TuuRaliguanga. - I am building a skiff.
Before the availability of aluminum skiffs and powerful motors and winches, Alutiiq fishermen relied on wooden dories and their own physical strength to harvest salmon. Set netting, beach seining, and ocean seining were done with high-sided, flat-bottomed skiffs propelled by rowing. These skiffs appeared in the late nineteenth century, during the first years of the commercial fishing industry.
In places like Karluk, crews of fourteen men set and retrieved beach seines by hand until 1896. They anchored one end of a net to the beach and loaded the remaining net into a dory. Then, eight men paddled the boat while two others cast the seine. Men in two other dories worked to keep the lead and cork lines from tangling. When the set was complete, the entire crew worked by hand to haul in the catch. Only a couple of sets could be made each day, because each set took from four to six hours.
Local canneries that equipped their workers owned many of the early dories. As the fishing industry developed, however, Kodiak craftsmen began to build and own wooden boats, including skiffs, dories, and purse seiners. After the Second World War, boat-building became a profitable winter industry, particularly in communities like Ouzinkie and Afognak village where timber was plentiful.
Photo: Men fishing with skiffs, Karluk. Clyda Christensen Collection.
Qaninguq. - It is snowing.
Although the Kodiak Archipelago does not receive large quantities of snow, snow cover is present between December and March and remains in the region’s high interior mountains throughout the year. For Alutiiqs, frozen landscapes presented both opportunities and challenges.
Winter in the Alutiiq homeland is a great time to travel overland. Wind-packed snow can make walking easier than in the warm season when people on foot must wrestle through a thick tangle of brush and tall grasses. Overland travel across frozen lakes was easier. Elders remember walking great distances in the winter, traveling between communities with the help of temporary snowshoes woven from green alder branches or a flexible spruce bough. More permanent shoes were carved from alder branches and fitted with a webbing of whale sinew.
Although overland travel is easier in winter, snowdrifts bury wood and brush, making it more difficult to collect firewood. Alutiiq people used hand-pulled sleds to move drift logs and cut timber in the snow. These sleds had narrow runners, sometimes made of spruce roots, to prevent sinking. One man would push the sled while another pulled. However, people did not employ dogs in pulling sleds.
To many Alutiiq Elders, a heavy snow cover is a sign of future prosperity. Some believe that a snowy winter will bring a good berry crop, while others say that heavy snows foretell strong salmon runs.
Photo: Joyce Smith and Larsen Bay children with a snow man. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Kuingtua aprutkun. - I am walking down the trail.
Across the Kodiak Archipelago, trails help hikers travel overland through thick forests and dense brush. You can hike to the summit of Kashevaroff Mountain on a trail or follow the network of coastal paths that lead to Termination Point. Although animals, four-wheelers, and even the military are responsible for establishing many local trails, a number of these paths are quite ancient. Some of Kodiak’s well-worn byways have been used for as long as any one can remember and are considered archaeological features. For example, the presence of prehistoric village sites at both ends of the short overland trail that connects the head of Larsen Bay with the Karluk River illustrates that people made the journey between coast and river for millennia. There is also an old trail connecting the head of Uyak Bay on western Kodiak with the head of Three Saints Bay on the island’s southeastern coast. Legend has it that steps have been cut into mountain bedrock along this trail to assist hikers.
In addition to aiding travel, trails provide convenient places to ambush game. Foxes, otters, and even bears use predictable routes to and from feeding and resting areas. Here, Alutiiq hunters set up traps and snares to intercept furbearers, particularly in the fall. In the past, shamans also used trails to communicate with people. A shaman who wished to scare someone would carve a doll in the person’s likeness and leave it along a path that he or she commonly followed.
Photo: Students hike down a trail on Spruce Island. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Nunakuartuq Kal’unun. - He is walking to Karluk.
Before airplanes and motorized boats, Alutiiq families often traveled by foot. Walking long distances was an activity that people accepted and enjoyed. Travelers crossed rivers and mountains to visit family and friends, to move to and from hunting and fishing camps, to trade with neighbors, or to access seasonal jobs. Some travelers followed well-worn trails, routes used for millennia by people and animals. Others hiked to ridge tops, using Kodiak’s mountain chains as a path across the island. It was easier to walk across the tundra of alpine environments.
Even kayakers took advantage of overland routes. Elders recall traveling from Olga Bay to the village of Ayakulik via an interior route. They paddled up the Akalura River and across Akalura Lake to access a portage trail leading into Red Lake. After carrying their boats and supplies over the swampy trail, they camped on the lakeshore before paddling across Red Lake and down Red River into the waters of the Ayakulik. This route allowed travelers to avoid the treacherous waters at the tip of the Alitak Peninsula. It also provided a chance to fish for salmon along the way.
A related portage took people across the isthmus that separates Olga Bay from Shelikof Strait. Portages from Kaguyak to Alitak Bay, from Kalsin Bay to Ugak Bay, from Ugak Bay to Kiliuda Bay, and others helped travelers to avoid dangerous headlands.
Photo: Ouzinkie residents prepared for a hike, 1940s. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
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.
Qatayaq qayam cuungani misngauq. - The seagull is landed on the bow of the kayak.
From the Arctic Ocean to Prince William Sound, Alaska’s Native people crafted swift, seaworthy qayaqs from wood and animal skins. Each culture had a distinct style of boat with unique qualities designed for their environment.
Yup’ik qayaqs were short and broad, designed for stability in the ice-filled waters of the Bering Sea. Alutiiq qayaqs were long and slender, built to withstand the rough, windy waters of the North Pacific Ocean.
One of the most distinctive elements of the Alutiiq qayaq is its split, upturned prow. Like the boats size and shape, this part of the qayaq helps with navigation. The lower curved part of the prow slightly hollow on the sides, helping the boat cut through the water. The tall upper part provides buoyancy, helping the boat to float as it encounters waves.
The Alutiiq qayaq prow also helped paddlers identify each other. See a paddler in a split prow qayaq heading towards you and chances are that you are about to encounter another Alutiiq person, someone who speaks your language and may even be a relative.
An Alutiiq legend tells of the origins of the split qayaq prow. According to this story, the first man and women who entered the world, paddled between two cliffs. When the cliffs closed in on their boat, they broke one end, creating the curved prow that still characterizes Alutiiq qayaqs.
Photo: Larry Matfay holds the prow of the kayak in which he rode as a child. Photo taken in Old Harbor, outside Matfay's home. Photo courtesy Florence Pestrikoff and family.
Kaiwik angituq arwiryaa'akun. - The old woman is coming back via the bridge.
The Alutiiq word arwiryaa'aq means crossing place or ford, and it has come to mean bridge in modern usage. This word is distinct from the term niraq – which refers to a temporary bridge, like a log used to cross a creek or gulley.
While small nirat were probably common in Alutiiq communities, the distribution of ancient settlements suggests that people relied on boats to cross waterways. Along the Karluk River, archaeologists find many old villages where the remains of houses appear on opposite banks. In places, people may have crossed back and forth by wading. Parts of the river are very shallow. But in other places, it would have been easier to paddle. The historic village of Karluk was this way too. Families lived on both shores of Karluk Lagoon. People traveled by boat to go to the store and the post office, attend church, and visit. Historic photos show Karluk children from the north side of the river riding to school on the south side in a skiff. In the coldest weather, when the lagoon froze solidly, people could also walk or ice skate across the mile separating the parts of the community.
In 1940, options for crossing Karluk Lagoon expanded when a suspension bridge was built over the river. This narrow footbridge connected the southern side of the village with Karluk Spit, the gravel beach separating Karluk Lagoon from the ocean waters of Shelikof Straight. From the spit, people could walk to the northern part of the village. The bridge was about and four feet wide, enough for two people to walk side by side when crossing. It features a board-lined walkway and sides of netting.
This bridge functioned until January of 1978, when it was damaged by severe winter storm. An usually high tide and a storm with intense winds created a new river mouth. Waves washed away the community’s fuel tanks, damaged the bridge and people’s homes, and initiated dramatic erosion. Alaska Governor Jay Hammond declared a disaster and plans to assist the village began. With approval of the Village Council, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development built 23 new homes for villagers in a more protect location of the lagoon shore.
Photo: Suspension Bridge over the Karluk River, ca. 1960. Courtesy Koniag, Inc.