It's that time of the year again when we do our usual Fall things, but there was nothing usual about the bullets coming at me as I hid behind an inadequately-sized tree.
The day started out windy, chill, and overcast, blowing from the north. I needed to pump water to our holding tank, and also walk the waterline to level it. Soon enough I'd need to be draining the line every time I pumped so it wouldn't freeze; it's important that the line is level for it to drain properly. I found that many of the support boards that keep it level had rotted and fallen. We'd have to replace them.
The week before, my dad had replaced the recoil cord on the pump, but even with that helpful accessory, the pump was resistant to starting. After a dozen yanks and two squirts of ether it finally caught and ran smoothly. I noted the time and strolled through the woods toward the beach where I'd wait for thirteen minutes to let the pump fill the tank before I turned it off.
I was almost to the beach when I heard nearby shots and bullets strike close to me and I dropped instinctively. Out on the bay a fishing boat had crewmen on deck with guns in their hands aimed toward shore. Apparently they were getting ready for hunting season by sighting their rifles in at the trees around me.
I ducked behind the nearest tree. I didn't dare go on the beach to reveal my presence because with their fingers on the triggers they might think it was a deer and only notice it was a person after they shot me.
My handheld VHF was in my pocket and my dad demanded an answer to his first call. I fumbled for it, realizing that of course they thought the shots were from me. There were still bears around and I never went anywhere without the .44. Not to mention there shouldn't have been anyone else in the area.
In addition, the guys on the boat had just measured off three deliberate shots, apparently unaware that that's a universal signal of distress. My parents had brought all of us kids up to know that, so they would naturally assume I was signaling them. (I later found out that when they heard the first shot my mom grabbed her cane--she has severe knee problems--and started hobbling for the door. I don't know what she thought she could do, but obviously she wasn't going to let the bears have her daughter without some kind of a fight.)
"It's not me," I said into the VHF. "It's some idiots on a boat shooting into the woods."
They continued to shoot, firing off multiple rounds fairly quickly as I remained as still as possible behind the not very big tree. My dad suggested I fire off my gun to let them know I was there, but I didn't think it was a good idea to move that much. I was too close to the beach and they could see the movement and fire at it.
My dad, instead, took one of his rifles and stepped outside to shoot. It had the desired effect. The fishermen were obviously not locals and had no idea people lived in the area and they quickly put their guns away. I remained in the woods just to be safe and turned off the pump when it was time. (Because it was blowing a strong northerly with the pump situated to the south of them, they wouldn't have heard it over the sound of the waves striking their anchored boat.)
I returned home, happily un-perforated but with a serious adrenaline rush.
At this time of the year we're also busy stocking up on fuel and propane and especially winter groceries, which means taking advantage of the case sales offered by the store in Thorne Bay. The last time I was in Thorne Bay, one of the cashiers asked me how much it took for us to stock up for winter. I told her, "Not nearly as much as it used to."
When there were seven of us and we had around twenty dogs our fall stock-up amounted to probably a ton of supplies which we'd buy all at once and then have to unload and put away all at once, as well. These days we don't have as much to deal with and we make sure we do it in installments.
Of course the tides never cooperate and this time, as per usual, we wound up hauling the perishables, the produce and the frozen foods up a low tide beach. Happily, the hand truck with the oversized wheels made tackling the mud flats and rocks fairly easy. We left the cases of dry goods in the skiff until the tide came in (covering the boxes with a tarp to protect everything from the predatory ravens and crows) and then hauled the boxes of cans, jars, etc., into the house. They wound up stacked on every available surface, waiting until they could be put away...or eaten.
It's also time to work on corralling as many firewood logs for winter as possible. While my parents and I were scoping out the beaches slightly to the north of the village, my cousin Darrell approached us in his skiff with a log right inside it. He and my brother Jamie are both strapping six footers and when they find themselves without lines and logging dogs, they don't hesitate to pull a log out of the water and into their skiff and take it home.
In this case Darrell generously offered his catch to us. While myd ad pounded a logging dog in it, after Darrell rolled it back into the water, my mom chatted with Darrell, asking after his mother, her sister Shirley who used to live in the village with her husband Herb. After catching up on all the news, we went our separate ways and we had one more log to tow home behind us.
There are still many more projects to do to prepare for winter....
According to a friend: "We all think that living in Alaska is one big party (except when the rabid otters are on the march)." When I told this friend that I was going to do a blog about otters, he immediately sent me an email titled "Beware of Otter" and warned, "Just don't get too close to them without having your gun and a sturdy knife and your aerosol otter-repellant spray with you! Those critters are nassssss-tay!" And my brothers regularly assure me that there will be a Revenge of the Land Otters apocalypse at some point in our near future.
How did the delightful river/land otter wind up with such a bad rep?
I think it's mostly due to the Tlingit tales of the Kushtaka, a half-human, half-otter hybrid that terrorized the early Native Alaskans with its shapeshifting and kidnapping ways. (For more on the Kushtaka, see the category "Myth Busting.")
Some famous totem poles propagate this otter scaremongering as well, such as the "Man Captured By Otters" and the "Fight with the Land Otters" totem poles. A story that accompanies one otter pole tells of four Tlingit boys who catch and barbecue some salmon. (They dig a shallow hole and place heated rocks in it and cover them with skunk cabbage leaves. The fish, wrapped in more of the leaves, are placed on top to cook. We've cooked trout this way and it's delicious.) Sounds charming, right?
The story goes from folk to Brother's Grimm in a hurry, so be forewarned. Not content with simply eating the salmon, the boys decide to throw some live salmon onto the hot rocks and mock and ridicule them when they wriggle. By doing so they break a fundamental law: no living creature should be ridiculed or tortured.
Their bad deed does not go unpunished. One the way home the boys' canoe capsizes and they're kidnapped by vengeful land otters who haul them off to their den. The villagers come looking for them, and when they find them they build a fire in front of the otters' den and throw urine on the fire, presumably to smoke them out. The fire gets out of control and the boys and most of the otters are killed. But enough otters survive to, we can only suppose, exact some bloodchilling, horrible revenge upon the villagers in the future.
The end. Sleep well, kids.
My introduction to otters was much less Grimm. It was a family film called "Tarka the Otter." I barely remember it now, having seen it when I was about seven when we lived in Thorne Bay (at the time, the largest logging camp in the world), but I remember the friendly feeling I had toward all otters after watching it.
Since then I've seen them cavorting on docks and logs, entire families playing with jovial good will. A few summers ago, I had a close encounter with one that convinced me that while they might feel some (perhaps justified) condescenion toward humans, they aren't as vicious as their reputation would have you believe.
While I was upstairs in my floathouse, I heard what sounded like a dog ease in through my cat door and thump inside. Surprised, since there are no dogs here, I looked down from my loft and saw a huge otter standing on its hind legs in my kitchen, casually looking around like he was thinking about buying the place if the price was right.
My Main Coon Katya got up from where she was sleeping and slunk halfway down the stairs to subside on a middle riser and stare at him. They eyed each other, neither making an attempt to escalate the stand-off. Finally, Mr. Otter gave a kind of insulting shrug, obviously not impressed, and oozed out the cat door.
This summer while my sister Megan was visiting, we took a hike around the outer rocks that protect our small bay and stumbled upon an otter den, complete with several rooms. Like the worst sort of tourists, we plunged right in and checked out the bedroom area where the dirt was tamped down in a circle, snapping pictures. It segued into the bathroom, which in turn led to the slide down to the water. The kitchen area was strewn with abalone and sea urchin shells which we picked up to admire and photograph.
Out on the patio with the fantastic view of Clarence Strait, Megan found a guest hanging out under a sea urchin shell. The slug looked up at her quizzically, like we do when the tourists climb onto our front porches and peer in through our windows.
The den was obviously home to quite a large family and Megan and I began to wonder what would happen if they returned while the two Goldilocks were there making free and easy with their belongings and home. We decided to keep on hiking.
While we were oohing and aahing over some bubble feeding humpbacks in the distance, Megan suddenly pointed. "Look, it's an otter!" She gave a slightly nervous laugh. "How long do you think it's been watching us?"
We thought guiltily of our trampling through the otter den. "I'm sure they won't hold it against us," I said, thinking about the otter who had barged into my house sans invitation. Turn about was fair play. Right?
Besides, otters are nice, intelligent, friendly folk. And despite what the totem pole tales and my brothers say, there's no such thing as a revenge otter.
Note: Special thanks to my dad for the final image.
I love the way little kids think. One fall evening we had a huge bonfire on the beach built from drift logs with a lot of family members sitting around shooting the breeze and poking the logs to make the embers spark and glow, reflecting a golden glow on familiar faces. The forest was a black silhouette of jagged points all around us, with a full moon rising like a ghostly galleon just above them on the far side of the beach.
Left: My nephew Sterling. Right: Moon above the forest, totem pole in the foreground.
I did my best to explain the earthbound facts to him, but in the end I knew I'd failed his faith in me. Instead, I did my best and got him a glow-in-the-dark moon decal to put on the wall near his bed so he could look at it when he went to sleep. And I wrote him a poem that was one of the first things I had published:
A MOON FOR ME
I see you
wherever I go.
I see you
hiding behind the trees
playing with me.
I see you
as I reach out
to make you my own moon.
Recently a friend told me her own story of the moon and an older family member...one who came much closer to giving her the moon than I did for Sterling. Here's her story:
When I was about five, I would stay at my grandparents' house for a while. That was supreme ecstasy anyway...but my grandfather had been flying since the 1920s, and had a hangar with a few planes. I adored flying, even then, and was even allowed to take the stick sometimes.
I would be in my pajamas, ready to eat, but a brilliant idea occurred to me (as it seemed to me--anyway). I refused to eat. Grandpa asked if I thought that I might have a better appetite if we flew up and kissed the moon good-night. A brilliant idea, indeed!
He had planes in his blood anyway, so this was no great sacrifice to him. He called the hangar, had the guy get the plane of choice fueled-up, and off we went. Me in my airplane pajamas and little house shoes with wings and a prop on them.
We carefully inspected the plane and climbed in.
And taxied out, lifting off to see Mr. Moon.