Children of the Spills

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 By Katie Gavenus

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My sister was born in Homer, Alaska on 9 February, 1989.  I remember nothing of her arrival, although it must have been a pretty life-changing event for me as an only child used to basking in the attention of my parents in our small cabin overlooking Kachemak Bay.  I do remember, however, the events that unfolded less than two months later.  At two and a half years of age, I experienced a strange feeling of dread looming.  Although I lacked the cognitive abilities to understand what was going on, I could sense the fear, anger and sadness of my parents and their friends.

 

In those days and weeks of early spring, it seemed as though the whole town was anxiously waiting to discover its fate.  In fact, we were waiting, waiting to see if any of the more than 11 million barrels of oil that had spilled from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez would reach the pristine shores, critical habitat and fishing waters of Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet.  When I think of that waiting an image comes to mind.  It must be a collage of my own memories, the stories of my parents and my experiences later in childhood.  I see myself with my family – Mum, Dad, baby Erika – along with other fishing families.  We are standing at the old scenic lookout, gazing out at Kachemak Bay.  Instead of looking at the glittering blue glaciers or snow-capped mountains like the tourists do when they stop on the way in to Homer, our attention is directed to the mouth of Kachemak Bay.  In this memory, we are nervously searching, hoping not to find evidence of the deathly blackness coming towards our Bay.

 

The oil did eventually come into Kachemak Bay, although it was a tiny amount compared to what was fouling the waters and coastline in Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Alaska and areas around Kodiak Island.  With the oil came the dead and dying animals – sea otters, seals and birds – too many to count.  I can recollect just a piece of my first experience with these animals.  My mum helped me to choose a treasured baby blanket to deliver to the sea otter rehabilitation effort.  We drove to the middle school, where they had set up a temporary location for sea otter cleaning.   People in gloves and raingear were using dish soap and water to remove oil from the luxurious fur of the otters.  If you asked my mum, she would tell you that we quietly walked past otters waiting patiently and peacefully in cages to be cleaned, fed, or released.  These otters were cuddled up in blankets like mine to keep them warm and comfortable.  I know these details from my mum’s stories.  When I close my eyes and think of that experience, however, I don’t see anything.  I just hear the haunting screams and cries of sea otters.  My mum didn’t hear them, but I somehow did, and that memory has stayed with me.

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I am grateful though, that at a time when many Alaskans were feeling helpless and hopeless, my parents empowered me to do something.  While donating my scrap of a baby blanket may not have had a significant impact on the oiled otters, I know it had a tremendous impact on me, and it is something that I have remembered to this day.  When the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill occurred in April 2010, I was both saddened and angered by the news.  Another rich and diverse ecosystem thrown into disarray, another fragile fishing economy gone awry, another set of communities devastated, and another group of kids who have learned dread and despair far too young. I felt that awful sense of helplessness.  When I was two years of age, I donated a baby blanket.  Now that I am a young adult, I have the power to do something more.

 

In early 2011, I embarked upon “Children of the Spills,” an oral history project that aims to connect these two generations and regions affected by oil spills.  Children of the Spills is an effort to compile the stories of young people affected by oil spills, focusing on young people in Alaska who grew up in communities disrupted by the Exxon Valdez disaster and children in Gulf Coast communities that are now affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  By empowering young people in “oiled communities” to share their memories, stories and childhood artwork, this project strives to both broaden the public understanding of the long-term effects of oil spills and to assist communities as they work to protect and support their children growing up in the wake of an oil spill.  My belief is that the experiences of these young people will help to illuminate ways in which children can be nurtured and encouraged to build positive paths forward after an oil spill.

 

In the past few months, I have travelled to the coastal Alaskan communities of Cordova, Seldovia, Port Graham, Kodiak and Homer to gather the stories of people who were children at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  I have come to greatly value the innate worth of simply sharing these stories.

 

“Everybody has a different story with the spill, but it’s nice to hear people who have similar stories, and you go, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of what happened to me.’  Kind of like a therapy group almost. Which sounds kind of corny, but that was a big component to my emotional suffering from that, it was kind of feeling like a little bit alone, because our lifestyle was alone.”  – Micah Ess.

 

Ess was twelve at the time of the Exxon Valdez event.  He had spent most of his childhood up until the spill with his family on a houseboat in a remote part of Prince William Sound where they trapped shrimp.  Growing up on the houseboat, Ess remembers living in a bulky life jacket and becoming well acquainted with the local flora and fauna.  Ess was able to recognise the individual whales and seals that frequented the area around the houseboat, and he came to view them as close friends.

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He and his family were in Homer at the time of the oil spill and waited a few weeks to return to their houseboat.  Remembering the trip as being unnaturally quiet, Ess neither saw nor heard any of the animals he had come to know as childhood friends.  The biggest shock though, was to find the houseboat full of oily material stored there during clean-up efforts.  Seeing their ruined home, Ess and his family immediately headed back to Homer.  They never returned to their home on the water, and eventually sold the houseboat.  You might expect to hear anger in his voice as Ess recollects these injuries.  Instead though, he tells his story with grace and strives to learn from his experiences.

 

“When you’re out there and you get kind of taken without any warning, it is a wonderful lesson in looking for the good and to seeing what’s next.”

 

Makena O’Toole was three years of age at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and he always knew what was next for him.  He grew up in a fishing family in Cordova and saw his family and friends struggle with the financial and emotional toll of the disaster.  Yet, he tries not to dwell in the anger.

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“The biggest thing I think that we can take from what we learned here is to move on.  Get over it.  If it’s not something that you can continue to make a life out of there, then you need to leave.  If you can, then you need to get over it and don’t let yourself be put on hold for twenty years listening to false promises or false hopes because that doesn’t help anybody … it’s just not worth it.”

 

O’Toole didn’t let himself be put on hold.  In high school, he was the first Cordova kid in a long time to risk buying the permits, boat and equipment necessary to get into commercial salmon fishing.  “I think that it was just always something that I wanted to do” O’Toole explains as he recalls a story of himself as a toddler, waking up in the middle of the night to proclaim “My daddy’s a wisherman and I’m gonna be a wisherman too.”

 

O’Toole has worked tirelessly to become the fisherman he always dreamed he would be, despite the effects of the Exxon Valdez event.  Although he loves Cordova and Prince William Sound, he cannot support his family on the money he earns fishing salmon in the summer.  Because the Prince William Sound herring fishery no longer exists, something many blame on the oil spill, he has to spend his winters and springs fishing elsewhere.  O’Toole has had to travel thousands of kilometres and target a wide range of species to simply make a living on the water.  He has fished for a number of species including squid in California, sea cucumbers in Southeast Alaska and cod along the Aleutian Chain of Alaska.

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The impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill are as varied as O’Toole’s catches.  The oil itself touched over 1600 kilometres of coastline, yet the effects spread even further, forever changing ecosystems and economies, communities and children.  For many people, one of the most devastating effects of the oil spill was the curtailment of important subsistence activities.  This problem was especially grave in places where subsistence was the cornerstone of both traditional culture and practical survival.  In the Traditional Native Village of Port Graham, Elder Simeon Kvasnikoff remembers the pain he felt when he took his young children to the beach after the oil spill.  He had to tell them not to touch or eat some of their favorite foods, like bidarki, clams and mussels.  Kvasnikoff says “You can see they really wanted the food down on the shoreline, they wanted that food, because they lived with it, they were raised with it … tell your little one ‘you are not to eat the candy that’s there’ they get hurt … I told a lot of these kids here, I said, ‘You want to live?  Don’t touch anything on the beach … they’ve got oil and oil kills.’” A number of people in the villages like Port Graham feel that this oil may have killed some of their subsistence traditions forever.

 

Through the oral histories I’ve collected, I’ve learned much about the lasting effects of the spill on the cultural, social and economic fabric of many towns and villages.  I was surprised to learn though, that in some ways it seems the resulting clean-up effort may have had equally disastrous consequences.  Referred to by some as the money spill, the clean-up effort divided communities, introduced strangers to remote areas and delivered a surplus of cash.  There was fighting within communities for the lucrative boat and individual contracts in the clean-up effort.

Those that didn’t receive a coveted contract were left struggling not to lose their home or boat, or both.  With the fisheries closed in numerous places during that spring and summer, a clean-up contract was the only hope for many to maintain fiscal solvency.

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Many of those that were awarded contracts became “spillionaires” and yet, the influx of money often created more problems than it solved.  As the cash flowed in, a number of communities saw a dramatic rise in alcohol and drug abuse.  Some people spent the money on expensive boats or renovations, only to see the fisheries crash in the following years and their investments squandered.

 

Consequently, in the aftermath of such a crippling technological disaster, confusing clean-up effort and drawn-out litigation process, it was inevitable that jealousy, anger, frustration and bitterness developed.  Surely it did, but the young people I have interviewed have been able to learn from the oil spill and move forward as much as is possible.  For some, the oil spill serves as motivation for the work they are doing now, whether it be fisheries management, community counselling, environmental education, or campaigning for protection of important fishing areas and wild places.  For others, the oil spill serves simply as a reminder to cherish what exists now and plan wisely for the future.

 

For this particular child of the spill, hearing all of these stories has helped me to come to terms with my own memories and frustration.  I believe that the stories can do the same for others, which is why I will be taking them with me this spring when the project travels to the bayous of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi to work with young people affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

 

I don’t plan on stopping at any ExxonMobil gas stations though, and I know from my interviews that I’m not the only Alaskan who has been boycotting Exxon since long before I could drive.

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