The first time Justine mentioned we could push on for the community on the North side of Atka Island with three full days paddling I wasn’t too keen. My muscles were sore and tight and I felt pretty shattered already, still settling into this new life of day-in-day-out paddling with heavy boat and still mastering the sail and dynamic conditions.
We had just made it onto the island of Atka after crossing from Tagalak Island where we had spent a day and a half waiting for the wind to drop so that we could make the 8 miles of open water crossings in the safest conditions. Happily for us, the notorious tide races through Atka Pass and Fenimore Rock were avoidable for the most part and not too bouncy on the bits we paddled through.
We paddled up the south side of the island, taking that rather than the north in favour of the shorter distance round to the community, our final contact with people for 250 miles. We camped in some lovely bays, watched by curious seals, a half water-half land reflection of themselves, perhaps. One evening as I put the tent up and Justine was off up the beach collecting water I looked up to see four reindeer staring back at me a little confusedly, as if surprised at having someone parked in their munching ground in the tidelines.
My favourite sights have been the Steller sea lions (the gingery golden beasts we first thought were fur seals), hulking males and their harems barking and honking and snorting at us from the safety of their rookery. I am part in awe a part intimidated each time I paddle past such a hangout, imagining how tiny I will feel if one comes up to argue his case from besides the boat. Another favourite was the squawking oyster catcher marching about past his nest of three mottled blue eggs that happened to be on my path during a beach walk.
On Monday we were welcomed into the Unangax community in Atka, a city of just 70 people. City status was granted in 1988 as a way to gain access to more federal support and funding of this native community. Having made contact with one of the residents before arriving, we paddled our final 25 miles in eager anticipation of the traditional welcome she had suggested. That and hot showers and a chance to wash our smelly clothes! With following seas and flooding tide in our favour we had a fantastic ten mile run up to the community after our hurried lunch on Monday, each of us anticipating what it would be like on arrival. The final stretch into the bay is sheltered by many small islands, so we weaved between them, trying to spot the first signs of people. We hadn’t seen a single boat, building, person or vehicle since leaving Adak a week before.
As we passed a beautiful waterfall sliding out of the rocks we rounded the island which would give us first sight of white satellite dishes, vehicle tracks squelched into the hillside and the nestle of colourful buildings perched between beach and hill just off the shore. Both of us felt quite emotional even before we got close enough to make out a cluster of people come to welcome us in, waving back at the children leaping about on the beach with waving arms. I swallowed back tears as I grinned my hellos and high fived with children, shaking hands with adults. Then the chanting, singing and dancing started, skin drums rumbling the warmth of their welcome. It was wonderful, absolutely grin-out-loud wonderful and humbling.
We are just coming to the end of our three days here, part excited for the journey ahead and part sad to leave our new friends. It has been a privilege to spend time with these people, learning about their history, way of life and thoughts on the future and sharing some of our own experiences too. It’s one thing to read about the history of places and form your own opinions but entirely another to come and live alongside people and hear it from them firsthand, personalizing our view of the place. Highlights for me have been the traditional Unangax dancing by school students on Tuesday, time with the Swetzof and Dushkin family around the meal table and foraging on the beach with our host Crystal Dushkin and her Uncle Danny yesterday. There is a tangible sense of family, community and togetherness over here, necessary I would think when you are eking a life out in harsh environment, miles from other people, and especially as a people who have been marginalized over the years, sadly by their own national government, as with many native people across the world.
The 13 students at the Atka Netsvetof School all dance together twice a week, five year olds learning from the High School students, all reliving their tribal dances which tell stories of their community’s history. It was moving to watch that spirit of togetherness let alone the emotion stirred up by the drums and the stories themselves. It was really special to be invited to join in one of the dances, acting out handlining for halibut, a centuries’ old source of food out here. I have just been told that today marks the first halibut delivery of the season into the city’s processing plant, its main source of income.
As an island people their lives are still closely connected to the sea and it’s larder, the seasons and the weather. Relying on tri-weekly flights in to bring in mail and outside produce, and with emergency medical help over a day away, you need to be hardy, resilient and resourceful to survive out here, and most of all it seems you need to be a tight community, determined for the future. That’s my sense of the place so far. We chatted sometime to one of the high school students hoping to graduate next year and heard of their families’ efforts to survive, talking of collecting firewood, fishing and hunting and working various jobs to bring in enough money to make ends meet.
They are an Orthodox community and proud of their faith, the tiny church on the hill a focus for the community. Father Ivan, the minister for this and other churches in his parish stretching thousands of miles, was here during our stay and even blessed our boats while blessing the local fleet.
Yesterday morning was also a favourite, as hunter fisherman Danny and his niece Crystal took us out foraging on the seashore. Justine is normally pretty squeamish about new foods so I was amazed to see her knocking back the sweet orangey eggs of the sea urchins with gusto.
My favourite was the kelp, bladder wrack and beach greens, seaweeds and plants crunchy and fresh and quite a contrast to the solid rubber of the badarki (we call these chitons at home) which we prised off rocks with knives. They have been soaking overnight so we’re going to try the cooked version later on today before we leave, I think.
Tomorrow (Friday) we are headed south east to the next island, Amlia, from where we make the first of our bigger crossings. This first section has been a good introduction to the journey ahead – we’ve had a good mix of weather and water to try out our systems, build my confidence and learn about the local waters and weathers. Our next pitstop with people is the even tinier community of Nikolski, some 250 miles up the chain on Umnak island. We don’t know how long it will take us to get there, but hope it won’t be too much longer than a month as we only carry food for three weeks.
It will be sad to say goodbye to our new friends tomorrow morning but I am so glad we have that – no goodbyes would mean no new friends and communities. I just hope that when I come back one day with my future hypothetical children that this tiny community will be stronger than ever and my friends still here, although a little older. In fact one of the girls of the family who have looked after us has just given me a little letter saying she will miss us and wishes we could stay here forever. Nothing like a letter from a five year old to make you cry!
Warm thankyous to our Unangax friends in Atka, especially the Swetzoff and Dushkin family for their kind hospitality and sharing, to the City Office for the lodgings and the students of Atka Netsvetof School for their dancing.
Go well my friends,