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Expedition Log: August 12, 2001

David Koester

St. George Island, Pribilofs

David Koester

Our entrance to the Pribilof Islands showed us why so many people have sought to capture these islands in visual images and how the fur seals have been at the center of everyone's interest. At evening recap, Kes Woodward told us that perhaps the best watercolorist of the 19th century to work in Alaska, Henry Wood Elliott, was officially special agent for the U.S. Treasury in charge of fur seal production. Elliott was a powerful advocate for fur seal protection and Kes explained that his images played a critical role in the effectiveness of his advocacy. Bob Peck told us that George Bird Grinnell came along with the Harriman Expedition and equally became a champion of fur seal conservation. Eleven years after the Harriman Expedition, ethnologist Vladimir Jochelson arrived in the Pribilof Islands on an expedition that was in many ways a follow up to both the Harriman Expedition and the Jesup North Pacific Expedition in which Jochelson had participated in 1901. On St. George he filmed the harvesting of fur seals -- probably the first motion picture footage ever recorded in the Aleutians/Western Alaska. Jochelson went on to complete an extensive study of Aleut traditional culture. The footage is now lost--probably in a Russian museum archive somewhere -- but the reasons he chose to film at the rookeries were obvious to us all.

The day began with a long walk for many, high in the hills, deep in the fog. The hikers were in search of the red legged kittiwake and the thick-billed murre and found them both. Others took the opportunity for a morning visit to either the fur seal plant or the Orthodox Church. Later in the evening the priest would thank visitors for coming to his service.

hikers

Passengers who participated in the long hike for bird watching. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

I went off for an intense morning of driftwood collection at a cove known as Starry Arteel (Americanized spelling of the Russian, Staryi Artil). A good dirt road wound down from the main road to a north-facing, slightly curved rock beach. At the top of the beach, the driftwood line gave way to a depression that contained a small lake. Gulls occasionally landed on the lake, but most of the activity was on the rookery and the cliffs above. Seals and porpoises leapt by in front of me as the wind whipped fog in a giant arc over the hillside behind. Along the primary driftline, long red and yellow cedars lay mixed among a large amount of milled wood and a variety of species that remain to be identified.

Starry Arteel (staryi artil)

Starry Arteel (Staryi Artil) cove where David Koester collected driftwood. (Photo by David Koester).
Click image for a larger view.

After a lunch back on board, two groups returned for the seal plant tour. Our St. George tour coordinators had promised us a demonstration of deblubbering of the seal skin. As we entered the plant, we saw the huge wooden vats in which the skins were first washed. The remains of the tram system by which the skins were moved into the blubber removal room hung overhead. Curved blubber boards about 4 feet long were angled to waist height and lined up in a row. At the far end of the row we witnessed a skin in preparation. One skilled and careful smooth stroke with a two-handled, curved, blunt scraper cleared a six-inch swath of blubber and meat. Ten or fifteen strokes later the skin needed only final touch up. From there, skins were put in huge vats filled with brine and soaked overnight before being stacked in shipping containers. They were shipped to a company in St. Louis and up until 1972 distributed to fur seal treaty countries, including Canada and Japan.

After the tour I wanted to get in a run and see something of the general landscape. I learned something of an Aleutian lesson. The wind was fierce going up the hill to the center of the island and the fog thickened as I approached the top. I would have done well to have dressed more warmly and to have planned a little more time for the slow slog against the wind. The view along the road was limited but filled with wonderful, lush greens and wildflowers.

housing on St. George

Main street in St. George, whitebuilding in front is the one hotel on the island. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

We had our first opportunity for a close look at northern fur seals at a blind at the rookery just a mile from town and I stopped on the way back to the boat landing. The pups, now the size of small dogs, move even more awkwardly about the rocks than their elders. Brief territorial flare-ups punctuated the slow undulating motion and sleeping stillness. I wondered if seal life consisted just of feeding, lying still and occasional aggressive encounters.

Back on the ship we had dinner with guests from St. George. Viktor Malavansky told my table about the dark past of the WWII evacuations, about growing up on St. George, about educational opportunities and about his plans for the future. He wants to remain on the island, but the limited employment opportunities, the difficulty of communication and travel, and the high cost of living are causing him to look at other options.

Several visitors were given or obtained a photocopy of a document distributed by the Orthodox church titled, The Church of St. George the Victorious. It contained the following account of recent St. George and Pribilof history.

After the Russians, the same curious blend of near serfdom and cash income continued…. From 1869, the U.S. began to administer the fur seal harvest for the benefit of the federal treasury. U.S. field agents exerted total control over the lives of the Pribilovians. The Pribilof Aleuts' living quarters, education plans, travel arrangements, even marriages, had to be approved by government agents. The use of the Aleut language was forbidden, except in church services. Housing was provided and so was food, but it was strictly rationed and selected by the government. This payment in kind was supplemented by a cash (or credit to each sealer) based on his work and his place in the household; in 1946, the average share income per sealer was $502, 60% below an industrial worker of the time…

World War II started a revolution for the Pribilovians. The internment of these Aleuts in June 1942 had drastic human toll, but it ended the total isolation of the islanders. They learned of the recourse available to them and began to seek redress of their grievances against the U.S. government. Between 1950 and 1966 there were significant changes in the pay arrangements and status of the Aleuts, resulting by 1966 in their full status as civil servants with all benefits, including retirement.…In 1973, by international convention, the harvesting of seals was halted at St. George.

Despite the economic loss from the cessation of commercial sealing, most villagers have remained in St. George some making a living from fishing.

(View the day's photos)


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