Balika Haakanson, Uganik Bay and Kodiak, Alaska, Born 1976

We watched the news, we watched the black cloud spread, I remember that very vividly. We thought, “Wow, that’s really bad for them, those poor guys over there! And poor Prince William Sound,” because my parents were Prince William Sound herring fishermen, too. So they knew that one year of not doing Prince William Sound, maybe next year. And then there was a slow dawning, like a looming realization, “Oh, look at the wind direction! Look at the prevailing winds!” They’re always this way, so of course it was going to come this way. But very, very, very, very, very slow. It was definitely like little fits and starts of realizing, and little bits of new. So yeah, I think we all probably remember the moment at which we were told of the crash of the Exxon Valdez, but I think worse than that was the, “OK, here’s the latest update. It’s hit the east side of the island. Now it’s hit the west side of the island.”

All I know is, at that point I was too young to do anything with the spill, with any cleanup stuff, I think you had to be 18, so I had been slated to go the Uganik and babysit for some friends of ours, the Foxes. The little boys were two and four at the time I think. So instead of going out and helping them clean up, my job was to watch the kids while Mom and Dad cleaned up the beach and wiped oil off the rocks and whatnot. It probably wouldn’t have changed a whole lot had I been babysitting while they fished. It probably would have been pretty similar for me as a babysitter. But there was a lot of uncertainty and depression in the bay. So that was kind of an interesting thing to deal with.  Around town there wasn’t a whole lot of oil, so to me it was totally abstract until I went out to the setnet site and started work babysitting these little boys, and we were seeing these tar balls washing up on the beaches, and talking to my stepdad, who was picking up the oiled puffins and whatnot. So that was—it was—it was such a slow-motion sort of summer. Very slow-motion. And I just felt—I felt pretty overwhelmed, just because I didn’t—I wanted to do something to help, and it was frustrating that all I was doing was watching kids.

That’s the biggest thing that makes the difference, I think, for kids, to be able to feel like they have taken a part in changing something, changing the way people behave. Whenever I’ve been dealing with the feelings of helplessness in the classroom, the thing that makes the kids feel better is to make a plan and go figure out some way, some little way, that you can improve the situation... if kids can fixate on “What I can do to help my neighbor and my neighbors in my community to deal with this situation,” then at least the burden will be lifted off their chest of what they could and couldn’t do. It’s just too big of a situation, too big of a question. There’s no way to solve the huge problem that—I think everybody needs to feel useful, even if you’re 12 or 10 or eight. You can know that you’re doing something.

Balika's Full Interview