For a couple of weeks, a persistent young woman from Homer, Alaska continued to email me about giving her younger sister a wetland tour for her birthday. They were already down here and would be for about three weeks before heading to other states impacted by the oil spill.
What would be interesting about an oil spill to a young woman in her mid twenties? Documenting the stories of the children. Founder and project director of “Children of the Spills”, Katie G. was about three years old when the Exxon Valdez spilled the black mess into the waterways near their fishing community in coastal Alaska.
While she was too young to totally understand the full impact of the oil spill upon her father’s commercial fishing business, she knew that something bad and black was threatening life as they knew it. Having spent the first ten years of their life in a small cabin without electricity, this family was no stranger to hardship. Their lives parallel those of the commercial fishermen who inhabit the Louisiana coast. The similarities she found between her coastal communities and ours were striking.
After college, Katie worked with children in ecology-based educational camps in California. After that, she decided it was time to return home and begin documenting the stories of the victims of the oil spill; namely, the children. She started the anthologies back in Alaska, where she interviewed young adults who were small children at the time of the Valdez spill. She found that many of them were very willing to talk about what they remembered.
Katie’s younger sister, Erica, who spends her summers working on a commercial salmon fishing boat, was excited at the prospect of being on a boat in our strange waters. Her biggest desire was to see an alligator, and even though I hate to dampen a customer’s spirits, an education in alligator behaviors was in order–mainly how they hibernate (brumate) in the winter. But as we entered a small little bayou, leading up into the swamp, she spied the head of a gator floating nearby, proving me wrong. Albeit a brief encounter, she almost jumped with the excitement of seeing those eyes before they submerged. As I took a bite of crow, I expounded on how it’s unusual to see an alligator in February–most of them don’t come out of brumation until some time in March, depending on how cold the temperatures are.
The sisters were enthralled with the cypress trees, the cypress knees, the Spanish moss, and the dark-bottomed water. Even though the swamp reflected the dull colors of winter, the beauty and intrigue still called out to them as we sat listening to the sounds of the swamp.
As we regretfully headed back to the landing, I asked them if they knew what the world lagniappe meant. Of course they did: something extra. Entering a narrow, curvy bayou I explained that this was their lagniappe. My intention was to show them the beauty of this untouched portion of brackish marsh and the sadness of a dead oak ridge. Much to our delight, Mother Nature provided a little something extra for us.
Meet Lagniappe, the early riser! He must have been a little sluggish from getting caught on the bank when the afternoon temps dropped. He was very well mannered, striking several poses for the Alaskan Sisters before sliding off into the frigid February waters.
We were able to get within about six feet of the bank, and I thought these girls would giggle with glee until the gators came home!
And then he was gone. Sometimes it’s the last-minute change of plans that just puts the icing on the tour, ya know?
Erica and Katie are real treasures, and I’m very glad to have made their acquaintance. It is my hope that all the oral history, written stories, and artwork gathering go well for Erica, and that she is able to put together a documentary that reflects the impact the oil spill has had on even the youngest of lives and the tenacity of the coastal people.
You can see more about the project at her Web site: childrenofthespills.org and make a donation there if you are so moved. If you know of a young person who would like to be part of this project, feel free to email her from the site or you can let me know via contact box or comment here on this blog.