Living with volcanoes.

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When you live within the Ring of Fire, you learn to live with volcanoes.  The “Ring of Fire” is a chain of volcanoes skirting the edges of the Pacific Ocean.  Containing 450+ volcanoes, it is shaped subtly like a horseshoe.  It stretches an unbelievable 25,000 miles from the southern tip of South America, along the coast of North America, including the Aleutian archipelago.  It continues through Japan and reaches down to New Zealand.

Unalaska Island’s highest elevation is Makushin Volcano, topping out at 5906 feet.  It is located approximately 15 miles west of the City of Unalaska.  It is an active volcano, with the last eruption noted in 1995.  Makushin is constantly steaming, which means it is venting…which is a good thing.  Bogoslof Island is 61 miles northwest of Unalaska Island.  Bogoslof, or Aĝasaaĝux̂, is the summit of a submarine stratovolcano located at the southern edge of the Bering Sea.  It was first recorded by non-indigenous seafarers during an eruption in 1796.  It has been erupting off and on through the years, sometimes losing terra firma and sometimes gaining.  It has become a breeding sanctuary for sea birds, seals, and sea lions.

Bogoslof began a series of eruptions in December 2016, almost daily, spewing volcanic ash clouds high into the atmosphere and sporting volcanic lightning.  Through all the fury of upheaval, the island, as of May 2017, has grown from 71.2 acres to 319 acres, or nearly 1.3 kilometers.  And what has happened to the animals that call Bogoslof home, or at least a respite?  Typically, animals are extremely adaptable.  They leave when there are explosions, swimming to nearby islands and come back when things are quiet.  The Fish and Wildlife Service has reported that even with eruptions occurring in March, marine mammals returned to birth their young.

In Unalaska we face a daunting number of issues when volcanic activity is present.  There are ash clouds and ash fallout.  Lahars and floods, pyroclastic flows, clouds, and surges.  Debris avalanches and lava flows are not so much a worry as are directed blasts, volcanic gases, and volcanic tsunamis.  If you are a resident of Unalaska, you really don’t dwell on the issue.  Unless, of course, you don’t get your mail; or your flight has been canceled because of ashfall.  When you think about it, the real danger is that we could be decimated in a matter of seconds by a pyroclastic cloud.  Or a nuclear bomb.  Volcano, bomb, bomb, volcano.  Worrying about it won’t make it go away and nothing we can do will change the outcome.  It is not a defeatist attitude.  It is part of the price we pay for living in paradise.

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Tix^yux^ – Wild rye.

Basket woven by Diane Svarny.

Unangan weaving has the reputation of being some of the finest weaving being done today; for millenia, for that matter.  It can take a weaver many months to complete a project.    It also has the reputation of being some of the most beautiful weaving, exacting in the details of process and design.  So much goes into weaving each project that it should come as  no surprise at how time consuming even the first steps can be.

If you have ever been to the Aleutians during the summer, one of the first comments you are likely to make will be something about the abundant, large grass growing on the beach shores and up into the meadowlands.  You are looking at tix^lux^, or wild rye grass, or in the scientific lingo, Elymus mollis.  It is this beautiful grass that played such a large part in the lives of the Unangax^.

Salmonberries and mushrooms 066 (2)Weaving used to be a very utilitarian aspect of Unangan life.  Grasses were used to weave fish baskets, berry baskets, clam containers, floor mats, wall coverings, room dividers, mittens,  socks, burial mats, capes….you name it and it was probably a woven product.  The beauty of the fine weaving, though, was not recognized until the Unangax^ were invaded by Russian fur procurers and items began leaving the region, either as items taken forcibly, or, in later years, as items of trade.

I am lucky that my mother has passed on the art of gathering and curing grass for basket weaving.  It is no longer a common occurrence.  I miss seeing women returning from the hills carrying large bundles of grass over their shoulders.  Those bundles were tossed and dampened and protected from sunlight for up to 2 months, depending on conditions.  Then the grass was stripped down to the inner blades of grass; the ones that were at the center of the blade, thus protected from the salty elements.  One large bundle is reduced to a bundle measuring, perhaps, an inch in diameter.

basket grass

Just so you know, both my daughters have been on the August grass gathering forays.

Murphy’s Law

IMG_1108 (1024x759)Our lives have come to revolve around the seasons much more than when we were younger.  I’ve come to think of winter as the months that bring wood to our beaches so that we will have wood for our smokehouse during fishing season.  Spring is when the plants start emerging, birds lay eggs, and the anticipation of good weather, calm seas, and fishing start ebbing in the corners of our minds.  Summer, of course, is the time of plenty.  Plenty to hunt and gather.  Plenty to do.  Fall is when we are racing against time to finish gathering the last of the berries and hoping for good weather to hold long enough to be able to get enough silver salmon for the family.

Last September the husband and I were feeling quite fond of ourselves.  We had successfully gotten some silver salmon.  The weather was beginning to turn, so we decided it was time to take the boat out of the water for the winter.  I will tell you that there are two days of the year that I dread more than any others.  The day we put the boat in the water and, worse yet, the day we take it out.  Husbands and wives should really not do this task together. Especially when you have a cheap husband who insists on doing everything as cheaply as possible.  Out of principle.

The boat trailer we use is a homemade trailer.  It basically consists of a homemade frame with wheels.  Lights and wiring that is not functional.  And where most boat trailers have some sort of rail system where the boat is winched up to rest on some sort of frame that has little wheels for smooth movement of the boat, we have two huge sheets of what looks like Teflon, set in a “V”.  No winch.  When putting the boat in the water, we have to back it down the ramp and into the water deep enough so that when we slam on the brakes the boat will jerk and then slip into the water.  When taking the boat out of the water, this system necessitates actually driving the boat up onto the trailer with enough power to get it up, but not enough to go through the back window of my car.  Let me tell you that the cussing and screaming is embarrassing to say the least.  I am traumatized beyond belief on those two days.

So last September after we had successfully gotten the boat out of the water and backed up into the driveway, I was so pleased to have that done with for another season.  It was then that my husband says that he feels like we forgot something.  But he can’t think of what.  Naturally, being the OCD candidate that he is, he finally slapped his forehead several hours later and exclaimed “We forgot to take the buoy and the anchor out of the water!”  Sure enough, there was the buoy floating out from the beach about 300 feet. You can kind of make it out in the picture.  It is pink.

Many people leave their buoys and anchors out year round.  They are not in the boat traffic path and it is one less thing that you have to do when  you are ready to fish.  We never have.  But I was not about to go through the boat fiasco again.  So it stayed in the water, wintering quite well.  It was something that my husband would look at each morning when going to the beach, and something that my mother looked for out her kitchen window each morning that she got up as soon as there was enough light to see.  Wouldn’t you know that on the 10th day of spring we would have a storm that was surprisingly stormy.  And our darned buoy is gone. And worse, yet, we have no idea where the anchor is resting.

Now the husband is busy hoping that the line broke where it attaches to the buoy, and thinking of what kind of gaff he needs to devise in order to be able to get that anchor back.  I’m just shaking my head.

Islands of the Smokey Seas

Drenching rain, trying to come down as snow.
Drenching rain, trying to come down as snow.

March, April, and May can be the most vexing months especially during the last few years when nothing that was before seems to be happening now.  Last year we had our last snow on May 31st.  Now as I glance over at the window, instead of just rain plastering the window, I see it has changed to lumpy rain.  I guess you would call it sleet.  The rain has been doing the job of melting mounds and mounds of snow, and opening up the wild landscaping to the previous fall’s compressed, tan detritus.  It’s around 8:00 PM, so the temperature is most likely dropping.  It is blowing about 35 from the ESE with gusts to right around 50 right now.  There is very little visibility out in the bay or surrounding mountains.  Can’t even see the mountains.  Yesterday it was almost that “S” word that we don’t say out loud or in print, just in case we jinx the season.  This morning everything was frozen.  Now it is blowing like hell.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining.  If there is one thing you can say about weather in the Aleutians it is that it is never boring.  It keeps you on  your toes.  I should probably invest in a waterproof casing for my camera.  As it is, I have to decide when is too wet and wild to take the camera out.   How much time do I want to spend wiping it down when I come inside?  When you grow up in a place known as the birthplace of the winds, you learn to judge how much the wind is blowing by observing the environment.  The first thing you observe is that there is always wind.  White caps generally start when it is blowing 25.  You can see gusts coming by the way they darken the water….black water.  We all look intently for black water at either end of the runway when we are making an approach to land.  Black water at the end of the runway is very, very scary.   You know that when the gusts are picking up water off the sea, it is blowing at least 50.  When that happens we call them williwaws.

Williwaws
Williwaws

So while we wait to find what these next few months will bring us, I will just continue to be exhilarated by the weather.   Ah, yes.  I live in the birthplace of the winds; the islands of the smokey seas.

Do Not Feed the Eagles

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Someone was feeding eagles yesterday.  I don’t know if it was my idiotic  neighbor who thinks it is his god given right to feed wildlife, or if it was accidental feeding from an offload of a fishing boat.  Or if someone cleaned out their freezer.  But someone was feeding the eagles yesterday.  This led to at least 3 hours of thumps on the roof, fights and squabbles over both food and advantageous perching, and eagles whizzing down the street at about head height.  And I’m not talking three or four eagles.  I am talking about seventy-five.  Very irritating…and dangerous.

Alaskan Light

The view from the end of my driveway
The view from the end of my driveway

I was on a regular routine.  Of waking up to a certain feeling of light.  A little before 8, right between astronomical and nautical twilight in Unalaska.  The sun is sitting about 12 to 18 degrees below the horizon.  Certainly my husband’s banging around with the coffee in the morning was always my first alarm.  Way before the butt crack of dawn, but I could readily go back to sleep, somehow, with him grinding coffee beans and banging, literally, the grinder on the counter top to get the fine grounds out of the lid.  So with the spring forward yesterday, it was totally disconcerting to wake up to very dark again.  In fact, this morning, it certainly wasn’t the nautical twilight waking me up, but my grandson, who is on spring break this week, saying “Grandma.  I’m here.”

Yesterday morning I remember saying to myself oh my god, how can I survive going back into the dark.  Then I go outside at 9:20 pm last evening and snap this photo of the view from the end of my driveway.  What am I complaining about?  I’m making up the light at the other end of the clock.

Hunkering down

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When you live in Alaska there are just certain things that you expect.  You expect the long days of summer when the sun barely sets before coming above the horizon again.  You expect to spend a majority of your time hunting and gathering from May through October.  You don’t know when, but you expect that first dusting of snow on the mountains, more commonly known as termination dust.  And you expect it to be cold.  In the Aleutians, we also expect wind.

February was called Qisagunax^ by the indigenous people of the Aleutians prior to 1834.  This means famine.  February was the month when you were gaining about 4 minutes of daylight per day.  It was the month when you had already braved the storms of November, December, and January.  It was the month when you were coming to the end of some of your subsistence foods.  So food was scarce.  The communities were hungry.  It was a time when you needed to get out there and find something to eat again.

It is amazing that February is also the month during our long winters that can have some of the most beautiful weather.  Perhaps my ancestors knew this about February, so they were not particularly careful about their food stocks.  They did like to party and were generous to a fault.  Perhaps they knew they could count on the most gorgeous, brilliant sunny days in February, when the tide was out really low.  And the winds abated.  They could get out in their iqyan and fish, or hunt for that stray sea mammal.  Or access the tidepools for delicacies like sea urchins, mussels, clams, octopus, limpets, chitons, and seaweed.  Then they would hunker down when those north winds picked up again, coating everything in ice from the sea spray.

On days like these ones, I like to pull a fish out of the freezer and enjoy the fruits of our labors from the summer months.  I like to be warm and toasty in my little home, not caring what is going on outside my doors.  Like the windows, everything has a hazy, muted feeling of being cut off from the world.  Especially if the wind is blowing and your ability to hear anything besides the wind is gone.  Yes….just hunkering down and enjoying my solitude.