Cotton Grass of Ekuk, Alaska Tundra
Ekuk is located on the East coast of Nushagak Bay and spreads two miles South to Ekuk Bluffs which is shaped like a hook. Ekuk mean “the last village down” it being the farthest village South on Nuskagak Bay. The correct pronunciation of the Ekuk is Ecook not Ecock.
By Air or By Sea
Ekuk can be reached by air or by sea however, air travel is the most common means of transportation. The airstrip is a 1,200 foot sand and gravel strip. The closest village that can be reached by snow machine in the winter is Clark’s Point which is about two miles to the North of Ekuk.
Map of Ekuk, Alaska - Nushagak Bay
(Sittin On) The Dock of The Bay
After my first visit to Ekuk and all the time I spent resting my bones waiting on the salmon reminded me of the song (Sittin On) THE DOCK OF THE BAY by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper from 1968 and 1975. I changed the words to fit my situation.
Sittin in the morning sun, I’ll be sittin when the evening
come, watch in the boats roll in, then I’ll be watch ‘em,
roll away again.
Left my home in Oklahoma, headed for the Bristol Bay,
I have something to live for, looks like something gonna
come my way.
Sittin’ here restin’ my bones and this loneliness won’t
leave me alone. Two thousand miles I roam just
make this dock my job.
(1) Yeah, (2) So, (3) Now, I’m sittin on the dock of the
bay, watchin the tide roll away oo ee sittin on the dock
of the wastin time.
Ekuk is a cannery village. It began as a cannery in 1903. The 1982 movie “Cannery Row” starring Nick Nolte and Debra Winger gave me a romantic view of the word “cannery.” The movie is a romantic-comedy, a pair of mismatched lovers making their way in the area of shut down canneries. The movie is set in Monterey, California in the, now closed, 1940’s canneries. Of course, the canneries are not as romantic as the movies made them.
Sketches of Tundra Wildflowers
Sketch of Arctic Willow Branch
The Tundra Terrain
While waiting for the Salmon run to begin I went to discovered the tundra. I spent hours drawing them and coloring them the correct colors. I drew lots of flowers, but have not been able to identify all of them yet. I have identified the Arctic Daisy, Bearberry, Larkspur, Geranium psilostemon or Bressingham Flair, Labrador tea, Anemone and the Cotton grass. The tundra can be a dangerous place. The bushes and grass grows so thick you think it is solid, but stepping on to it you can end up in a hole that is waist deep or more in water. I saw tracks of a moose that were the size of my hand. There are several types of birds. My father identified one for me as the loon. The tundra is like no other terrain, it is exciting and dangerous.
Stuck in the Mud
I began hearing stories about fishermen becoming stuck in the mud and dying. How could a man get stuck in the mud? I knew that animals; such as cows, horses, etc… would get stuck in the mud by going out to far to get to water. But why would a man get stuck to the point of dying? A couple to trips to the shore in the morning explained this quandary. When the tide goes out there is a mile or two of mud beach from the shore to where there is water. If a boat does not plan ahead and dock before the tide goes out then they are caught in the mud. The story goes that they try walking in, on the mud, get stuck and no one knows they are out there. Having visited many beaches I never knew a tide would go in and out to such lengths.
The Salmon Run at Ekuk is the month of June and sometimes into July. One summer I worked in the Egg House which is making roe and caviar. The next summer I worked in the kitchen feeding the crews. The company that supported my summers in Alaska closed in 2002.
Working the Egg House I learned a little about salmon. There are five types of salmon; King, Sockeye (red), Chum, Pink and Silver. In Ekuk we had mostly Sockeye and Chum. You can identify the male Sockeye salmon by his hooked jaw, top lip hangs over the lower lip. The Sockeye have a red vein down the center of their backs and the Chum have a red vein down their sides. Most of the time I could tell which fish the eggs were from by the size of the egg sack. I was taught about brimming the eggs to make caviar and about braiding and packing the roe.
While walking the muddy shore one afternoon after the salmon run had begun. My walk was stepping over ropes mooring the nets and over flounders. As I walked by one net a local fisherman said to me “Ariel’s friend is a pest.” He was referring to the 1989 movie titled “The Little Mermaid.” There were hundreds of dead flounder lying on the shore. The fishermen would throw them to shore because they did not want them to get into their nets again. They would take some of the larger flounder home to eat, but smaller flounder have little meat to prepare. There was one fisherman who would throw them just along the shoreline giving them a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. If they were strong they could flip and flop to the water or if they were patient the tide would eventually reach them.
A people rich in history
When you meet an Alaskan in this environment you can see clearly that they are descendents of the Mongolian people. They are an amazing and strong people.
Ekuk Alaska, a cannery village with a rich history. Those two summers in Ekuk gave me a love and longing for Alaska.