Errands in Ketchikan last week found us in the careworn cab of a careworn woman from the Haida tribe. She related how she grew up in the village of Hydaburg on the remote western coast of Prince of Wales Island, whose declining population is mostly Haida, Tlingit or both.
We mention that we might be cruising that way, and she transforms into a radiant one-woman Board of Tourism bent on convincing us of the beauty of her native village.
Rarely squandering a recommendation, six days later we ease Jupiter into a slip at the Hydaburg Marina after picking our way up the island’s rugged shore. The sun is hard out, the docks robust and new.
A few vessels belonging to local fishermen range from small and raddled to large and raddled. Time floated out on the morning tide.
As we secure Jupiter’s lines around the bull-rails, a tall and weathered fellow with long feathered hair knotted tight approaches to welcome us to Hydaburg. His earnest deep-set deep-brown eyes gaze deep into us – his small black dog prances at his feet.
He introduces himself as Sáádùùts. We ask him to spell that. He is an Elder of the Haida and of the village. He offers to walk with us to wherever we are bound.
Our curiosity and his seem to flourish under his gentle aegis, and the walk becomes an hour, a morning, and lunch. Sáádùùts grew up here, but he has been away, and now is returned. He embarked upon a journey decades ago. His journey continues, and will for the rest of his life.
He is living in and restoring the house of his parents, Elders before him, long passed. The recurring theme of his measured conversation is about the journey: his, ours, the tribe’s, and Mother Earth’s, much of it delivered with his gnarled chestnut widespread hand across his widespread heart.
He teaches the art of canoe building in the ancient Haida tradition, from one massive tree carefully chosen and deeply revered in its felling, its carving and carrying of souls across vast waters. Into children he etches the reemerging arts involved in incising and paddling such a soulful vessel.
With Sáádùùts we visit the Carving Shed, warm and sweet-smelling, clubhouse for the many village carvers. His younger brother is seated within carving fine pointed paddles.
Outside, we lay our hands on the massive canoe Sáádùùts carved with many children, and each of their hands is imprinted along the gunwales. We learn that this boat, crafted from one 740 year old red spruce, will soon be restored to praise. It will journey out upon the sea from Hydaburg.
We visit the town totem park which adjoins the new school, now breaking for lunch. Everyone knows Sáádùùts, everyone greets him, and us by association. This is what he wants to happen and he tells us that. In the park Sáádùùts sings to us in the Haida tongue – a song of the eagle, protecting all beneath its wingspan. He is of the Eagle Clan.
He tells us of his grandmother – of the double-finned Orca people. With edified eyes we find double-finned Orcas represented in every pole, painting and carving throughout the village.
Many Hydaburg homes have their own family totems in front that show their family’s clan lineage.
This one includes the double-finned orca.
We visit City Hall and are welcomed by the mayor, Tony, an engaging a vibrant big thinker – a regional leader in conservation policy and resource stewardship. He is determined to find ways for his people to remain true to their native descent and teachings, and to spearhead sustainable solutions that will dam the ebb-tide of departing youth.
We meet others who share intentions that this revitalization can be managed. Tony is proud of Hydaburg’s classification as an Alaskan First-Class City. The village boasts a first-class basketball program at every grade level. The coach, hard to miss in passing, is a tattooed tower of a man clearly revered by the local children within his rangy reach.
Across a cleared circle is a unique full-immersion Haida language Montessori pre-school. Last evening they graduated five. Only Haida is spoken within.
As we amble the afternoon curve of the shore to the harbor we meet others. A Navy veteran of the Vietnam War whose only fight now is with the tangled trapline in his lap; a weaver who peels bark from red spruce without damage to the tree.
Yesterday she harvested a 30-foot long stripe which now lies drying, as she waits for it to hint at what it will become. Basket, hat, rug? When it speaks, she will be listening.
We learn about the nature of halibut strips drying in the sun over salmonberry branches, and how bentwood cedar boxes are easier to construct now, with power-jigs and electric steamers.
It seems to us that there is much to know, much to learn, and much to tell. Slowly. Gently.
As the late light fades Sáádùùts returns to Jupiter to bring us more love and more story. He again sings aboard Jupiter, four legged Apollo waiting patiently on the dock. This time he sings a lullaby. A story of Mother Earth and how she holds us all while we rest.
with Warm Creamed Cabbage
When cold batter hits hot oil you puff up and crisp. To chill ours we used glacier ice brought to us by a friend last week. This bergie bit, compressed through eons, is dense, clear and slow to melt. It adds rare cachet to frying fresh Alaskan halibut.
Prepare a mustard sauce: In a small bowl mix well a small amount of finely diced sweet onion, sour cream and dijon mustard. Allow the flavors to meld.
Cream the cabbage: thinly slice some fresh cabbage and some kimchee. Heat a tablespoon of butter in a skillet. Sauté the cabbage, add a splash of water and cover. Steam until it’s as green as it gets. Uncover, add the kimchee and cook until liquid has evaporated. Coat the vegetables with some of the mustard sauce. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
Batter the Halibut: Heat a couple of inches of frying oil in a heavy bottomed pan until hot enough to sizzle a drop of liquid. In a shallow bowl whisk together a handful of well-seasoned flour with an egg and a drool of olive oil to form a thick paste. Thin the paste with glacier cold water. Keep chilled until ready to use.
Pat dry fresh halibut fillets, dip and generously coat in the batter and slide into the hot oil. Fry up until puffed and golden.
Serve the fish immediately atop the warm spiced cabbage. Proffer the remaining mustard sauce along side.
Fresh greens and reliable cell service have been in short supply since leaving Ketchikan.