A silent, sanguinary foe gathers its reserves and grows into a mighty invasion force, striking in the heart of winter when least expected....
As kids we were accustomed to practically living in the water in the summertime, but not when an eerie, rusty sludge marred the clear water with long, bloody streaks and smeared the beaches with its sticky slime.
We knew that harvesting shellfish wasn't allowed then, either. Once inoffensive, tasty sea creatures were now poisonous. We heard adults talking about "toxic algae blooms," "lips going numb," "paralysis," "vomiting," "death."
One of my little brothers, growing up hearing this talk, said to someone who offered him a locally harvested shellfish dinner: "Forget it! You think I want to end up with ESP?"
He meant PSP: Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, which is caused by a toxin produced by a dinoflagellate (a tiny sea organism). Shellfish can digest them without harm, but when humans eat the infected shellfish the result can be deadly.
Some think that you can tell if clams, mussels, etc., are poisonous by holding one to your mouth and seeing if your lips go numb, but the truth is PSP symptoms only arise after the shellfish has entered the digestive tract (sypmtoms usually occur within thirty minutes after eating infected shellfish).
The dinoflagellate that causes PSP is similar to but not the same as the one that causes a red tide. PSP can be found in clams, mussles, etc., in Southeast Alaska at any time of the year, whether or not there's a red tide. On the other hand, the red tide is made up of algae which produce a harmful neurotoxin that can cause permanent illness and seizures that can result in death.
My grandfather told the story of being stuck on a boat far from help when the entire crew was crippled by shellfish poisoning. He was forced to watch one of his companions suffer a horrible death. After hearing that story my mom refused to harvest any clams or shellfish at any time of the year, which was perhaps just as well.
The menacing, undulating red skin on the sea has always fascinated me. In my mind, as a kid, the color tied it to a "rock opera" we used to listen to all the time we were growing up in the wilderness. It was Jeff Wayne's Version of The War of the Worlds based on H.G. Wells' Martian invasion story, narrated by Richard Burton. Our uncle Lance had recorded it onto cassette for us and it became such a part of our lives that we sang the songs from it is as we played in the woods and on the beach.
"No, Nathaniel, no." My sister and I harmonized the part of Beth who believed in possibilities for the future despite the Martian devastation. "There must be more to life/there has to be a way...."
My brothers, on the other hand, loved to imitate the murderous Martians' chilling war cry: "Ullaaah" to creep out my mom.
As the story progresses and the Martians take over Earth, the description of a charred, post-apocalyptic world fit well with what we saw around us: The burned down cannery buildings and twisted and mangled machinery bleeding its rust into a Martian red beach.
It sank so deep into our psyches from repeated listenings that I think it's why, in my oldest brother's trapping log when he was a teenager, he counted not how many marten he'd gotten, but, rather, in a Freudian slip, recorded: "I killed two more Martians today."
I do wonder what future historians would make of this trapping log with its specific and accurate description of the area. How could they not conclude that the Martian Invasion had occurred in the remote fastness of the Alaskan wilderness? And that a teenage boy had taken on the red planet warriors single-handedly.
The eerie factor to the red tide has grown in recent years. Ever since 2015 we've found that the days without red tide are now the exception.
It used to be a rule of thumb, that we grew up reciting at the same time we learned "A before E except after C," that the months with the letter R in them, the cold months, were safe from red tides.
Now the red tide is surging against the logs of my floathouse in the middle of winter. The pictures I took of the red tide to accompany this account were taken this month. Red tide in January! It would have been unimagineable when I was a kid.
Every time I look out my French door and see the sinister red swirls, I can't help thinking of a silent, stealthy army gathering in strength to take over the planet.
And I keep hearing Richard Burton's voice: "Across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded the earth with envious eyes...and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us."
In my column this week for www.capitalcityweekly.com I describe my chimney misadventures in a story titled "Procrastination Doesn't Pay." It will appear Wednesday the 18th of this month.
At this time of the year we hear floatplanes flying low over us every day, in ever wider circles. They're spotter planes, sent out to search for the schools of herring that spawn in the spring, for the sac roe fishery.
An entire school of herring can spawn in a few hours in the intertidal zone, laying their eggs in seaweed, and producing an egg density of up to 6,000,000 eggs per square meter. The above picture may look like scrambled eggs, but it's actually a stretch of seaweed covered in herring eggs.
This year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the herring fishery early for this area, 4,600 pounds short of the quota they had established, due to the unexpectedly low number of herring spawning.
Overfishing caused the herring fishery to collapse worldwide in 1993.
"Beneath him on the endless slope and boundless floor of the valley, moved a black mass, creeping with snail-like slowness toward the south. It seemed as long as the valley and as wide. It reached to the dim purple distances and disappeared there. The densest part covered the center of the valley, from which ran wide straggling arms, like rivers narrowing toward their sources in the hills....This black mass was alive....Acres of buffalo, miles of buffalo! The shaggy, ragged herd had no end. It dominated slopes, level bottom lands, and the hazy reaches beyond." --The Last of the Plainsmen by Zane Grey.
I remembered reading this as a kid when one morning in spring I woke up to the sound of a vast herd out on the strait. And when I went to look, there was a river of black, moving bodies stretching as far as the eye could see up and down the strait. They were ducks, interspersed with seagulls. The noise was tremendous as they squabbled, splashed, and beat the air with their wings by the million as they gorged themselves on the enormous school of herring that had come to our shore to spawn.
The water had turned to a beautiful, milky, electric green and herring eggs coated every inch of seaweed as far as we could observe, sparkling in the sunshine. Sea lions roared and snorted. Humpback whales glided with majestic slow grace through the endless stream of ducks and gulls, spouting out their blowholes.
Little did we know as we stood on the rocks, in the last decade before the turn of the millennium, and watched the scene for hours, that it would be the last time we saw such a sight.
Like the buffalo that had roamed the American plains in their millions but then were decimated for their hides in the mid-to-late 1800s, the herring that were once so plentiful--I remember going to school in the nearby village and seeing the harbor flash solid silver, it was so clogged with herring--are now a vanishing species.