This little fellow, probably recently weaned, beginning to shed his baby coat, is resting on the banks of a fresh water river. This is not near the mouth of the river. Over the past two summers we have seen this type of activity occuring; sea mammals coming into fresh water when they never have before. At least not in the memory of our oldest citizens of 80-90 years. There have been three young seals frequenting the river over the past couple of days. Several weeks ago, my husband witnessed 40 sea otters on a sand bar in the river, plus numerous ones farther upstream feeding. And last year, we witnessed score of monstrous sea lions coming up the river after salmon. Never. Ever. And it is March and the indigenous plants are breaking ground.
P.S. I forgot to mention that this is a ringed seal. There are at least two others frequenting the river. An earlier one spotted was sick and was eventually captured and sent to a care facility. One other was found dead. They are an ice associated seal normally found further north. According to biologists due to the unfortunate lack of sea ice this winter, they are finding other places to haul out and rest. Because of warming temperatures, they are far out of ther normal territory. These three seem to be healthy.
My family ties got a little broader and tighter this past week. I got a chance to meet my mother’s sister’s son’s grandchildren. Our family has relatives far-flung all over these United States. It was not a conscious decision for my mother’s family to disperse in all directions from the Aleutian Islands. It was, instead, due to a forced evacuation of all Native peoples from the islands during World War II. My mother’s older sister Myrtle ended up being sent to her military husband’s family in the deep south. After the war, they eventually ended up settling in Nevada and raising 3 children. The kids had several chances to visit as they were growing up and these visits stuck like glue in the mind of the oldest son. He made several trips as an adult, once with one of his children. Several other times with his wife. The time before this trip, to spread some of his mother’s ashes in the family plot, to be reunited with her mother, father, and brothers and sisters who had preceded her in passing.
On one of these trips, he was in Unalaska during the time that our Traditional Knowledge summer camp was taking place. From that experience sprang the seeds of an idea to have his grandchildren experience their roots and learn about their indigenous culture.
Dennis and his two granddaughters arrived the day before camp began on a day with the fog hanging halfway down the mountains and after having spent two hours in Cold Bay, Alaska waiting for fuel. They were unfortunate to land in Cold Bay after 2 Japanese military planes had emptied the fuel trucks of all fuel. Two of his children were to arrive three days later. His daughter, the mother of the girls, and his son, both of whom had never been here before. They had the true Aleutian experience of flying to the point of being directly overhead, and turning around to return to Anchorage because they couldn’t find the airport in the fog. Well….not a true Aleutian experience because they actually made it onto a flight the next day and landed.
Oh the girls had an experience like no other. The fish – baked, smoked, made into lox. The octopus. The fish pie. The sea lion. Learning to weave. Making masks. Learning some Unangam tunuu, the Aleut language. Songs and dance. And the son and daughter? Hiking some of the trails made by their ancestors some 8,000 years before. Climbing above the clouds and watching the landscape and village magically appear as the clouds dissolved.
But the real magic was in the sharing of family and history. Seeing the bonds forged between a great, great aunt and great, great nieces; between great aunts and great niece and great nephew; between cousins and second cousins, and beyond. The magic of feeling a kinship with virtual strangers. The real magic was in the wistful expressions on the day of departure. The strange pulling at the heart strings that the islands give to people who come here with their hearts wide open. Yes. And the promise of returning again someday.
When Caleb starts a project, he typically is unrelenting until it is finished. When he articulated a Baird’s beaked whale several years ago, he had a short window of time to learn the process and prepare the materials. He and Marine Advisory agent Reid Brewer were on the fast track to get the bones cleaned in time for them to be utilized for the project.
Having a friend who is always the first one notified when a sea mammal stranding is reported is a key to successfully being able to articulate a species. Reid gets called about a stranding, and if he needs backup doing a necropsy, gathering samples, or whatever, sometimes he calls Caleb to help. It seemed to happen on such a frequent basis that Caleb even modified tools to help in being able to cut through mammal skin and blubber with good success.
Reid is great. He is always thinking. He has a knack for pre-planning. “Caleb – lets save this skeleton just in case we need it for something”, is a typical part of Reid’s and Caleb’s conversations. The male sea lion pictured above, washed up on the beach over 2 years ago. After the investigation into the cause of death, the bones were cleaned of as much material as possible. Then at some point, Reid wrapped them in a casing and lowered them back into the sea where they sat for over a year, getting cleaned by the sea and those inhabitants that feast on smelly stuff.
After they were retreived, Caleb went through the lengthy (months) process of counting, configuring, and doing a final cleansing of the bones. He also had to either find missing bones or manufacture new fake ones to complete the skeleton. (Wave action can sometimes tear the casing that holds the bones…then you lose some.) Strangely enough, Caleb lost one of the biggest….a scapula.
Note: I promise I will finish this articulation blog. I am just so tired lately.