When you are a single, working parent, spontaneity is something that rarely fits into a well-designed, intricately organized schedule. By well designed, I mean that you may have three minutes between work, volunteer meetings, school programs, homework, church cleaning, dinner preparation, and on and on and on. One awesomely beautiful afternoon in mid-July of 1994, my youngest daughter Laresa, who was 13 at the time, and I decided to do a quick jaunt to Agamgik Bay. Agamgik is located on the eastern end of Unalaska Island and is one of the many bays in Beaver Inlet. Beaver Inlet is about seventeen miles long, nearly bisecting the island in half. The Agamgik hike is ranked moderate with only several semi-difficult sections and can usually be accomplished in several hours.
It was about 2:30 in the afternoon when we just decided to go. Laresa had never been to Agamgik, but she had heard about the hike numerous times from her grandfather, who had convinced my older sister, her husband, my future husband and myself to take it one August several years earlier. Due to the weather conditions on that particular hike, it became known as “the hike from hell”. But this day was very warm, probably about 65 degrees, and the sun was shining in a severely clear sky. We drove the gravel road along the shoreline and beneath towering cliffs to Summer Bay and continued on up the coast toward Humpy Cove. Passing the cut-off to the cove, we parked near a bridge leading to Morris Cove.
Grabbing a canvas bag for plants that we would pick on the way back from Agamgik, and a backpack holding drinks and a snack, we got out of the car. I fleetingly thought about someday making myself a woven basket out of wild rye like the ones my ancestors most likely used for gathering. I figured it would only take me a whole winter. But until I gathered the gumption and the time to tackle the formidable task, I would continue to use canvas bags. You know the ones. You see them in grocery stores in the checkout line, being used by the person in front of you. This person is environmentally conscientious and doesn’t want to litter up the earth with more plastic. They make you feel guilty, so you get yourself a couple and use them once and then they are borrowed for school work, for taking stuff to a slumber party or to quickly stuff mail into, and when you go grocery shopping they are nowhere to be found. At any rate, I take them when ever I go for plants, because they are environmentally friendly and they breath, allowing air to circulate over my gathered plants so the plants don’t start decomposing while I am still picking and hiking.
We started on the road, a leftover from World War II, which slowly faded away as we walked. Soon we cut off into the hillside, following a path that has been used for over 9,000 years, made by the hunters and gatherers who have been documented in the Aleutians for that length of time. The path was worn into the tundra, with numerous ground squirrel holes beside, in, and under it; a little treacherous to those not expecting them. We came to a gorge once spanned by a W.W.II bridge, long since fallen in, and began a steep decent and an even steeper ascent. This is by far the most challenging aspect of the hike, and one that my sister and I fretted over when my dad was hiking. He was, after all, approaching 70, and although we never think of our parents as aging, when times like these present themselves, you realize that yes, your dad is old. We hovered like mother hens around him, one in front and one in back and I’m sure irritated the heck out of him, but his mild manner never let on what must have been on his mind.
Reaching the top of the gorge, Laresa and I stopped briefly to catch our breath. Actually, we stopped so I could catch my breath. We breathed in the fresh air, which always seems fresh in Unalaska, but seemed fresher on our hike. We commented on the solitude we were experiencing and the absence of noise. It was not quiet by any means, but it was a different barrage of sounds we were hearing. There were no car engines, no generators humming, no crash and bang of heavy equipment. The Lapland longspurs were singing their beautiful lilting melody, ptarmigan were croaking and the soft, southeastern breeze was rustling the wild rye and causing it to undulate across the landscape.
Of the two routes available to us, we chose a meandering combination of them both. The lower route offers less climbing, but does not offer the fantastic panoramic view when you reach Beaver Inlet which one gets from the route with the higher elevation. Preparing to cross a small creek, Laresa stumbled across a huge fossil rock. Very heavy. We see a lot of fossil rocks in Unalaska, but mostly of marine animals. This one was of plant fossils and Laresa decided that she would like to keep it. She stowed it under some bushes by the stream and planned to pick it up on the way back. I was thinking it would be a tough hike back with that rock. Of course, Laresa is the grandchild who used to talk her grandmother into carting back huge crystal rocks when they went beach combing.
Climbing up to a higher elevation, we began a series of ascents and descents across the rolling tundra. Stopping for a brief rest and snack, we sat on the cushioned hills. Lapland longspurs hovered like helicopters, about a foot off the tundra, against the slight breeze, warbling away. They would land mere inches from us and study us as we studied them. They were totally unafraid of our presence. Inspecting a one-foot square area of tundra led to a lot of questions from Laresa and descriptions from me. Club moss, used to decorate the church during holidays and as a restorative tea for birthing mothers. Crowberries or moss berries, easy to preserve for winter use in a barrel full of water. They make great pies and jam. A tea can be made from the berries to cure eye infections or snow blindness. Wild geranium was used for sore throats by making a tea to gargle with. The tea could also be used to dry up wounds that were not healing properly. Paintbrush, says Laresa, has sweet nectar that you can suck out of the center of the flower. Yarrow, ulngi^gdagan, for fevers and colds, infection, acne, stops bleeding and helps aching muscles and joints. You can even use the plant as an emergency toothbrush; it not only gets that disgusting layer of scum off your teeth, but also freshens your breath. Uva ursi, or kinikinik, good for kidney infections. Low bush cranberries make great cranberry sauce, bread and are good for bladder infections. Dwarf dogwood or bunchberry, kind of mealy, not much taste, but in a pinch they will keep you alive. We watch a fox that has been dogging our trail and he sits at a distance and watches us. His coat is scraggly in the summer temperatures but in several months he will be magnificent in his winter coat. He doesn’t seem to be wary of us and that worries Laresa. Kind of gave her the creeps.
We continued. When we had been hiking for about an hour and a half Laresa suddenly said, “Don’t those birds ever shut up?” As we neared the last rise to the bay, I paused and mentioned to Laresa that before we descended to the beach, we needed to check the area for any of the wild cows that roam this side of the island. Laresa said, ” Wild cows? What wild cows? You never said anything about wild cows.” I told her that they had been released in the 60’s by a rancher who had to leave and they moved themselves to Beaver Inlet and have survived all these years on their own. I said we just had to make sure they weren’t on the beach as sometimes they chase you. Laresa said that she thought it would be a good idea for us to go back home. I told her we would be fine. She thought we should have brought more people with us. I told her we would be fine. At that moment, miles from town in our own little world of nature, we heard a rumbling roar. Of course I knew it was the sound of the jet engines of a 737, but Laresa, with a panicked look in her eyes, whispered “Stampede!” I started laughing and told her it was a plane. Snapping her eyes at me, she vowed she would never go hiking with anyone who didn’t practice full disclosure prior to a hike, ever again. She, of course, has made many forays to that side of the island, camping with friends and just enjoying herself.
Seeing no wild cows, but impressed by the absolutely calm vista spread in front of us of towering mountains, flat calm sea and gently lapping water on a rocky beach, we began our descent and soon were struggling through chest high grass, ascending small hills to run down the other side until we were chest high again. We reached a stream and followed the banks and I commented that this was “wounded knee creek”, where her grandpa had tripped on a pussy willow root, entangled his foot and fell, dangling over the high creek bank. We had visions of trying to pack Dad all the way back, but after heaving him back up, he was able to walk with only a slight limp.
Climbing over huge logs and driftwood thrown by the seas in foul weather clear up into the grass, we made our way to the beach, carefully sidestepping the enormous piles of cow patties. We began searching the beach for agates, both clear and cloudy, which are found all over the place along with green and red jasper. Agates are hard to find until you train your eye correctly to spot them, which is easy after you find the first one. I warned Laresa that we didn’t want to get more than we could comfortably carry back with us, but collecting agates is kind of addicting. We watched salmon jumping in the bay. Since it was only about 5:00 pm, and we knew we had about seven more hours of daylight ahead of us, we took our time, meandering up and down the beach, checking out all the beach treasures that had been washed ashore. You can still find Japanese fishing net floats or glass balls that have survived the impact with solid ground, so we are always on the look out for them. Unfortunately, we found none on this hike. We continued meandering until we reached the point of the bay, (“cow patty point”) and then started back down the beach again, stooping now and again with small exclamations as we found another agate to add to our growing collection. Stuffed in pockets and backpacks and getting a little heavy, we decided it was time to head back since we still had plant gathering to do.
I had watched the landscape carefully on the way over, marking in my mind places where there was a good stand of yarrow, an abundance of geranium, or differing types of wormwood. When you are gathering wild plants, you should never gather more than you can use and if the plants are not plentiful, you should not gather at all. You should only take a small amount from each area, leaving enough behind for the plants to continue their cycle again and again. We hiked to an area, picked briefly and then moved on. There is something about gathering plants that is very good for your mental health. You become renewed. It is a task that is never unwanted. I have never been disappointed by the benefits of gathering.
Nearing the place of the hidden fossil rock, feeling the weight of our agates and the bulk of our plants, Laresa pushed aside the bushes concealing her rock. She crouched down, brushed at the rock and sighed, then decided that we would have to come back for it another time. For now it would continue to be a part of our Agamgik trail.
And it still is.