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.
I've been fortunate that for most of my life I haven't had to deal with environmental allergies. Food allergies, yes, by the gross, but usually spring presented no difficulties for me, let alone horrors. Until this year.
When I look in the mirror I see red, weeping eyes, a red, peeling nose and the expression of someone reading the latest Stephen King horror novel.
But maybe that's not surprising, since Alaska has been struck by a freakish wave of pollen that is shattering world records. Fairbanks, alone, recorded pollen levels twenty times above what is considered high. (A count of 4,000 was recorded. Anything above a pollen count of 175 is considered high.)
The experts are telling us that it's going to get worse before it gets better, and they're warning that "people without allergies will suffer, too." We are told to expect a prolonged period of very high pollen readings.
Unfortunately for me, I didn't know this pollen wave would be statewide, rather than restricting itself to Up North as it usually does. Since I can't drink the water out of our faucet (it's rich in tannins and I'm tannin sensitive), I collect rainwater to drink.
It wasn't until after I turned into a faucet myself, particularly in the nose region, that I realized I'd imbibed a good amount of pollen with my water. The next day this was visibly obvious by the pollen scum that encircled the interior of the rainwater barrel. Now, although I live in one of the rainiest corners of the globe, I'm having gallon jugs of distilled water mailed out on a floatplane.
Allergy tips: My sister suffers from environmental allergies all the time, since she lives in Florida where something is always pollenating, and she's found that drinking coffee can help. This sometimes helps me (though it's a tannin, plus, if you have a sinus infection it will make the symptoms worse), and so does horseradish mustard.
I can remember only one other year when we had extreme pollen, back in my early twenties. The pollen coated the beaches and our dogs became very sick. One of our older dogs died from it, and remembering that has made me try to keep my cat, Katya, inside as much as possible. As it is, she's a mirror of my own misery, with streaming eyes and nose and constant kitty sneezes.
The thing I remember most about that year was when we were in my dad's thirty-two foot troller/workboat on a trip to Ketchikan to stock up on groceries. As we entered the final stretch of our journey, and were heading for one of the boat harbors to moor at, we saw the sky turn a strange, dirty yellow. To the north, behind us and heading our way, was a wall of this dirty yellow fog that obscured everything, like a desert sandstorm.
We barely made it into the harbor and tied up when the wall of pollen struck. We closed every door and porthole and waited it out, watching it move on down the Narrows. Neither my dad nor I was too badly affected, as I remember. Things have certainly changed.
The curious thing is, I don't remember this incident being announced as record breaking, so what we have now must be many times worse. And it's true, I've never seen so much pollen speckling our decks or floating in a swirling scum on the waters that our floathouses rest on.
The constant allergies and sinus issues have taken it out of all of us--two-legged and four-legged allergy sufferers alike--and we're hoping it's over with soon. All we can do is hunker down and wait it out.
Since we live in floathouse with no access to community utilities, I'm often asked what we use for drinking water and how we store it.
Our water supply comes from a stream we dammed that's fed by a muskeg lake. On the dam sits our gas-powered 2 inch utility pump that pumps 9,000 gallons an hour. It's connected to a thousand feet of waterline that we laid through the forest, and pumps water into the wooden tank my dad built (4x4x8, holding 800 gallons) on a hill above our inlet in order to gravity feed water to our floathouses. When we have really high tides, and my house rises a dozen feet or more, the water pressure at my faucet is halved.
In the winter when we get a freezing spell, we drain the pump, the pipeline (with strategically places plugs at deliberate low spots) and the tank. When we have a thaw we put the plugs back in, chop a hole in the ice to put the intake line in the water, prime the pump and we're back in business. The nearby village with a community pipeline from a lake feed stays frozen for months at a time.
But what, you may ask, is a "muskeg" lake?
When I use the word muskeg to people in the Lower 48, they always ask what I mean. Muskegs are strange, eerily sterile and open patches in our dense rainforest, with thick peaty moss, stunted pines and treacherous pit ponds. Hunters like them for their openness and ease of access to deer, but they have accounted for many hunting accidents, including people getting turned around and lost in their strangeness. There are other "pit" falls, as well.
My dad, hunting alone in a muskeg, accidentally stepped into a bottomless pit pond and would have sunk out of sight if he hadn't quick-thinkingly slapped his rifle horizontally across the edges of the narrow hole. He managed to crawl out of the dark, coldly wet pit over the cross-brace of his rifle.
I was to find that pit ponds were the least of a muskeg's dangers--to me.
"Cool, apple cider," said a friend who'd stayed for dinner, looking at the glass of amber liquid near his plate. "I haven't had apple cider in years."
Actually, we explained, he wasn't having it tonight, either. It was muskeg water in his glass. It was in everyone's glass.
He adapted easily. "Cool, I haven't had muskeg water in years. Best tasting water there is."
We'd always thought the same since moving to the Alaskan bush where the drinking water, more often than not, is a hearty tea-colored beverage. My sister and a sister-in-law claim that whenever they're in the bush the water has a wonderful cosmetic effect on their hair and skin. People say the same of the soap I make using muskeg water as a base.
Perhaps that's not surprising considering that what gives the water its dark color are tannins, which act as powerful antioxidents. Among antioxidants' other health benefits, they're believed to fight cancer and extend longevity. What's not to like?
Unfortunately, there are people who unknowingly acquire a sensitivity to tannins and the health consequences are numerous and devastating.
You may be one of the sufferers, because tannins are found not only in muskeg water but in many common foods and drinks.
When I was sixteen I developed severe joint pain in my knees which made it almost impossible to walk when there was a high pressure system. My loving brothers used to ask: "Are you in pain, Tara?" If I said no, they frowned. "Too bad." If I said yes, meaning there was sunshine on the way, they high-fived each other and did a happy dance.
I was glad my crippling pain thrilled someone.
It was believed I had juvenile arthritis. One doctor diagnosed a birth defect in my knees and gave me corrective exercises to do. They had no effect.
As I entered my thirties I developed systemic muscle weakness and severe muscle pain. In addition I had panic attacks, faintness, jitteryness, racing heart, and nausea.
One doctor suspected that I had multiple sclerosis. The majority of the doctors I saw assumed it was "all in my head" and either prescribed anti-depressants or sent me to a psychiatrist. Doing my own research I discovered that I had all the symptoms of fibromyalgia. And I found that if I quit eating any soy products my joint pain all but disappeared.
However, in addition to the muscle weakness, pain, dizzy spells, acid reflux and numerous food allergies and mutiple chemical sensitivity (I had to sleep with a mask on), I now plunged into a devastating chronic fatigue accompanied by depression.
Happily, I went off gluten and saw my symptoms lessen in severity. Which was great until this spring when an unfortunate series of gluten incidences (there is hidden gluten in many products, including anything that lists sulfites and sulfates in the ingredients) wiped out my entire system.
Now the muscle weakness and dizziness was intense. The fatigue was so great that I could hardly function and my parents had to do everything for me. When I attempted anything even as non-strenuous as walking to their house I had extreme low blood pressure attacks and fainting spells.
One of the reasons for this, we realized, was dehydration. I resisted drinking our water because it gave me acid reflux and increased my fatigue.
I began to wonder what it was about our water that affected me. Fortunately, I got Internet just in time to research tannins.
Tannins are a class of compounds, I found, that are in plants, seeds, wood, leaves and fruit skins. The are used in household cleaners, dyes, perfumes, paint, smok and petroleum fumes. (Which explains my multiple chemical sensitivity.) They are their most potent in Coffee, tea, wine and chocolate.
And muskeg water. Also, tannins are found in well water and coal streams.
For most people tannins are extremely beneficial. According to Molecular Nutrition & Food Research (Sept. 2009) tannins may be helpful for their antiviral, antioxidant and antimicrobial effects. But for those who have gradually developed a sensitivity, exposure to tannins can be devastating. All of my symptoms and food allergies are related to tannins. Which, in addition to the Big Four (coffee, tea, wine and chocolate) include:
Barley flour, oregano, cumin, vanilla, cinnamon, legumes (except white beans), black-eyed peas, chick peas and lentils. Cashews, hazelnuts, almonds, peanuts walnuts, pistachios and pecans. Sorghum, corn, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, pineapples, cherries, lemons, lime, oranges, grapefruit, guava, cantaloupe and honeydew melons, mangoes, dates, kiwis, nectarines, pears, apricots, plums, bananas, avacados, pomegranates, squash, rhubarb, and apple juice. Cheddar cheese, almost all herbal products, some vitamins, sulfites, artificial sweeteners and beer.
This is only a partial list. It is impossible to avoid tannins entirely, however much you try to limit exposure to them.
The most common reaction to tannins is called RWH, or Red Wine Headache. Tannins are what give red wine its pigment, bitterness and mouth-drying effects; plus they're what make the wine last for so many years. The other most common effect in those with a mild to strong sensitivity to tannins is chronic migraine problems.
According to one reference work: "Tannins tend to bind starches while being digested. These starches are needed by the body to produce serotonin. In some people, who are extremely sensitive to their serotonin levels, it appears the lack of serotonin can lead to a migraine. It sort of 'starves' the body for this type of raw material, much as not eating for many hours might lead this person to have a migraine."
The most severe sufferers of tannin sensitivity can have joint pain that mimics arthritis, tiredness, depression, digestive problems, vision problems, attention deficit, thin, brittle skin, eczema, acid reflux and heartburn, dizziness, headaches, racing heart, slowed metabolism, hair loss, multiple chemical sensitivity, muscle weakness, jitteryness, panic attacks, insomnia, flash fevers (toxic flushes), susceptibility to colds, gastrointestinal disorders and other ailments due to nutrients in food not being absorbed wholly or efficiently into the bloodstream.
Over the years I have had all of these symptoms (except hair loss) to varying degrees.
As mentioned, to people with a sensitivity to them, tannins keep the body from absorbing proteins, minerals and other things the body requires to function. They depress the body's metabolism which makes it next to impossible to lose weight. Once a person with tannin sensitivity goes off the Big Four and limits exposure to other tannin-rich foods they'll often see a steady loss of weight while making no changes to their routine. Their energy levels likewise rise and their pain and muscle weakness and fatigue diminish, which allows them to get more exercise, which in turn speeds the weight loss.
But wait, there's more!
The immune system rebounds, fighting off colds and viruses more effectively, hair and skin improves, cellulite issues can disappear along with sleeping problems. All of this helps clear up depression and the mind becomes clearer and sharper. One tannin sufferer notes that she was able to reduce her incidences of migraines by about ninety percent by avoidings tannins as much as possible.
The only problem is that in order to gain these resurrective benefits, you have have to give up cofffee, tea, coffee, wine, coffee and chocolate.
Oh, and did I mention that you have to give up coffee?
Okay, for others the hardest thing to give up might be chocolate, or wine, or tea, but for me, it's all about the coffee. I love the smell of it, the routine of it and the rise and shine-ness of it. (See my sister's painting of "a cup of joe" to see what I mean. She captures the richness, robust colorfulness and joy of coffee perfectly.)
In addition, I'd found over the years that while coffee could put me to sleep--the strongest cups could almost put me in a coma (as my brother Robin maliciously discovered when he experimented on me with a cup of extremely strong Kona coffee after a visit to Hawaii)--it also helped with allergy symptoms. Though, at certain times, it worsened allergy symptoms. It also gave fever-like flushes and a jittery energy that helped me get through the day--before the inevitable crash.
What would I do without coffee?
There is some hope on the horizon, apparently, and for tea drinkers, too.
People who are sensitive to tannins, it is advised, need to moderate their tannins in as many forms as they can. However, there is some hope held out in that if they also make sure to eat tannin-free foods at the same time that they ingest minor amounts of tannins, the effects should be less stressful to the body.
In addition tannins are believed to leach out of tea after about two minutes of brewing. During the first two minutes, mostly caffeine leaches out. So for those with tannin issues who must have their tea, it is suggested that brewing as quickly as possible might limit any problems. So try brewing at a lower heat for less time. Sun tea might be the best route to go since it never gets very hot.
I've found that a very weak coffee filled with rice milk (that doesn't include barley) and honey limits the impact of the tannins. Others might find that milk will do the same. Apparently, why coffee becomes less bitter (it's the tannins that cause the bitterness as well as the color of coffee) when milk is added is because the tannins bind to the proteins in milk rather than to the proteins in your mouth.
Nobody knows your body better than you, so the best way to deal with tannin sensitivity is to listen to it and note how it responds. Keep a tannin diary. My tells are acid reflux, fatigue and allergy attacks 12 hours later. I keep experimenting to find out where my safe levels are and which tannin rich foods have the most severe effects and which ones seem to effect me only after several days of exposure.
As for water, I have gone off even washing with our muskeg water, which means I collect rainwater in a fifty gallon bucket for washing and in smaller containers for drinking. Since I live in a rainforest, collecting rainwater for all of my needs has not been difficult. However, I'm also working on installing a tannin filter on my faucet.
What I think about now, all these years later after all those problems, is how my cat would risk dehydration rather than drink the water from my faucet, or from the dark stream of muskeg water rippling down the beach.
Maybe I should have listened to the cat.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)