Chngatux^ – Sea Otter

3 ottersThe sea otter is a creature of daily habits that consist of napping and foraging.  It forages and eats in the morning, usually taking it’s first meal in the predawn hour before sunrise.  The otter naps during mid-day and hunts and forages until sunset.  Many rest again and then forage for a third time around midnight.  It is known to voraciously clean out beach foods in an area, then move on down the coast to new areas.  It is said that the otter came to being when a brother and sister of Unangan decent threw themselves from a cliff and became otters.

Sea otters are one of the smallest sea mammals, but one of the largest members of the weasel family.  Our otters, E.I. kenyoni, inhabit waters from the Eastern Aleutians to the Oregon Coast.  Unlike most marine mammals who have dense blubber for cold protection, the sea otter’s primary form of insulation is an exceptionally thick coat of fur.

The presence of the otter in the ecosystem is more important than you might think.  Otters keep the population of sea floor herbivores from over population.  Especially sea urchins which graze on the lower stems of kelp often causing the death of kelp forests.  Kelp forests, although very irritating to fishermen and their boat engines, are one of the most important parts of our ecosystem.  Kelp forests absorb and capture CO2 from the air through photosynthesis, hence making the otter one of the creatures that can help impact the detrimental effects of climate change.

The otters pictured above have wrapped themselves in kelp after their afternoon foraging.  Kelp helps keep the otters in place when they are resting or sleeping.

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.

Hunkering down

~

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.