Category Archives: Current events

Shell’s uninhabited island: Sitkalidak weathers Alaska’s best and worst of times

New Year’s Eve 2012, a Shell Oil drilling rig crashed off the shore of an uninhabited island near Kodiak. The landing site lit up on the media radar. The actual setting of the wreck was overshadowed by the fears, aspirations and politics surrounding the drilling rig.

To peer into the background of these images, past the drilling rig and the news updates, “uninhabited” does not do the island justice — Sitkalidak Island has played its part in history. The island retired from public eye nearly 50 years ago, but has weathered every major boom and bust in Alaska for more than 200 years. A massacre on its shores sounded the beginning of Russian America. Forgotten Siberian cattle waved in an age of agriculture for American Alaska. The 1964 earthquake crippled that blossoming industry, and Sitkalidak fell silent until last week.

A century ago, Sitkalidak was a promising new venture for Americans, but misfortune dogged the island constantly. Today, Sitkalidak is once again a stage where entrepreneurial stubbornness battles wild Southern Alaska’s tenacity.

The Kulluk off the coast of Sitkalidak, photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis, via U.S. Coast Guard

The Kulluk off the coast of Sitkalidak, photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis, via U.S. Coast Guard

Shell’s drill rig Kulluk left Seattle this summer to explore the Arctic. The season was rife with setbacks. After some preliminary work at a prospective well, the Kulluk departed the Arctic Ocean for Seattle, according to the Alaska Dispatch.

The tugboat Aiviq — Inupiaq for “walrus” — was taking the Kulluk to Seattle when the tug’s engines failed. Even with the aid of another tugboat, the tow lines kept losing their grip, and crews eventually let the rig bob away into the storm. Kulluk found its way to Sitkalidak Island on New Year’s Eve. The storm died down and crews rushed to its side. The Coast Guard and the world are monitoring its hull for any signs of tear, for it carries nearly 150,000 gallons of fuel.

This is not the first graveyard on Sitkalidak. But let’s not glance so far back just yet — we’ll pause briefly in the 20th century. I retell much of this tale using John Sherman Long’s “McCord of Alaska: Statesman for the Last Frontier.”

Jack McCord had reindeer on his mind when he bumped into a fisherman in Anchorage. It was 1924, and McCord had just returned from a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge in Washington. He convinced the president to support reindeer herding along  the railroad backbone  of Alaska. He also suggested using the Aleutians for fur farming. Luckily for both the fisherman and McCord, the statesman wasn’t blind to other opportunities.

The fisherman said he just returned from voyaging around Kodiak Island, to the south. Twice he’d stopped at nearby islands for water, and saw — of all things — cattle.

McCord jumped on the fisherman’s boat and they set sail for Sitkalidak and Chirikof islands.

Bluetop covered the pastures of mountainous, 120-square-mile Sitkalidak. The land also offered redtop, beach rye and saltwater sedge for forage. The area boasted longer growing seasons and milder winters than other parts of the Last Frontier.

That didn’t explain how the livestock got there.

Livestock on Kodiak Island in 1972, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library

Livestock on Kodiak Island in 1972, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library

In the 1700s, Russian fur traders stormed through the Aleutians toward Southern Alaska, intent on laying claim to the frontier. They fought those who resisted, even though law forbade them to kill Alaska Natives except in cases of self defense. Sometimes, the Alaskans won and destroyed a Russian trading ship. But they were losing ground, and Russian Alaska was on the horizon.

In 1784, Russian trader Grigori Shelikhov sent 130 men and cannons to Refuge Rock, a tiny sanctuary hugging Sitkalidak’s shore. About 2,000 of Kodiak’s Alutiiq villagers retreated to that traditional refuge, but Shelikhov’s men found a secret route onto the islet. Negotiations failed.

The two sides fought, and hundreds of villagers died — many throwing themselves off the island’s cliffs. By the next summer, according to one Alutiiq account, the stench of death overwhelmed the air around the rock.

Fox trapper's bounty on Umnak Island, unknown date, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library.

Fox trapper’s bounty on Umnak Island, unknown date, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library.

The atmosphere changed in Alaska. Russians wanted to ranch, to build more than trappers’ cabins.

Shelikov built Russia’s second settlement in Alaska by the Sitkalidak Strait, at Three Saint’s Bay on Kodiak Island. They brought cattle from Siberia, but their cattle turned hardy and produced little meat and milk. The settlers started importing their meals.

Eventually, the fur trade tapered off when sea otters of the area were wiped out.

Ranching and settlement never really took off. Less than a thousand Russians were in Alaska at any given time.

The United States bought Alaska, and with it Sitkalidak, in 1867.

As McCord discovered, the Siberian cattle survived. Surveyors at the time discovered the grasses made cattle “fat as seals” and livestock learned to hide in ravines to protect themselves from the elements. A few of Russia’s sheep also survived.

A brown bear on Kodiak Island, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library

A brown bear on Kodiak Island, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library

Before McCord settled on Sitkalidak, the Department of Agriculture bred both sheep and Scottish Galloway cattle at an experimental station on Kodiak.

Lush Kodiak was no Garden of Eden, though — not while the bears were there. Further south, ranchers worried only about coyotes.  On Kodiak, “a single bear has been known to kill or maim a dozen cattle in one night.”

A volcanic eruption in 1912 destroyed much of the Department of Agriculture’s work. The government abandoned the station, and soon McCord came to revive Sitkalidak. He bought the islands’ cattle and organized two bills for Congress — the first allowed fur farming in the Aleutian islands, the second opened some public lands in the area to livestock. By 1927, both bills passed. Coolidge sent him to Chirikof and Sitkalidak, and asked him to survey the Aleutian Chain to Attu for opportunities to expand.

McCord set to work. His glamorous vision for Southern Alaska agriculture drove away any shadows past and present, so that Americans saw only promise and opportunity.

His efforts paid off. In 1953, The Toledo Blade boasted “If you want to raise cattle without being fenced in, come to Alaska.”

Americans found the Alaska meat “very tender and delicate.”  The U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service (then the Agricultural Research Administration) suggested supplementing or replacing the native grasses with clover and bromegrass. The cattle survived well enough on their own, so the native vegetation stayed.

McCord’s exuberance in Washington won him sheep from Wyoming, and he bred new cattle with the surviving Galloways to create a breed that fended well in the harsh climate. He sold his mutton and beef in Alaska, and found a world market for his fox pelts. Better yet, Sitkalidak did not have Kodiak brown bears at the time.

In the ’30s, he ventured onward to Chirikof Island, once the site of a Russian prison. He discovered gold and platinum. Remote Chirikof provided more stories of woe than success, though. Storms marooned McCord’s wife and dog on the island, leaving them at the whim of wild and aggressive cattle for two weeks. The shadow of the Great Depression soured the whole operation.

McCord left to explore opportunities in Mainland Alaska. He returned to Southern Alaska at a time when Palmer and Anchorage were booming and Matanuska agricultural operations fluorished. Feisty Chirikof remained a problem child, stranding McCord and his crew for weeks, until they were near death.

Sitkalidak, on the other hand, had done well in his absense. As World War II began overseas, the Navy looked for a way to feed soldiers on Kodiak, and Sitkalidak outshone its unruly sibling as a candidate.  McCord planned to relocate the Chirikof cattle, but his men failed to coerce the herd onto a ship, and he abandoned the prison island to focus on Sitkalidak.

He eventually returned and successfully ran a slaughterhouse out of Chirikof, but by 1949 he had little time to spend on the project.

McCord returned to warmer climates to give voice to Alaskan interests. He analyzed the state’s potential for everything from developing the resources of the Brooks Range to eliminating brown bear protections on Kodiak. He left Sitkalidak to Ira “Rocky” Rockwell.

Rockwell’s foreman slept through the island’s next big disaster. The 1964 earthquake produced tidal waves that “swept away the livestock, buildings, and equipment,” according to “McCord of Alaska.” Rockwell, on Kodiak at the time, had a heart attack when he surveyed the damage.

Deserted, Sitkalidak became uninhabited, save for the brown bears that finally made their way across the narrow strait.

Nearly 50 years later, a towboat line snapped, and a metal top raced across the ocean until it grounded, one beach over from where Russians massacred the Alutiiq more than two centuries earlier.

And so, the island became that brown, rocky backdrop to a national story — uninhabited, save for its ghosts.

Additionally: Alaska Media Lab has a nice rundown of the Kulluk event as it unfolds on Twitter.


The Truth will Out: Radiolab withdraws from ‘Yellow Rain,’ sources continue the narrative

Truth, fact, reality — whichever way you cut it, accuracy is necessary to both journalism and science. Yet, as Radiolab listeners learned this week, even science journalists can gloss over an important part of a story.

Eng Yang lived in a Laos village in 1975. Yang and other Hmong refugees fled to the jungle when Viet Cong and Pathet Lao targeted them after the U.S. withdrew from the region. They encountered a substance they called yellow rain that sickened and killed many. The U.S. treated this as a possible chemical weapon. Some scientists called the yellow rain bee feces, after bees swarm out when waking up from hibernation. On Sept. 24, Radiolab picked up the story from here, with translation from Eng Yang’s niece (Note: The original podcast has been modified).

After Radiolab spoke with CIA and scientists who analyzed the yellow rain, the show turns back to Eng Yang — reintroduced as “the Hmong guy.” Robert Krulwich asked if Eng Yang knew whether there was ever yellow rain without a plane, or whether anyone ever saw planes drop the yellow rain. Eng Yang replied, through his niece, that they did not wait to find out, planes also usually meant bombs. The next part of Krulwich’s reply is no longer in the podcast.

“As far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane. All of this is hearsay.”

The translator, Eng Yang’s niece, entered the story at the end of the segment. Here is an excerpt of her on-tape response:

“Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game. We can. But I am not interested. My uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people, in the process.”

Her voice cracks as she speaks, and she says the interview is over. After her plea, her voice went silent. That silence stretched for 10 seconds before Jad Abumrad and Krulwich continue the show. It has been a month since we’ve heard from the translator.

Her name is Kao Kalia Yang, and now Radiolab listeners can read her response.

Mountains in Laos. Photo by Emad Ghazipura, emadman on Flickr.

Elika Roohi, the editor-in-chief of The Sun Star (my old campus paper), asked me to write about my thoughts on Yang’s response. This is an Alaska science blog, but, as Alaskans know, the intersection of science and culture is a foggy frontier.

During this time of upheaval in the Arctic, traditional knowledge has become essential to understanding the past. Agency decisions about subsistence and climate change adaptation shape many lives in Alaska. The people most affected by these decisions sometimes, but not always, have a say. Where does traditional knowledge and local livelihood belong in the data-driven scientific world? When does it leave the realm of science and transform into politics?

The best way to explore this unknown is to start talking.

Full disclosure: I applied for an internship at Radiolab earlier this year. I am happy I found myself in Juneau instead of New York City – but working for Radiolab would have been the one reason I’d move to New York on a whim. I love Radiolab. Robert Krulwich is my hero.

Radiolab listeners and visitors haven’t shut the book on the “Yellow Rain” discussion. Screenshot of the Radiolab homepage on Oct. 24 at 10:15a.m.

I am a 23-year-old who just graduated from an Alaska university with a science degree. I am not qualified to talk about the Hmong people, social justice or the kinds of editorial decisions WNYC makes.

Then again, I’m no scientist, but I love Alaska, I love science, so I write about it here. I strive to tell true stories. As with my previous posts, I care for this story. Let’s trek on and explore what happened after the podcast aired.

Radiolab immediately reeled from the backlash about this episode. The episode itself portrayed this segment as being clearly heartwrenching to Radiolab staff.

Abumrad wrote an addendum to the episode, and Krulwich followed soon after. They said they were troubled by the interview and apologized for their tone when dealing with a victim of genocide. They argued that ultimately they pursued truth, and tried to stick to the framework of the story. Here’s Abumrad:

The point of the story — if the story can be said to have a point — is that these kinds of forensic or scientific investigations into the truth of a situation invariably end up being myopic.

In her response, Kao Kalia Yang questions this pursuit of truth. Radiolab staff did not mention that her uncle gave examples of pertinent scientific evidence, nor did they explain the breadth of indigenous knowledge on local bee populations. Her response comes a few weeks after Radiolab went silent on the matter. The show has since returned to producing podcasts and blog posts about the world’s many quirks and curiosities.

Kao Kalia Yang now lives in Minnesota. She writes about the Hmong community. She writes, because as a child she refused to speak in public and other children laughed at her when she tried to speak. Despite that, this was not her first time on the radio.

Minnesota Public Radio jumped in after the story aired. Here’s MPR’s Bob Collins,

“Finally, there’s an important lesson in this controversy for journalists: if you’re not sure what the point of a story is, you’re not ready to tell it.”

Would Eng Yang have guided Krulwich through that difficult path? Is it the source who guides reporter, who then guides the audience back as best he can while picking up some new landmarks along the way?

Radiolab tried to find a direction to focus the story. Journalism is, after all, about facing every story like it’s the Hydra — if reporters aren’t careful about how they tackle a piece, dozens of story possibilities will overwhelm them. If reporters don’t know when to cauterize the story, when to end it, the hours upon hours of work will never make it past the editing room.

Elika, editor-in-chief that she is, reminded me why journalists, and not sources, must decide what goes into these programs. She was torn — “there are some things Radiolab completely messed up on,” she said. She then pointed out the journalist’s, Radiolab’s, perspective:

“There are always going to be sources that are upset with how they come across in the news. It’s not media’s job to cater to their feelings, although tact is a nice thing to practice.”

So Radiolab created a show on truth, the staff was steadfast in sticking to the story in pursuit of that truth, yet the episode started a ripple through the community that Radiolab turned on blinders to necessary facts. To listeners, the podcast somehow became what the episode was battling: resistance to truth.

It’s the journalist’s job to reach out to the community — like some scientists and policy makers now reach out to traditional knowledge as accurate historical data. Journalists are trained to tell accurate and precise stories. Sources know best when they are uncomfortable — when they are being shoved around. It’s the journalist’s job to know that the source feels this way.

I took a class on investigative reporting from Willy Stern in January. He told us that, even in matters as dire as Watergate, you need to know your source. There is a difference in interviewing style between the elderly aunt and the smooth politician, even if the story is the same. Where Kao Kalia Yang and Eng Yang were on this scale, I don’t know. Radiolab learned a lot about where reporters should have placed the Hmong author and refugee not during the interview, but after seeing how its audience reacted.

By then, their story had already aired. But the truth is not out.

This is where the trail becomes too difficult for me to hike, my friends.

Now, to reach out to those who are qualified.

I found out about this response from Deborah Blum, who often intertwines chemistry and society in her blog Elemental. Ms. Blum, could you please write about the science of yellow rain? Yang mentioned several studies. This yellow rain could, after all, be a type of poison – and poisons are your specialty.

On the Media, Radiolab pursued truth in this segment. Journalistic and scientific tools — Radiolab’s specialties — intersect in the pursuit of truth. If anyone had an interest in telling a story about facts, it would be Radiolab. Journalism is about finding truth, but sources also deserve some degree of respect and understanding. What went wrong here?

And finally, Radiolab. Mr. Abumrad, Mr. Krulwich, Mr. Walters. You have done such wonderful jobs of explaining why you took your approach. Now, please, explain what happened — not the why, but the what and the how. Did you know about the cultural significance of bees to Eng Yang? Was there more to the scientific narrative than what made it into your show?

Author Kao Kalia Yang has now entered the discussion about her and her uncle. Please, if you can,  Ms. Yang, keep talking with us.

For further reading on the yellow rain/chemical weapon controversy, see here. For a great post further opening the discussion of Radiolab’s ethics in airing this piece, see here.

I also want to hear your input. Did you hear the episode? What did you think? How do you feel about the fact that it is under so much discussion a month after it aired?

Edit: Radiolab responds to Minnesota Public Radio and Kao Kalia Yang. Also, public radio newspaper Current covers more of Radiolab’s side of the story.