By the time you read this, hopefully Justine and I will have waved and hugged our goodbyes to the people of Nikolski and be paddling on our way. I write this on Saturday, our fifth day of being here. It’s been a very happy, gentle time filled with resting, recharging, stories and lots of laughter shared with new friends. Happily for the couple sharing the Ugludax Lodge with us, it has also involved the washing machine and shower as we were both rather fragrant after three weeks in the boats!
An ancient island
Nestled gently along the bay on the Bering Sea side of the island, Nikolski is the last remaining village on Umnak, but it was not always so. Pre 1700s and the Russian invasion of the Aleutians in pursuit of fur, there were more than 20 villages across Umnak. With archealogical evidence dating settlements in the area at over 8000 years old, it makes Nikolski and Umnak the oldest continuously habited area in the world. You certainly gain a timely sense of the place through being here.
Both time standing still somehow and also time eroding fallen buildings as the weather sculpts their lines a little softer or rustier, grass growing and being grazed by four footed remains of the cattle ranching era over everything they can get at, the 4,000 year old Chaluka mound – an ancient midden, being one of them.
A Reeve Aleutian plane continues it’s quiet residence on the hillside at the end of the runway- its final resting place following a bad weather crash in 1964. Today it’s only passenger was a fluting bird, flitting about in the cockpit, cheerily telling us to leave her in peace.
Hunt. Fish. Play.
Mostly, the sense of history comes from talking to residents. 18 year old Eric talked of his needing to ‘come home’ when his parents moved away to the Lower Forty Eight some years ago. Living now with his Aunt and Uncle he says, ‘This is my home. It’s where my ancestors lived for thousands of years. I want to retire here one day.’ When I asked him what it’s like living out here and wondered if it might be tough being so isolated and with such harsh weather conditions he smiled. ‘I fish, I hunt, I play – it’s pretty good,’ he said. I nodded and understood. He said he takes work opportunities when they come round and for the last few years has spent nine months of the year away at High School on mainland Alaska gaining qualifications so that he can gain work among the islands in future years.
We have spent some really happy times with Eric and others over the last few days, sharing stories of life on the island and away. There have been lots of laughs. They are proud of their heritage and culture, although uncertain of the future. Elder Arnold Dushkin remembered there being 70 or 80 residents in the village when he was a boy.
He smiled and shrugged when I asked him what he thought would happen in the future, on our way back to his house from our tour of the tiny Russian Orthodox church. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it all depends on the younger generations, whether they come back and have children.’ There is a young family ‘off island’ at the moment, but meanwhile the swings and climbing frame stand quietly waiting for the children to come back, tickled only by grass and flowers growing about the base and circuited by the numerous small rabbits hopping deftly here and there or playing host to a passing eagle, dropping in for a quiet seat to survey the world or eat. The school closed some years ago when the class size dropped below ten.
For now, the Store – which opens three times a week – and the Community Centre seem to be the hub of the village, with residents meeting every morning for coffee and chat. Community is definitely the word – where else do you see an 18 year old chatting to a seventy-plus-year-old for half an hour and more? It’s certainly not something we get too much of at home unless families are involved. And perhaps that’s part of it – even the elder folks who are not related to young Eric he calls Aunt or Uncle. And for the most part anyway it seems everyone is related in some way. We connected up the dots between two residents here and our friends on Atka Island, our last community.
Eric’s Aunt Agrafina summed it up, ‘Well, I reckon I’m related to everyone along the chain.’ I thought back home and of my feelings towards my identity and history as a Brit. First off, I realized I know embarrassingly little of my nation’s past and also, while I am proud to be British, I am not sure I know what that means for me in the same way that some of the people of these islands feel about their Aleut culture and identity. And maybe the difference lies therein – it doesn’t feel like Britain is struggling to be Britain in the same way that these communities are threatened by low population numbers and the scary homogenization that is happening all over the world as native peoples are forced to join the masses.
On Atka there was a big push by some locals to keep various traditions alive, including the Unangan language and out here in Nikolski Eric told me he was keen to revive the tradition of kayaking. If he hadn’t had to leave today for some work, there was talk of him joining us for the paddle up to the next island, Unalaska. It would have been great to help him develop his skills and increase the distances he has paddled locally. Like he said in brilliantly gentle understatement, ‘Well, my family has a rich history of kayaking… ‘. I grinned. ‘Rich history?! You guys invented the kayaks!’ We giggled and paddled off across the bay, sharing stories of this and that. From one paddler to another Eric, I wish you well in your aims buddy.
And with that, I would like to wish a huge and happy thankyou to the people of this tiny community for showing us a warm and gentle welcome. It was tasty, too – the red salmon are just starting to run. Yum!
Go well my friends,