Through the generosity of a dear friend, I was included in a foursome on a recent fishing trip to Kodiak Island Alaska, during the height of the Silver Salmon run.
Kodiak Island is the home of the Brown Bear, the continent’s largest land-dwelling mammal. The waters are teeming with fish, whales, dolphins, seals, and birds by the millions. The indigenous people here are called Alutiiq (not Aleuts as I learned), and the village of Old Harbor where we stayed is the oldest Russian community in North America. Russian fishermen and hunters arrived 300 years ago, and after successive attempts, finally conquered the natives. Those who stayed married local women and today’s Alutiiq people all bear the surnames of their Russian and Scandinavian forbearers, while still retaining their tribal roots.
The Old Harbor Alutiiq are a small, successful band of commercial fisherman, subsistence hunters, entrepreneurs, and corporate investors. They have revived the language, which is now being taught in the elementary school along with traditional songs, dances and crafts. I watched the kids dance in costumes they made themselves.
The 250 people who live here get along, despite the ordinary small town squabbles. People here wave to each other — if you’re walking anywhere they’ll stop to ask if you want a ride — they tease, play and love to laugh. You learn quickly that laughing is a great survival quality here — it helps you deal with rain 330 days a year.
The fishing was spectacular, it didn’t matter whether I trolled from a boat, or waded in a lagoon; the action was explosive and I giggled and screamed with delight. On Sunday morning the boats didn’t go out because of gale-force winds and rain. After breakfast, I heard the call to prayer and decided to go to church. The sanctuary is a 20’ x 40’ wooden building, topped by 3 onion-domed steeples; it is the oldest Russian Orthodox Church in Americas. You enter into an anteroom where you hang your rain gear and then proceed into the sanctuary. The walls inside are covered with iconography, and chandeliers hang from the ceiling, each filled with dozens of burning candles. It felt holy.
A lay reader conducted the service for the nine of us in attendance. The reader and three women in the choir stood at a table near the front, and the rest of us sat on wooden benches that surrounded the perimeter. The service was conducted in English, Alutiiq, and Russian. I joined in the simple Gregorian chants, but was the only man to do so, and after the service when we greeted one another, I was invited to join the choir the next time I came.
The storm continued into that afternoon, and I indulged in one of my favorite things, reading a good book, in an easy chair overlooking the natural wonders. Outside, the wind-driven rain splattered on the roof and windowpanes in a musical symphony.
Leaning against a wall of the lodge’s great room where I was sitting was the skull and tusks of a huge walrus. When I first came into the room I stared at the skull and imagined the enormity of the creature. After reading a while I looked up, and now directly in front of me, the magnificent tusked creature seemed to be “mooning” me.
I laughed out loud, which brought in several of my friends. I told them to stop where they were and tell me what they saw when they looked at the skull. Each of them saw the tusks and could imagine what the creature looked like when it was alive, even to its whiskered details. Then I asked them to close their eyes, take a few steps closer, and then open their eyes. “What does it look like now” I asked? Each one laughed immediately as they saw the anus appear.
Listening to a Symphony in A Minor, looking at the sea and mountains, and gazing upon that looming moon, I recognized that the distance between your head and ass is only a couple of feet. This is why it’s so easy to find our heads up it so often. The best way to get your head out is to get away to your wondrous place and to laugh in the pouring rain, because it is in those moments that we are truly live. A good life is just a succession of such wonders.