Hiking in the Aleutians is a wonderful activity. Sometimes you can hike on old World War II gravel roads, some in fairly good shape; some beyond redemption. You can actively choose a trail that was used by the Indigenous People, the Unangax, for the past 10,000 years. If you are hiking somewhere, the landowner does suggest that you use the path most taken. In other words, don’t be making your own trail. Damage to the tundra is not encouraged. It takes decades to repair. No 4-wheeling off-road. That is strictly forbidden.
There are dangers when you hike in the Aleutians. The ones from the environment are only a danger if you don’t know what you are doing. So, do know what the weather is going to do. Are you going to make a 6 hour trek, but the forecast is for 60 mile per hour winds to start in 4 hours? Don’t do it. Has the fog rolled in during your hike? Sit down. Wait it out. People have gotten very lost trying to hike when they think they know the direction they are going. Honest. Don’t move. People have walked off cliffs. Common sense is your friend.
Old World War II remnants can cause serious injury from collapsing floors to barbed wire and Rommel stakes concealed by the grass. Although much work has been done to remediate the stakes, undiscovered ones can still be in place. Contact with animals can sometimes be unavoidable. We have squirrels and foxes as land animals. No big deal, except for the occasional ankle mishap if you don’t watch where you step and happen to step into an entrance to a den. A bit more treacherous are the wild cows and horses you may encounter on the Beaver Inlet side of the island. Scan carefully before descending into valleys. Remember, we do not have trees to climb if you are being chased by an overly curious bull. Make sure you scan the beaches for sea lions, seals, or sea otters hauled out before you descend. Harassing marine mammals is against the law. And, know that disturbing spawning salmon is not something you want to be caught doing.
The one thing you don’t have too much control over is inadvertently hiking into an area that is a nesting area for birds of prey. Keep your eyes peeled for nests in the cliffs, although some crazy birds will build nests in the grass near a bluff. Carry a walking stick, or just a stick. It just needs to be something you can hold over your head to ward off talons reaching for your scalp. Most birds of prey won’t descend lower than the highest part of you; usually the top of your head unless you are using a stick. They do not want to damage their wings. Being snatched bald headed takes on a new meaning.
And remember to always get a land-use permit from the land owner. https://www.ounalashka.com/land-use/land-use-permit/
I changed my theme and got the drop down menu to work. I have posted a new subsistence article. You can find it in the sidebar In Addition section entitled “Evolving Subsistence”, or in the drop down menu under subsistence.
My mother and I have noticed that time seems to be whizzing by particularly fast this year. We are already into May. Mom informed us she is not fishing this summer. That is a daunting statement coming from her, as she had taught all of us that salmon is one of the most important components of our lives. Her reason? No time. She is in the final preparations for a show at the Anchorage Museum. When she announced that she would not be fishing, we were all a little stunned. Not that she actually “fishes” anymore, but she is still the catalyst that drives the process. She is an unrelenting stickler for perfection in her subsistence practices. From catch to filleted and prepped for final process is typically never more than 15 minutes or so, depending on the number of fish hitting the net. Usually we must twist her arm to let us do the filleting. She just loves the whole process. So, we shall all step up to the plate this year to see if we have learned well and have what it takes. I have the faith. It is unfortunate that one of the best fish cutters will be self-exiled for an intense language immersion opportunity this summer. This is an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. Our language, Unangam Tunuu, has only fluent speakers who are over the age of 70. So, while we all have our own visions this spring and summer, we know in our heart of hearts that we will fill our freezers, our drying and smoking houses, and our salt buckets to the best of our abilities. Having had the best teacher in life, we will be successful.
The sea otter is a creature of daily habits that consist of napping and foraging. It forages and eats in the morning, usually taking it’s first meal in the predawn hour before sunrise. The otter naps during mid-day and hunts and forages until sunset. Many rest again and then forage for a third time around midnight. It is known to voraciously clean out beach foods in an area, then move on down the coast to new areas. It is said that the otter came to being when a brother and sister of Unangan decent threw themselves from a cliff and became otters.
Sea otters are one of the smallest sea mammals, but one of the largest members of the weasel family. Our otters, E.I. kenyoni, inhabit waters from the Eastern Aleutians to the Oregon Coast. Unlike most marine mammals who have dense blubber for cold protection, the sea otter’s primary form of insulation is an exceptionally thick coat of fur.
The presence of the otter in the ecosystem is more important than you might think. Otters keep the population of sea floor herbivores from over population. Especially sea urchins which graze on the lower stems of kelp often causing the death of kelp forests. Kelp forests, although very irritating to fishermen and their boat engines, are one of the most important parts of our ecosystem. Kelp forests absorb and capture CO2 from the air through photosynthesis, hence making the otter one of the creatures that can help impact the detrimental effects of climate change.
The otters pictured above have wrapped themselves in kelp after their afternoon foraging. Kelp helps keep the otters in place when they are resting or sleeping.
In other parts of the U.S. and the world, emerging plants might be tulips or daffodils. It might be a favorite local wildflower. Whichever flower or shrub it might be, it is a announcement that spring has arrived. In the Aleutians, we expect spring near the end of May or even in the first weeks of June. I look for the emergence of medicinal plants that have become virtually nonexistent in my pharmacy. It seems that my favorite time of year has arrived a bit early. Well, except for fishing season, and berry picking season. There is hiking and camping, but there is nothing quite like the emergence season when everything is fresh and new. And loved.
If, by chance you ever visit Alaska in April, and you are in Anchorage, take the time to attend the statewide Native Youth Olympics competition. It will be a sporting event unlike any you have ever attended and one that you will never forget.
This is a sport that inspires an entire arena to quiet in hushed suspense and awe as they watch an athlete attempt what may seem to be an impossible task. Records are consistently broken by these super athletes who really do the impossible from hopping across a hardwood floor on their knuckles, and then back again, hanging by only their wrist from a pole suspended between two running stick holders, kicking a ball suspended at least eight feet in the air with one foot and then landing only on that same foot. These feats are only a few of the games that Alaska’s youth play that are based on games played for millennia by indigenous hunters and gatherers as a way to hone their hunting and survival skills and at the same time increasing their strength, endurance, agility, and most importantly, the cohesion of mind and body.
The camradery and sportsmanship are unlike anything you may have witnessed. The goal is for each athlete to best themselves, so rival athletes will cheer for their competitors and coaches will coach any and all athletes. These are games of friendship and growth. Make sure you see the phenomenon that is Alaska’s youth.