BAY OF ISLES, KNIGHT ISLAND-
Hal Hilde has lived in the Prince William Sound oil spill for two months, and he is ready to go home. He is counting the days.
In March he left behind the woman he lives with in Anchorage to fish for shrimp out of Whittier aboard Ken Miller's converted steel lifeboat, the Bread and Butter, and he misses her. Then the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a rock, the shrimp season was closed, and the boat was hired to find dead and dying birds and animals. Hilde has since become intimate with a depressing and dirty job.
"It's pretty disgusting trying to get a deer carcass in a plastic bag, and fold it in half, and have my partner let go and have a fleshedout deer head slap me in the face, and while I'm trying to wash it off down in the ocean, my partner throws up," Hilde said.
"It's getting time to get back home."
It was late evening and the smooth water in this deep and intricate cove seemed warm and supple with the golden light. But after the months out of touch, the seclusion wasn't particularly attractive, and the eyes of Hilde, Miller, and crewman Bill Yoder devoured the supply boat and animal hearse Sizzler as it split the water and drew alongside.
Boxes of groceries were passed over the gunwale. Hilde dug into them as if fearful they were a mirage. He looked up. He held up a beef steak. Outrage pierced the thicket of his long brown hair and bushy beard.
"It's bad," he said.
The meat had not survived half a week in an ice chest. The newspapers were six days old.
Such deprivations are not uncommon for fishermen, who make up most of the workers on the 21 boats still working for the wildlife rescue fleet in the Sound, but usually the hardship comes in smaller doses. Still, they say the bargain has been fair. They have done what they consider important work for excellent pay, and now they know more about the oil spill than almost anyone alive.
They know the oil spill the way a farmer knows his fields. They know each beach, what the oil is like there, how deep it is, whether it has been covered by gravel, if it is tacky or slick, and if cleaning has helped they say it hasn't. They know each eagle's nest and how to find it again, and they remember the oiled carcasses they found there. They recognize the birds and animals. They know which ones, which species, are missing.
Generalizations annoy them. They know too much to simplify.
Miller's voice was quick and scattered. He could talk details, but asked how he feels about the oil spill, he was stumped. He turned this way and that in the little plywood box of a cabin, just big enough for three under a low ceiling of polyurethane foam insulation.
"I think I could answer that after a week off," he said. "You can't have a clear mind. It's a mess. A real mess."
But not a hopeless mess, he said. "I see a lot of areas out here that didn't get touched that it can build off of," Miller said. "There's one right there."
He pointed across the silent, luminous water of a nearmidnight twilight. The north side of the twisted bay was clean, bright gray gravel, miraculously saved from a thick black mat that had coated the other side, a few hundred yards away. The wildlife workers say it is like this everywhere. A merciful randomness has left untouched pockets of the Sound's past in even the blackest zones.
The boats, which at one time numbered 41, set out to find live birds they could catch in dip nets, put in cardboard boxes and send back to Valdez to be rehabilitated and saved. It was a hopeless task of confused symbolism, and saved only 120 birds from the Sound. But the boats continued working and collected 3,396 dead birds, as well as dead otters and seal pups, bottomfish, octopus, and squid, deer, and a single heavily oiled but wellbarbered French poodle.
In the entire spill area, so far, 21,335 dead birds have been found and 729 dead sea otters.
The dead animals will provide a scientific record of the spill, although not a complete one, and collecting them may have saved the lives of scavengers. Animal rescuers learned to go to the feet of trees below eagles' nests to find oiled carcasses, and there they also found dead eagles. Nick Merritt found a dead eagle on Naked Island, then, a week later, found its nest, and on the ground under the nest he found an unbroken eagle egg, light brown and speckled and half again as large as a chicken egg.
At one time the workers turned in a ton of dead animals a week, but now the dead animals are gone and the workers find little. They are working to tag the newly found eagles' nests many times the number known from previous surveys with official federal eagle's nest tags, and they are picking up garbage and oily weeds from the beaches.
The birds they used to find the yearround residents of the Sound are gone, the workers say. The Sound is quieter. To a fisherman like Andy Allen, who grew up in the village of Tatitlek, the change is so obvious it almost doesn't bear mentioning.
"It's pretty dead compared to what it used to be," he said. "We used to look and see murres just anywhere. And you just don't see them anymore. It's just like everything just died. It's a bad experience for me. It was hard to take at first. I couldn't imagine that would ever happen."
Allen's crew is still finding dead animals. They know a spot where there are always a dozen more each week. But he has had it with this work work which uses a fisherman's instinct for seeking only to reward it with dead animals that it hurts him to find. He wants to get rid of his lucrative Exxon contract and go back to seining on the Copper River grounds.
LeRoy Clendenen's theories about the environment have grown no darker since he began driving the Sizzler, a 50 foot tour boat from Homer, as the bird and animal hearse in the Sound, but Clendenen was already a fatalist. And he doesn't plan on taking the boat back to Kachemak Bay for $15 tours of Gull Island while its owner is making almost $5,000 a day 50 days so far as a shuttle here.
Clendenen is big and formidable with thick arms and fingers and a little gray in his black beard. He was a bartender and bouncer at Homer's Yah Sure Club until it was destroyed by a suspicious fire five years ago and he was forced to turn to bird watching to make a living.
His interest in ornithology and marine biology had been buried by his toughness, but the bay was Clendenen's first love when he was growing up in Anchor Point, and now he is a local bird expert. He knows where all the birds will be at each time of day, and uses the knowledge to amaze foreign bird experts on his tour with what they think is his ability to see and identify birds when they are only a speck on the horizon.
"I don't consider myself a tree hugger," Clendenen said. "But I believe there's no room on this planet for anything but man. The only chance ecology has is if we find somewhere else to go if we can colonize some other planet. Otherwise, the other animals have no chance. I'd like to drag it out as long as possible, keep all the other species here as long as we can. That's the kind of conservationist I am."
He stood at the wheel in the brilliant, glittering sun. Sea birds flew by and dove. Porpoises arched their backs out of the waves in a blink, leaving bright ridges of spray to show where they had surfaced. Vivaldi boomed on the stereo. It was hard to believe the planet was ready for abandonment. It was hard to believe in the oil spill.
Water all over the Sound looks sparkling clean, and from offshore, the black bathtub ring could easily be a high tide line until you are close enough to see the telltale drips. Bill Allender was enjoying the sun, sitting atop his charter boat off Culross Island, but he wasn't fooled.
"Look out here right now," he said. "It's a beautiful day. It looks beautiful. But I could take you to one of those beaches and make you cry. It's terrible. If you just drive by, you can rationalize it, but if you walk the beaches, it makes you think there's no way to clean it up. And it hasn't changed a bit. The heavily oiled, the moderately oiled, the lightly oiled. They all look the same as right after the spill."
Allender got the boat only last year, but his favorite, secret spot in the Sound, Herring Bay, was deluged with oil, and little is left alive there. He wants to keep working all summer on the wildlife fleet.
A mobile city of ships rented by Exxon is trying to clean the beaches. Thursday and Friday it was at the waters around Green Island, and had turned the tiny coves, bays and passages between the fivetree islands there into streets.
The residential section is in huge white tour boats, one of which, with four promenade decks, looks like a Mississippi River steamer. Hundreds of people also are living in dented high seas commercial fishing boats and Navy troop ships. A cook from the Coastal Star could be heard on the radio Thursday evening trying to scrounge food for the 256 workers he had to feed. In an industrial area, huge barges with cranes lifted objects on and off ships. Skiffs and fishing boats zipped back and forth.
The Cape Cleare, a Cordova fishing boat, had threaded itself far down a narrow lagoon, where the gravel was clean. It is no longer a rescue boat it is one of 20 boats that have been laid off. Now it refuels and dispatches float planes in an Exxon operation crew members said is "still a Chinese fire drill."
"They move the oil around and then they leave, and two days later it's back," said Rex Goatcher.
A new kind of worker is taking over now. The fishermen are draining away, going back to fishing. Those who remain are outnumbered in a mass of workers who know more about construction camps than they do about living on the water.
Veco, the Exxon contractor, provided Clendenen with a new hand a week ago to watch over the groceries and garbage on the back deck of the Sizzler. Jim Meister, a heavy duty mechanic out of work for a year, wears a blue mechanic's uniform. He wears the oily baseball cap of his former employer over his disappearing white hair. Sitting in the cabin with an adventure novel during the long hours of running, he tries quietly to fit in with Clendenen's lively family like the hired man on a farm.
Meister is used to being lonely. Since he left Detroit in 1952, at 22, driven from a city paralyzed by a steel strike, he has worked in camps in every corner of Alaska. But now he feels the cold like he never did when he was a kid.
"If it goes till September, that would be quite a stretch. That would be good for me," Meister said. "It's hard on the wife. It's hard on the guy, too, but I think it's harder on her, because you can always bullst with the guys and play games, but she's left there at home alone."
Meister's wife is a payroll clerk in Anchorage. She is used to being alone, too, he said.
"The wife understands that kind of thing," Meister said. "She's used to it. The wintertime she doesn't like to be alone, and I'll be home by then."
When Kelly Carlisle heard that biologists refuse to officially attribute any dead deer to the oil on the kelp they eat, his face nearly dissolved with disbelief. He has spent the spill picking up dead animals on his shrimp boat, the Skin Deep.
"It's very clear in my mind," he said. "I saw them out on my back deck with their guts roiling. They had oil on their gums and foam. I've lived here all my life, and I've never seen a winter kill like this, with dead deer all along the beach."
The deer they found still alive is one of Carlisle's toughest memories of the spill. Like other workers, he has since entered a happier, easier time, with less death, and he has to be pushed to talk about the days when they first saw the dead animals floating on the water and the oil sinking into the beaches. From a sunny afternoon, he was forced back to the memory of the deer, standing in the oil, and his face grew dark.
"We just walked up on it on the beach, and it was so weak it couldn't walk away," he said. "We just picked it up in our arms."
"It seemed to like us petting it," said Cece Crowe, a crew member.
But the deer died on the way into town.
The Sizzler pulled up to the Tortuga, an old wooden longliner with the black and white paint falling off, anchored in remote, exposed Hanning Bay, on Montague Island, almost out in the ocean. Montague is 45 miles long. Its mountains are high and snowy and its bays are broad and gravelly. It is the sort of brutally wild coast where the animals don't seem warm and cuddly.
Dave Fentey was overjoyed with a newspaper and a handful of nails.
Even at this outpost, where oil was relatively light, they found many dead animals and birds. Even here, the otters are no longer abundant. "The otters aren't rafting up the way they usually do," said Fentey.
Workers all over the oiled part of the Sound said the same thing. The birds are gone and the otters are mostly in pairs, or alone, instead of in the crowds they used to develop, floating along on their backs, eating shellfish.
"You get migratory birds here, but not the ones you see in the winter," said Ken Miller, in Bay of Isles. "The most amazing thing is the otters. They're just not here. They died. Two or three or four where there should be 60, 70."
And the mussels have died. And the tide pools, where they were hit by oil, were destroyed, Miller, Hilde and Yoder said.
Only Yoder's mood did not grow dark, of the three men in the little cabin of the Bread and Butter, watching the failing light in the glorious little bay. He is from California, and had just arrived in Alaska for his first summer fishing season when the spill hit. He said the wildlife that remains is still the most spectacular he has ever seen.
"I saw my first bear today," he said. "And the sea otters. We don't have those where I live. There is life out here. It's not a dead zone."
He doesn't share Hilde's anxiety to get home.
"I don't know if I am going to go back," Yoder said. "I may just stay up here. I've been offered a place to stay for the winter."