This time of year, we reflect on the past year and look forward to the New Year. We look at these moments and events as gifts, mostly because time is a gift, relationships are gifts, being here in Southeast Alaska is a gift. But that doesn’t mean life has been easy. Here in Wrangell, we’ve had a year of both tragedy and joy.
1. Gift of Elders: Dear Readers, I’m sorry to let you know that my dad, aka Mickey of Mickey’s Fishcamp, died in September. My dad would want you to know he’s just “gone fishing.” He was 83 years old, and his death was expected as he had cancer and had been in hospice at our Fishcamp since January of 2023. My husband, and my brother and sister, helped me keep him at home to care for him, which is what he wanted — to be home where he could be in the presence of the ocean and our dogs. This past year, my dad and I watched fish jumps, picnicked on our deck by the sea, awed over sunsets, and watched Mariners games together. I fed my dad all his favorite foods: smoked salmon, shepherd’s pie, cheeseburgers and steaks on the grill, halibut pizza, sushi, and anything chocolate. I listened to his repeated stories, trying to grasp the details I might’ve missed. Occasionally, I heard a new story he’d never told us. These past years, living with my dad at our Fishcamp has been one of the best gifts of my life. I hope that the stories I’ve shared with you over the years have been your gifts.
2. Gift of community: One night in November, three days before Thanksgiving, it’d been raining more than usual, and the wind had been howling for days. When most of us were tucked in for the night waiting out the storm, our lights flickered, and we were unaware of a devastating landslide crashing through several homes, killing six Wrangellites. The hours and days and weeks that followed were traumatic, but in Wrangell style we used action to show our love, so we went to work doing the business of helping. We set up both physical and virtual donation sites. We gathered our food stores, filled up our five-gallon jugs of fuel, opened our homes, churches, gymnasiums. Donations poured in from near and far. We fed and housed the searchers, the Department of Transportation, and everyone else who came to help.
3. Gift of technology: Technology helped get the word out about the landslide. Technology flew drones above the landslide looking for survivors. Tech helped locals help locals and allowed us to share our grief in a wider context. I am still grieving my dad’s passing, so it’s a gift to be able to Facebook message or video chat with my family. We are still cautious about this year’s COVID-19, RSV and influenza and strep. Technology keeps us linked without endangering us.
4. The gift of little things: It’s the Facebook message, the text, the card in the mail, even the “sorry for your losses” that help us feel we’re not alone in our grief. During the months after my dad’s death, and following the landslide, Southeast Alaskans checked in with me. A writer from Sitka sent me a poetry book, another person from Haines sent prayer flags and custom-made cards. In the immediate aftermath of my dad’s passing, my neighbor brought chili and cornbread, another friend made enchiladas, a local bakery sent lunch and goodies to our grieving family. Also, a card from our local tribe arrived filled with signatures and messages, honoring my dad for gifting them berries and jam and tea and spruce tips and smoked hooligan. It’s these little things that help ease the pain.
5. Gift of berries: Some of my earliest memories are of eating berries from the bushes. There is something about being present, in the presence of berry bushes, that eases worries. This year, even though it was a difficult year for finding berries, we had berries we needed to use up, so we made lots of freezer jams to gift away to locals. Many of my berry-picking memories over the years are woven together with my dad, who accompanied me out berry picking. This coming year, I’m sure that berry picking will include a bucketful of good memories too.
6. Gift of fish: The gift of fish is the best part of living in Southeast. This past year, we ended up with a whole smokehouse full of cohos to jar up and a gift of smoked sockeye. We put up halibut and shrimp too. This last summer my dad was too sick to help at the smokehouse but gave us directions through his cabin window. We knew it’d be the last time we’d have to learn from him. We smoked the fish all ourselves, but he was the taste tester. This year, when I fire up the smokehouse, the scent of smoking salmon will remind me of him.
7. Gift of gardens: Though my little garden by the sea is a hodge podge of edible vegetables in the summer, I look forward to the gifts from others’ gardens. This past year, local gardeners gifted us zucchinis, cabbages, turnips, and more. This year, I’m excited to learn more about gardens and working in mine.
8. Gift of forest: My dad spent a good career in the U.S. Forest Service, maintaining trails and building picnic tables and outhouses. One of the last things my dad did was insist my brother take him for an island road trip. We knew this would be the last time he’d visit the forest he loved. Together they checked out one of my dad’s favorite salmon-filled streams. It was as if he was saying goodbye to the salmon and the forest that sustained him while he lived on this planet.
9. Gift of stories: We all have stories to tell. We are living our stories. For many of us, this past year has been challenging as we navigate a world living with COVID-19. Some of us have dealt with illness, with death, with drastic changes in our lives, with new jobs or lost jobs, and the even small changes that have affected us. We are in the middle of a new story. Our stories keep us connected. Tell your future’s story this year, Dear Reader, by whatever means, like taking a new class or undertaking a new project, even service to your community.
10. Gift of sea: One day this past summer, I ran over to my dad’s cabin to tell him I’d gotten a text saying a herd of humpback whales was coming down the strait. My dad, dressed in his bathrobe, got up quicker than I’d seen him do in months, and with his cane, he headed out onto the deck. It was high tide, and the ocean had reached the seawall below our feet. We approached the porch railing as six humpback whales rose up, just 100 yards from our deck, their mouths wide open, gulping the herring sea. Together my dad and I squealed out with childlike delight, so loud I’m sure the whales heard. They probably thought we were singing because it did sound like the higher-pitched tones. Perhaps it was a father/daughter song of joy.
Thank you, Dear Readers, for reading the Planet Alaska column, for listening to my dad’s stories and our Fishcamp journey. May the year 2024 bring you many gifts to be grateful for.