In 2013 I spent 6 weeks working at a crab processing plant in the Aleutian Islands. These are journal entries and photos from that time.
“What a burden longing was– to stand on the continent’s soft edge, waves always and endlessly arriving, the surf breathing for you, and that old, old dream of paradise stirring deep, as if it were a place you could locate, a place where you could never stay but would instead spend the rest of your life yearning to return to.” Sherry Simpson, The Accidental Explorer
10.14.13 I made it to Akutan safely, after 8 hours of airplane terror including the most harrowing landing over wild waters and between mountains that the wind was trying to fling the airplane into, 2 hours in the Anchorage airport, 1 beautiful day of exploring with a dear friend in Dutch Harbor, and 4 hours of seasickness on a big boat. Internet sucks but I’ll check in as able. Aleutian Islands: no motherfucking joke.
10.15.13 Made it to Akutan. I have my own room, and the window looks out onto the rock face of the mountain and the trail leading up. The first morning I didn’t need to start work until noon so I walked to the village. The road out of the plant curves around the harbor- the whole village and the cannery are planted on a narrow strip of land that butts up against the mountain. Once you get past the harbor there are boardwalks that run through the village, wide enough for a 4-wheeler but no vehicles. It was very quiet- just the sound of the water lapping against the shore and the wind and the birds. I ran into the teacher and, being an obvious, rare and therefore interesting stranger, he spoke to me as if we were old friends and invited me into the school to meet the kids, all 13 of them. I walked past all the houses to where the boardwalk runs through the tall grass towards the mouth of the harbor. The sun was in my eyes and the light was strange, both very bright and strangely weak. Just past the end of the boardwalk you could see the waters of the Bering Sea and the pale blue horizon. The light and the colors and the water and the quiet all reminded me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when they reach the western waters and all become drunk with life force, and become quiet and calm and stop needing to eat or talk but just sit and look out on the waters and the light and feel a calm, overwhelming joy. I feel like that.
“We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?” The Snow Child
10.17.13 Walked to the village again this morning. Saw a group of seals swimming across the main harbor, sleek heads bobbing up to take the air and then sliding back under, up and under over and over, graceful and coordinated as synchronized swimmers. Listened to a small bird sing from a rock along the water- he stood facing me, chest puffed out, happy to have an audience.
10.25.13 I went out to the dock at break today- needed to see the wild Alaska that I love and not these claustrophobic walls. It has been stormy and the weather was wild, slapping up against the dock in wave after wave- a soft, milky blue green, the mountain across shrouded in fog and topped with snow, the seagulls riding the swells and fighting for tidbits in the water. The Ocean Explorer pulling away, ponderous and slow, moving back out to the fishing grounds.
10.16.13 At the end of my shift we did a pollock fish ticket with about 15 other species on the ticket- squid, salmon, sablefish. It was dark out by then and through the office window I could see the black waters of the bay, looking thick as oil, waves shining in the lights from the boats at the dock. A crowd of seagulls waited on the roof outside the window, patient as old men with hands in their pockets for refuse from the boat as it unloaded. I had this vision of all those kinds of fish out there in the water, and the gulls, the water, the mountains and the stars, and the boats moving slowly through, invaders in a wild land much bigger and wilder than we could ever tame with our little metal capsules and flimsy nets, and how that wildness seeps into all of us here. No- how that wildness makes an answering note sing deep within us, a chord that is always there.
11.15.13 Even with the trauma, the crabstink, crying in the bathroom, the food, the darkness, the bedbug it has been so worth it. The beauty and the wildness of this place, the hills to climb and roam, the mountain greeting me every morning, the gulls and eagles and falcons, the small sparrows and starling, the terns with their oil black feathers and graceful long necks. Sea otters rolling and playing in the water, the sea lions breaching and blowing- yesterday on the dock, 10 a.m., barely sunrise, we stood looking out to find a sea lion Masa had pointed out and then one breached just below us, she looked up and then dove under and with the angle and the closeness and the clearness of the water we could see her clearly, stretched out fins front and back, her ungainly body sleek and graceful in the water, diving down down down down at an angle until she disappeared into the darkness, I will never ever forget it.
11.25.3 It started snowing a week ago and the mountains and the dock were all covered in an inch of snow. I went out every chance I got, all bundled up. It was majestic, and wicked and deadly and sharp. Slate blue water, deepening to midnight and lightening to a milky jade green where the waves slapped the dock. Water running off the mountain across the bay had become icicles, flowing frozen into the harbor water. Seagulls minced dainty through the snow, leaving three pronged tracks, and huddled on the edge of the dock, heads sunk into their feathers. There was a pair of sea lions that must live in the bay- I never saw them out of the water, but they were there in the water every time I went out, heads bobbing through the waves, glaring at me with belligerent, bulbous eyes. Always eagles, falcons circling high over ahead and ravens calling from atop Maersk containers and light poles. One stressful day, I took an hour and a half for lunch and walked the dock, 40 mph gusts blowing the fur hood of my parka off my head, blowing white clouds of spray off the top of the water and making the surface ripple and dance, here, there, changing direction with the fickle wind, everything alive. I walked out past the cannery gates and a little way up the trail near the creek. The gusts of wind almost knocking me over. I stopped maybe 30 feet up and looked out across the water. The wind died down and then I noticed the water surface being pushed up from the mouth of the bay- like a tiny wave, a wake, or like something rising from the deeps, some god or angel, white caps at the forefront. I knew a big gust of wind was coming, I braced for it, watching the water shimmy closer and closer until it slapped against the rocks at the base of the road, then five seconds later SLAP- it hit me full force, I staggered, shrieked, laughed out loud and waited for more.
11.13.13 On their way out the door to head South for the season, the men from the Sea Trader (our only reliable form of transportation) cackled loudly as they called, “Good luck getting off the island!” A little bit unsettling. Thanks guys.
1.31.17: Once the Sea Trader left, after the crab quota was filled and most of the processors were gone, the only way off the island was to take the hovercraft to the neighboring island of Akun. Akutan is too rocky for a runway. Akun is a small, flat island with a single air traffic controller working in a tiny building, a long runway, and a shipping container filled with chairs that served as a waiting room. For ten days after the Sea Trader left us, the hovercraft was broken and we were all stranded. I was arranging travel as part of my job and everyone was losing their minds, and I was losing mine. We finally got it operational and I got myself on the hovercraft to Akun, and then an 8 seat airplane slowly ferried 40 of us the 20 minutes to Dutch. In the shipping container waiting room was an inoperational coffee pot and five of the Chronicles of Narnia.
In Dutch Harbor I stayed at the Grand Hotel for a week. I had fallen in love in Akutan, not just with the place and with the sea lions but with a human man. I won’t talk about him much here. That time with him was a sacred time, and a liminal one, a time between two worlds and between someone I had been and someone I was becoming. I will treasure it always, though it was difficult to give it up, later, in the real world.
Dutch Harbor in December was breathtaking. We had an entire week to wander around in the snow. I come from a place where it snows enough to stick maybe once a year, and I felt like a child set loose in a wonderland.
11.27.13 We drove out to Summer Bay along ice glittered snow covered single lane road and then up into the hills past WWII gun ports and bunkers, tundra grass and berries submerged under a blanket of white, and out to Morris Cove, where we found the islands herd of wild horses. I was entranced- I’ve barely ever seen a horse, much less a wild one. Two of them walked towards me, curious and gentle. I stroked their necks, one brown and one white, both with soft fuzzy fur coats, not the coarse hair I was expecting. Long manes dreaded and unruly. Big brown eyes looking at me with curiosity and no malice. They soon tired of us and began eating the tundra grass growing next to the road. Morris Cove somehow shelters them from the snow, sun drenched and golden. On the way back we saw a fox, bright red against the white snow, skittish and quick. He ran off before I could get a picture but I found his tracks down the road a bit, running down the hillside and onto a frozen pond. Fox tracks everywhere, blue ice, the Bering Sea below in Summer Bay rolling towards the beach in slow swells, huge and undulating, splashing against the rocks at the feet of the seagulls, picking the shoreline for food. Too cold outside to not wear gloves, our xtratufs crunching through the frozen top layer of snow. Everything quiet and no evidence of the human world except us and the long abandoned WWII bunkers, everything magical and strange.
“To die falling off a ladder or being run over by a drunk means nothing. But, for the man who lives and dies at risk, who puts his hands in the fates of the gods, death is never meaningless.” The Holy, Daniel Quinn
12.2.13 After 7 hours of flight terror – after rocking and rolling our way out of Dutch Harbor, after flying for over an hour through solid, ominous grey cloud cover between Dutch and Anchorage, after leaving Anchorage and spending two hours in a plane shaking so hard my teeth were rattling and the attendant was falling in people’s laps serving drinks, after the ‘little bit’ of turbulence we were warned about during landing had everyone in the plane screaming and bracing themselves on the ceiling, after everything in the galley jumped off the shelves and rolled down the aisles, after the coffee pots smashed to the floor and coffee started seeping underneath my seat, after we all applauded when we landed in Seattle and the flight attendant thanked the pilot for landing us safely, after the flight attendant patted me on the shoulder and said, “I’ve been flying 6 years and never experienced a flight that bad”- after all that and 7, SEVEN! mini bottles of vodka, I am safely if not soundly on the ground in the Lower 48. And I’m never flying again.