Kal’ut awatiini cailnguq. - Around Karluk is tundra.
Across the northern hemisphere, tundra environments occur above treeline and below year-round snowpack. Although tundra is commonly associated with mountain slopes, it also occurs all the way to sea level. For example, extensive, low-lying areas of the southern Kodiak Archipelago contain moist tundra, a wet, hummocky environment dominated by grasses, sedges, and dwarf shrubs. Also known as tundra muskeg, this type of vegetation occurs around the community of Akhiok. In contrast, Kodiak’s drier coastal regions and mountain slopes have a carpet of alpine tundra. This environmental zone holds small woody and herbaceous plants as well as an abundance of grasses. This type of vegetation is common around Old Harbor.
The Alutiiq people harvest a variety of resources from the tundra. They collect the leaves of the Labrador tea plant, a small evergreen herb, to treat colds and coughs. Many varieties of delicious berries can be found in these environments, including cloudberries, nagoonberries, crowberries, blueberries, lowbush cranberries, and bunchberries. Kodiak’s tundra also provides habitat for waterfowl and game birds. Swans, ducks, geese, and willow ptarmigan frequent moist tundra, while rock ptarmigan are common in alpine tundra. Once hunted with bow and arrow or snares, Alutiiqs pursue these birds with shotguns today.
Photo: Coastal tundra along the Ayakulik River, southern Kodiak Island.
Puyulek yakguani et'aartut, ingrini. - The volcanoes are far away, in the mountains.
Although there are no volcanoes in the Kodiak Archipelago, the mountainous Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Island chain are formed largely by volcanic activity. Along this expanse of Alaska’s coast there are at least eighty volcanoes that have been active in the past eleven thousand years, spewing ash and pumice into the ecosystem.
For Alutiiqs, volcanic eruptions have long threatened life, property, and economy. The most spectacular event in recent memory was the explosion of Novarupta in 1912, an adjunct of the Katmai volcano on the Alaska Peninsula. The nearby villages of Katmai, Douglas, and Savonoski were destroyed, and an enormous plume of ash smothered shellfish and deciduous vegetation, choked salmon streams, changed the distribution of marine fish and sea mammals, and killed seaweed and kelp beds as far away as the city of Kodiak. Today, a thick layer of beige-colored ash represents this eruption. It is visible below the modern ground surface at the north end of the Kodiak Archipelago.
A record of at least one prehistoric eruption is preserved in Alutiiq art. A five hundred-year-old painted box panel from Karluk shows an exploding volcano. Geologists note that the image looks much like Mt. Augustine, a volcano in Cook Inlet that erupted about five hundred years ago. Whether or not the eruption on the panel depicts this particular event, it represents the earliest known human record of a volcanic episode in Alaska.
Photo: Volcanoes rise above the King Salmon River, Alaska Peninsula, 2010.
Tamiinek taangaq aturtapet. - We use water in everything.
Freshwater is a plentiful resource in the Kodiak Archipelago. Although the region contains few large rivers, more than eighty inches of precipitation fall each year, and many small streams funnel rainwater and snow melt down steep mountainsides to the coast.
Alutiiq villages were often built near a reliable source of freshwater, a pond or a stream where water could be collected for drinking, cooking, bathing, healing, and manufacturing. Residents hauled water to their houses in bentwood buckets and tightly woven baskets, where it was stockpiled in containers fashioned from seal stomachs. Families drank water from woven cups or sucked it out of gut containers using straws made from the dried stems of cow parsnip plants. Vessels used for hauling water were also used for cooking. People added fire-heated rocks to boxes filled with foods and water to cook their contents. Water was also a preservative. Berries, for example, could be kept fresh for months in cool or frozen water.
An Alutiiq legend recorded at the turn of the nineteenth century tells of the origins of water, both fresh and salt. According to this legend, a man and a woman descended from the sky in a seal bladder. The man scattered his hair on the mountains, creating trees and forests, while the woman produced the ocean by urinating and the rivers and lakes by spitting into ditches. Yup’ik and Iñupiat peoples tell a very similar story, illustrating the deep ancestral ties among Alaska’s coastal societies.
Photo: Boy in Larsen Bay carries water buckets with the help of a wooden yolk. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Kuicaaq qus'igtuq. - The waterfall is high.
Kodiak’s rugged topography and its wet weather combine to create many small waterfalls. Heavy rains saturate the ground, providing runoff for streams that spill down mountainsides and plummet over cliffs. Some waterfalls are seasonal, fed by spring rains and melting snow, while others drain steep slopes year-round. The Alutiiq word for waterfall, kuicaaq, comes from the word for creek, kuik.
Waterfalls are a prominent feature in Alutiiq legends and are often associated with the supernatural. In some stories, waterfalls act as passageways into distant and dangerous lands. In one tale, a woman in search of her lost lover paddles over a waterfall that traps her in a world filled with cannibals. When she succeeds in killing the cannibals, the waterfall disappears and she is able to paddle home.
In other tales, waterfall and animal spirits are associated. In these legends, waterfalls provide freshwater for thirsty sea creatures. According to one tale, an Alutiiq boy saw a whale swim toward shore. As he watched, the whale shoved its head onto the beach and opened its mouth. A little man, the whale’s spirit, came out carrying a leather bucket in each hand. The little man went up to the waterfall and filled his buckets, and then climbed back into the whale’s mouth. Refreshed, the whale closed its mouth and swam back out to sea.
Photo: An Afognak Island waterfall.
Kal'uni qangyut angtaartut. - The waves are always big at Karluk.
Rough water is a fact of life in the Gulf of Alaska, where wave production is closely related to the speed and duration of local winds. Heavy seas are particularly common in fall and winter, produced by frequent, powerful storms. Waves associated with these storms regularly reach heights of twenty feet and can build to over thirty feet. Around Kodiak, the severity of heavy seas is compounded by the region’s considerable fetch, the distance the wind travels over open ocean. Storms approaching the archipelago cross vast stretches of the North Pacific, building energy.
For mariners, waves present many challenges. Making forward progress, steering, launching, landing, and avoiding hypothermia are all more difficult in rough water. Classical Alutiiq boats—skin-covered qayat and angyat—were expertly designed for this environment. Alutiiqs carved bow pieces from a single piece of wood to ensure their strength and designed these pieces with a curve that helped propel boats over the waves. Similarly, a flexible wooden frame allowed vessels to bend with pressure and a skin cover sewn with waterproof stitches ensured a dry boat.
A boater’s skills were also critical to safe travel. Men learned to launch boats in the surf by watching the rhythm of the waves and finding a lull in the breakers. They also learned to paddle from a kneeling position, using their bodies to help steer through rolling water.
Photo: Waves colide with the shore of Cape Alitak, May, 2010.
Itganka mecuu’ut. - My feet are wet.
In Kodiak’s cool, wet environment, staying dry is a constant battle. Alutiiq people, who thrived in this moist land for thousands of years before rubber boots and Gortex, devised many ingenious ways to keep from getting wet. Hunters coated the sea lion skin coverings of their kayaks with oil to make them waterproof. Seamstresses fashioned lightweight, flexible rain gear from the intestines of bears and sea mammals using special waterproof stitches, and men built warm, weather-resistant homes to protect their families.
Traditional sod houses had many features designed to keep out the rain. Elders recall many of the details of building these waterproof structures. The first step was to dig a large hole in which to build a house. Where possible, this hole was dug down to gravel to help the floor drain. In some cases, builders also dug a network of drainage ditches into the floor. Covered with boards, these narrow subfloor trenches helped to move water out of the house. Next, the builders used driftwood logs to erect a wooden structure inside the hole. This was covered with a layer of insulating grass, with the blades oriented to help shed moisture. In some cases, the grass was held in place by a mud plaster, in others, it was weighted down with sticks and logs. Sod blocks were the piled against the structure with the grassy surface facing inward, again to provide insulation. Final touches included a window covered with waterproof gut and a small trap door in the ceiling that let out smoke while keeping the rain out.
Photo: Community members participate in an archaeological excavation in the rain, Salonie Mound, July 2007.
Yaatiini, akgua’aq, ernerpak cali aqllangenguartuq. - The last few days have been windy.
Wind is a persistent environmental feature of Alaska’s gulf coast. Steep mountains funnel sudden gusts down coastal valleys, and winter storms bring blustery weather that generates high seas and cold temperatures. For Kodiak residents, the wind is both a friend and an enemy. In summer, it keeps the bugs away and helps dry food for winter use. But in winter, wind can make travel and subsistence activities difficult, encouraging boaters to stay ashore. Weather is always a major topic of conversation. People learn to read the winds in their communities, to help predict everything from salmon runs to the return of the mail plane.
An Alutiiq legend tells of a community where the wind always blew fiercely, stranding villagers in their homes. A brave man paddled his kayak into the wind to find its source. He came to a cliff where a man sat blowing violently. He shot the man, who retreated but did not die. Over many months, the kayaker traveled to distant places, searching out other winds and stuffing their mouths with moss. His noble actions calmed the winds but did not tame them permanently.
Tamuuliciqukut uksurpailan. - We will make dry fish before the winter.
Winter in the Kodiak Archipelago quickly follows summer. As the days darken and stormy weather sets in, the landscape turns rapidly from green to brown, the temperature drops, and wet, windy days replace the warmer, foggy days of fall. In Prince William Sound, Alutiiq children once marked the first days of winter by making string figures. String games were intended to entangle the sun, slowing its seasonal disappearance.
Subsistence harvesting continues in winter. However, economic activities are usually those that can be conducted on or near land: deer hunting, bird hunting, and plant collecting. Lowbush cranberries, Labrador tea, and licorice ferns are some of the plant resources that continue to be harvested in the winter. Cranberries, collected in windswept areas where the snow has been blown away, are often eaten as they are picked. On calm days, people will venture out in their boats to hunt and fish, but sea mammals, halibut, and cod range farther from shore in the cold season and can be harder to catch.
Winter is also a time for social activities. People gather to visit, celebrate, and share the fish and game harvested over the past year. In classical Alutiiq society, many of these activities took place in the qasgiq, or community house. These large, single-roomed structures were built much like traditional houses. They were framed from driftwood, covered in sod, and had benches lining the walls. Russian observers noted that most communities had one such structure where men gathered to socialize, plan war parties, discuss political issues, and lead community festivals.
Photo: Wintery morning in Ouinkie, 1949. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.