The New York Times Book Review
- Counterpoint Press
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As we start out of Kachemak Bay, the halibut charter boats are heading in, skimming over the flat surface, leaving wakes like contrails. Dozens and dozens of them returning from the outer bay and Cook Inlet, all zeroed in on the harbor at the end of the Homer Spit. They advance like a naval assault, sure and speedy and exactly to target.
The sports fishermen, sun-baked, feet still rolling with sea swells, will pose in the harbor beside their strung-up fish, "chickens" in the twenty-pound range, and bigger, bigger than themselves200-, 300-, 350-pound fish. Last year, the winning fish in the local halibut derby weighed 379 pounds.
My partner, Ken, who is taking this hundred-foot crab-boat-modified-to-be-a-salmon-tender out to the Area M salmon fishery for the summer, puts the M&M on autopilot so he can help the crew finish tying down the on-deck load.
I raise my brows. "With all this traffic?"
Ken says, "They usually get out of our way."
The Spit, receding behind us, looks ponderous, a mass of commerce piled onto nothing more than a sandbar. There is the square-sided cannery building where I got my first Alaska job cracking crab legs so many years ago. There is the hotel, aptly named Land's End, where Ken, also early in our history, worked the night desk. White fuel tanks gleam, cranes lift over the fish dock, and then there are all those log piles and a mountain of yellow wood chips waiting to be floated off to Japan and Korea. Barnroof tourist shopsloadedwith smoked salmon samplers and moose nugget jewelry, T-shirts and hats, stuffed puffins and sand dollar refrigerator magnetsjam the elevated boardwalks. Most every inch that doesn't lie beneath a building or a log pile has become the property of elephantine motor homes, enough to encircle a mid-size city.
Inland from the Spit, the Homer bench and hills glitter: sun reflecting from windows and metal roofs. As I watch, a plane climbs steeply from the airport and swings north, toward Anchorage.
Such a lot of so much, I think, with both fondness for my hometown and a panging regret, paradise lost. I have seen the town go from one halibut charter business to this enormous fleet, from dirt streets to a speedy bypass and a McDonald's. The realization comes to me as a shock: I have lived here for fully one-quarter of the time that has passed since the Harriman expedition stopped by. No wonder so much has changed.
"There was nothing Homeric in the look of the place," Burroughs wrote in 1899, by which I suppose he meant there was nothing very classy about the town, nothing that its human inhabitants had done to elevate it above its own raw nature. Harriman's family and friends were perhaps Homer's first tourists, though few of the party actually stepped ashore; they were visited instead by a Dr. Gunning and a Captain Ray "who is exploring the coal," and they left off mail. In this, their disinclination to debark, they are not unlike today's cruiseship tourists, most of whom remain where the food is already paid for; those who do venture over the dock tend to complain about the piles of logs and the fishy smells.
The logs offend me, too, for a reason that has nothing to do with the immediate aesthetics. The fate of Alaska's forests is one the Harriman Alaska Expedition (H.A.E.) miscalculated altogether. The forestry expert aboard judged Alaska's trees inferior and difficult to harvest, as well as too far from markets, and promised they would be left untouched except for local use. These many years later, the lush rainforests of southeast Alaska have been taken down, and now the industry is rapidly shaving our slowest-growing boreal woods of their ancient, spindly spruce.
I slant my eyes and try to see the sand spit and green hills, plain, as Burroughs did. It was the end of June, a hazy day, when the George W. Elder anchored up inside the bay and Burroughs noted that the entire "hamlet" consisted of four or five low wooden buildings on the end of the spit. The town, such as it was, had only come to exist with a name and post office three years before, when a mining company that exploited investors instead of gold briefly made it its headquarters. The fifty men and one woman named the settlement after their leader, Homer Pennock, but never spent a winter, and by 1899 they had relocated to the fevered Klondike.
The one woman with all those men wrote many years later, "I think it was the most desolate spot I have ever seen."
We motor toward the open inlet while I continue to look slant behind, the spit getting lower, the town shrinking into the larger landscape. Desolate is not a word I would ever have put to this place, however unwelcoming those early wayfarers and then Burroughs and his fellow expeditioners may have found it. Edit out the fuel tanks, the roads clogged with motorhomes, the boardwalks and shops and all the industrial development, and the place becomes, for me, a long beach littered with driftwood, waving grasses hiding the nests of eiders, luxurious green hills beyond. Even in winter, or especially in winter, I find the soft light and shadows and all the edges between land and sea achingly lovely. Sky. Water. Beatific space. Not desolate but desirableI would say Edenic. I want to believe that a hundred years ago I would have fallen all over myself in love with it.
George W. Elder:
A Natural History
From afar the George W. Elder can be recognized by its plume of black coal smoke and by its whistle, heard especially in fog. Twin masts, fore and aft, extend to twice the height of the squat central smokestack. The square-bowed iron body is dark below, white above, with pilothouse and life boats perched on the top, hurricane deck.
Dimensions are a length of 250 feet and a beam of 38.5 feet, lending the ship a sleek proportionality. Beneath the waterline lies more dark hull and a large three-bladed propeller.
Weight is 1,709 tons.
Closer examination will identify rigging, portholes, and a cargo of free-moving human passengers who pass back and forth across the decks. Two young boys are dressed in nautical suits.
Internally, stairs and corridors lead to staterooms, galley and dining room, library, salon, crew's quarters, engine room, stowage space, coal bunkers and furnaces, livestock stalls and pens. Casks are filled with fresh water. The library holds five hundred volumes, including most of what has been written about Alaska.
This specimen originated in 1877 with the Oregon Steamship Company, and was known at the time as one of the fastest and most modern cruise liners on the West Coast (five-day roundtrip from Portland to San Francisco).
In 1888 it served as the mail steamer serving southeast Alaska. Education agent Sheldon Jackson had it deliver two totem poles from Metlakatla to Sitka for a museum he was starting there.
As a charter boat for the Harriman expedition, it was entirely overhauled and refurbished at Harriman's expense.
George W. Roller, for the way it rolls in moderate to heavy seas. Passengers are frequently seasick.
Like all of its propeller class, this specimen is powered by a steam engine that turns a propeller (in contrast to a paddle wheel). The fuel is coal, and large black plumes of smoke are exhausted. The average speed is 12 knots. When at anchor, the ship is so quiet a passenger may hear the songs of birds from ashore.
The ship's captain relies for navigation on charts, compasses, soundings by leadlines, the echoing of the ship's whistle, figuring distances by traveling for known times at known speeds, and his eyes, ears, and nose. Nevertheless, the ship frequently, like others in its class, runs aground.
A long whistle, used chiefly to call passengers back aboard after a stop.
Also, a variety of sounds from its waxed-record graphophone, used to entertain passengers and sometimes played from the deck at full volume to greet or send off welcoming or departure parties in port. Two recordings made in Sitka and replayed along the way are traditional Tlingit songs and Sitka's all-Tlingit brass band blasting out "Yankee Doodle" and "Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue."
Additional vocalizations emanating from the salon include hymn-singing, college pep cheers, and repeated chants of What's the matter with ? He's all right! Who's all right?
In 1905 this specimen will strike a rock in the Columbia River and be submerged for more than a year before being raised and returned to service. In 1907 it will rescue passengers from a collision of two other steamers, in which 100 lives will be lost. Last known sighting: a 1918 newspaper account will have "the ancient steamer" bound for Puget Sound from South America with a cargo of fertilizer nitrates.
The Price Of Otters
We are still in Kachemak Bay when we spot our first sea otter, riding high in the water on the float of its air-filled fur. It rolls from its back to its side and paddles lazily just out of our path, then turns belly-up again to bob in the wake of our bow thrust. We are close enough for mutual regard, direct full-face eye contact, and I catch in its expression something I interpret as part curiosity, part disdain. It sees more of my kind than I see of its, and so the greater interest, the novelty, is mine. I examine the gray that blooms in its old-person face, the hard shine of its beaded eyes, the one paw held casually over its chest in a gesture that looks oddly effete.
When I first came to live at the edge of the bay, there were no otters here. Later, in small, shy numbers, they migrated in along the bay's south side. They were a treat to see, preening air into their fur, or prying crabmeat from shells they broke and sucked and tossed aside like picked bones. Gradually they spread around and across the bay, rafting into tribes, crying out in storms, the females sometimes bleeding from chewed-on noses they acquired in a cruelly vigorous mating process. They thinned out whole coves of juvenile crabs, mussels, clams they broke open with rocks they carried with them. They ate the sea stars and urchins that eat the kelp, and so they helped bring back the kelp forests that provide food and shelter for so much else. I learned to call them a "keystone" species, one that holds up the roof over the rest of us; where there are otters, there will be other species, diversity, some measure of environmental health.
The otter we've passed is now just a speck on the water, still riding high on its thick and buoyant ever-so-treasured coat of fur. I have never touched an otter, but I have stroked a pelt displayed in the museum in Homer for that purpose. Otter fur is soft beyond imaginingsofter than any kitten, any mink coat or rabbit hat, any crushed velvet. It is, in fact, the finest, densest fur in the world, up to half a million individual hairs in every square inch. The thick fur, and the air trapped in the fur, means that an otter's skin never gets wet. When I touch the museum's pelt, the feel of it on my fingertips, against my palm, is like heat.
Otters were the beginning. They opened Alaska to the first wave of exploitation from without, drawing eastward the Russian fur traders who enslaved the Aleut people and forced them to hunt otters to the brink of extinction.
It is hard for me to imagine, given the length of Alaska's crannied and treacherous coastthat long arc of otter habitat from southeast to the Aleutians and beyondthat the machinery of slaughter could have been so efficient. There were finally so few sea otters left that hunting them became unprofitable. In 1910, the last year before otters were protected by international treaty, a steamer with a twelve-boat crew cruised the Aleutians all summer for a total take of only four otters.
In 1899, Burroughs was unlikely to have seen an otter; they would have numbered then no more than a couple of thousand in all the world, the canny survivors wary of anything that looked like a ship or hunter. Burroughs wrote nothing about otters, but he did report, on the visit of the H.A.E. to the fur seal breeding grounds in the Pribolof Islands, that "those of our party who had been there before, not many years back, were astonished at the diminished numbers of the animals,hardly one tenth of the earlier myriads." He did know something about the pillaging of Alaska's sea mammals for their fur.
Burroughs did not write a word about the otter pelt purchased for $500 by Harriman at a stop in Yakutat Bay. Perhaps he didn't know? I think he did know, and was embarrassed, by the display of wealth and by what Harriman apparently didn't recognize or care about himselfhis own culpability in the species' near extinction.
Supply and demand. Five hundred dollars is not the most that had been paid, or may yet be, for an otter. The early Chinese mandarins, shopping with the Russians, were said to spend the equivalent of $5,000 for a single skin. In 1910, skins fetched $2,000 each on the London market. I do some numbers: Five hundred dollars at a time when $2.50 was a working man's daily wage would equate to something like $20,000 today.
In 1989, when the Exxon Valdez dumped its oil in Prince William Sound, an estimated 3,905 sea otters died in itfrom its ingestion as they madly preened, and from hypothermia when their soiled coats could no longer keep them warm and dry. Exxon paid for the rescue and cleaning of 344 otters, of which nearly two-thirds "recovered" well enough to be returned to the wild. The cost per animal "saved"for rescue, transport, vet care and medicine, a seafood diet, swimming pool facilities, and constant monitoringwas $80,000.
Today perhaps 100,000 sea otters live in Alaska's waters. Commercial hunting of them has been forbidden since 1911, but under federal law Alaska Natives may take otters to use the furs themselves or make them into handicrafts for sale. This recent reinstatement of traditional usage was not without controversy. Most people understand that Native hunting of marine mammalswalruses, seals, polar bears, bowhead and beluga whalesis grounded in long cultural traditions, even when those traditions were interrupted or carried on sublegally. With sea otters, though, the thread stretched farther and thinner all the way back to a time before the first Russian fur traders arrived and changed everything forever. There were no ethnologists studying the Aleut those many generations ago, and the wisdom of the people about living with otters was lost with the otters in the enslavement process.
Last year, 605 otters were reported taken by Native hunters in Alaska, a number said to pose no danger to their continued recovery and expansion. Perhaps 50 were shot right here on Kachemak Bay. There are no limits on how many can be taken, only a general requirement that the take not be wasteful.
Any tourist can walk into Homer's museum gift store and buy a handcrafted pair of beaded sealskin mukluks trimmed at the top with ankle-warming otter fur, for $500. The same tourist can take a boat ride and find the real live thing, that otter lost now in our blue distance, bobbing like a cork.
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