skin of her hull to the top of her mast, I loved BERTIE. I can feel the warmth of her deck on the soles of my feet. The way she cleaned up nice when I dipped sea water out of the ocean with her canvas bucket, and sloshed and scrubbed her down. At night, when Heidi and Peter were below, I bathed myself under the starlight, first with sea water, then a fresh water rinse. I walked or simply stood on deck, while the warm breeze dried us both. It was my quiet time alone with BERTIE, before bed, when she would rock me to sleep.

I’m not sure how to write about grief. If you’ve ever lost someone you deeply loved, you’ll understand. So, I’ll share with you the last journal entry I wrote during my time with BERTIE. I really thought I would see her again.

Friday, March 9th, 2018: Today is my last full day on BERTIE, in Huatulco. I’m a bit sad, but excited about moving on, too.

I just got done slushing the mast. It feels good to give BERTIE some undivided attention, as a last farewell. Peter gave me some old bib overalls and a stained t-shirt to wear, and then I climbed in the bosun’s chair. He raised me up with the staysail halyard — all the way to the top of the mast. It was a little bit scary at first to be up so high (on a breezy day, too), but I quickly got used to it, and by the time I was back to the bottom, just above the mainsail cover, I was having fun.

I had the Bertie bucket tied next to me, with a jar of Vaseline and a t-shirt rag inside. My job was to scoop Vaseline out of the jar, smear it all over the mast, including the side I couldn’t see, and make sure to rub it into the cracks and any knots. This was done by feel, mostly, with my fingers smoothing the grease into every crevice, working it until it almost liquified. Then I wiped it all with the rag, polishing the wood. The end result is a perfect, varnished-looking shiny wooden mast. The Vaseline will keep water from soaking in, and I imagine it protects the wood from sun damage and drying, too. In the old days they’d use tallow. Peter calls Vaseline “yacht tallow” and “magic sauce.” They use it all over the boat, to grease the lines, and lubricate any squeaky or creaky bits. This is why all my clothes have grease spots on them: it’s almost impossible to be aboard for any length of time without receiving “Bertie kisses.”

BERTIE’S mast is Douglas fir. Like everything else on this boat, Peter hand-picked it with a fine eye for quality. This is the one he chose out of a mountain of six hundred Grade A pilings. So, in effect, I got to spend the morning with my arms and legs wrapped around a tree, which makes an old tree-hugger like me pretty happy. I got to give BERTIE lots of hugs. And I think that made her happy, too.

‘Til next time, my friend.


There’s a GoFundMe site set up to help Heidi and Peter recover from this tragedy. Click here if you’d like to contribute.

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Bertie Journal: Barnacles

February 23, 2018

The swell rocks us all night long, and although BERTIE is comfortable and solid, the motion is just a little bit too strong to allow for a good night’s sleep. Plus, I’m nervous about having to spend the day in the water, swimming with the sea snakes, scraping barnacles off the bottom. But it’s been on the To Do List all along, and one of the reasons I’m a part of the crew.

Why do we have to scrape the hull at this point in time? When we arrive in the Galápagos islands, a diver will inspect BERTIE below the waterline, to make sure we aren’t importing any alien life forms to the archipelago. This is just one of the requirements: it’s not easy, or affordable, to take a private sailboat to the Galápagos. When I researched before the trip, I found lots of blog posts where sailors complained about all the hoops they had to jump through. Some went so far as to claim that it’s a conspiracy of regulations geared to make it difficult for the independents, and easy for the cruise ship industry. Maybe that’s true, actually. I add up all the fees that our agent, Javier, tells us about. A vessel entry permit or “autografo” is $400 for a sixty-day visit; Javier’s agency fee is $150 for the boat and two people, plus $25 per additional person; there’s a $10 port captain fee, multiplied by the tonnage of your vessel, so for BERTIE that would be $230 bucks, I guess; a $100 representation fee for each port visited; $15.75 immigration fee each time you arrive or depart a port (double on weekends and local holidays); the vessel hull inspection performed by a diver, at $50 per person aboard; $100 biosecurity inspection; and a one-time $50 fuel permit fee. On top of all that, every tourist who visits the Galápagos, whether by plane or boat, has to pay a $20 migration fee and a $100 National Park entry fee. Then there’s the “Miscellaneous Fees” category where they can tack on extra stuff without warning. On Javier’s list of fees, the one listed as biosecurity agency says in parentheses “sanity inspection.” I know it’s a typo, but can’t help laughing.

Visiting the Galápagos by private boat is restrictive, too. When I found out that we would not be allowed to take BERTIE anywhere in the islands except the four main cities, I seriously considered not going. Part of the joy of sailing, for me, is the ability to anchor the boat and go ashore in the dinghy to explore the land. Known as “gunkholing,” it’s kind of similar to using your parked RV as basecamp while you go on long day hikes into wilder regions. But the Galápagos is not a gunkholing kind of place. Anchoring is prohibited anywhere outside the ports, presumably to reduce damage to the corals and other marine habitats. You’re not even allowed to cruise around the islands, but instead must go directly from port to port. And using your own dinghy to go ashore in the port cities is impossible, or at least discouraged. (No dock space, sea lions will trash your dinghy, etc.) It’s ironic — almost insulting — for cruisers to anchor in “town” and then pay to take a boat ride to visit the other sites and/or islands.


A map of the Galápagos Islands. BERTIE will be allowed to visit Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Puerto Ayora, Puerto Vilamil, and Puerto Velasco Ibarra. (Map by Shane O’Dwyer, from Wildlife of the Galápagos by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking.)

While seriously hampering the freedom-loving style of cruisers, I can see how all these rules are important, both to keep the ecosystem safe, and also to support the local tourism-based economy. I hope the fees are actually used for their intended purpose, and it’s not all just some kind of racket.

And, hoops that protect the integrity of ecosystems: these are the kind I’m willing to jump through. Even though no agency or government requires me to do it, I already clean all the mud and seeds off my boots before I travel to a new region or country. I make sure my tent and camping gear are clean, too. After fifteen years spent in a land stewardship role at conservancies, I’ve done my time on invasive species management: pulling, digging, cutting, herbiciding, burning… and I’ve seen first-hand the ecological devastation non-native plants and animals cause. The very last thing I want to do is introduce a new invasive species to the Galápagos. So, I’ll gladly spend a little time scraping barnacles off BERTIE’s hull.

I’m nervous for another reason. We’ve already checked out of Mexico, and are not supposed to go ashore again. This bottom-scraping is our last task. Then we can take off, sailing “one foot on the beach” past the Gulf of Tehuantepec, and setting out across the open ocean. I’ve only done one ocean-crossing before. Then, in the midst of gales and seasickness, I vowed, “I’m not doing this again.” Now, I wonder, why am I breaking my promise to myself? But surely, an equatorial voyage in a heavy wooden boat will be quite different from a North Atlantic crossing during hurricane season… won’t it?

We are all awake and up early. The plan is that Heidi and I will wear masks and snorkels, and scrape the upper parts of the hull. Peter will dive deeper, cleaning the keel while he breathes compressed air through a hookah rig. He was awake at about 4:00 am, getting his coffee and breakfast finished so he could set everything up. The hookah rig uses a gas-powered generator to run an air compressor. A mouthpiece on the end of the air hose looks like a scuba setup, but does not include a regulator. “Never hold your breath, that’s the key,” says Peter. “If you let the pressure build up, it could rupture a lung. Or if you surface too fast, or go below 33 feet deep (which is one atmosphere of pressure), that would also be BAD. Embolisms and such.” I will not be using the hookah rig.


The Honda gasoline generator runs power to the air compressor.


The air compressor and air hose.


Hookah rig mouthpiece.


Peter all geared up and ready to jump in.

My costume for the day is a mask and snorkel, a long-sleeve rash shirt, a pair of Heidi’s tights, my bathing suit underneath, mis-matched swim fins borrowed from BERTIE, cotton gardening gloves with rubberized palms (worn on opposite hands so the rubber is on the backs, not on the palms), and, on a cord around my neck, three plastic scrapers of various sizes and a black scrubby square.


My barnacle-scraping costume.


We use plastic scrapers so we don’t gouge BERTIE’s wooden hull or bottom paint.

We’re all in the water by 8:00 AM. The swell is still strong, and I’m afraid at first that all twenty-three of BERTIE’s tons will come crashing down on my head. But it turns out that if I work with the swell it is actually helpful, as the movement exposes more of BERTIE’s hull, and I can reach deeper down. My left hand acts as a reference point on BERTIE’s side, much like I would steady a big draft horse while grooming it. The light contact between my hand and the hull is just enough to carry me along with BERTIE when she moves. I scrape barnacles with my right. It’s a liquid world, and we’re all sloshing around in it together.

It’s cool to see BERTIE from below; a totally different perspective. She is a big-bottomed gal. Like an iceberg, it looks as if most of BERTIE’s surface area is below the waterline. There’s a lot of work to do. We need to make sure every little speck of marine life is scraped away. Fortunately, BERTIE was hauled out not too long ago, so doesn’t have much growth on her wooden hull.


BERTIE, hauled out and with fresh bottom paint, in November 2017. (Photo from BERTIE’s Facebook page.)

It ends up being fun. The plastic scraper slides along the hull, with a satisfying crunchy release when the barnacles give way and break loose. They drift gently downward, sinking out of view to the bottom, sixty feet below. Peter’s exhaled bubbles rise up around me. I’m absorbed in the work, and am just about ready to take off my snorkel so I can free-dive deeper down, but Peter is climbing aboard and calls for a break. I’m surprised to find out we’ve been in the water for ninety minutes.

As Peter removes the hookah rig mouthpiece, he says, “I’m tired. For the first time, I’m feeling my age.”

“I don’t know many seventy-somethings who could keep up with you, Peter. There probably aren’t even very many 20-somethings who could.”

“It’s not easy hanging on down there. I had my legs wrapped around the keel, riding the surge.”

We all catch our breath and enjoy the sun for a minute, tuning out. I’m surprised a few minutes later to see Peter back in the water, already halfway over to SAPPHIRE.

“Where’s he going?” I ask Heidi. He’s been so focused on getting BERTIE underway, I wouldn’t think he’d choose this moment to go for a recreational swim. “He didn’t say anything.”

“I guess he’s going for a visit.”

“Well, I wanna go, too!”

We both get back into the water and head over to SAPPHIRE. Elina and Greg are very welcoming, give us towels and show us around. We tour their spotless, shiny, super non-BERTIE yacht – no grease! No end-of-the-world supply of provisions! No visible tools or cans of paint or workbenches or stacks of lumber! No vintage World War II parts! The contrast is remarkable. While I enjoy a visit on SAPPHIRE, BERTIE’s got my heart.

Heidi and I are below, checking out the Sapphires’ bookshelves, when Peter jumps off the boat and swims back to BERTIE. He’s acting a little weird.

We wrap up our visit and head back to our boat. As I swim to BERTIE’s side, I shout up, “Hey, Peter, could you pass me my scrapers and snorkel?” I’m eager to get back to work on the barnacles.

“Nope. Come aboard. We’re going to Huatulco. I’ll explain everything.”

I’m shocked. Why in the world would we go to Huatulco? I have to swim around to the other side of the boat to the ladder. I’m still in the water when Peter says, “I recently found a lump under my breast and Elina felt it. She told me I should get it checked out. I’m sorry if it fucks up the trip.”

Posted in Boats, Conservation, Galapagos, Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized, Work | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bertie Journal: Sailing to the Galápagos

February 22, 2018

Life on BERTIE continues to feel like an awful lot of work without much recreation time. Today’s visit with the Sapphires was especially appreciated, because it was a break in the semi-routine of cleaning, swabbing, cooking, thinking and talking about food, shopping, inventorying, stowing, doing dishes, and prepping the boat for a long passage. I hope that once we get to the Galápagos we will have a better balance of work-to-recreation time.

This is what landlubbers misunderstand about cruising life: it’s not a vacation. In spite of the sunblock and skimpy clothes, I feel less like I’ve been on vacation this week than I do in my normal life back at home. A regular day on board BERTIE might include painting, grease, carpentry, or electrical work. Although the daily chores are similar to housekeeping, if you let something slide in boat maintenance, you could sink at any moment, or wreck against the shore.


While we were still moored in Acapulco, I had a perfect moment that illustrated the difference between cruising and vacation lifestyles. Peter had assigned me the job of greasing the main halyard. It was only my fifth day in Mexico, so I was wearing tights and a baggy long-sleeved shirt of Peter’s to cover my lily-white skin. Both garments had already been blessed with “Bertie kisses,” i.e. grease stains. A big floppy hat completed my attire. Climbing around on the main boom so I could reach the halyard, I felt like a nautical grease-monkey. A motor-yacht passed by, with bikini-clad, tanned supermodels lounging about on deck. I waved at them with my calloused, greasy hand. Some of them gave me the stink-eye. Some of them just looked blank. No one waved. I don’t think they had a category in their brains for a woman like me.

I’m certainly not complaining about working on BERTIE. This is exactly the trip I signed up for, and a more-than-fair deal. Heidi and Peter, full time cruisers, invited me to live with them on BERTIE for the Mexico-to-Galápagos leg of their life’s journey. I will pay for my round trip airfare from home to Mexico, then Galápagos home; help with passage preparation; do regular chores on board; and, most importantly, take my turn standing watch while we sail the two-week open ocean crossing. I’ve also researched Galápagos Island day trips; picked out field guide books; learned about what season it is in the Galápagos and what animals might be around; and will be the on-board naturalist once we get to the islands. There are thirty-three islands in the archipelago, and each one has been known by at least two names in its history. Day trips depart from four main port cities. Sorting it all out was very confusing at first. I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of all the different islands, which city was on which island, and where to go (for example) to see penguins at this time of year. Before I ever stepped aboard BERTIE, I’d already served some time in my nerdy ecotour travel agent role.

For the Berties’ side of our arrangement, in exchange for my labors they will provide my room and board; cover all of BERTIE’s maintenance, fuel, moorage, and administrative costs; hire the required agent in the Galápagos; and pay for all permits and fees. My only expenses should be water taxis, tours on shore, and extras like booze and souvenirs. I won’t have to pay for hotels or food once we arrive in the islands. This is perhaps the most affordable way possible to get to the Galápagos Islands, and then spend time there.


A typical meal aboard BERTIE, featuring fresh seafood and local produce.

Underlying all of these somewhat mundane details, my motivation is pretty strong for sailing, rather than flying, to the Galápagos. For the last decade or so, my feelings about recreational travel – especially so-called ecotourism – have been conflicted. Burning up tons of carbon so I can go see the “last great places before they are gone” seems incredibly selfish and short-sighted. While we will use some fuel on BERTIE, the vast majority of our trip will be under sail power. Clean, silent, and carbon-neutral. It feels good.


BERTIE, self-steering, quiet, and no fossil fuels used.

Heidi and I went for a swim this afternoon – my first swim in Mexico! – but it was a gear check for tomorrow’s bottom-scraping, not just for fun. Tonight, salty from the ocean, I did a freshwater rinse out on deck before bed. Using a bowl with about a liter of water in it, a washcloth, and a Sierra cup, I stood under the starry night sky and washed the salt off my skin, then air dried. A waxing crescent moon hung above, sullied by not a single electric light. For years, I’ve lived in the high latitudes, wearing woolly long underwear even during the summer months. This night, naked, feeling the breeze on my skin, not a trace of a chill – it’s my exquisite reward.

Posted in Boats, Conservation, Culture, Galapagos, Islands, Mexico, Travel, Uncategorized, Work | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Bertie Journal: Sapphire

February 22, 2018

We weigh anchor at 1000 hours, to depart Puerto Angel, heading toward a more sheltered anchorage where we’ll be able to scrape the bottom. Heidi and I haul and flake the heavy ½” anchor chain. At least we don’t have to pull the anchor and chain up out of the ocean by hand- and back-strength alone. Peter’s scrounging in the Sausalito shipyards years ago helps us out today, since BERTIE’S foredeck is graced with a Nevins windlass from a WWII sub-chaser. This gives us some mechanical advantage. But we still have to crank the windlass by hand, and flake the chain onto the deck by hand, being careful not to crush fingers or toes, or to catch any lines underneath.


We greased the heavy-duty Nevins windlass before leaving our Acapulco mooring; gotta keep all of BERTIE’S parts running smoothly.

I climb out onto the bowsprit to remove the sail covers off the staysail, carefully stepping on the knots where the stirrups and footropes are joined. Meanwhile, Peter is steering and Heidi raises six of the seven panels of the junk mainsail, using the 2-ton winch, another gift from the shipyard. I’m not sure how we would raise the mainsail without it, but the winch is the one thing on the boat that scares the hell out of me. If it let loose and you were in the way, the rapidly spinning handle could take off an arm or a hand or your head. Plus, the boom and the mainsail would be crashing down at the same moment.


BERTIE’S WWII-era two-ton winch for the mainsail halyard. This winch (or similar) was the part that lowered the “front door” of landing craft personnel boats when they made beach landings in Normandy.

We are motor-sailing now, towards Huatulco. Peter and I each have a cold beer to celebrate our departure. Sadly, the beer will soon be gone, no mas until Galápagos…

While Peter is on deck, Heidi and I go below into the fo’c’sle and get busy re-doing the Ditch Bag. We unpack the old falling-apart one, take everything out, inventory it, and re-pack it all into a new dry bag. The Ditch Bag will go into the “life raft,” which is actually the usual dinghy that’s stored on deck. If, God forbid, something happened and we had to abandon ship while we’re on the crossing to the Galápagos, we’d be ready to hop into the dinghy with everything we’d need for survival. Heidi and I stock the Ditch Bag with water, high energy foods, a medical kit, a sewing kit, spare glasses, hats, sunblock, fishing kit, a radio, batteries… the list goes on and on. We check expiration dates, test the batteries, make sure everything works. I’m starting to regret that beer I had; for the first time on BERTIE, I’m feeling a bit seasick. But maybe it’s because we’ve been below deck all this time, in the stuffy fo’c’sle, while underway in the swell, reading fine print, with the engine running. Or maybe it’s the idea of the three of us floating around in a dinghy, somewhere between mainland South America and New Zealand. Scenes from adrift-at-sea movies (Life of Pi, All Is Lost, Kon-Tiki, Castaway, Unbroken) run through my head.

It’s a relief when we arrive in Bahia India and set our anchor, after motoring most of the way. Huatulco is just down the coast, but if we accomplish our hull-cleaning mission, we won’t need to go there at all. Bahia India is absolutely beautiful, totally undeveloped, with rocky outcrops and a long sandy beach. The intense sunshine mellows into late afternoon. But if anything the swell is worse here than it was in Puerto Angel. I am dreading the bottom-scraping task, as I think it’s possible we’ll get bashed to bits when BERTIE rolls on a big one.


Our only neighbor at Bahia India, S/V SAPPHIRE.

There’s another cruiser already here at anchor, SAPPHIRE from Bainbridge Island, Washington. After we get some of our chores done, we notice a swimmer approaching from that direction, and soon the Sapphires, Greg and Elina, are removing their swim fins and climbing aboard BERTIE. This is one of those moments when I have a reality check: how different my life is today than it would have been if I’d stayed home in Alaska. Swimming to the neighbors’! Greg and Elina drip-dry on deck in the Mexican sun, we have a drink and a very pleasant visit. Of course, they have friends in common with Peter and Heidi, since Port Townsend and Bainbridge Island are only a little over an hour’s drive (or a day-sail) apart. We are now more than 3,000 miles away from that neck of the woods, but somehow it isn’t surprising that we’ve ended up here together in the same little anchorage. The Sapphires and the Berties get along just fine, and in fact seem like old friends. Elina gives us each a hug and a kiss on the cheek before putting her fins back on, climbing over the rail, and jumping backwards into the water to swim home.

In the early evening, Heidi and I notice a disturbance in the water, which rapidly approaches BERTIE. The surface roils and splashes, a mass of something heading our way. “I think it’s a fish-boil,” says Heidi, but as the creatures approach we can see clearly through the water that they are not fish, but SNAKES. They are fortunately not the highly venomous yellow variety, but still. A seasnake-boil? I’ve never heard of such a thing. I am astounded — not for the first time — by the both the intricacies and the unknown wonders of this planet. How can it be such a small, close-knit world; at the same time so vast and uncharted? One ocean can hold not only our new/old friends the neighborly, swimming Sapphires — but also a seasnake-boil.


Sunrise at Bahia India.




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Bertie Journal: Puerto Angel

February 21, 2018 (Part 2)

A fleet of pangas is moored in the cove, at least 140 at a quick glance, and more are pulled up onto the beach. Puerto Angel, Mexico: palm trees, thatched roofs, people fishing from the rocky headland cliffs. A chapel painted white with blue trim matches the color scheme of many of the boats. Its white cross and bell tower stand out against the green vegetation, looking somehow Greek (rather than Mexican) to my untrained eye.

IMG_2998 (2)

A very quaint Puerto Angel, Mexico — especially in comparison to Acapulco.

Heidi showed me how to furl the headsails and put the sail covers on as we were coming into the anchorage. This involves clipping into the lifeline and climbing out onto the bowsprit; interesting and a bit scary, too. It made me feel very nautical. Heidi knows what she is doing, climbing around out there, and hauling the heavy anchor chain by hand. She’s a bad-ass. Peter got “captainy” after we were at anchor, solving a wee issue with the staysail sheet being caught under the anchor chain. We are all tired from our three-day passage with the four-on/four-off watch schedule.

A local guy in a panga went by just after we’d anchored, put his hand on his heart and said, “mi casa es su casa.” Showing up in a foreign harbor on the very distinctive BERTIE, I imagine we get quite a different reception than the typical bleach-bottle gin-and-tonic yachties!


Local fishermen heading out just before sunset.



I swabbed the decks, Heidi is cooking dinner, and Peter is in the cabin using the internet. The sun set a while ago, and dusk is fast overtaking Puerto Angel. Pangas are heading out to do some night fishing — without lights, as usual. Fifty-five pelicans just flew into town. A big kettle of Black and Turkey Vultures were circling earlier, in the heat of the afternoon. An evening chorus of songbirds calls out raucously from the palm thicket right above the beach. The light here is beautiful and the air is so much cleaner than it was in Acapulco. I wish I had a local guide and more than a few stray moments snatched away from chores so I could go ashore and do some serious birding, photography, and writing. Alas, this is a part of shipboard life. I feel a bit like Stephen Maturin, the naturalist/surgeon from Patrick O’Brian’s novels, gazing longingly at an inaccessible shore filled with unexplored, inestimable wonders.

We will leave here in the morning, heading further down the coast to Huatulco, in search of a more sheltered anchorage. BERTIE is rocking and rolling here due to a heavy swell, and wakes from the panga traffic. We’ll need to find a more sheltered spot for our bottom-cleaning task.

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy a good night’s sleep at anchor, after our two nights on watch out at sea. I’m glad I’m not the captain or first mate, since they’ll have to keep one ear and one eye open all night, just in case the anchor drags, we get boarded by pirates, or any other emergencies crop up.


BERTIE at anchor in Puerto Angel.

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Times Change

A friend stopped by the garden yesterday afternoon, while I was thinning my carrots. “Did you grow up on a farm?” he asked. “No, not really… but we had a big garden when I was a kid, and my Aunt Sue and Uncle Rick had a dairy farm so I’d go and help them milk the cows and feed the chickens…” This led to his next question: “Have you ever plucked a chicken?” (I was starting to wonder where we were going with this.) “Um, yes, a couple of times…” I said. “It’s not my favorite thing to do…” His face showed his thoughts clearly, that plucking chickens probably isn’t anybody’s favorite thing to do.

Turns out an hour or two later I was helping him kill and pluck chickens. I got paid — with a chicken, which is now in a pot. Seldovia continues to surprise me. Such a variety of opportunities and experiences available!

I could feel the presence of my poor grandmother, who survived my decade-of-vegetarianism (and even custom-cooked dishes for me at family gatherings, using separate spoons and all), up there in heaven rolling her eyes.

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Five hundred years ago, people loved this place. We know this by the things they left behind: the bones and shells of halibut, salmon, chitons, clams, and mussels. We know they came here to the clifftops, and stood under the big trees – just like we do today. They gazed at the view, watched the volcanoes, saw the play of light and wind on the water – just like we do today. They felt the breeze blow in from the ocean, they smelled the spruce trees and salt air, they built fires and visited with friends – just like we do today.

Five hundred years, a thousand years, more. Through all this time, the eagles have watched. They look down from their perches, they make forays to the slough to catch ducks, they dance and fight in the air. They care for their young and defend their home. They call out in their jagged sharp squeaky voices. The nest is hard to see. Even after you have found it, even after you know where it is.

The path leads downhill, toward the sea. Water flows down, too, from the deep moss forest. We go with the flow, walking down, past the wild geraniums, past the chocolate lilies, past the beach greens. We pause there, and reach down… taste them. Bitter-green-fresh. At the base of the cliff, the creek runs to the sea, sweet water mixing with salt. Nori grows on the slippery rocks here; reach down… taste it. Sea-salt-fresh.

Pigeon Guillemots float on the surface of the ocean, bright black, white, and red, only the simplest colors. They whistle and call to each other in musical trills. They climb out onto the rocks; then they dive deep; return from hunting and in their bills hold fish, as though reluctant to give them up. Treasures, hard-won, they’ll give to their chicks, hidden in crevices in the cliffs.

A kingfisher’s staccato call draws our attention upward. He flies away from us, along the shoreline. Waiting until we look the other way, he returns, silently, back to the burrow. Concealed in the sandy bank at the very top of the cliff, the burrow is nestled into the roots of a spruce tree, but we can’t tell exactly where. We watch, eyes averted, waiting for movement. When the bird flies out of the hole, a thrill runs through us. We found the nest! It’s a moment worthy of a high-five, but instead we quietly look at each other, eyes wide with joy and wonder.

We feel like we’re the first to discover this place. We are the only ones who know it’s here, we are the only ones who know it so intimately.

Bones and seashells and artifacts spill out of an ancient midden, here, at this cliff. The midden proves that others came before us. Just like us, they found themselves in this sacred place. Just like us, they learned and lived and loved here.

A thousand years ago, and a thousand more.

Posted in Alaska, Birds, Culture, Seldovia, Subsistence, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments