If you haven’t already, catch up on Sarah’s adventure by following the links below to her phonecasts:
Welcome to my blog, where I share all the stories from my L2L expedition as I row, cycle and kayak a continuous loop of the planet. I hope you'll enjoy experiencing the highs (and lows!) of my journey so far and the adventures ahead on my way back to Tower Bridge. You can also have a listen to my Phonecasts recorded en route.
If you haven’t already, catch up on Sarah’s adventure by following the links below to her phonecasts:
Things are done differently in Bush Alaska, it seems – the generic description of that non-defined area of communities way out wherever, further from the madding crowd than the Alaskan cities and their surrounds. The rules are different. Life more flexible. It has to be. The seasons and the distances and the lack of people and resources means, it seems, that there is a certain element of ‘rolling with it’. Making do and figuring out.
‘It’s a bit different out here in Bush Alaska, isn’t it?’ said Pilot Steve Hakala as we walked back to our campsite from his little blue plane. He had just overflown us in it at low flight, waggling his wings in response to our grinning faces and friendly waves ( distinctly not the ‘I need a rescue’ sort of wave) and then landed his plane on the beach. That’s right, while out for a ride in his role as a Pilot for U.S Fish and Game he had dropped in to say hello, the wide bouncy wheels on his little blue plane (can you tell I can’t remember what type it is?) allowing him to land almost anywhere, he said, even on water.
He lives in the 900-strong community of Sand Point on neighboring Popof Island, 16 miles paddling from our then beach on Unga Island. An hour or so later he overflew us again with a biologist that he was taking out for surveys. One of the main jobs at the moment is aerial surveys of the salmon runs, assessing populations and how many fish are coming back up into streams, creeks and rivers to spawn.
It’s a big deal as people’s livelihoods depend on salmon. Not just the commercial fishing boats supplying to local canneries but on a subsistence level families are starting to stock up for the winter – freezing, canning, drying and smoking hundreds of fish. Salmon aren’t the only thing booming now. The berries are out! Justine and I have long awaited the sight of plump and juicy berries and, after seeing a splat of purple bird poo the other day I knew they must be ripe for eating somewhere. And they are, happily. So far we have been out picking the bright red and orange Salmon Berries, huge and juicy and good to eat straight from the bush.
Here in Sand Point there are no bears so I had no qualms about trudging through the alders berrying whereas over on the mainland I think I might feel rather differently about mouthfuls of juicy berries. In all this harvesting, the really lovely thing to me, as an outsider, is that people also provide for the Elders of the community who can no longer forage and fish for themselves. There is a real sense of togetherness in these remote communities we have been meeting along our kayaking journey.
Like every community there are issues, however, and sadly, like many indigenous communities worldwide, the big problems out here are related to drink, drugs and domestic violence. Sand Point is the first time where we have really talked about this issue so openly with people, mostly because we have been staying with local Sergeant Mike Livingston of the Sand Point Police Department. Up to now, we have just seen posters about domestic violence on toilet doors in public places and community centres and had the odd chat here and there where locals have brought up the issue of drinking and its repercussions.
I remember one young lad telling me he didn’t drink because of his family’s history and another teenage girl telling us with sadness and regret the effects of alcohol in her village. In another community a young woman who worked as a bartender told us with a sigh of the maintenance drunks who ply her bar daily. It is such an issue that some of the native villages in Alaska are ‘dry’. I encountered my first mention of drugs last week with a gentlemen sitting at the bar in King Cove, rather well oiled after a day of drinking, sadly mourning the loss of his cousin on a fishing boat. Wearing a t-shirt and baseball cap with a cannabis leaf on it I asked, cheekily, if it was his favorite Alaskan flower. He grinned a far off, bleary eyed grin as he thumbed his now empty beer can and slowly turned to me to say yes, but that he had run out. He said he didn’t do ‘any of that nasty stuff like meth and crack’, saying that it was those things causing the problems.
Speaking to the police folks here it is sad to hear the stories and extent of the problem and how hard it is to investigate and deal with thanks to Alaska’s ‘Right to Privacy’ law in its State Constitution and the fact that drug dealers coming in and out briefly, but regularly, are some of the most culpable and hardest to catch.
What is clear, however, is that the local Police Department here are well integrated into the community, trusted and respected. Driving in the Police Car about the island seeing Mike wave at the children and locals from his drivers’ seat is a reflection of his approach to the work. For now, I hope our time with the officers is our only time with the police on our journey. Being met off the water once is cool, however another time it might mean we are in trouble.
Or so we thought. Beyond the odd Cristmas trees that have been planted out here and there over the years, and the solitary blossoming fruit tree in Adak there are no trees until further up on the peninsula when the Spruces and Firs and Birches appear. Yet millennia ago there were and the other day we were lucky enough to have good weather which allowed us to paddle over an ancient forest and wander through fallen logs and stumps on the North West Coast of Unga Island. Normally I am excited about wood on the beach for its fuel potential but this stuff was never going to be burnt, for it was all stone, petrified bejillions of years ago after a combination of glacial, muddy, ashy, pressury stuff engulfed it and squashed it (to put it simply).
I kept doing double takes, tapping the logs with my nail to check they were not soft. Knots and grains and even stumpy branches look just like trees painted white or black; it was surreal.To see these remnants of eons past, a snapshot of life preserved through the rolling rumbling river of time and all that has tried to erode it, I cannot help but compare it to the people who live in these regions, trying to do the same but, sadly, it seems the forces of time and change have been rather harsher to them.
Colonisation means erosion of many cultural elements that make up an identity of a people and out here it is no different. Local dialects are all but extinct in most places, the kayak is barely used anymore (which is sad as it was invented out here) and it seems annual Cultural Camps are, for the most part, the main way in which traditional skills and artistry are passed on.
We visited the first day of this community’s Culture Camp and met some of the instructors and children attending. We watched young teens skinning an octopus in a traditional food foraging class, and a table of first-timers start the laborious process of preparing grass to weave a tiny basket, while in another corner glass beaded headdresses were being made and on another table traditional drums were taking shape.
There were language classes and glass workshops and even traditional kayak building in both model and full size form. Ironically, it seems, the traditional kayaks seem to be launched once then relegated to hanging on school or community centre walls. We have only seen a couple so far in the community of Akutan that were used regularly. The words of basket weaver Sharon Kay were poignant as she explained the work which goes into making a traditional basket, while threading through tales of the task itself with her take on the erosion of skills. ‘There are more things in museums than our home lands. Reviving this and teaching this is my way of helping preserve our culture.’
Hats off to that, my friends, for the stories and tradition and histories that are woven therein are special and I say that anything to make a stand against the global march of homogenization has to be a good thing.
On the kayaking front, we paddle on, well rested, clean and fed after three days here in Sand Point. A treat, I tell you, on all fronts. Thank you to all whom we have met for sharing with us and helping us in Sand Point. Tina for the berries and feeds, Annie for the jam, Eric and Malerie for the muffins, Denise for the massage, Luis for the boat repairs, Alan and David for the boat moving help, the Scot from Haines for the tipple, Paul for the drinks delivery, Steve for the buzz and the bone, Culture Camp instructors for the inspiration, to everyone who gave us fish on the beach and Mike Livingston for everything.
Until next time,
P.S My latest blog for the Independent is here
P.P.S Lucy and I featured on BBC Radio 4′s Listening Project last weekend. The clip is called ‘Adventure in Love’. You can listen here
It isn’t often that Justine and I have visitors – normally we are the ones doing the visiting, calling in on communities along our route. But this afternoon we had our friends from the US Fish and Wildlife Service ship the R.V Tiglax call in and take us onboard for a (delicious) shower and a bag of the most delicious brownies we have ever tasted, cooked by Chef Ryan. Captain Billy Pepper confessed that, at the start of the season when we first contacted him, he would have betted against our chances of success, but since meeting us way out West six weeks ago before some of the biggest crossings of our journey, he now says he would bet the other way! We joked that his earlier quip of, ‘East winds never blow for long out here’ hasn’t happened for us – the southwesterly yesterday was a rare treat as we only ever seem to get easterlies lately.
After pushing hard in said headwinds for over a week to get to the community at King Cove on the mainland following our arrival into Bear Country (capitals as it feels like a big thing) it was lovely to have a couple of nights sleeping without the worry of the grizzlies. Even though there are bears all around the fishing town of 900, I figured we would be safe in our second floor room at the Fleets Inn Motel. We were. However there are various run ins between the grizzlies and people which don’t go so well for one or more parties. A young bear was shot on our second morning there, having climbed under a garden fence to get at the family dog – or it’s food. We went to see the body, still lying where it had fallen, a wound on each side of the shoulder where the bullet went through. Paws about size 8 (UK) with claws longer than my fingers, huge brown smelling machine of a nose and gorgeous shades of golden and ginger brown fur. ‘I know we shouldn’t say this,’ said Justine, ‘ but it’s really cute ‘.
He was certainly handsome and it was a sad and sobering thing to stand beside him. We heard various tales of the bears and saw signs about town and the surrounding area – mounds of poo, signs warning of bears and a pistol in the back pocket of a father out walking with his family – yet we have only seen two bears since arriving on Unimak Island where ‘the bears start’. It would be great to keep our encounters to the at – a- safe – distance sort as we continue up the coast.
Our local guide in King Cove, Della Trumble, seemed satisfied with our bear precautions though still recommended we carry a gun – as many folk seem to do. I asked her how the relationship was between bears and people in this community where she has lived most of her life. ‘Do most bears run from people?’ I asked. ‘No. It’s the young ones that are so unpredictable – you can never be sure what they will do next.’ Lowering her voice and glancing to her six year old niece in the back of the car, now busy chattering with Justine, Della told me that her six year old nephew had been killed by a bear some years ago while out with his family. I was glad not to see any while driving on the 19 or so miles of road that run from the town out towards Cold Bay. We had gone out to look for them from the safety of the car but I was glad they were out of the way of people, if only at that time.
There’s another story – the eight miles of contested road building which would link the end of the road to the neighbouring (relatively tiny) community of Cold Bay and, importantly, it’s larger runway, allowing critical medical evacuation more safely in all weathers via the road rather than via small plane as happens now. ‘I once watched my daughter’s plane crash just over there and would never wish it on anyone.’ Pointing up to a spot on the mountainside Della told us of another plane which had crashed killing seven on board. It seems like a no – brainer to me (albeit an outsider) and yet the fight has been going on for three decades, held up over concerns of a tiny few for wildlife and, I suspect, commercial interest. ‘So, it’s got to the stage now of suing the US Government, ‘ said Della as we drove. As she recounted the details and her sadness at giving over hundreds of acres of their ancestral lands, I noticed a similarity between her and some of our other native Aleut friends whom we have spent time with along the journey. They feel marginalised by the government, as though they are fighting to be who they want to be, living where and how they want to, in the lands of their ancestors.
During our short stay in Akutan a couple of weeks ago we were given a quick tour around the outside of a fish processing plant, enough to get a sense of the scale of the operations and the volume of fish in and out. In King Cove we got the full show, being treated to a tour of the Peter Pan plant by Site Manager Glen. ‘My father was Manager back in the sixties and I’ve worked every job in there since. Each of my kids worked there too once they reached sixteen.’ Having spoken to a number of King Cove residents it seems many work there at some point, especially during school holidays.
Having seen quite a few fishing boats on our way into King Cove it was interesting and astonishing to see what happened inside. The sheer volume of fish processed and the rate and intensity at which it happens was impressive and frightening all at once. Almost as many migrant workers are brought in as there are permanent King Cove residents in town, though their shift system of sixteen hour days until the work is done means they could as well be anywhere in the world, so little do they see of outside. Sixty percent are from the Philippines, thirty Hispanic and the remainder from ‘ all four corners of the world’. Salmon have started running recently so the lines we toured were full of salmon and pollack but they process crab, halibut and much more besides during the rest of the year. Numbers reeled off Glen’s tongue as he explained what happened and when and by whom, as we threaded this way and that through different rooms of different temperatures between lines of workers in overalls and hair nets, and my mind boggled at the extrapolations. One that sticks is that out of a maximum of seven salmon lines they were operating two that day, each one pushing out 220 cans a minute of chopped salmon.
Stacked on pallets, there was something like 5850 quarter pound cans per pallet. This plant is owned by Peter Pan, a subsidiary of a huge Japanese company (which has many varied arms as many Japanese giants do) and the fish ends up all over the world. As a sceptical scientist I had quietly raised eyebrows at the claims on fishy posters on the wall declaring Alaskan seafood to be ‘Naturally abundant.’ I don’t remember the detail of the different regulations of different local fisheries that have been explained to us recently, but I rather hope it is more sensible than that happening in the E.U. For when you consider that we saw a snapshot of one single cannery and in Alaska alone there are double figures of them, the volume of fish being harvested in this region and beyond is frightening.
Enough of that for now. I know many of your were probably wondering about my wet bottom after my dry suit zip jammed with sand the other week. Happily my newly repaired spare suit was in Anchorage and the lovely Scott and Debbie Cameron were able to send it on to us, so no more wet bum days for me.
Our thanks to Della Trumble and the folks of King Cove and the King Cove Corporation for their support, to Glen of Peter Pan for the tour and the USFWS crew of Tiglax for the shower and brownies.
If the weather plays we hope to cross to Unga tomorrow and then on to Popof Island and Sand Point on Friday.
P.s Thanks for the messages re the recent quake up in the Aleutians that made the news. We were all ok and haven’t felt any shakes at all on the journey.
P.p.s For the questions re bears we keep our in airtight dry bags in the kayaks, all of it away from the tent and keep all toiletries out of the tent. We light fires each night and at the moment are camping on offshore islands where there are no bears.