A Sense of Place
Patricia H. Partnow
I had flown into the Chignik area several times before I hitched a ride on a fishing boat in 1990 and saw the land the way it should be seenfrom the sea. Luckily, the weather was perfect, a clear day in May. It was just before the first halibut opening, so the fishing boats were ready, but their crews were not yet frantic.
We chugged out of Chignik Lagoon, and as we passed the spit, the captain pointed out the site of the "Old Village." A terrible influenza epidemic had wiped out almost everyone two generations ago, leaving only a few barabaras and the Orthodox church still standing when the site was finally abandoned in 1920. All traces had by now been obliterated, but Mike Sam, a resident of modern-day Chignik Lagoon, told me he had heard the story of the village's demise many times from his grandfather Innokenty Kalmakoff, who had been the reader at the church. In 1990 Mike lived on the south shore of the lagoon, on what is called the "Flat Side," to distinguish it from the "Cannery Side" which had at one time been the commercial center of the region.
From the early 1910s to statehood, the largest had been the site of amazingly profitable canneries that employed Alutiiq salmon canners, Chinese workers up for the season from San Francisco, and Scandinavian fishermen. Like Aniakchak Bay, Chignik Lagoon was also the site of several fish traps, some resting on piles, others floating. Millions of red salmon on their way to spawn in the Chignik River returned to the lagoon, where many were caught in the fish traps. When traps were outlawed at statehood in 1959, the fishery changed to seine netting, but continued to be a rich source of income for canneries and, in some cases, fishermen as well.
Today's residents of Chignik Lagoon and nearby Chignik Bay are the descendants of people who lived and hunted for many generations along the Aniakchak coast. They recounted story after story of childhood winters spent at trapping sites north of Chignik during the first half of the twentieth century. Each family had a barabara adjacent to established traplines up nearby valleys. Children helped their parents, but also learned on their own traplines. I remember Julia Boskoffsky telling me about the time her father taught her and her brother, Walter, in a very Alutiiq way, how to trap a land otter. Julia and Walter had competed for the same otter, one putting a trap at the bottom of the trail that went up a hill, the other at the top. Both failed. Only when their dad had successfully caught the otter did he divulge the secret: place the trap slightly to the side of the trail, where the otter's legs could be caught. The children had put their traps in the middle, and the otter had simply slid over them on its belly.
Families sometimes visited with each other during the winter, but for the most part they lived in isolation, reading, sewing, trapping, and playing cards. The exceptions were periodic trips back to town (either the Lagoon or the Bay) for staples and to check on mail, and summers when they returned to the Chignik area so the parents could work for the canneries while the children attended school.
But there were older stories going back many generations, tales about villages settled and then abandoned and sometimes resettled. I was struck by the mobility of the people. They moved because a trading post or store had been established in the next bay. Or a terrible epidemic had wiped out most of the people. Or the promise of oil had proven false. Or commercial fishing was more conveniently launched from another locale. One time a teenage daughter married someone, and her familyin this case the village's entire populationmoved with her to her new home. As far back as 1805, the German explorer Langsdorff had noticed that the population of what is probably Kukak Bay had dwindled under pressure from the Russian-American Company for hunters and skin sewers. And, of course, the most catastrophic event in living memory, the 1912 eruption of Novarupta Volcano near Katmai, resulted in a mass migration from the northern shore of the Alaska Peninsula's Pacific coast southward to the Chigniks and Perryville. The role-call of abandoned villages represents Alutiiq, Russian, and American days: Katmai, Douglas, Kukak, Toujoujak, Kuyuyukak, Kanatak, Puale Bay, Sutkhum, Chiginagak Bay, the Old Village at Chignik Lagoon, and Mitrofania.
And there are even older stories about the Aniakchak coastline. People remembered and passed down tales of battles fought and wonand, rarely, lost. The enemies were usually Unangan men traveling stealthily in sleek qayaqs from the Aleutian Islands. The most ingenious defense strategy was to take refuge on the top of a steep rocky island. Knowing that there was only one way to the top, the defending Alutiiq would lug spiked logs up to the small plateau at the summit, then roll them down the slope onto the attacking Unangan.
On this day in May 1990 as the fishing boat putted past the spit, around Rabbit Point, past Mud Bay, and into Anchorage Bay, I looked out across the Gulf of Alaska and peered at the sheer cliffs to the south. I tried to imagine myself in a skin qayaq making this same journey 200 years ago. Had I been there in the 1700s, I reflected, I would have turned my face to the sun just as I was doing now. I would have breathed the salt air, heard the screeching birds, and felt very small as my skin boat bobbed in the swell. But I would also, I thought, have been much more aware of the human history that lay like an invisible film on the rocks, beaches, capes, spits, and inlets. Every feature of the land would have had a name and a history, and I would have felt at home. I would have sensed the ancestors who had traveled the same route so many times before. For now, I had to be content with other people's memories, grateful at the glimpses into the past they allowed.
Last Updated: 03-Aug-2009