by Sara Loewen : Essay and Photographs
To build here we dug through five feet of midden. When shovel met rock, we buried the pilings—leftover tops of Douglas fir logs from cannery docks in Larsen Bay—and framed our cabin over heaps of refuse. Sometimes I dig my fingers into layers of sharp flat shale and pull clamshells from between rock and bones. Inside the smooth white bowls are ash, berry seeds, the green powder of crushed sea urchins, and fragments of lavender mussels. We built on a picturesque dump.
We make our living setnet fishing in Uyak Bay on Kodiak Island, Alaska. A season here returns us to division of labor. Knee-deep in dead salmon, we witness what we sacrifice to satisfy hunger. This morning I climbed down from the loft and looked out at gray sky and water. To the north, Amook Island tapers like a great green tail that curls into the end of our beach. A caramel movement caught my eye. I turned and saw a bear on the ridge above our cabin, both of us taking in the view.
Who else has shared this view? Watched the sun set in June as if it was following a game trail horizontally along the mountains across the bay? A disappointed gold miner who left dishes and a rusted bed frame that we hauled from the creek. Sugpiaq families who gathered the shells and bones that sift and settle under my garden beds and raspberry patch.
This bay is surrounded by 5,000 years worth of Sugpiaq settlements—a reminder that we live by our bellies. People stayed here for the food washed in with tides and seasons, for the traffic of otters, seals, sea lions, whales, and fish. To the west, millions of salmon once returned to the Karluk River. Halibut and cod drift beneath sockeye and humpies skipping into the air and up the bay. Daily, the sea steps back with a waiter’s flourish. Butter clams, octopus, little neck clams, cockles, mussels, limpets, whelks, urchins, chitons, sea cucumbers. A salad of seaweed is strewn along the beach—brown, popweed, bullkelp, and ribbon. There’s an old saying on Kodiak: When the tide is out the table is set.
We are on Amook Island from spring to fall, during the richest harvest time. Yesterday I heard hammering from the front porch. My husband Peter was trying a new technique for cleaning sea cucumbers. He stretched the animal between two nails and cut out the five long muscle bundles. They are pencil-thin, toffee colored, and they stretch like foot-long rubber bands.
We catch sea cucumbers when they tangle with kelp in the lead lines of our salmon nets. In the skiff, they heave their guts out as a defense mechanism and wriggle away so that predators will eat the feathery pink insides and leave the sea cucumber to grow new innards. These animals were traditionally harvested during minus tides by hand or with spears tied to long poles.
My husband cooks the strips in olive oil. The meat tastes sweet and brackish. I think of the care and labor to produce these small crisp bites and it seems that food, as much as landscape, connects us to the people who first chose this place.
Last summer, when our son Liam was a year old and just beginning to walk, I marveled at the way he mimicked me on the beach. As I loaded wood or seaweed into the wheelbarrow, he found his own small sticks and kelp to add. This year, now two, he wants to “cut” fish the way he has seen us filleting. His response to most sea creatures is “I eat that.” Picturing children who must have gathered the mollusks and berries and eggshells in these midden piles, I feel connected to the oldest kind of learning and teaching. Every task a preparation. The toys found in archeology digs around this area are miniature versions of stone knives and women’s tools, or spears and tiny boats with paddles.
On stormy mornings I turn the VHS to channel 6 and listen for impending weather. Out here the sky and ocean are one great body, each full of the other. We don’t mind a southwest breaking on our beach because it seems to bring the salmon in. A northeasterly might bring rain. In Larsen Bay the northeasterly that arrives with a falling tide creates a swell. Natives in Larsen Bay call it qalli’iq, the noisy woman’s wind.
The Sugpiaq people who lived here thousands of years ago had sitting areas on their sod roofs where weather forecasters could spend the night, watching the sea and sky to advise hunters in the morning on which way they should paddle in order to return with the wind at their backs.
Wishing to know a place, we note weather patterns and the change of seasons. We memorize the names of birds and trees. In May, the cottonwoods on Amook Island unfurl to the song of golden crown sparrows and chickadees. We build and landscape. All summer I pull nettles and put roots down into the ground, transplanting mint or burying perennials that the foxes mark in the night. In the fall I blanket it all with seaweed and wrap the lilac and chokecherry trees against the deer as if finding them alive after a winter will make this place more my own.
A yellow leaf on the tide line catches my son’s eye. “Mama, what’s that?” He asks.
“It’s a leaf,” I say.
“No,” he says and shakes his head. He doesn’t recognize it. Leaves are green.
Now fall has arrived and I’m still waiting on carrots, parsnips, and peas. I can’t welcome the darker blues of September storms, the stronger winds or the sharp peppery smell of weary plants. I ignore the fading pink sheet of fireweed on the hillside. Before we leave, we dig up our potatoes. We package salmon and halibut for the freezer, shoot and butcher deer for a winter’s worth of venison. The teapot is always whistling now. I bake with winter flavors like cinnamon and cloves, and with sticks and sticks of butter. The cabin smells like the walls are built of gingerbread.
What scents drifted through a barabara skylight? Smoke from seal and whale oil burning in stone lamps. The scents of food roasted on a hearth or cooked in clay pots. Steam rising with each hot stone added to meals boiled in wooden boxes. To get through the winter, Sugpiaq families dried their summer catches of fish. They smoked salmon. They filled seal stomachs with oil and berries and stored fish eggs in bark boxes and plants and roots in grass baskets.
I imagine a woman—hundreds of years ago—leaving the dark warmth of sleeping bodies, stooping through the sod hut entrance to rise into this cold fall wind. She would have looked out over the protected beach to where the bay spills toward the white ridge of mainland Alaska.
From here she would see the kayaks approach. She’d recognize the kayaks of her family members. She would have helped to sew the covers, stretched the skins over the wooden kayak frame lubricated with seaweed. Female seal or sea lion skins, not scarred by fighting, were best.
This site was never chosen with hospitality in mind. The hill provides a defensible lookout, a quality the Sugpiat valued as much as living near salmon runs and fresh water. Warfare was common between neighboring tribes as well as between settlements. They fought for goods like amber and dentalium shells, sinew and caribou skin, or for revenge. The skeletons of those carelessly buried, which litter settlements around the bay, are thought to imply violent deaths.
Recently when my husband towed the carcass of a large sleeper shark off the beach, it seemed somehow wasteful, but how does one use a rotting shark? Red foxes had been feasting on the carcass; we thought that bears would come next.
Last night I filled the old drum stove with wood and cardboard and lit the banya. A friend was visiting, and we washed the kids in the dark, hot room. Steam hissed off the round stones piled around the wood stove. Clean and content, we stepped out onto the banya porch into the cold autumn air.
I’ve read descriptions of what demonstrated wealth for Sugpiaq families on Kodiak before the arrival of Europeans. A rich man might have amber and abalone, multiple kayaks, fur parkas, sea lion skins, stone lamps, whale oil, and baskets and bentwood boxes full of food. We are rich in driftwood. Rich in fish. Rich in wind and blue tides pulling at the ghosts of streamside camps and trails.
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