By Vivian Faith Prescott
For the Capital City Weekly
In the dark, on my deck overlooking the incoming tide, I listen for sea lion breath and whales’ exhales. Giggles come from the large tent covering the deck. I turn back toward the cabin, but there is no tent and there are no children. All is quiet. It’s just a memory of good times with my grandkids here at the fishcamp. A bird squawks and I turn toward the beach again. A flight of herons walks the shoreline, their lanky silhouettes lit by the half moon.
The English language sure has some strange names for groups of critters and people too. A group of herons is also called a sedge or a siege. A group of ravens is an unkindness, a conspiracy, a storytelling. A group of boys is a rascal, a blush or plush. A group of children is an ingratitude, a chaos, or joy of children. What would a group of grandkids be called?
A gulp of cormorants, a fling of sandpipers, a colony of gulls.
I recall my grandkids and great-niece camped out on the deck here at the fishcamp, all tucked into the tent with their flashlights glowing, telling one another scary stories:
The card games quieted down and Oscar and Kéet were snuggled among a heap of sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows. As I walked past the tent, I patted it. “Keep the zipper closed. The noseeums are out,” I said.
“I see them,” said Grandson Jonah. And they all laughed together, like seagulls.
A squabble of seagulls, an aerie of eagles and a stare of owls.
Our Fishcamp has always been centered on family, but since the pandemic began, we’ve been sheltering and staying away from others. These fond memories keep me going.
A heron squawks again, reminding me of the unmelodious sounds my grandkids and I made together while trying out musical instruments like the steel tongue drum and the kalimba, a thumb piano. We made up fishcamp songs and vibrated our lips into didgeridoos. We sang out of tune to whales.
Whatever we’re called as a collective, we’re a noisy bunch. I recall Grandson Owen dancing on the deck; Grandson Jonah drumming a Lingít song. Grandson Jackson’s digeridoo could call up a bellowing sea lion.
A gam of whales and a charm of hummingbirds.
We don’t just plink around with odd musical instruments at fishcamp; we experiment with cooking and subsistence activities too. In both Tlingit and the Sámi cultures, education is experiential. Grandkids have helped us make breads, pizzas, jams and jellies, and they’ve sorted spruce tips, picked berries for the community, and harvested seaweed. They’ve caught halibut, smoked and jarred salmon, and smoked hooligan. This fishcamp life is about them, so without them I feel a bit lost. Is there a collective word for Grandmas feeling lost during a pandemic? Maybe a collection of tears is an ocean.
A run of salmon and an army of herring.
I look forward to sharing our lives in real-time, rather than on video-chats, talks from a distance, air-hugs, and text messages. I especially look forward to cousin-time. Some of the best times at fishcamp are when cousins come to visit. What’s a group of cousins called? A hysterical? A goof of cousins, perhaps?
A shiver of sharks, a smack of jellyfish, a troupe of shrimp, a consortium of crabs
I think about the times Grandson Owen and Grandson Chatham have visited from Sitka:
We piled in the Salmonberry—my Toyota RAV4—and drove to Prescott Beach, a favorite beach near where I grew up that we unofficially named after my family. From outside the berry bushes, you could hardly see any berries. Grandsons, Jonah, Owen, and Chatham followed me, and I broke a path into the bushes. Huge orange salmonberries hung all around us.
“Look Mummo,” Grandson Chatham said as he was putting the salmonberry in his mouth.
“Wow,” I said. “Better save some for Grandpa Mickey, too.”
“Okay” he said, putting another berry his mouth, and one into the bucket.
We picked for a half hour until the tide rose to the sandy spot that was perfect for swimming. On the beach, we took off our shoes and waded in together. They splashed one another, pretending to be superheroes. A group of superheroes is called a…
A spring of seals, a romp of otters, a herd of sea lions.
Grandkids don’t always show up in groups, though. It’s nice to spend one-on-one time with a grandkid. Grandson Timothy often slept in Grandpa Mickey’s cabin on a fold out couch in the living room. Timothy hung out in our cabin, though, for the chips, candy, root beer and a movie. In the mornings, Great-Grandpa Mickey could be counted on to cook a fishcamp breakfast.
Sometimes these memories make me sad, and sometimes they make me grateful and hopeful. I try to concentrate on what I have and what I’m going to have again. This past year, my grandsons have grown taller, and two of my grandsons’ voices have changed and they’ve grown faint mustaches. One wants to call me “Grandma” rather than “Mummo.”
A grunt of teenagers, a sleuth of bears, a turmoil of porpoises.
This summer, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted restrictions for the vaccinated, and before the delta variant took hold, and before we decided to be extra careful again, we were gifted with visits and hugs from vaccinated family. I recall pulling my grandson and daughter close, sniffing their hair. I’ve sniffed these beautiful heads hundreds of times before, but I feared my scent-memory would fade. I was like a mother seal, catching the scent of her loved ones from their flippers and muzzles.
A collective noun for plentiful memories of a good life should be a verve of memories: Another recollection from this past summer:
I peered out my cabin door across to the deck that’s attached to our other cabin. A large sheet hung over our porch roof frame. The deck was lit up with a glow from a giant outdoor screen. Auntie Viv was visiting, and she’d brought her iPhone and a projector. Auntie Viv and Grandson Jackson were hooded, wrapped in blankets, sitting on lawn
chairs, eating snacks, as an old horror movie flickered on the sheet.
A murder, a mob, clan, caldron, a brood, and a horde of crows.
I crept down my cabin steps and walked across the gravel to their cabin. With the full moon looming above the sea, I stood behind my daughter and grandson and watched the screen. A bat winged overhead toward our roof and the trees beyond. I left my family to watch their corny movie and tucked myself in bed. I thought about the rising delta variant and breakthrough cases, and I tried to refocus on the idea that there was a pod of killer whales floating on the sea holding one another up so they could sleep. An eagle mother was in a nest keeping watch over her eaglets, and there was a whisper of moths, a cloud of bats, a bed of clams, and a galaxy of starfish somewhere.
A drift of fishermen, or a grumble of fishermen, a worship of writers. A Wrangell, I mean, a rangale of deer.
So what’s a collective noun for a fishcamp by the sea with a great-grandpa, grandparents, and grandkids, who laugh and fish, and pick berries, and tell stories, and make strange music. A group of sardines is called a family, and we are collectively called that too: family.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.