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  Field Notes From
Alaska Coast

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From Author

Joel K. Bourne, Jr.

Alaska Coast On Assignment

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From Photographer

Susie Post Rust

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Insert


Alaska Coast

Field Notes From Author
Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Best Worst Quirkiest
    On a rare calm day on St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands, environmental educator Karin Holser and I launched two Aleut baidarkas in the tidal creek behind her office. Her students had built the pair of traditional kayaks, sleek canvas-covered boats with knifelike bows.
    Such craft were so inherently seaworthy that they were the Aleuts' platform for procuring most of their protein for thousands of years in some of the worst seas imaginable. Bone white and capable of ten knots in the hands of an experienced paddler, the tippy boats seemed as potentially lethal as the frigid water they sliced through with ease. Yet as we glided past scurrying ducks and shorebirds to meet a rising swell wrapping into the harbor, I couldn't help but feel a certain awe at the Stone Age intellect that designed such a perfect marriage of form and function. The waves rocked us, the fur seals croaked from their rookeries, and despite the tough times here for humans and beasts, for a brief moment all seemed right with the world.

    Life is often hard in Alaska. Time after time I interviewed people who worked long hours in brutal conditions just to get by. People like Sebastian Gloria, a Filipino-American once employed at the UniSea fish-processing plant in Unalaska. I asked him what it was like to work there. He lifted his shirt to reveal a livid blue scar covering much of his arm and torso, a burn from the caustic soda he was using to clean equipment.
    Another time I sat in the tiny office of Mayor Caroline Cannon in Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat whaling village on the Chukchi Sea, and listened to her reel off a list of social woes, including unusually high rates of cancer and teen suicide.
    Later, when I dropped by the village's small, clapboard, Episcopal church where my father had served as a missionary in the late 1940s, I found one woman praying loudly for those afflicted with alcohol and drug abuse. Another cried inconsolably on the floor before the simple wooden cross. It was a long way from the scenes of happy resourceful hunters my father painted for me in childhood and a somber reminder of the casualties that occur when cultures collide.

    One day I hiked down a narrow cobble-strewn beach with Earl Kingick, the pony-tailed, camouflage-clad director of wildlife and parks for Point Hope. The 800-foot-high (240-meter-high) bluffs of Cape Thompson towered above us on one side, while on the other a small lead separated us from the ice-covered Chukchi Sea.
    We were both on edge. Earlier we came across the tracks of a large coastal brown bear and her cub, a potentially lethal combination. Earl carried his rifle loosely in his hands as we walked. When we came to a blind corner, Earl fired a warning shot into the air, hoping to scare any bear that might be lurking on the other side. Seconds later the sky darkened as millions of common murres took flight from the cliffs. But there was no time to enjoy the spectacle. The birds triggered a torrent of stones the size of patio pavers that sent us fleeing faster than any bear.   

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