Sally Carlough didn’t know March 27, 1964 would mark the last steam bath she would ever take in Kaguyak.
As she and her young daughter bathed in the banya, or bathhouse, she had no idea how her life would be changed forever and she would be thrust into a world so different than the one she knew and loved.
Carlough describes life in Kaguyak as “wonderful.” She and her family lived a traditional lifestyle. They hunted for ducks, sea lions. They caught fish. Carlough said they didn't eat at a certain time; they ate when they were hungry.
“We lived off the land, you know,” Carlough said.
On Good Friday in 1964, the earth started shaking. Carlough and her sister were bathing their small children. They dressed quickly. Carlough said she didn’t have time to put a diaper on her baby daughter. They slipped on dresses and left.
Carlough ran to her house to get more clothes for her baby when she met her father.
“My daddy told me, ‘Sally don’t stay too much in the house,’” Carlough said.
He told her to be aware of a big wave; Carlough says he didn't call it a tidal wave or tsunami, since he spoke in Aleut. She ran uphill to get away from the incoming water, remembering that it’s hard to run with children. Her son didn’t understand why they were running.
“When something happens like that, you don’t have time to be scared --your mind just goes blank,” Carlough said.
Carlough stopped at that part of the story. Her eyes welled up. She was 21 years old then, and it’s been 50 years since.
“I don’t know if I could talk about it,” Carlough said. “Even after so many years.”
From higher ground, Sally watched the tsunami sweep in and destroy her home. There were lakes on the island, she said, but the giant wave filled them with seawater. She describes looking back at the water and seeing a giant green wave rushing toward them.
“I guess it wasn’t our time to go,” Carlough said.
She said it seemed as if the wave could have just washed over all of them.
The waves killed three people from the village. One was her relative, Zaedar Anakenty. It was a big loss for her community which was fewer than 20 people. A list of names collected by Coleen Mielke said Anakenty was with three other men who were preparing to evacuate women and children off the hill to get them away from the tsunami.
When the waves subsided, Carlough’s father led the family in prayer. He was a Russian Orthodox reader. They sang hymns meant to comfort those in great stress. The family spent the night on the hill they escaped to. Carlough said the children were miserable and cold. She held them and used body heat to keep them warm. Carlough said they all huddled under a tarp.
Relief came in the form of a small skiff that transported the survivors from the island to another ship. They went from the ship to Kodiak. Carlough said she was numb and confused. They had their first meal in days at the base; she could barely eat, but she was grateful for a chance to feed her children. Carlough said reporters asked her questions while she ate, but she didn't know what to say to them.
From there on, everything in Carlough’s world changed. She spent a month in Anchorage where, she said it was so different.
“We were just Natives,” Carlough said. “I thought my life would be just simple.”
In Anchorage, she had to adjust to a culture that was largely foreign to her.
“We had to do everything the white people way, which we didn’t understand much because we were just a small community, of Kaguyak,” Carlough said.
There wasn’t much left on the island. Carlough and her family dressed in donated clothing when they got to Kodiak. In Anchorage a newspaper photographer took a picture of Carlough and her two small children. That photo is one of her most treasured possessions.
“I’ve always cherished this because it reminds me so much of the earthquake,” Carlough said.
It is one of two physical reminders Carlough has left of that place. The other is a miniature laminated birth certificate card. Carlough’s brother-in-law found it long after the tsunami, when he was crab fishing in the area. The card, sent to Kaguyak from Juneau, is the only thing Carlough has left from her former village.
Eventually, Carlough and her family resettled in Akhiok. She said they had many of the same subsistence activities, but it wasn't the same. Some of Carlough’s relatives relocated to Old Harbor.
“It was really hard to move to a village that’s no yours,” Carlough said. “Everybody has rules.”
Carlough said she did better after she got used to the new village. She had a chance to eat the foods she loved and lived how she had grown up.
Now, when Carlough sees news of disasters on TV, she always feels for people who become refugees, victims of the whims of a wild planet.
“I wouldn't want anyone to go through what we went through,” Carlough said.