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.
When I am away from home there are quite a few things I miss. The fresh, salty air of living in a seaside community. The oft-times starkness of the mountains rising out of the sea. Being able to keep track of the traffic at the airport because more often than not, I hear the planes landing and departing; turbo props, not jets. The background noise of gulls, ravens, eagles, geese, oyster catchers, and a dozen species of ducks. The thrum of boat engines leaving the harbor. The wild sound of the Aleutian winds.
At the top of my list is the constant sound of the ocean. My house sits on a natural spit of land fronted by Iliuliuk Bay which is fed by the Bering Sea. Even on a calm day there is the little slap of waves on the beach. As the seas get bigger, the sound of rolling pebbles and rocks being pulled by departing waves is quite satisfying. But the best is when it is really blowing from the north and the waves are pounding the shore like a big bass drum. That is the time when the waves are so constant and so powerful that they shake the shore and the land, the very air that we breath, and my soul.
Flying in and out of Unalaska causes much angst. Mountains. Bering Sea. Birthplace of the winds. 3905 foot runway. Grown men crying. Grown men who fish out in the dangerous Bering Sea crying. You get the picture. Everyone has a story…or 20 stories to tell of incredible flights in or out of “Dutch”. The sad issue is that it is just as angst-ridden for those on the ground waiting for loved ones to depart or land. You either have to be really hard up for money (60%) or love it like you’ve never loved a place before (25%), or be totally indifferent to your environment (15%) to live here and suffer the angst.
Case in point. SP’s Mom flew out yesterday. At our little airport there were 5 Saabs on the ground, a KingAir, and 2 Dash8s. That’s a lot of propellers. Jockeying for position on icy ramps. All completely safe…except in the eyes of an 11 year old boy seeing his mother off. There was a stiff little breeze, probably 15-20 knots out of the northwest. Visibility was great when we got there. Then, the airline, for whatever reason, decided that the passenger plane, which was set to depart at 10:00 am, was not as important as all of the freighters. So we waited. And waited. By the time SP’s mom got on the plane ( which was about as far away from the terminal as was possible without being off the tarmac), this is what had happened to the weather.
As you can see, you can’t even see the end of the runway. So, even though SP and I had to get home to finish making macaroni salad for a potluck we were to attend at noon, we waited. He just didn’t want to leave his mom in the hands of the ‘idiots’, I believe was his phrase. (Angst causes you to think badly of people and to blame them for things that are not in their control, lol.)
Then when the weather started to lighten and brighten up, they decided to de-ice the plane, even though not a single one of the other 5 planes that had just taken off within the past 1/2 hour had been de-iced. And they couldn’t get the de-icing machine to start. At 11:22, having been at the airport for 2 hours, SP and I decided we could wait no longer. We had to get that salad made. We reluctantly departed the airport without having witnessed the plane taking off safely. This is just not something we EVER do. Thank goodness the crazy, hilarious, mad-cap antics of getting the salad finished took away our angst.