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.

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The Meaning of Family.

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My family ties got a little broader and tighter this past week.  I got a chance to meet my mother’s sister’s son’s grandchildren.  Our family has relatives far-flung all over these United States.  It was not a conscious decision for my mother’s family to disperse in all directions from the Aleutian Islands.  It was, instead, due to a forced evacuation of all Native peoples from the islands during World War II.  My mother’s older sister Myrtle ended up being sent to her military husband’s family in the deep south.  After the war, they eventually ended up settling in Nevada and raising 3 children.  The kids had several chances to visit as they were growing up and these visits stuck like glue in the mind of the oldest son.  He made several trips as an adult, once with one of his children.  Several other times with his wife.  The time before this trip, to spread some of his mother’s ashes in the family plot, to be reunited with her mother, father, and brothers and sisters who had preceded her in passing.

On one of these trips, he was in Unalaska during the time that our Traditional Knowledge summer camp was taking place.  From that experience sprang the seeds of an idea to have his grandchildren experience their roots and learn about their indigenous culture.

Dennis and his two granddaughters arrived the day before camp began on a day with the fog hanging halfway down the mountains and after having spent two hours in Cold Bay, Alaska waiting for fuel.  They were unfortunate to land in Cold Bay after 2 Japanese military planes had emptied the fuel trucks of all fuel.  Two of his children were to arrive three days later.  His daughter, the mother of the girls, and his son, both of whom had never been here before.  They had the true Aleutian experience of flying to the point of being directly overhead, and turning around to return to Anchorage because they couldn’t find the airport in the fog.  Well….not a true Aleutian experience because they actually made it onto a flight the next day and landed.

Oh the girls had an experience like no other.  The fish – baked, smoked, made into lox.  The octopus.  The fish pie.  The sea lion.  Learning to weave.  Making masks.  Learning some Unangam tunuu, the Aleut language.  Songs and dance.  And the son and daughter?  Hiking some of the trails made by their ancestors some 8,000 years before.  Climbing above the clouds and watching the landscape and village magically appear as the clouds dissolved.

But the real magic was in the sharing of family and history.  Seeing the bonds forged between a great, great aunt and great, great nieces; between great aunts and great niece and great nephew; between cousins and second cousins, and beyond.  The magic of feeling a kinship with virtual strangers.  The real magic was in the wistful expressions on the day of departure.  The strange pulling at the heart strings that the islands give to people who come here with their hearts wide open.  Yes.  And the promise of returning again someday.

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.

Ugigdada – Share

Ugigdada, or share, is a  very important Unangan value.  It relates to anything that can be shared, as opposed to just sharing a resource.  Examples are work, joy, responsibility, happiness.  Most importantly though, the Unangan shared the food that they acquired from hunting and gathering.  It is still one of the first values that is taught to youngsters who are learning to provide for their families.  You are responsible for providing for your family, but you are also responsible for ensuring that your community has enough.  If someone cannot hunt due to illness, you share what you get with them.  You are responsible for making sure that the Elders in your community have enough traditional food to keep them not only healthy, but happy.  You can expect to be treated the same way under the same circumstances.

Getting ready to fillet a red salmon.

Getting ready to fillet a red salmon.

My husband Caleb and I fish.  It started out that we would help mom and dad as they got older, but has evolved from the first moment.  We fish, but we wouldn’t be fishing the front beach if our brother-in-law didn’t share his boat, engine, and net with us.  We wouldn’t be very successful fisherman if we didn’t have the help from sons, nephews, grandsons, daughters, and friends who share their strength and time in helping us pull in the net.  With all the new regulations in fishing, having to monitor the net makes it hard for us to take care of the fish immediately like we have been taught.  So my mother shares not only her most excellent filleting abilities by being responsible for filleting the fish, but she also shares her knowledge by teaching all of us how to fillet.  This comes in handy when we just tire her out and then we step in.  My dad shares his knowledge in producing the final product whether it be dried fish, smoked fish, canned, or frozen.  There is no one who knows more about the brine, the wood, and the timing.

Mom stripping red salmon to hang them in the smoke house.

Mom stripping red salmon to hang them in the smoke house.

Eating the foods that we grew up eating is so important to us.  Not only are the foods healthy and good for us, but they provide a feeling of well being.  Because of this, Mom and Dad make sure they send food to family who does not live here.  But she also thinks of her “old pals”, so we have food going to the Pribilofs, Anchorage, Juneau, Seattle, and where ever someone may be spending time.

Ugigdada.  Share.

An evening walk in Unalaska.

Sometimes  a suggestion turns into a most enjoyable event.  Mom popped in after dinner and asked if I wanted to go for a walk.  I had just finished the first step in making sea salt caramels and was feeling not so enthusiastic.   But I caved, changed my shoes, and grabbed my camera.  And off we went – Dad, Mom, Diane, and me.  It was fabulously gorgeous. 

Sam and Diane Svarny beginning a walk on the front beach, Unalaska.

Under Jim Dickson’s oversight, the City of Unalaska Road Crew has done an awesome job in reclaiming the vegetation on the beach road.  They have been true to the environment and used indigenous plant species. 

Walking around the neighborhood gives you a chance to snoop at everything your neighbors are doing – but in such a nice, unobtrusive way!  We see the progress being made on Zoya’s home renovation. 

And it looks like Coe and Phyllis have completed painting their little bit of suburban America!!  Lots of work involved here. 

I sure wish they would reopen Unalaska Building Supply!!

Looking up the valley at Unalaska Lake, we talked about the silt buildup causing the lake to give way to grasses, and yes, eventually land.  Not a good problem to have, as it impacts the species depending on the water environment for their cycle of life. 

I can't believe I snapped 120 pictures on our walk!

The flowers have been keeping the bees busy.  I just hope they had enough time to buzz around in the cranberry bushes this spring, doing their thing. 

I'm not even going to talk about how fast the fireweed is blooming.

The pink salmon in the creek are quite numerous.  Now that I am older and wiser and a fish snob, I get my humpies before they have hit fresh water and are still nice and bright.  I remember as a kid, running through the creek, throwing fish out onto the bank for my grandmother.  Obviously, no fin and feather back then!! 

Iliuliuk River, or Town Creek, during spawning season.

Spawn til you die....always such a gross saying, but true.

Approaching home, we probably walked about a mile and a half, which is a long way to meander, let me tell you!  Especially for Dad. 

Mom's and Dad's house in yellow; ours is the blue one right behind.

Dry fish has been a staple of indigenous people in Alaska since time immemorial.  We have a small batch of pinks drying. 

The 2 slabs of fish are actually silver salmon that mom is making into lox.

It was a great walk, and I’m glad I am so easily persuaded.