Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: People I Met

I had heard that the M/V Tustumena is a great place for tourists to mix with locals, and it turns out that is actually true. I would say roughly half of the passengers were tourists (international tourists, tourists from the lower 48 states such as myself, and Alaskans who had never been to the southwestern part of the state before) and half were people who live in southwest Alaska. On the boat, there is no internet, there is rarely cell phone service (though people sometimes got cell phone service in bizarre spots), and unless we were docked in port, we were all in the same confined space. Many of the passengers (including me) were on the ferry for multiple days. This encouraged conversation with fellow passengers. For example, I spent quite a bit of time chatting with this group from Anchorage who do a lot of hiking and backpacking, just like me. I also spent a bit of time socializing with some birdwatchers from Juneau.

Some birdwatchers who were on the ferry watched this bird. Perhaps this bird was watching even more birds.

A paraphrased quote from a birdwatcher from Juneau: “When you become a birdwatcher [she had no doubt that I would become a birdwatcher] the very first bird call you learn to recognize by ear will become special to you” (I pointed out that I recognize the calls of some wild birds in San Francisco, and I’ve known them for so long that I don’t remember which one I learned to recognize first).

I met one passenger who was born on Sanak, an island off the coast of the Alaska peninsula which is no longer inhabited by people. She said that she was probably one of the last people ever born on Sanak. The purser’s counter also has an entire book about Unga, another village that lost all of its human population (IIRC, the last people left Unga around 1960). There are many communities on the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands which have been completely depopulated in the 20th century. The U.S. government forced the permanent abandonment of a few villages during the Aleut Evacuation/Incarceration (which I will mention again in this post), and some communities which were the center of military activity during the Cold War were practically abandoned after the fall of the USSR. But for the most part, it seems that these communities lose their people after the local economy collapses (which I guess includes communities whose economies were based on Cold War military activity). Unga’s economy collapsed after both the mine and the fishery stopped being commercially viable.

A passenger watches the dock in Chignik get closer and closer to the boat.

I remember a father and son who got off in Chignik. The father is a fisherman who grew up in Chignik, just like his father. Nowadays, he lives in Anchorage in the winter and goes to Chignik in the summer for the fishing season. However, last year the fish catch was very low, it would not have made economic sense to go to Chignik if he had known how few fish there were. He is making one more try this summer, but if the fish catch is low this year too, he is going to live in Anchorage all year and not return to Chignik. After I mentioned the woman born on Sanak, he commented that many of the communities in the Alaska peninsula are losing population, including Chignik, and he can imagine Chignik becoming a ghost town in his lifetime.

Meanwhile, his son, who I guess was about six years old, was very energetic. I remember a few times, as I was doing something on the very laptop computer I am using to write this blog post, his son came crawling under the table and brushed against my legs. At one point he looked me in the eyes and declared ‘I’m going fishing with my dad!’

The Trusty Tusty is docked in Old Harbor, a village on Kodiak Island. Most of the residents are Sugpiaq. A group of local children gathered around the man in white hair in the bottom right of the picture, and called him Santa. I later learned that that passenger has worked as a professional Santa, and was even offered a job in North Pole.

Historically, Kodiak Island and the upper half of the Alaska Peninsula were the home of the Sugpiaq people (also known as the ‘Alutiiq’ people), and the lower half of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands were home to the Unangax̂ people (also known as the ‘Aleut’ people). I say ‘historically’ because, to quote one of the passengers ‘we’re all pretty mixed nowadays’. That passenger lives in Chignik Lake, a village near the port of Chignik. Since the ferry only docks in the port, and there is no road connecting Chignik to Chignik Lake, his son was coming in a small boat to pick him up and take him the rest of the way to the village. Chignik is historically Sugpiaq territory, yet this man, who grew up in the Chignik region, is of Unangax̂ and Swiss ancestry.

Speaking of the Unangax̂ people, if you are a U.S. citizen, I highly recommend knowing about the ‘Aleut Evacuation’ during World War II, though the son of one of the survivors (who I met in Dutch Harbor) prefers to call it the ‘Aleut Incarceration’. If you do not already know about the Aleut Evacuation/Incarceration, you can learn about it by reading articles such as this and this and this, or by watching documentaries such as Aleut Story. I personally had no idea about this part of U.S. history before I came to Alaska.

I had a conversation with an Unangax̂ woman who lives in King Cove. I know that many of the Unangax̂ people practice Russian Orthodox Christianity, but she told me that the Unangax̂ who live in on the Alaska Peninsula generally are not Orthodox Christians nowadays. She also said that even though there is the summer camp in Unalaska that teaches children Unangam Tunuu (the language of the Unangax̂ people), that the old culture is dead and gone. Then, because I had read that the Unangax̂ have made the most densely woven grass baskets in the world, I asked about basket-weaving. Her eyes lit up, and she said ‘oh yes, we still weave the baskets’. She told me that she taught herself the traditional basket-weaving techniques just by spending time with the dried grasses of the region. She said that the technique is quite simple, it is all about doing the twists correctly. Her aunt told her that traditionally they would weave the baskets in silence and that her aunt disapproved when she would listen to music while weaving baskets.

At a different time, I mentioned that I was doing a lot of camping, and she was shocked and said she could not do that because there are so many bears in Alaska. I was a bit surprised that she was that shocked because she grew up in Alaska, and most Alaskans are cautious yet chill about bears. She said that brown bears are a major problem in King Cove, and that earlier this year, a bear got into the school play area and killed a child (it is extremely rare for bears to kill people in Alaska; statistically, the odds of being killed by a dog in Alaska are much higher than being killed by a bear).

I met a guy who has worked as a bush pilot in Southwest Alaska. I know almost nothing about aviation, so everything he said about flying was new information to me. He commented that it is very difficult to land planes in King Cove due to local conditions and that he has known pilots who died while trying to land there. When we got into King Cove, even though the weather seemed okay, he said that there was too much fog to land a plane and that pilots would fly away rather than land. They are trained to make, at most, two attempts to land; statistically, planes are much more likely to crash on the third landing attempt than the first two because the pilots are trying so hard to make the landing work that they stop paying enough attention to hazards.

According to the bush pilot, this is already too much fog for airplanes to safely land in King Cove.

Cold Bay, by contrast, has one of the largest airports in Alaska and is much safer/reliable than the airport in King Cove. There is discussion of building a road between King Cove and Cold Bay, partially so that the people in King Cove can access the Cold Bay airport. There are many problems with this potential road, including cost and the fact that it would go through a designated wilderness area (in the United States, it is illegal to build roads in designated wilderness areas, though there are loopholes). Someone asked the bartender in Cold Bay about this. (I say ‘the bartender’ because she is the only bartender in Cold Bay; the bar was closed while she was out of town). She says that, when she was living in King Cove, she would have been in favor of the road so that they could access the airport. Now that she is living in Cold Bay, she is opposed to the road because she does not want the people who live in King Cove coming into Cold Bay and being a nuisance.

On a different ferry (not the Tustumena), I talked to someone who has worked in the Coast Guard in southwest Alaska. I asked her what would happen if someone has a medical emergency in King Cove and it was impossible to use the airport. She said that they would contact the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard would send in a cutter (a type of boat). The cutter would then take the unfortunate person out of King Cove, and they would go to a spot in the ocean where they could land a helicopter right on the deck of the cutter.

Though there were a number of people who work on fishing boats on the ferry, there were almost no cannery/fish processing workers. I heard that, generally, the seafood companies take care of transportation of cannery/fish processing workers, all the way from their home countries. Most of them come from Africa, Latin America, or Southeast Asia. I heard that many of them cannot speak English. I’ve also heard that working in seafood canneries/processors is very physically demanding and exhausting work.

In Anchorage, I met a man who once worked for the Alaska Human Rights Commission. Decades ago, he was sent to investigate canneries/fish processors in the Aleutian Islands. He found extreme racial and gender discrimination; certain jobs were designated as for ‘white men only’, other jobs were for ‘white women’, some jobs were for ‘black men’, some were for ‘Alaska native men’, some were for ‘Alaska native women’. If an Alaska native woman was interested in, say, a ‘white man’ job, she was automatically disqualified because she was not a white man. He does not know what current conditions in the canneries are like; he hopes that they are much less racist today.

On the ferry, I met two schoolteachers. One of them had taught at a public school in Dutch Harbor and commented that more than half of her students spoke English as their second language. That is because many of them were the children of cannery/fish processing workers who came from many different countries. Since most of them could not speak each other’s home languages, they needed to learn English just to talk to their own classmates.

The other schoolteacher taught for two years at a school in Galena, a village on the Yukon River. Galena is in ‘the bush’ which means it is not on the road system; based on its position on the map, I’m guessing Galena is hundreds of miles away from the nearest road. She grew up in Alaska, but she had never been to ‘the bush’ before, so it was a major adjustment for her. It was also challenging because she needed to teach the curriculum and prepare the students for possibly going to higher education while also respecting their Koyukon culture and traditions. The fact that she grew up in Alaska, even though she is not an Alaska native, helped her relate to her students, she said.

In Dutch Harbor/Unalaska, a group of passengers including myself was taken around by a taxi driver who had immigrated from Vietnam more than twenty years ago. Her teenage daughters have lived in Dutch Harbor for their whole lives.

Passengers look out the windows of the solarium as the ferry gets close to False Pass.

When I was walking around False Pass, I saw a cannery worker who I guess is from Africa. I don’t know what he was thinking, but the expression on his face seemed to say ‘where the *** did all of these sightseers come from?’

The only passenger who I heard is a cannery worker lives in Akutan. Even though ‘the cannery’ is separate from ‘the village’ in Akutan, she moved to ‘the village’ when she started dating one of the ‘local men’ (i.e. someone who is not living in Akutan because of the cannery). Most of the people who are in the ‘village’ are Unangax̂.

A very long time ago, before I became vegan, I ate Alaskan seafood. I used to specifically request that the seafood come from Alaska. How little I knew then. I never paid any thought to any of the people involved in catching or processing the fish. I never paid any mind to which region in Alaska the fish may have come from, which is important to many people who live in Alaska. It is very possible that, a long time ago, I have eaten fish that came from one of these remote communities on the Alaska Peninsula or the Aleutian Islands.

Since the ferry stops at Akutan in the early morning, goes to Dutch Harbor, and then returns to Akutan later than night, the people of Akutan can go to Dutch Harbor as a very long day trip. And most of the passengers who got on in Akutan did just that. I saw many of them inside the Safeway in Dutch Harbor (Akutan does not have a supermarket) (after being on the ferry for days, I was also very interested in buying food at Safeway). I know one of them was going to Dutch Harbor so she could catch a flight to Anchorage and get medical care.

A passenger on the left is waiting to get off the ferry in Akutan as a crew member on the right is lowering the ramp. Outside, some people are waiting on the Akutan dock.

When we stopped at Akutan again that night, I noticed that one of the passengers was wearing regalia. As I was at the dock in Akutan, I noticed more young people dressed in regalia were coming out. They came out to one side of the dock (I did not take photos because I had not asked for permission). Some passengers, including myself, stood on the other side of the dock, some of the passengers and crew watched from the decks of the ferry, and some local people watched from the side of the dock. The young people in regalia sang five songs in Unangam Tunuu as they danced. They explained that the first dance/song had been a collaboration between multiple Unangax̂ communities and that the subject of the song/dance was the M/V Tustumena itself. The fact that they composed a song and dance about the M/V Tustumena says something about what the ferry means to them and their culture.

You can find my last post about this voyage here.

2 thoughts on “Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: People I Met

  1. Pingback: Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The “Trusty Tusty” | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

  2. Pingback: Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The Most Overcast Town in America, Dumpster Chickens, and Other Ports of Call | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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