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Before the StormA Year in the Pribilof Islands, 1941-1942
By Fredericka Martin
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESSCopyright © 2010 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe came to the Pribilof Islands with the last snow and the first flowers. For days the sea had been stretching endlessly, alive with tiny tinsel-tipped waves. Then to our north my husband and I saw a thin shadow that grew darker and larger. Standing at the rail of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service motor ship Penguin in late June 1941, we watched the staunch lava seawalls of St. George Island stand clear against the blue horizon, growing taller and taller in the luminous air. Beyond the high rim of the land, a plateau streaked with browns and reds, stained with black shadows, a rough sloping plain castellated with high outcroppings of tumbled rocks and tumulus hills of burned volcanic cinder, drowsed in the sun. St. Paul and St. George, the two inhabited Pribilof Islands, arrogant upstarts in the Bering Sea's smoke-grey emptiness, bear no identifying family resemblances. Unlike St. Paul, St. George was no timid nestling of earth cradled anxiously in the sea but a braggart of an island, indifferent to the pull of the tides, the endless pawing waves seeking greedily to draw it down into the depths again.
St. George lies about forty miles southeast of St. Paul. It extends for nearly twelve miles and is almost five miles across at its widest part. Its shape has been compared to a stone battle-ax. The approximately thirty-six miles of area are bound by nearly thirty miles of formidable coastline, the sheer perpendicular cliffs being broken only occasionally by sloping rocky beaches and one or two small sandy coves. The average altitude of St. George is three times that of St. Paul. Among the many volcanic cones that stud its surface is the peak of Ulakaia, over eight hundred feet in height. Although the few accessible beaches have offered little living space to the fur seals, the rocky uplands have been friendly to the little Pribilof fox. Hundreds of them lurk among the boulders, alert to seize an unwary seabird from the millions that occupy the cliff walls. Sated by kittiwake, puffin, or murre, the foxes can retire easily to natural burrows in the rumbled rocks. Instead of regular roads, the seal rookeries are connected by plank tracks laid across the rocky terrain.
Just a month before we saw St. George rise out of the sea, the name Pribilof Islands had sounded strange and unfamiliar to my ears, not even awakening echoes of childhood delight in Kipling's story "The White Seal." The two tiny brown flecks on the blue-paper Bering Sea of our globe, initialed P.I., were as unreadable to us as the dots and dashes of a strange code. As the cliffs lifted the broad tableland of the heart of St. George into view, I thought back to that afternoon when I had been loafing in a lawn chair in the scanty shade of pine trees in our Greenbelt, Maryland, garden, trying to endure patiently the hottest May afternoon I had ever known.
My husband was in the house answering the telephone. He called from the window, "How would you like to live on an island in the Bering Sea?"
His query was as refreshing as a plunge into a cold mountain stream. A vision of snow-covered islands and glistening bluish icebergs thronged with enormous polar bears floated for an instant in the shimmering sunlight.
"I would love it," was my immediate response. "When do we start?"
Two weeks later we were in Seattle on the motor ship Penguin. Sam was to be the resident physician for the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior on St. Paul, largest of the Bering Sea island group. Some household effects had been safely stored. Others had been hastily entrusted to friends. We had little baggage besides three hundred favorite books and a layette for the baby we expected in August. Officials had assured us we needed nothing but personal articles and clothing for weather no colder than the average Washington, D.C., winters. Limited shopping time forced us to rely on their assurances. A helpful hint in Seattle sent us scurrying to buy raincoats.
Our friends had bid us good-bye with faces that displayed contradictory emotions of incredulity, disapproval, and envy. Even at Pennsylvania Station in New York they had difficulty in realizing that we were actually climbing out of a placid, happy, secure rut for an adventure. They were shocked that I, a registered nurse, dared forsake the comforts of modern hospitalization and the service of an obstetrical specialist for my first baby.
It was easy to understand how they could feel slightly horrified and wistfully envious at the same time. In 1941 the shadows of war had crept so near the United States that most people were trying to close their eyes to the danger and were clinging resolutely to every outward symbol of security. That we, however, actually presumed to act as if the world were peaceful and safe to go traveling in was disturbing. We had faced the specter of war, aware of the probability that Japan might attack America. Nevertheless, we decided to try to obtain a year of close companionship in a lonely place that promised a degree of leisure unattainable by a busy physician in the States. We had balanced the emotional strain of a father serving as accoucheur against his privilege of sharing intimately the child's first year of life, a joy beyond the reach of a father occupied with the pediatric care of hundreds of Greenbelt babies. The year ahead promised new interests and hours for study. We hoped for experiences to rest our minds and bodies from the stresses of modern life and to strengthen us for the tests Americans must face in-we dared not guess how many months.
Our first glimpse of the Penguin was disquieting. The pier at the end of Stoneway on Lake Union lay in dense shadow. A few dim lights outlined the ship. Pictures of toylike arctic vessels against a background of towering ice or wallowing in tumbling seas enliven travel books. Confronting the small vessel that must carry you thousands of miles north and west, across the wide stretch of the tumultuous Gulf of Alaska into the shifting windy wastes of the Bering Sea, your respect for explorers increases. In the darkness the outlines of the Penguin, built in 1930 especially for the Pribilof run, belied the claim of a four-hundred-ton displacement. Even the mountains of crates and boxes hiding the deck failed to add bulk to its size.
As the Penguin pulled lazily away from the dock one minute after midnight on the fourteenth to appease marine superstition about setting out on Friday the thirteenth, we stood at the railing watching the twinkling lights of Seattle's hills, wondering about the year ahead of us. We felt like explorers setting out to open up an unknown portion of the globe. Inquiries to museums and individuals possessing reputations as authorities on Alaska had given us scant information about the Pribilofs. We knew only that the herd of two million Alaskan fur seals was bred there and that the native inhabitants were called Aleuts, were considered government wards, and attended the Russian Greek Orthodox Church. The vague answers of Washington officials of the Fish and Wildlife Service to our questions about our future home had been puzzling. Whatever life on St. Paul might be, we hoped to have the satisfaction of exploration and investigation. We had been assigned one of the two deck cabins and were pleasantly astonished to have the luxury of a private shower. Without unpacking we tumbled into our berths and dropped happily off to sleep.
In the morning we woke to feel the pleasant rocking motion as the Penguin steamed steadily northward between the islands of the Inland Passage. Anxieties aroused by our nocturnal glimpse of the ship were forgotten. We surrendered to the charm of one of the most beautiful waterways in the world. For several days we spent most of our waking hours perched on sacks of potatoes or crates of oranges watching the endless variations of the shoreline. The mountainous islands that we left in our wake never palled. Out of rock and coniferous trees and silvery waterfalls nature had wrought a series of designs devoid of monotonous duplication. The sky was always dramatic with swirling, shifting masses of clouds, assuming myriads of shapes to tantalize the imagination.
The Penguin was alive with people. Some twenty young college students were aboard, employed to blubber seal skins for the Fouke Fur Company. They swarmed noisily over the freight, wandering restlessly from one bumpy nook to another or sprawled out uncomfortably for sun baths. A group of regular employees of the fur company were more sedate and delighted mainly in painting the terrors of seasick days to come. Despite the crowding, the confines of the deck tended to separate the passengers so that many faces were nameless until we had been on St. Paul for some days. Everyone sought out a crevice in the freight and maintained squatter's rights determinedly. Aside from the frolicking of the college lads there was little social life in the daytime beyond brief conversations at mealtimes. Most of the old-timers stayed up until dawn playing cards for small stakes and retired to their berths after breakfast to sleep the day away.
Pleasant table companions were the superintendent of the islands, Edward C. Johnston; Ralph Baker, a minor official from the Washington office; and Doctor Moore, a chemist employed by the fur company. Other employees of the company and ship's officers were less interesting messmates.
Late Monday afternoon we idled up Revillagigedo Island Channel and docked at Ketchikan, the second-largest town in Alaska, to fill our water tanks. Captain Knudsen, a Napoleonic blue-clad and brass-buttoned martinet, could be heard for several blocks from the pier when he learned the ship's tanks were nearly dry. "Them college boys and their baths," he bellowed in his Norwegian-flavored speech. "There'll be no more baths on this trip." As far as I know there were none except a skimpy shower I stole in desperation one miserable afternoon.
Ketchikan, derived from the Indian name Kach Khanna, meaning the "outstretched wings of a pinioned eagle," is located on the western side of Revillagigedo Island, named in 1793 by the English explorer George Vancouver in honor of the Viceroy of Mexico. The town clings to a long, narrow strip of shore at the base of Deer Mountain, a stern guardian peak of three thousand feet. Canneries and boats, the latter sprouting a forest of bare masts, shut the town away from the water's edge. Houses zigzag erratically up and down the slopes. Sidewalks of silvery worn planks cut the landscape with bright crisscrossing lines. The heart of the business section backs away from the main pier with fur stores and curio shops crowding numerous saloons and liquor stores. We stepped ashore to confront the blackened skeletons of buildings, where fire, that evil genie of Alaska, had wreaked great havoc in the spring.
Anxious to send mail to our friends we hurried first to the post office. Too late we learned the shops had closed promptly at six. We stood longingly in front of the music store, looking at stacks of records. We had brought a portable Victrola, expecting to buy records along the way. And now we had missed that last opportunity to stock up with musical entertainment. Regretfully we thought of our many record albums left behind with friends.
Many passengers had run ashore for a last highball before being marooned on the government reservation of the islands where liquor was illegal. I had a different thirst. Very reverently I sat in the drugstore sipping, as I thought, my last chocolate soda for a year.
The doors of the "Alaska Sportsman" were still open. Disregarding the tourist bait of garish totem poles, leather articles, poorly carved animals, many of them stamped "Made in Japan," we examined the few shelves of books. When the Penguin's whistle blew warningly we staggered under our burden of volumes that included Alaska Wild Flowers by Ada Sharples, Hunters of the Great North and Ultima Thule by Stefansson, Western Bird Guide by Reed, a handsome edition of Rockwell Kent's Wilderness, and the Alaska Guide edited by Morle Colby.
I shall always remember Ketchikan because of the Indian youngster crowned with an Indian headband blazing with lurid feathers, obviously new and obviously the product of a trinket factory in the States. Decked in the imitation war bonnet, he lived his dreams striding down the quiet street, shooting off his cap pistol at imaginary foes.
For several days we loafed on up the Inland Passage. We watched legions of giant jellyfish floating past and uprooted fields of kelp smearing the water with tobacco-colored stains. Occasionally we roused from our somnolence to catch the sleek gleam of a whale as he broke slightly above the surface of the water. Our eyes followed the flight of kittiwake, albatross, and murre.
At Little Port Walter we lingered for a brief half hour to drop off freight. The nearer we approached the Gulf, the more intensive was the campaign of the old-timers to dishearten us. When we answered questions about our welfare cheerfully, the doleful prophets would mutter, "Just you wait until you get out on the Gulf."
True to the forecasts, Sam succumbed to the Penguin's sportive antics soon after we passed Cape Spencer and encountered the impact of ocean waves. My immunity still withstood attack. But I felt better on deck, even at the risk of freezing to death. Of course the trunk that held warm clothes had accidentally been buried deep in the hold. Sam found the courage to join me on deck while we traveled through Kupreanoff Strait between Kodiak and Afognak islands. I kept my eyes glued to the shores of Kodiak, hoping some extrovert among the famous bears would exhibit himself on shore. Of course, one never did.
I shall never be certain whether I was the victim of the stormy seas or the combination of lukewarm, greasy food, tepid, revolting drinking water, and the constant sounds and sight of other people's illness. At any rate, feeling tired and disgusted with the increasing filth of the dining room and unable to remain on the storm-lashed decks, retired to my bunk with Pride and Prejudice and finished the book had been trying to read to the end for years.
Late Saturday afternoon we arrived at sand Point on Popoff island and stopped to fill the ship's tanks again. The cold dank rain seemed to fall in large masses, but everyone was eager to step ashore. The boys had crowded into the store run by the owner of the salmon cannery and carried off every scrap of candy before we could even get inside the building. Two cans of grapefruit caught my eye. The price was terrifying. As I consumed them later felt as if every mouthful were encrusted with gold. should hate to be poor in Alaska.
By dusk we were off on the last portion of our journey, cutting through Unimak Pass to cross the barrier of the Aleutian archipelago. In a gracious mood the reputedly termagant Bering sea welcomed us. Less than twenty-four hours later we were off St. George.
When the Penguin dropped anchor in the shallow roadstead opposite the sole village, which bears the island's name, an awkward squarish boat was already being rowed rapidly toward us. The few employees of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the permanent Aleut residents were anxious to open the bulging mail sacks the seamen were heaping on the deck. For almost another twenty-four hours we swung at anchor. When the tide ran smoothly the freight was unloaded into the picturesque boats, the baidars, fashioned after the ancient Aleut pattern but covered with canvas instead of animal hide. The stocky, muscular Aleuts sped the heavily loaded boats easily through the waves. When the tide changed and the current pulled too strongly against the oarsmen, unloading was halted. Most of our fellow passengers went ashore to explore. Sam and I stayed aboard, contenting ourselves with reading the face of the island, watching the circling flight of curious and hungry seabirds, and keeping a lookout for the dark brown shadows in the water that were fur seals. I was so weary of the sea wanted no brief visit to land. I wanted to stay ashore for a long, long while.
At last the final baidar was loaded and we weighed anchor for St. Paul, forty miles to the north.
St. Paul lay dark and low upon the sea wrapped in veils of twilight. The rolling lowland ran in waves beyond our range of vision. The skyline was embossed with the cones of red- and brown-tipped volcanoes. The little red hills wore the dignity and majesty of rugged mountains. The landscape was strong, serene, aloof from the clamor of the waves lashed by a wind loosed suddenly in the quiet of evening. Here was the island I was looking for, that had dreamed of for weeks.
Excerpted from Before the Storm by Fredericka Martin Copyright © 2010 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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