Walking Home: An Alaska Book Week Review

24 09 2011

Alaska Book Week is almost here! October 8-15; more info here. Join Hooked in celebrating ABW from wherever you are, by cozying up with one of Alaska’s many talented authors. This is a review of one of my favorites.

Packing for halibut fishing last May was pretty simple. Longlining’s fast pace and grueling hours equate to minimal down time that is best spent sleeping. Practicing great restraint for someone who usually packs more reading material than clothing, only one book went into my sea bag: Walking Home, by Lynn Schooler.

Winner of the 2010 Banff Mountain Festival John Whyte Award for Mountain Literature

As soon as the gear was set, we retired to our bunks for a 2 hour nap. I nestled into my sleeping bag, book in hand. If I’d wanted to prioritize sleep, this was a mistake: Walking Home captivated me from the first page.

The back flap reads, “Lynn Schooler has recently lost a dear friend and feels his marriage slipping away when he sets out into the wilderness to clear his head. His perilous solo expedition – first by boat, then on foot – takes him along one of the world’s wildest coastlines, being battered by the elements, fording a swollen river, and, for several harrowing hours, becoming a grizzly bear’s quarry.

But this barren landscape is also rich with human stories – of trappers, explorers, marooned sailors, and hermits, as well as the myths of the regions Tlingit Indians. Paying tribute to these lives at a lonesome turning point in his own, Schooler aspires to understand what it means to be not only part of nature’s web, but also a member of a human community in the flow of history.”

Though Schooler “set off into the wilderness,” Walking Home is no Into the Wild. Alaskans have little patience for Hollywood-ized stories of poorly-planned jaunts into nature. True to his forty years’ experience in Alaska, Schooler’s precautions were meticulous and humbling. This is someone I’d leave the dock with, I thought. That trust in the individual allowed me to trust the author, losing myself in his gorgeous prose.

Schooler’s geographical subject, Lituya Bay, is a favored oasis of fishermen, a place particularly close to my heart. Close in physical proximity, too: at the time of my reading, we were 40 miles offshore, gazing eastward to the very coastline he trekked. His historical research was as extensive as his personal preparation, weaving several centuries of stories with his own.

Though the region’s history and his adventure are fascinating, it was Schooler’s internal journey that truly resonated with me. His voice sounded familiar – the tone of so many men in this fleet, an entire generation selfless with their knowledge and time, keeping inner tumult as firmly guarded as a hot fishing spot. Following his unflinching gaze, insights absent of self-pity or blame, I found myself wondering if other fishermen had processed their own mid-life losses similarly. As bold a venture as Schooler’s solo hike was, the vulnerability of exposing his internal process seemed a far more courageous act.

Throughout the season, I raved about Walking Home to fellow fishermen who know and love this coastline. One frowned at my summary. “His marriage was in trouble, so he just left? Huh.”

Well… Yes. I understood my friend’s disapproval. But I also recalled my own reaction to deeply troubled times, when I fled to the sea without a backwards glance to the loved ones left behind. Having needed to walk out on my own life a time or two, I recognized the necessity of movement.

Death and decay are constants in this ecosystem, as they are in our lives. Out of loss comes new growth; as nature repairs herself, so do we. Following 1958’s great wave – the largest tsunami ever recorded, worldwide – Lituya Bay’s ravaged tree-line reasserts itself. The remains of shipwrecked vessels vanish from the coastline, as loved ones exit our lives. We grieve their departures, search for the lessons of our shared time, and continue on.

Book lovers all have favorites that we return to, over and over, for familiar comfort and new insights among well-worn pages. When I finished Walking Home and immediately began to read sections to my shipmates, struggling to see the print through thickening twilight, I knew this would be one of mine. For anyone who’s spent time on the water or in the woods, who craves the wild spaces around and inside of themselves and knows the echo of their own companionship, Schooler’s work is utterly relatable. It’s an ideal read for Alaska Book Week.

Those of you in/near Anchorage, mark your calendars for February 10-18, when Perseverance Theatre will perform a stage adaptation of Schooler’s 2003 memoir, The Blue Bear. Stay tuned via Facebook, where you can subscribe to Lynn Schooler’s daily photo posts – stunning meditations on life in Southeast Alaska.

Prayer flags flying, July 4th in Lituya Bay

And you, friends? What’s on your reading list for Alaska Book Week?





Wake Me Up (When the Season Ends)

20 09 2011

Imagine a small café. Polished bar, creaky wooden floors, an L-shaped jumble of chairs and tables lining the open room. Lights are low, room is packed, whiskey’s flowing. Sitka’s premier rockabilly band, Los Shotgun Locos, is tearing through the 1960’s. When they launch into The Man in Black, the fisherfolk posse in the midst of the Larkspur Cafe erupts. Drinks quake as salt-cracked fists pound the table, skippers and deckhands roaring along.

“Let me go home! Why don’t you let me go home? Well, I feel so homesick, I want to go home!”

Johnny Cash begged his captain for release, but our rowdy group was appealing to a higher power. Between the season’s grim coho run and an early onset of vicious fall weather, our fleet’s been singing the blues since July:

“Been fishing for peanuts all season…They may be small, but at least they’re skinny.”

“This is the worst August I’ve ever seen – and I’m old!”

And, “I’m gonna have to find a yob this winter,” in mock-Norse resignation.

The finish line is just a few weeks away, but judging by the weather and empty harbor, you’d think it’s already a done deal. Even before August surrendered to September, an unprecedented number of folks had thrown in the towel. The high price for tuna lured several handfuls south. Overwhelming doom-and-gloom knocked a few Negative Neds out of the game. (“This season’s a bust,” one of them decreed midway through.) And when last week’s gruesome extended outlook forced the fleet dockside, that was more than most could handle. Many local boats called it quits, and the remaining seasonal crowd streamed south in a mass exodus.

Not Cap’n J and I, though. The boat’s wintering here, so there’s no excuse of rushing for a weather window. We’re here to September 20th’s bitter end, and that’s a good thing. Joel’s spent a lot of time cozied up with the calculator, punching numbers, analyzing conservative estimates of what we’ve made.  No globe-trotting for us, but we should get by on a shoestring winter, sticking close to home, living on fish and rice. Not a bad deal, really.

With a freezer full of coho fillets, we're lucky indeed.

Meanwhile, we’re content to enjoy the unexpected time in Sitka and figure that eventually the weather has to break. A friend mourned that the series of storms has shifted us trollers onto a gillnet schedule. “Three days on, 3 days off – but in our case, it’s been more like 5 days off.”

True enough. As I write this, we’re on our sixth night at the dock. Rain is screaming down in sheets. This kind of rain defies the laws of matter, coming down not as liquid, but a conflicted solid wall of wet. Gusts rip through the harbor, yanking at our spring lines like poltergeists, and the houseboat in the neighboring stall surges as if on anchor. Gazing through the helm windows, I’m looking at the very definition of “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Joel is studying NOAA’s buoy report online. “Holy shit – it’s gusting 46 at Edgecumbe, with 19 foot seas at 9 seconds.”

Nothing like spending a storm snug in your vessel, particularly when no one has to be on anchor watch. Here in the harbor, the Dickinson stove is cranked up, the cat is sprawled on the bunk, and Raven Radio strings Mississippi Delta blues through the cabin like an unraveling spool of indigo velvet ribbon.  I’ve got a steaming cup of tea in one hand, and a palm-sized universe of hope in the other. The wind and seas will come down, the coho will finally grow up, and ours will be among the few remaining hooks dancing in front of them.

Hope pays off: A couple nights later, we got this moonrise over Mt. Edgecumbe.

[This one's a little out-of-date, friends. Written on September 6th for publication on Alaska Waypoints, it's now September 20th and we're back at the dock. Another Southeasterly ripped through the rigging last night. The summer troll season closes tonight at midnight, for what that legality's worth - every troller I know has sold their final load of salmon, scrubbed out their fish hold, and called it quits. Cap'n J, Bear the Boat Cat, and me, too.  Watching whitecaps merengue through the harbor affirmed that decision.  So we're now in the frenzied process of winterizing the Nerka, but I hope to have something new for you later this week.]





“Is There Whale in My Teeth?” Vegetarian on Cultural Vacation

5 09 2011

Year-round, Sitka’s bulletin boards are thick with flyers of talks, classes, performances. My Hokey-Pokey presence – one foot in the community, one foot out – has often meant that if it sounds like something I’d like to experience, it’ll happen while we’re out fishing. The timing of this sign was a welcome exception:

“Tomorrow night… We’ll actually be in town!”

Built in 1914, the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall is a green shingled hulk of a building. It squats on the creosote-coated shoulders of tired pilings, between street and shore, and hosts the farmer’s market, community meetings, fundraisers, and memorials. Locals refer to it with a gently slurred “Ayne bee,” letters exiting larynx with the soft spring of walking on muskeg.

I entered ANB with deja vu. A lifetime earlier, I ran a dinner program for homeless youth. Teen Feed was hosted by generous neighborhood churches, basements that followed exactly this layout: industrial kitchen, heavily-laden buffets with volunteer servers at the ready, carefully spaced folding tables for guests. But instead of asking us to sign in and check any weapons, the bird-like woman at the door opened her cash box.

“It’s $12 for the king salmon dinner. The gorging table is here, and the tasting table is over there.” Clearly stated and segregated for a reason: harvested under subsistence regulations, traditional foods are illegal to sell.

Carefully handwritten labels identified each dish and its harvester. Herring Eggs, Sitka Tribe. Seal Fat, Virginia Phillips. Gum Boots (Chitons), Isabella Brady. I exchanged a grin with the man next to me in line, fellow travelers sharing the wondrous displacement of stepping into another culture, without leaving Baranof Island.

Sea Asparagus with Seal Oil, Aguduk (Eskimo Ice Cream), & Cockles

At the gorging table, I did just that. Baked king salmon heads, halibut, purple potatoes, venison stew, moose sliced like roast beef, herring eggs on hemlock branches; I said yes, please to everything.

From the gorging table.

A friend raised an eyebrow. “You’re really goin’ for it, huh?”

I’d crewed for him years earlier. With a freezer full of venison and elk, his wife struggled to accommodate their vegetarian deckhand. His unasked question echoed between us: You wouldn’t eat the meat I provided, but you’ll eat this?

A fish-slaying vegetarian… I became this oxymoron 7 years ago while crewing for my brother, when we didn’t take any red meat aboard. A day on Mom’s farm, forever after known as the Great Turkey Massacre of ’06, took poultry off my plate. Seafood stayed. If I could embrace the responsibility of taking a creature from its living self to my table, I reasoned, then I could eat it. I don’t enjoy killing fish, but with 24 seasons of blood behind me, I can do it quickly, with gratitude.

Our table was quiet, usually boisterous friends shy with the unfamiliar setting and food. The other woman, a farmer turned first-time deckhand, shared my enthusiasm. We waded through heaping plates, reflecting on our own harvesting experiences of berry picking and mushroom hunting in the Pacific Northwest, and evaluating each bite.

“Ooh – that was a really tart berry!”

“I liked the seal; it was like liver, but milder.”

Eulachon, Tlingit Delight, Cockles, Chiton, & yes, Muktuk (Whale Meat)

Then the morsel of truth: I studied the cube of whale meat and questioned my double standard. Why didn’t I feel conflicted over consuming a creature I hold such reverence for? Knowing that my white self will never be part of an indigenous whale or seal hunt, why did this feel okay? More than okay – why did it seem a privileged opportunity, an invitation to participate in something sacred?

Contemplating Muktuk

Questions that aren’t easily answered. So I popped that glistening morsel into my mouth, a perfect division of white and dark, and chewed. And chewed. The fatty white – blubber – surrendered, while the ridged black skin resisted each bite. Focused on the unyielding texture, I couldn’t articulate the taste. My language – spoken language, ancestral language – doesn’t include those words.

Community matriarch and Alaska Native Sisterhood president Isabella Brady called for attention. Steadied by a walker, her small frame was incongruous to the powerful energy she radiated.

“Let’s have a little prayer.” Head bowed, her voice was firm. “Heavenly Father, thank you for this fellowship, as we share traditional Native foods and regular foods. Thank you for this great country and this life we live.”

Next she gestured to a smiling woman seated nearby, balloons streaming from the arms of her wheelchair. “It’s Evelyn’s birthday today, so let’s all sing Happy Birthday to her.”  The packed hall gave an enthusiastic rendition, with applause breaking out after the final “to yoouuuu!”  But Isabella raised her hands to silence us. Softer, with fewer voices to carry the song, another melody rose to the rafters. The Tlingit tones shivered across my spine.

Approaching to give thanks, I interrupted Isabella mid-birthday cake bite. She was tolerant of my questions, explaining that the dinner was a fundraiser for Celebration 2012, ANB’s 100 year anniversary. The civil rights organization was founded by Peter Simpson, a Canadian-born Tsimshian man.

“Do you know who that is?” She peered at me sharply, and gave a curt nod at my shaking head. “He was my grandfather.” She gestured at the photos on the walls, framed black-and-white portraits of elders whose grandchildren were now wizened and wise.

I thought again of Teen Feed, recalling quiet kids who found excuses to loiter after dinner, craving a moment of undiluted attention. Belly full, spirit hungry. Distracted by their louder, more overtly-demanding peers, too often I swept them into the night with preoccupied goodbyes. Be well, sweeties.

And now, lingering at the borderland of the gorging table, I was that quiet kid. I wanted to sit at Isabella’s feet and listen – to her translation of devil’s club and skunk cabbage rustling in the Tongass, of salmonberries swelling in the spring and pink salmon spawning in the fall, of rainfall’s many songs and raven’s waterfall laughter. To anything she’d share.

Alaska Native Sisterhood President, Activist, & Fry Bread Magician Isabella Brady

But presidents are people in demand. She was surrounded by a crowd of friends, while I was an outsider in every way. Cap’n J and I slipped out the door, sharing a final piece of fry bread slathered with spruce tip jelly as we reflected on the evening.

Joel had struggled with his decision not to try the muktuk. “I thought about it. But it didn’t sound like something I’d like, and in the end, I just didn’t want to eat whale.”  How individual our hearts’ voices are, I thought. The unapologetic carnivore shunned the meat of a being he feels connected to, while the peskatarian who apologizes to the fish she kills chowed on down.

I grinned for his inspection. “Do I have whale meat caught in my teeth?”

“Uh… Actually, you do.”

My tongue toyed with the single fiber of black skin wedged against an upper incisor. I felt otherworldly. A little high. Was it the richness of the food, the radical onset of so much protein? This 33-year old digestive system reeling from so many never-before-encountered substances?

Probably all of the above. But I’d rather interpret that out-of-body sensation as the physical embodiment of belief. Faith that we become, on some small level, that which we consume.

[Want  to contribute to Celebration 2012? Tax deductible donations, made out to ANS Camp 4, can be sent to Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp #4, 235 Katlian Street, Sitka, AK 99835.]








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