The Accidental Extremist
Because bad trips make great stories.

A Ballad of Baby Seal Steak and $9 Doritos [Off The Map]
Thursday June 10th 2010, 5:08 pm
Filed under: Off The Map, Seal Clubbing, When Animals Attack
Hang on to your Doritos!

Hang on to your Doritos!

St. Paul is a barren, five-by-seven-mile speck of rock in the middle of Alaska’s Bering Sea, the largest of five tiny islands collectively known as the Pribilofs. I found myself there last winter—ostensibly to report on the Coast Guard helicopter rescue crews that are forward-deployed to the frigid, windswept island during the deadly winter fishing season. (Ed note: the author, my friend Kalee Thompson, has a riveting new book about the Coast Guard in Alaska, Deadliest Sea, out this month. By all means, pick it up.)

I’d imagined spending every day flying with the air crews over the icy Bering, witnessing as they heroically swung into action to respond to life-of-death emergencies in the fishing fleet. Instead, the island was socked in for almost a week straight, and distress calls were scarce….

Instead of reporting on the Coasties’ emergency response, I spent a lot of time watching them shoveling snow and playing poker. I helped them build the most impressive snow fort I’ve every seen (an effort spearheaded by two producers from the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch, who were also there to tag along with the Coasties). And I realized that one of the best things about long-form journalism is the opportunity to become fascinated by things that weren’t included in the assignment memo. The history of life on St. Paul Island was a case in point.

Zacharof. Lestenkof. Merculief. Melovidov. Like in many of Alaska’s native communities, the surnames on St. Paul are Russian, even though 85 percent of the island’s residents have Aleutian ancestry. With a population of 450, St. Paul is the largest Aleut village in the state. Russian traders first “discovered” the Pribilofs in 1786. Aleut history holds that the foreign sailors were led to the chain by a native hunter. For centuries, the most striking thing about the place has been its fecund population of northern fur seals: Each summer, hundreds of thousands of the sweet-faced mammals gather on the islands’ shores. The number used to be in the millions.

The Russians already had established settlements in Dutch Harbor and on Kodiak Island in the 1790s when they began forcibly relocating Aleut people from the Aleutian Chain north to St. Paul and the nearby island of St. George. On the Pribilofs, the Aleuts were forced to hunt and skin seals for the Chinese market. Over the years, many of the Aleut women married Russian men, and virtually all of the native Alaskans joined the Russian Orthodox religion, whose onion-domed churches remain the most distinctive buildings in St. Paul, St. George, and many other small Alaskan communities.

St. Paul residents still hunt fur seal. The “harvest” is for subsistence only, and is subject to strict government regulation. A few hundred sub-adult males can be taken each summer. Only Aleuts can participate in the hunt, and only they can eat the meat. Not only it is illegal to sell the lean, bloody steaks, it’s against the law for hunters to share the seal meat with outsiders, even over their own dinner tables.

Traditionally, Aleut men hunted fur seals with a harpoon, from a kayak. The animals rarely come ashore near their Aleutian Chain villages. In the Pribilofs, a more efficient method was, and still is, used: The animals are herded from the beach into a pen, much like cattle. Then, one hunter clubs the seal on the head to stun it, while a second hunter stabs the animal through the heart. The process was designed to avoid damaging the seals’ valuable fur. Today, that fur is discarded—it, too, is illegal to sell, and both the equipment and skills that St. Paul hunters once used to dry and preserve the pelts have been lost.

Most of the money that comes into the St. Paul community comes through fishing, I learned. Aleut fishermen spend a good part of the summer trolling for halibut, a high-value white fish whose harvest is managed through quotas that are largely reserved for native communities. There are two fish processing plants in town: the Trident Seafoods factory on St. Paul Harbor, and the Arctic Star, a floating processor owned by Icicle Seafoods. In the warmer months, the island supports a small tourist trade of extreme bird watchers. But in the winter there isn’t any tourism, and almost no activity in town. For many Coasties, the best thing about the place is the caribou (reindeer, technically) that were imported as an alternative food source when the seal population plummeted in the early 1900s. Today, a herd of about five hundred roams the island, which is more than the land can comfortably support. The local tribal council happily allowed the Coasties to buy a $50 tag and do some culling.

When hunting season is over, there’s still hiking. I borrowed snowshoes and trekking poles and joined the “airdales” for treks along the ice at the edge of the beach. On the days when the roads were clear, we could drive a couple miles into town, where we spotted a Deadliest Catch boat offloading crab. There’s a small museum near the port, and the island’s only store, which sells groceries and bathroom supplies and knock-off Deadliest Catch sweatshirts. You can buy an ATV there, or a bunk bed, or a $9 bag of Doritos. Sometimes the Coasties went there just to look, just for somewhere to go.

I visited the store about four times, never buying anything. Just taking notes about a place I knew would likely be among the oddest and most remote I’d ever visit. —Kalee Thompson

Thompson’s new book, Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History, is out this month from HarperCollins. Visit her Web site at www.deadliestsea.com.

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