On Jan. 21, about 9:00 AM, my face was pressed to the window of a Twin Otter aircraft that was half way across Akulurar, or the Straits of Etolin. This is the body of water that separates Nelson Island on the Alaskan mainland from Nuniwar, Nunivak Island. Imarpig, the Bering Sea, was largely frozen and the best way to tell we were no longer over frozen tundra was the regular flatness of the surface below. But in the middle of the straits, strong currents created open leads. A jumble of pans, floes, and re-frozen conglomerations of ice fractured and broken mainly along straight geometric lines were dimly visible, although sunrise was at least an hour away
The shoreline of Nunivak became barely visible through the blowing snow, and the plane jumped from increased turbulence. Our flightpath was too far north to permit any sight of the interior volcanic cones or mountains, and soon the revolving beacon of the airfield reached out to us. Gripped by gusts, the Twin Otter lost altitude fast, crabbing in an angular approach, with several degrees of lean for extra measure. This was my least favorite Bush landing yet, but memories of the pilot's handlebar mustache and fly-boy flair were extremely reassuring. This man truly looked like a bush pilot, and, given the circumstances, that meant a lot. At the last moment we straighten up, level out, and hit the gravel strip on the run. No more dreaming, I was on Nunivak at last.
Ground winds in the 30's, and horizontal drift that stung your eyes engulfed us immediatly as we sorted out our baggage in the storm-deepened, pre-dawn darkness. Robert indicated a late model blue pick-up to pile gear in, and then four of us crowded into the cab for the 3 mile trip thru drifts to Mekoryuk. We arrived on the first gusts of a real Alaskan blizzard that shut down additional flights for 2 full days.
In the cab were myself, Robert Drozda, my guide/sponsor and long-time oral historian for the island, Howard Amos, our host and head of Nunivak's Cultural heritage programs, and Hultman (Ike) Kiokun, land use planner for Nunivak, and lead guitarist for the WD-40's. (A later jam session with this band, and a seal oil-enhanced ability to channel blues lyrics, gave me a brief moment of mild, local fame). Howard performs on both drums and bass, although rarely simultaneously. WD-40 = get loose!
In Howard's living room I met his wife Muriel, a bi-lingual teacher at the school, and their daughter Sara. I would stay with the Amos family for a full week. Their hospitality was generous and unending, and the plethora of Native foods that were shared with us was memorable. Their home is very modern and up to date, also a mini-museum of some note. A huge pair of Walrus tusks dominates one wall, along with a big screen TV. There was a paddle and ice pick(" Anguarun & legcik") made by Walter Amos, Howard's dad nearby. There was also an exquisite, museum quality loon/wolf (or fox) mask carved by Walter, several exquisite qay'ar (that's qayaq in cup'ig) models that were Howard's childhood "toys". Also a large coiled grass tray with musk ox, walrus, reindeer, salmon, and seals worked in, sealskin pants( old, but an elastic waistband and a zipper fly were in evidence), and several ulu's to name a few of the offerings.
I was there to talk about the possibity of doing some qay'ar building in that community similar to what was happening in Chevak, and hopefully to accompany Robert on some interviews with elders with direct kayaking experience. With Howard as translator, and Robert as my passport, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Two days later one of my most cherished dreams came true, since Howard had arranged for us to interview Kay Hendrickson, a Nunivak elder (Born on the southern end of the island, at Cape Mendenhall) who was at least 89 years old. Kay had recently returned to Nunivak from Bethel where he had been living.
Kay Hendrickson was the main reason I was out on the Delta, a real inspiration and indication of how strong the qayaq culture still is out in this region. An offhand reference in a catalog that accompanied a travelling Yup'ik mask exhibit mentioned Kay's crossing of Akulurar by kayak several times. This was my first realization of how recent and alive skin boat use was in this area. It is not the stuff of long-passed history. Nunivak retained large fleets of active kayaks into the 50's, and there was isolated use beyond that time. Here was a place to learn about skin boat management and practices from actual participants! And fairly hard-core participants; Akulurar is at least 16 miles wide, highly exsposed and tide swept. Look on a map if you want to get a hint of how bad it could be. Even today with aluminum boats and 150 H.P. Outboards locals think long and hard before such an attempt.
We interviewed Kay for about 2 hours, learning about qayaq navigation, hunting techniques, boat handling, equipment and preparation. We learned about currents, weather, and landmarks, bow shapes and qayar decoration. Much of this information is in cup'ig and awaits translation, but Howard's running synopsis of what transpired kept us in the picture, and showed that an important body of data was being transfered.
Several days later I was witness as Kay video and audio taped 14 songs and included several accompanying dance movements for the Nunivak legacy. This was a very special priviledge indeed.
Just before we left, we were able to take a frame down from the school wall, and tape (video and audio) two other elders, George Williams Sr., and Harry Mike, as they named frame parts, discussed dimensions and construction, and generally reminisced. Pantomime Paddling motions - single blade- were exhibited by all participants from time to time, and several of us could not resist sitting in the cockpit. The frame was built about 10 years earlier by Walter Amos, and Edward Kiokun. Photo from that night.
Although the men steadfastly maintained that this was a small boat, more suitable for a young boy just starting out, it seemed large to my mainly Aleutian-nurtured sensibilities. (15' 10" LOA, 30" beam, 16" deep amidships). The lines of this boat are really sweetly formed, the curves of the bow are particularly pleasing, something George emphasized more than once. The excitement was visible and palpable as we all collaborated on this work - somehow language barriers that had existed the night before dissolved. I'm not sure how it works, but we were all communicating rather well between huge smiles.
Howard and Muriel were translating and collecting new words for the Cup'ig dictionary that they are working on. Several school kids stopped by, and remained for quite a time, with obvious interest. It is hard to convey just how deep and powerful a symbol the qayaq is to this culture, but it's equally hard to ignore the fact that it is.
George has made the crossing of Akulurar several times too, and filled us in on some of the details( leave just at high tide so the set of the current carries you towards Nelson Island. Figure on about 3-5 hours on a calm day, slower going if there is a chop). George and his brother also circumnavigated Nuniwar at least once, and we hope to gather more data and stories about this event too. Because of the groundwork that Robert and the elders laid down for place name mapping, a rather detailed travelogue and "coast Pilot" seems possible!
We also learned about fishing from kayaks -fish are an important part of Nunivak subsistence. George told about Cod fishing, sitting on the deck facing aft, hauling up Cod, clubbing them, and throwing them aft under the deck. When the back was filled, the paddler turned around, and started filling up the front until even the cockpit was packed. At this point the gunwales are submerged and you have about 60 big Cod aboard. Now, still sitting on the deck, you paddle home. Several older men mentioned that offshore trawling has virtually elimanated Cod from nunivak waters.
Before I left I had met with the NPT (cultural ) Board, and we were all in agreement that some sort of community based qay'ar building program would be implemented in Mekoryuk ASAP, perhaps even next fall. George would be our elder advisor-in-residence. As with Chevak, anyone from 6th graders to Adult hunters would be encouraged to get involved.
We also voiced a desire to undertake some paddling expeditions along Nuniwar's rugged but beautiful coast, and loosely speculated about possible cultural offerings of an "ecotourism" nature that might develop from these sorts of undertakings.
Personally, I'll be back as soon as I can - it's a magical place. As to the rest... wait and see!