Tengausqaq mit’kutartuq. - The plane is going to land.
Today, each of Kodiak’s remote Alutiiq villages receives regular airline service. Many days, commuter flights from town carry passengers, freight, and mail across the archipelago. Wheeled planes and floatplanes are now a common, efficient way to travel, but older residents recall the days of limited air service.
Until the construction of Kodiak’s Naval Air Station and FAA Communication Station during World War II, there was no regular plane service to Kodiak. People and goods traveled by boat, taking days to reach places like Anchorage, Homer, and Karluk. Coast Guard cutters had to evacuate the seriously ill to Seward.
World War II construction encouraged commercial flights to Kodiak by creating runways and an air traffic control system. In the 1950s, the construction of gravel airstrips in Kodiak villages extended the reachof air service. Although it was expensive, villagers were drawn to the ease of air travel, and the used of mail boats ended.
The arrival of scheduled plane flights is now part of the rhythm of village life. Adults phone Kodiak air taxis to report village weather. Children scan the skies, competing to be the first to see an approaching plane, and everyone listens for the hum of aircraft engines. This sound signals that it is time to jump in a car and head for the airstrip: a gravel runway found in every community.
Photo: Kodiak Airways loads up in Old Harbor. Befu Collection ca. 1960.
PaRag’uutateng culurtaarait. - Sometimes they beach their boat.
Most fishermen who know Alutiiq words are familiar with culu’ulluku, a term that means to beach your boat. Whether intentional or accidental, beaching is an age-old way of reaching the shore. In classical Alutiiq society, paddlers who wished to bring their skin-covered qayat or angyat to land would select an appropriate beach, wait for the right wave to carry them landward, and use special strokes to pull their boats safely through the surf. Archaeologists note that many ancient coastal villages were built behind a good landing beach: a protected length of sand or gravel shoreline.
While beaching a boat is a convenient way to unload, it can also be an important safety choice. By bringing your boat to land in a storm, you can avoid being smashed against rocks and thrown into the water. This was a particular concern in the past, when Alutiiq hunters paddled lightweight, skin-covered boats that could easily be torn by the jagged slate that lies along Kodiak’s shores. Kayakers who couldn’t get to shore in a storm lashed their boats together to create a raft or tied inflated sea mammal stomachs to each side of their boats to improve stability.
Photo: Sunken boat, Whale Pass, 1968. Courtey Tim and Norman Smith.
Sapuraanga. - I am weathered in. (literally, “It blocked me.”)
The Alutiiq verb sapuluku literally means, “to block it”: to physically obstruct something or someone. For example, you could use this word on your boat, when a very low tide kept you from traveling through a channel, or to indicate that locked doors are keeping you from getting into your car. This verb can also be used for the Alutiiq phrase sapuraanga, which means, “I am weathered in.” In other words, the weather is blocking the airplane from picking you up. This useful, descriptive verb can also be changed into a noun, saputaq, to indicate something that is a blocker. Although the precise Alutiiq word for a fence has been lost, saputaq can be used to generally indicate a fence, a dam, or even a weir.
In prehistoric times, Alutiiq communities built fish fences, or weirs, out of stone. People piled cobbles in shallow rivers to form large V-shaped traps. Fish swam into these enclosures, which opened downstream, and were blocked from moving any further. Archaeologists find remnants of these stone weirs on Kodiak’s major salmon streams. In the historic era, Russian colonists introduced heavy log dams known as zapors. Fishermen used these large barricades in some regions of the archipelago until the early twentieth century. Today weir fishing is illegal around Kodiak. Instead, weirs are part of local fish management, installed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in area streams to count salmon as they return to spawn.
Photo: A foggy day on Kodiak.
PaRaguutat pRiistananun taitaartut. - The boats come to the dock
In Alutiiq communities, where boats are essential for travel, subsistence activities, and work at sea, docks are a necessity. Although Alutiiqs once landed their skin-covered boats on the beach and stored them around their houses, docking facilities are now a common part of rural communities. For example, in Larsen Bay, residents can tie their boats up to a large pier maintained by Kodiak Salmon Packers or use a slip in the new small boat harbor, completed in 2002. The city of Old Harbor maintains docking facilities that can accommodate barges from Kodiak and Seattle, as well as fifty-five smaller vessels. Port Lions has eighty-two boat slips and a pier large enough to accommodate the state ferry Tustumena.
In addition to being a central community facility, Old Harbor’s community dock is the setting for an annual summer gathering. Each Fourth of July, following a Russian Orthodox Church service dedicated to local fishermen, residents walk down to the boat harbor. Here they watch a procession of purse seiners participating in a blessing of the fleet. Boats pass along the big ship dock, where a priest sprinkles each with holy water. The audience sings and waves flags. Then the ships line up for a race back to the dock. The ritual is intended to ensure a safe journey and a quick return for those who make their living at sea.
Photo. Children on the dock in Ouzinkie, ca. 1960. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Tumanaq martuq. (N); Umneq martuq. (S) - The fog is thick.
Each summer Kodiak’s coast clouds of mist and sea fog envelop Kodiak’s coast. As warm summer air passes over the cool North Pacific Ocean, dense patches of fog build against the island, where they may sit for days. Because fog can seriously hinder travel and subsistence activities, predicting its arrival and departure are important skills. It is not the clock that people watch in planning subsistence activities but the tides and the winds, the ocean and the sky.
Weather forecasting is considered an art in Alutiiq communities. People perfect their knowledge of the weather throughout life, learning from experience and developing an elaborate lore of local conditions. In the past, people also watched for omens that would foretell the weather. For example, if eagle down tied to the prow of a kayak fluttered, it was a signal of coming bad weather. Older individuals were particularly sought after for their knowledge, and some communities had a “sky person,” a weather expert who provided advice to hunting parties.
Photo: Fog covers the coast of Afognak Island.
Village-ni kaaRaruangcut amlertaartut. - There are a lot of four wheelers in the villages.
Four-wheelers are the small, open, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) that provide transportation in Kodiak’s Alutiiq communities. Because it is both difficult and expensive to ship a full-sized car or truck to a remote village, many residents choose to purchase these sturdy, fuel-efficient bikes. Visit Ouzinkie or Larsen Bay and you will see people transporting luggage to the airport, hauling firewood, taking children to school, and recreating with their four-wheelers.
Although many people refer to their bikes by brand names like Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha, and Kawasaki, Alutiiq Elders developed the word kaararuangcuq for four-wheeler. This term literally means “kind of like a little car.” Another word used by some Elders is masiinakliitarpak, meaning “big motorcycle.”
Four-wheelers are an essential part of modern village life, but older residents remember the days before the machines arrived. They note that four-wheelers have changed rural living. Not only is it much noisier with the bikes around, but people get less exercise. Men who used to walk miles to hunt now ride their bikes. They may get to travel farther and stay out longer, but they aren’t in as good physical shape and they don’t necessarily do better at hunting. The noise of the bikes can scare away game.
Photo: Yolonda Inga, Athur Peterson, Thomas Rastopsoff, and Phillis Peterson on a four wheeler in Akhiok, Rostad Collection.
Qatayat nernertutaartut! - Gulls will eat anything!
Glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucescens) and Mew Gulls (Larus canus) are familiar residents of Kodiak’s shores. These opportunistic scavengers eat almost anything. They range throughout the Gulf of Alaska and Bristol Bay, where they are particularly attracted to human settlements. Each spring, gulls lay many thousands of eggs on inaccessible cliffs and rocky ledges. This protects the eggs from foxes, but not from Alutiiq people, who have long gathered gull eggs from boats and by rappelling down cliff faces.
In addition to food, gulls provided mariners with important environmental information. Travelers know that gulls can help them predict bad weather, find schools of fish, mark currents, avoid rocks, and lead boaters to land in the fog. Elders from the Alaska Peninsula remember that Alutiiq hunters had at least two helping animal spirits, one for land hunting and one for sea hunting. These spirits provided luck and guidance and were frequently birds. In fact, bird imagery is widely used in Alutiiq art, particularly on the bentwood hats worn by Alutiiq men when kayaking.
Photo: Glaucous Winged Gull, Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge, Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Qayaq miktuq. - The kayak is small.
The Alutiiq kayak is a wood-framed boat covered with sea lion skins. Carved from driftwood, craftsmen once built each lightweight frame to fit the specific proportions of its owner. In the past, single-holed and double-holed boats were the most common, although Alutiiqs developed triple-hatched boats during the fur-trading era to carry gear for long-distance hunting trips and transport people. These larger baidarka, as Russian traders called them, were more stable but required greater strength to propel.
Alutiiq kayaks have a distinctive split prow designed to slice through the waves and limit sea spray. Paddlers propelled their boats with narrow, single-bladed wooden paddles with a diamond-shaped cross-section. These paddles were specifically engineered for Kodiak’s windy weather, where quick stabilizing movements are often necessary.
Men lashed their hunting implements to the deck of their kayaks within easy reach. This gear included darts, harpoons, throwing boards, a spare paddle, a wooden quiver, and a bailer. Hunters also carried a patch kit so that tears in the kayak’s skin covering could be quickly mended.
In the winter, when stormy weather limited travel, Alutiiq men removed the coverings from their kayaks. They oiled the skins to maintain their water resistance and allowed the skins to rest while they repaired the boat’s frame. Kayaks are still seen in local waters, although people use them for recreation more often than hunting and traveling.
Photo: Sven Haakanson kayaking in Womens Bay. Photo courtesy Eric Waltenbaugh.