The feeling of uncluttered space
acres of wildflowers
a freshwater spring
cranberries growing on the roof of a driftwood shack
Tramping the beaches in icy rain, cold drizzle, fog, and wind that never tired
The rest of the world remembered as a snarl of people & complications
in which a million necessary possessions were entangled*
The lines are unexpected poetry in a seal hunter’s stories of Tugidak, a treeless, low-lying island in the Trinities, as otherworldly as the thin places of folklore.
From above, Tugidak looks like a worn old afghan, like pancake batter drizzled on a flat griddle. Its tundra porous with marshes and lakes and ponds summer bright with yellow lilies, and creeks and streams channeling between. At its northeastern end the island curls into a lagoon—the mouth-shaped, moon-shaped source of Tugidak’s name. A nursery for Dungeness crab, feeding place of herring, rest stop for thousands of migratory geese and brant. A site most dismal and exposed, explorers noted, if they saw it at all. Its offshore waters strong and freakish, extremely dangerous, foul and broken, though Alutiiq paddlers often hunted seals and sea otters here. It used to be that tens of thousands of harbor seals hauled out on Tugidak, more than anywhere in the world. When John Garber went prospecting for gold in the 1980s, his wife Midge went along for the week and just stayed, right through the winter, in an old seal hunting cabin. They would stay for decades. There was something there that she had been looking for all of her life. I don’t know what it was. It’s still a mystery, he said. They weren’t young. Tugidak offered a sort of second life. They built cabins from milled driftwood, all cedar-scented, and a bath house and greenhouse. In the cabin where visiting children slept, Midge filled shelves with hard candies in mason jars with beachcombed toy frogs glued to the lids, and kept a Christmas tree decorated year-round. Someone said, It was like they lived with a different sense of time. As if time, in such places, is no heavier than the island’s steady unfettering winds.
Richard Bishop studied harbor seals as a grad student on Tugidak in 1964, coming in April just after the tsunami, before the pupping season. He’d only been to the ocean once or twice before. He’d never met his field assistant, Grant Lortie, though by now they’ve been friends a lifetime. They camped by the lake in a too-small tent with just room enough for sleeping, keeping their food cool in tussock holes. The only time I’ve been warm since we got here is in this sleeping bag, he remembers Grant saying.
We went pretty light. Maybe too light. It wasn’t comfortable, Richard said, it was an adventure. The thing they griped about most was when the snuff and smokes ran out. His advisor had warned that they might need to live off the land, and when the resupply flight was weeks late, he remembers how many ptarmigans made up for the missing meals. Sixty-six.
What they didn’t lack was time. So we had lots of conversations about the state of the world. We were at liberty to use our imagination, explore our ideas, a lot of it was related to interest and concern for wildlife and people who depend on them. I’m sure we got tired of talking to each other. Sometimes they’d meet seal hunters—that year seals were worth around $10 dollars for a hide or a $3 dollar bounty. In later decades, when the seal population declined by 80 percent, Tugidak was designated Critical Habitat.
They studied the herds from the bluffs, out of the seals’ line of sight—watching seals birthed and nursing, or abandoned and starving. Noting the way newborn pups thump their chins with each scootch toward the ocean, which they enter within an hour of being born. Describing their sleep poses, their butterfly stroke, their sounds and gestures, the influence of tides. How nanny seals alarmed by eagles might send the whole herd rushing to the sea. They sat for hours each day until they were stiff with cold. That season, after Grant and the hunters had gone, Richard stayed on for another month alone. By then he was at home in attentiveness.
I felt I should stay until I’d learned everything I could.