Rainforest

Our hike begins with a plunge through knee-deep glacial meltwater. We’ll be out here for at least eight hours, and I’d rather not hike in soaking wet XtraTufs all day, so I take off my boots and socks, roll up my pants legs, and pick my way gingerly through the rocks to the grassy estuarine edge. I hope I don’t get sliced up by barnacles, but the water is cold enough that my feet are numb and I may not even notice at the moment. This could be a really dumb move; maybe I’ll be lucky. Most of the other hikers in our group have simply walked through the water with their lightweight hiking shoes on, resigned to being wet already, this early in the day.

The new Tutka Backdoor Trail doesn’t extend quite all the way to a versatile water taxi landing spot yet, so we have to improvise. Depending on the tide (in this case it’s at about thirteen feet, and coming in) pickup and drop-off sites will vary for this hike, until the trail extension can be built. It’ll be low tide after our hike today, so we’ll have to get on the water taxi in a different spot farther out in the bay, where the water is deeper.

 

4TutkaBay

Near the head of Tutka Bay, glassy calm waters and misty mountains.

5Waterfall

Waterfall on the north side of the bay.

6RangerBrad

Kachemak Bay State Park Ranger Brad offers suggestions as to where our water taxi should land.

The head of Tutka Bay is strewn with dead and dying pink salmon, their humpy-backed carcasses draped over rocks, barnacle beds, and grass flats. Many more are still alive, drawing their spawned-out bodies up-river, up-stream, up-country. Their dorsal fins and the tips of their tails stick up above the surface of the braided streams. Glaucous-winged gulls and black-legged kittiwakes gather in great numbers on the bay, for once in their lives well-fed.

13Humpies

All spawned out.

After wading through the flats, we rendezvous on slightly higher ground, go around the circle and share names. We’re a mixed group of nine folks and from Homer and four from Seldovia, representing both sides of Kachemak Bay. Christina Whiting, the State Park’s volunteer coordinator, has put together this event, where we will explore the brand-new trail, and do a bit of trail work. It’s called the “Backdoor” because it starts on the populous Kachemak Bay side of the southern Kenai Peninsula and goes up, over, and across the mountains to the backdoor wilderness Gulf of Alaska side. Bret “Hig” Higman (along with two other trail parents, Erin McKittrick and Jeff Lee) was instrumental in the permitting, design, and construction of the trail. Hig tells us about the process of creating a new trail through the wilderness.

 

7Beginning

We would all do well to emulate Hig’s style: Goretex jacket, fleece jacket underneath, a drybag for his camera, light hiking shoes with thin wool socks, and TOTAL ACCEPTANCE of having wet feet all day long.

8SalmonWalk

We pick our way through the salmon. We don’t know it yet, but this will be a persistent theme today.

We enter the forest. It is raining. Sound gets tamped down, padded by moss. All the hikers grow quiet, slow down, breathe deeply, absorbed into the many shades of green. And the trees! It is good to be back among them, after a summer on the Bering Sea. I marvel, not for the first time, at the diversity and wondrous beauty of this planet. Two very different expressions of tree-ness: great magnificent vegetative beings of the rainforest; St. Paul Island’s tiny maritime tundra willows, the size of my pinky finger.

9Moss

Rainforest hush.

Moss, lichen, mushrooms. Running water, bear trails, salmonberry. There are salmon everywhere: in the trickling creeks, in the brambles, in the forest pools. Most of them are humpies, but a few reds catch the eye, a miracle of color in the lush green.  I am reminded of a painting by Alaska artist Ray Troll, “Deep Forest.”

10Red

Red (sockeye) salmon in a forest pool. Raindrops splashing down hard.

10Creekcrossing

My feet are still dry! Michaela and I cross one of the many tributary creeks. Photo by Christina Whiting.

We climb up and over a small ridge, through the ferns and devil’s club. Alaska’s September autumn colors are delicate and subtle, not like a deciduous forest’s, but they shine through the rain. Edible hedgehog mushrooms and deadly poisonous amanitas revel in the moisture.

11FernsDevilsClub

Ferns and devil’s club.

The trail follows the edge of the river for a bit. Alder thickets could hide bears, but there are enough of us humans in this big group that I’d guess any bear is long gone. Three winter-plumage Spotted Sandpipers flush from the edge of the water and flutter-fly upstream. When they land they bob their tails. A Belted Kingfisher makes its rat-a-tat-tat call.

12River

One branch of the Tutka River.

We re-enter the woods, and cross another knee-deep tributary. Salmon, both living and dead, are underfoot, both in the water and on the land. They splash around, are stranded in piles, scattered through the trees, lying across the trail. Bright pink roe spills out of the females. The eyeballs are the choice bits, and so they get eaten first. Empty eye sockets stare blankly at the white sky. Fish are dissolving, melting down like Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” painting. Soft parts go away, leaving only white backbones and spikey ribs.

We climb up, up, up. This was billed as an “easy” hike, but even the Austrian who spent her childhood climbing the Alps says it is not easy. Everything is relative, and I have found over the last few years that Seldovians, especially those who grew up amidst the mud, devil’s club, slippery boulders, stair-master root-ball trails, and dayhikes to the alpine zone, are superhuman — perhaps even mythical – in their hiking abilities. I don’t trust any of them anymore when they say something is “easy.” But I still take every opportunity I get to go out hiking with them.

 

17Tundra

It was tempting to stop when we first reached the tundra, for botanizing and snacking on lowbush blueberries and crowberries.

14Ridge

The final ascent approaching Lunch Mountain, approximately three miles from the trailhead at Tutka Bay.

 

18LunchMt

Lunch Mountain, at 1,200 feet elevation. Not much of a view today, but still a beautiful spot.

I’m super happy to be here, and relatively comfortable, but am observing that I miscalculated when I made my clothing choices for this hike. It’s been raining the whole time, and somewhere in the low- to mid-fifties. My Marmot raingear failed a while ago, and my backpack isn’t waterproof at all. Plus, it’s too heavy. Why did I even bring my binoculars? My camera will survive the rain, mud, and spruce sap, I hope. I’m too warm when I’m climbing up the mountain, but cold when I get to the top and take a break. And I’ll probably get chilled on the ride home. Next time I will bring a drybag and stash it in the trees at the trailhead, so I’ll have a change of clothes at the end of the hike. Cashmere, merino, and fleece: yes. Cotton: no.

Giddy and tired on the way down. The group of hikers spreads out. Some of us get to hike alone for half an hour or more. The solitude is a welcome change. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Black-capped Chickadees squeak and chitter, hidden in the thick vegetation. A Fox Sparrow perches where I can take a nice long look. I nibble blueberries and look at plants, stop for a chocolate and water break. Now I am lonely, and wait up for the next hiker back. Eventually a group of similarly-paced women, four of us, non-superhumans, end up hiking together. The companionship, like the solitude, is a lovely gift.

19Almost

Almost done! These are my new friends, from the Homer side. We are pretty tuckered out. I think Quito the dog expresses it most eloquently with her body language.

20ToregaPickup

Pickup by Bay Excursions water taxi M/V Torega.

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Posted in Alaska, Art, Birds, Boats, Flora, Seldovia, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cloudberry

Start with a blackberry, but take away all the purple flavors, prickly vines, and heaviness that come with deep dark forests. Get down on your knees (yes, like you are praying) and smell the ancient volcanic soil, willow fluff, and lichens. Feel the big northern sky arching above you, so close you can almost touch it, because you are high — both in latitude and altitude. Maybe in attitude, too. Taste the precious autumn sunlight absorbed in the golden ripeness. Add a bit of orange, maybe kiwi, and crunchy seeds. Enjoy them right there, out on the tundra. They melt on your tongue. If you try to carry them downhill to your kitchen in town, or to share them with others, they will be mush by the time you get there — crushed under their own weight of sweetness. In which case, you make jam.

Posted in Alaska, Culture, Flora, Subsistence, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Seal Harvest

“To request seal: Call the Tribal Government the day before the scheduled harvest from which you want seal. Requests for seal will be limited to a maximum of 5 seals per individual per harvest. The Tribal Government insists that the physically able and non-elderly join in the volunteer harvest, at the very least to get their requested seal. Only requests from Elders will be filled and delivered by the volunteers of the harvest. Please note that the Tribal Government does not ship seal meat off island. Non-tribal members are welcome to observe the harvest. Harvest observation permits can be obtained from the Tribal Government Office during normal business hours. Please obtain a permit the day before the scheduled harvest.”

I’d been hearing these announcements on the radio for a couple of weeks, along with the dates of the subsistence harvests, and had seen the path of crushed vegetation near the Zapadni Rookery where seals had been herded. I was curious to see what it was all about, but had some trepidation regarding actually watching the process. In spite of eating wild game and farm-raised meat now and then, I’d never hunted or slaughtered a mammal. In fact, other than fish, a couple of chickens, mosquitoes, flies, and so on, I’d never seen a human being kill an animal. I wasn’t sure how I would react.

Nature is bloody, though, and I’ve been a witness. Already this summer I’d seen dead Arctic foxes and seabirds; a living fur seal with half of his face torn off; another seal with terrible puncture wounds, probably from an orca; and a violent mating between a huge beachmaster male fur seal and a female who was just a fraction of his weight.

 

MaleFemalePup

A beachmaster, several females, and a pup. This pup is about three weeks old.

ReefBlind

The viewing blind at Reef Rookery. Seals will sometimes be underneath the blind. This allows for very close observation! 

Non-breeding fur seals can be playful and calm; in the rookery, it’s another matter. There’s a lot of shoving and pushing, gesturing and yelling. Males bite and wound other males when they compete for mates, males and females bite while they’re mating, females bite each other even in the midst of giving birth, females bite pups who try to nurse from the wrong mother. Pups get crushed to death underneath the big males. The rookery is filled with sounds of roaring, growling, and territorial coughing. I’d spent a fair amount of time watching the seals from the island viewing blinds, and felt I was starting to grasp at least a little bit about what seal rookery life is like.

Beachmasters

Two beachmasters in the middle of a territorial battle.

I had less of a sense of the relationship between the seals and the islanders, though. The subsistence seal harvest is an essential cultural aspect of life on St. Paul Island. In order to better understand this place and its people, I needed to see how it was done.

I went to the Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO), and got my “Permit to Observe the Subsistence Fur Seal Harvest.” The woman who works at the front desk read it out loud to me before I signed it, just to make sure I understood all the rules. No photos or recording equipment. Do what the Harvest Foreman says. Don’t interfere, physically or verbally, with the harvesters. If written documentation is produced, provide a copy of it to the Aleut Community of St. Paul before publishing. Observe from the parking area.

I signed my name on the line.

Friday, July 28: I take my copy of the permit and drive to the ECO parking lot by 8:15 am. People are sitting in their trucks, but also standing around in the parking lot in little groups, drinking coffee, chatting, smoking cigarettes. Kids play tag, running around all the vehicles. The wardrobe is Alaska work-casual: Xtratufs and Muck Boots, jeans, and black and navy-blue hoodies. The hoodies say “CBSFA” (Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association) and “Unangan” on the back. I sit in my truck, listening to KUHB radio. “Shine On” by Humble Pie comes on, and I can hear it playing in a couple of the other cars. After a solid month of rain and fog, it seems like a good way to start the day. Miraculously, it’s not raining.

At 8:41, the convoy starts pulling out. Twelve pickups, two stake trucks, and two or three cars make their way out of town. The seal harvests rotate among the various rookeries, and I don’t know which one we’ll be visiting today. I’m hoping it won’t be Lukanin. I’ve been driving by there lately, parking and watching the young males wrestle and spar. The dune grasses are mashed down and have turned golden brown, so it looks like a bed of fresh straw. Beach sunflowers are in bloom, and their fragrance floats in the window while I watch the seals. Just two nights ago, I realized that not all the seals were bachelors. A male and female were having a tender moment. They both seemed young, and were almost evenly matched in size. Maybe because of the beach straw, maybe because it was obviously love, true love, I thought of them as Farm Boy and Buttercup.

FarmBoyButtercup

Farm Boy and Buttercup. “As you wish.”

We drive out of town and don’t turn right at the gas station, so I think “Oh, good it’s not Lukanin.” But my heart sinks when the line of vehicles does take the next right, on the other end of Black Diamond Hill Road. It will be Lukanin, after all. I say a prayer for Farm Boy. He might be about the right size for harvest. I send him a telepathic message: “Swim away, little buddy! Get outta here!”

The chain of vehicles stops for a while, lined up on Black Diamond Hill Road. “Long as I Can See the Light,” a Joe Cocker cover of a CCR tune, plays on the radio. I feel excited, a little euphoric, and nervous. I’m not sure what’s happening, since there’s a hill blocking my view. As a complete outsider, no one is telling me how this works. I just have to go with the flow. It doesn’t take long before we all start up again. We drive to the end of the road, pass the now-deserted beach with its empty bed of straw, and go uphill to the harvest field. There are the seals! They’ve already been herded into a tight knot. I missed it somehow. Three men stand, equally spaced apart on the far side of the herd, keeping the seals gathered together. We park the cars in one long row, on the near side of the seals, forming a wall of sorts. I park way down at the very end, away from the action.

The seals are snorting, as they usually do, their steamy breath floating away on the cool morning air. They don’t seem especially alarmed or stressed out. I count at least forty-five, but there are probably a lot more. I can see the tops of the heads of the ones who are standing upright, but the tall tundra grasses hide many others who are in more prone positions. Only the young males get harvested. I wonder if Farm Boy is among the herd. At least he found love. Maybe started a pup with Buttercup.

I’m parked far enough away to be able to catch bits of conversation, but not all the details. It’s someone’s birthday, and I think I hear, “It wouldn’t be your birthday without flipper!” Also: “She didn’t want throat, she wanted intestines.” And, “Your mom’s doing seal?” And, “Do you want a liver?”

Around 9:10 am, everyone gets geared up, pulling on Grundéns jackets and bibs. A few people wear rubber gloves. There is laughter and joking. It feels a bit like a tailgate party. Five young, strong, men pick up long sticks. The sticks look like baseball bats, only they’re about five feet long. Pale blue cowbells, which can be slipped over the end of the stick, rest about halfway down the length. A turn of the wrists and the bells clank. The men approach the seal herd.

“Cut them out.” Using the long sticks, the men (like cowboys or sheepdogs) separate a few seals from the herd. This small subgroup, or pod, of seals is pushed toward the humans, while the main bunch of seals is still in the original herd. The guys clank their cowbells and yell, “Hubba! Hubba! Hubba!”

“Incoming,” they shout. “Three, we need three.”

“Too big. No. This one! This one!” The harvesters select the seals who are the right size and age.

The sticks, transformed into clubs now, thump down. Once, twice, done. Once, twice, done. And again: once, twice, done.

“That’s three.”

The rest of the pod is released, urged back toward the beach, with shouts of, “Go home!” The seals oblige, and escape through the tundra vegetation, headed downhill. I imagine them leaping into the sea, and away. Home.

A second pod of seals is cut away from the herd. The managers from the ECO office measure each harvested seal, shouting out numbers: 92, 107, 118, 101, 122, 128.

The people keep count, collectively, yelling out how many seals have been killed so far: 2, 3, 9, 11.

“Thirteen down.”

I see the glint of light on a curved blade, a knife being sharpened on a whetstone.

By 9:32 they are butchering and skinning, right there on the tundra grass, among the wild celery, under the open sky. Two women pull the skins off the seal carcasses. They have a simple handle contraption that’s somehow attached to one end of the skin, and they work together, quickly pulling on the handles and walking away from the seal in tandem. The skins come off neatly, all in one piece.

A girl, maybe ten years old, has a long white fabric bag, held inside-out on her arm. She is bagging up the meat. Soon, people begin carrying these fine-mesh fabric bags back to the open beds of their pickup trucks. The bags, tied closed at the top, rest on clean, flattened cardboard boxes. Roasts and chops, shoulders. I missed a few of the details of this transformation from living animal to meat, even though it happened right there in front of me. From my vantage point I couldn’t see over the tall grass.

Suddenly, what’s left of the main seal herd starts to make a break for it, running toward the butchering area. All the people spring to action, adults shooing their kids back away from the front line. “Hold the line! Hold the line!” says the foreman. “Guys, sit down over there. If they come to you stand up, but otherwise stay down.” This to the young men who are holding the far side of the seal herd in place. These adult fur seals, even though they are not huge like the beachmasters, could do serious damage to a person, and could probably kill a child.

There are still some seals to be killed. “One more?”

“One in there – one, only one!”

“Hold ‘em, let ‘em rest.”

“Got an entangled one, get the noose.”

A man brings a long pole with a loop of rope fixed to the end. The entangled seal is captured, held down by the other men with their long sticks, while the noose man holds the seal’s head immobile. People cut away the fishing gear that’s wrapped around the seal’s body. But this seal has been wounded by the gear, which is embedded in his skin.

“It’s just a loss. Can’t let him fuckin’ suffer like that. Take him out?” Even from this distance, I can hear the disgust in this man’s voice, at the waste, the unnecessary pain for the seal. It’s decided, and the entangled seal is dispatched. Once, twice, done.

“See, that’s why you don’t litter,” a mom says to her kid. The kid must have laughed because the mom says, “It’s not a joke! I’m serious.”

“We need eleven more.”

The guys clank their cowbells and yell “Hubba! Hubba! Hubba!” again.

“Too big. Go home! This one!”

“Ring around the collar!” There’s another entangled seal. The noose man comes again and captures him. The men hold the seal down with their clubs, and they successfully cut away the debris from his neck. This time it works, the seal has not been injured by the entanglement, and they tell the seal to go home. He lollops down the hill to the beach, free.

By 10:00 am the killing is done, and just the butchering is left. People carry bags of meat to their trucks. Twenty-four or twenty-five seals have been harvested. I decide I’ve seen enough. It’s time to go home.

I’m surprised by how light-hearted I feel. It’s like I’ve been to a church social or a barn raising. The people have meat, which they will share with each other. They’ll have food for the winter ahead. Survival, while never definite, is more likely. It’s similar to the way I feel after a successful day of halibut fishing, when all the little shrink-wrapped packages of fish go into the freezer.

This thing I just witnessed… it was good. The harvest was humane, and respectful. There was no violence or cruelty in it. There was no feedlot, no life in captivity, no Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, no cesspool. The harvest ground was not an abattoir, with sounds of machinery, drains in the floor, antiseptic chemicals, florescent lights, rats in the shadows. Here, there was no shit, no dirt, not even much smell, not even much blood. What blood there is soaks into the green tundra and feeds the volcanic soil. The day after the harvest there will not be a scrap left in the killing field, just a few dark patches on the flattened vegetation.

These seals lived a free-swimming, wild life. They could choose their battles, who to mate with, where to hunt, and when to travel. They could spend their time ashore biting, fighting, wrestling, and lounging on beaches.

It’s not my place to judge, nor do I intend to idealize someone else’s way of life. But I do know for certain a couple of things:

I’d rather be a fur seal destined for the St. Paul Island harvest, than a steer for McDonald’s, or a chicken for Tyson.

And I’d rather eat a fur seal roast than a drive-thru burger, or processed factory-meat from the grocery store.

Buttercup probably thinks Farm Boy is dead. But I’m holding out hope that, someday, they will be reunited.

POSTSCRIPT: This story has been approved for publication by the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. See below for more information.

August 23, 2017

Hi Cindy,

Thank you for sending a copy of your story. Paul, Aaron and I do not see any problems with you posting your story as is, but wanted to provide you with some information to help you understand the harvest better- you can use this information however you would like.

The seals in the grass above the beach near the road were not part of the roundup so Farm Boy and Buttercup survived. We only harvest from the hill area above the rocks.

That was the first harvest we tried using cowbells as noisemakers to help with pod cutting. We found out that they agitated the seals too much so we discontinued using them. They were only used for 2 of the harvests.

The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island co-manages the harvest with NMFS. ECO’s primary role is to ensure subsistence activities are conducted in a humane and non-wasteful manner and in accordance with statutory, regulatory and non-regulatory requirements. The subsistence take of fur seal is also the most regulated of all the marine mammal species in AK, even more than the endangered/threatened Steller sea lion.

Here is a link for the Federal regulations governing the subsistence take of fur seals in the Pribs (click “next” to scroll through the regulations):

https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/50/216.71

Thank you,

Pamela Lestenkof

Co-Director, Ecosystem Conservation Office

Pribilof Islands Aleut Community of St. Paul Island

Tribal Government of St. Paul Island

Posted in Alaska, Culture, Fauna, Islands, Subsistence, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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

Roxanne — The Police

FlyLikeAnEagle

Fly Like an Eagle — The Steve Miller Band

Aeroplane

Aeroplane – Red Hot Chili Peppers

Lithium

Lithium – Nirvana

BigYellowTaxi

Big Yellow Taxi — Joni Mitchell

FoolTooLong

Been a Fool Too Long — Little Mike & the Tornadoes

Miracle

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

Shining

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)

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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?

No.

 

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?

February.

 

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?

 

 

 

 

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Beachcombing on the Bering Sea

Beach

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.

Crab

Tiny crab, in delicate peach and blue.

Kelp

Bull kelp all a-tangle.

Goo1

Blob of goo — what is it?

TwoSeaweeds

Two kinds of seaweed.

RedPhalarope

Red Phalarope, shifting into winter garb.

FurryLog

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

FTSP

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

Pebbles

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. 

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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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