Hunkering down

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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.

Ugigdada – Share

Ugigdada, or share, is a  very important Unangan value.  It relates to anything that can be shared, as opposed to just sharing a resource.  Examples are work, joy, responsibility, happiness.  Most importantly though, the Unangan shared the food that they acquired from hunting and gathering.  It is still one of the first values that is taught to youngsters who are learning to provide for their families.  You are responsible for providing for your family, but you are also responsible for ensuring that your community has enough.  If someone cannot hunt due to illness, you share what you get with them.  You are responsible for making sure that the Elders in your community have enough traditional food to keep them not only healthy, but happy.  You can expect to be treated the same way under the same circumstances.

Getting ready to fillet a red salmon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My husband Caleb and I fish.  It started out that we would help mom and dad as they got older, but has evolved from the first moment.  We fish, but we wouldn’t be fishing the front beach if our brother-in-law didn’t share his boat, engine, and net with us.  We wouldn’t be very successful fisherman if we didn’t have the help from sons, nephews, grandsons, daughters, and friends who share their strength and time in helping us pull in the net.  With all the new regulations in fishing, having to monitor the net makes it hard for us to take care of the fish immediately like we have been taught.  So my mother shares not only her most excellent filleting abilities by being responsible for filleting the fish, but she also shares her knowledge by teaching all of us how to fillet.  This comes in handy when we just tire her out and then we step in.  My dad shares his knowledge in producing the final product whether it be dried fish, smoked fish, canned, or frozen.  There is no one who knows more about the brine, the wood, and the timing.

Mom stripping red salmon to hang them in the smoke house.

Eating the foods that we grew up eating is so important to us.  Not only are the foods healthy and good for us, but they provide a feeling of well being.  Because of this, Mom and Dad make sure they send food to family who does not live here.  But she also thinks of her “old pals”, so we have food going to the Pribilofs, Anchorage, Juneau, Seattle, and where ever someone may be spending time.

Ugigdada.  Share.

An evening walk in Unalaska.

Sometimes  a suggestion turns into a most enjoyable event.  Mom popped in after dinner and asked if I wanted to go for a walk.  I had just finished the first step in making sea salt caramels and was feeling not so enthusiastic.   But I caved, changed my shoes, and grabbed my camera.  And off we went – Dad, Mom, Diane, and me.  It was fabulously gorgeous. 

Sam and Diane Svarny beginning a walk on the front beach, Unalaska.

Under Jim Dickson’s oversight, the City of Unalaska Road Crew has done an awesome job in reclaiming the vegetation on the beach road.  They have been true to the environment and used indigenous plant species. 

Walking around the neighborhood gives you a chance to snoop at everything your neighbors are doing – but in such a nice, unobtrusive way!  We see the progress being made on Zoya’s home renovation. 

And it looks like Coe and Phyllis have completed painting their little bit of suburban America!!  Lots of work involved here. 

I sure wish they would reopen Unalaska Building Supply!!

Looking up the valley at Unalaska Lake, we talked about the silt buildup causing the lake to give way to grasses, and yes, eventually land.  Not a good problem to have, as it impacts the species depending on the water environment for their cycle of life. 

I can't believe I snapped 120 pictures on our walk!

The flowers have been keeping the bees busy.  I just hope they had enough time to buzz around in the cranberry bushes this spring, doing their thing. 

I'm not even going to talk about how fast the fireweed is blooming.

The pink salmon in the creek are quite numerous.  Now that I am older and wiser and a fish snob, I get my humpies before they have hit fresh water and are still nice and bright.  I remember as a kid, running through the creek, throwing fish out onto the bank for my grandmother.  Obviously, no fin and feather back then!! 

Iliuliuk River, or Town Creek, during spawning season.
Spawn til you die....always such a gross saying, but true.

Approaching home, we probably walked about a mile and a half, which is a long way to meander, let me tell you!  Especially for Dad. 

Mom's and Dad's house in yellow; ours is the blue one right behind.

Dry fish has been a staple of indigenous people in Alaska since time immemorial.  We have a small batch of pinks drying. 

The 2 slabs of fish are actually silver salmon that mom is making into lox.

It was a great walk, and I’m glad I am so easily persuaded.