Monday, December 31, 2007

My New Year's Eve

If they only knew...

Apparently, my relationship with the telephone began rather early in life. But that may actually have been a good thing. A well-developed dialing finger comes in handy when you live this far above the Arctic Circle and a firm grip on the receiver is an absolute must! Okay, I'm kidding, but only a little.

It's been a quiet New Year's Eve interspersed with happy phone calls from thoughtful friends. While it takes a bush plane to conquer the geographical isolation of this village, bridging the expanse between hearts can be accomplished via satellite. And what a blessing that is!

I began this blog with a little fear and trepidation, but it's turned out to be something of a joy. Thank you to all who have supported my little adventure. May 2008 far exceed your hopes and expectations and even be a year of unleashing dreams!

And, as it unfolds, let's keep in touch and remember...friendship is just a satellite signal away!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

One More Candle

Birthday Past

My out-of-town company left on today’s morning flight. The house has been full all week…full of laughter and good conversation and the sweet aroma of lemon cake baking in the oven. My dogs were completely spoiled by the extra hands available for petting, throwing balls, and dispensing treats. It was a busy, slightly crazy, extremely entertaining holiday.

Now it’s quiet for the first time in days and, although I thoroughly enjoyed the visit, it feels good to settle and be still for a while. The TV and the stereo are off. The only sounds I hear are the hum of the refrigerator, an occasional swishing of hot glycol through the baseboard pipes, and the soft rhythmic breathing of two sleepy dogs stretched out at my feet. I like it like this.

As I sit here snuggled up on the couch, my mind keeps going back to yesterday. It was my birthday. Maybe I’m getting to the age that I should be trying to forget that I’m aging rather than drawing attention to it, but that just doesn’t seem to matter right now. In my mind, birthdays should be less about keeping track and more about celebrating what all those candles really represent—life!

I did some reading about the history of the birthday celebration and discovered that there is a lot of superstition behind many of the traditions that we hold dear today. For example, it was believed that the laughing and singing associated with a birthday party could ward off evil spirits. And even the flames and smoke of birthday candles were thought to have much the same effect.

Although I’m not superstitious, I do agree that being able to share the day with others is a powerful thing. My birthday was peppered with phone calls from family members and friends that I love. Better than little wax torches on a cake, those are the real candles of my life—the people who brighten my existence with their care and understanding. As I think back on the years that have passed and look forward to those ahead, I am extremely grateful for the individuals that have and will share the journey.

To each of the candles in my life…your light and warmth mean more than I can express. Thank you for being who you are and for sharing that gift with me.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Edge

Over-turned Fuel Truck
photo by Stephen Tagarook

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how tenuous arctic life can be. When everything is running smoothly and functioning as it should, a quiet casualness can seep in creating a placid pool of distracted nonchalance. I wouldn’t want to live in fear or worry all the time, but there are plenty of good reasons to be on guard. And yet it’s easy to slip into a false sense of security and underestimate the need for being prepared.

Last week my classroom was disrupted unexpectedly when one of the students noticed unusual flashing lights outside the window. It turned out that the fuel truck had run across some soft snow and overturned. My first thought (I’m embarrassed to admit) was not for the safety of the driver, but of the fuel that might be pouring out onto the tundra. A couple of summers ago there was a substantial fuel spill that took literally months to clean up. I cringed thinking that it might have happened again. Thankfully, this time, the damage was minimal. Only a few drops of fuel actually made it to the ground and that was captured in the thick layer of snow…easy clean-up. Oh...and the driver was alright too.

But, with the fuel truck out of commission and temperatures plummeting into the negative forties, the next obvious concern was how fuel would be delivered across the village. Like a line of dominoes standing on end, everything here depends on something else. A downed domino in any direction spells trouble for the entire line. Our electricity is generated by burning fuel and most buildings in the village are heated by furnaces that require some electricity. Airstrip runway lights (our lifeline in many ways) are totally electric. Water and sewer pipes are only functional because of an electrical heat trace that is wrapped around every inch of the system. Without a maintained source of heat, a house can freeze up in a matter of hours and everything in it that has to do with plumbing (including the toilet) will crack as the water expands.

We were told that a portable emergency fuel pump was being flown in from Barrow. Each house would be allowed to order one drum (55 gallons) of fuel to keep furnaces going until the fuel truck was repaired and tanks could be filled properly. After all was said and done, the truck was up and running within a few days. You might say we dodged a bullet. I certainly would. Thoughts and images of the North Slope village of Kaktovik loom large in my mind during moments like these. That village wasn’t so fortunate and that’s something that we would do well to remember.

So my interest in purchasing a small generator has definitely been renewed. I’ve already ordered two kerosene heaters and may even order a couple more. If disaster never strikes, all this preparation might seem like overkill and even a little silly. But I’d rather seem silly than be sorry if/when the time comes.

Circumstances shift in a hurry on this northwestern edge of the continent. And I’m thankful that, for the moment, the most serious issues I have to deal with are picking up groceries at the airport, digging out the doghouse every few days, and avoiding frostbite. Well, okay, I am also dealing with a small leak in my water system that doused my bathroom floor with an inch of water….but that’s definitely a story for another day.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


The light we have now...

This air is cold and words are thin, but something alive
stirs within a silent heart which knows the night as tender
spouse of ancient light.

by Steve Patterson--author of Balance


Light is an easy thing to take for granted. That is, until it’s in short supply! During the summer months, sunlight is simply a given, a fact of arctic life, an overabundant commodity. Anyone who actually wants to sleep in the summertime will have to put forth a good bit of effort to block out the incessant light. But in the winter it’s a whole different ballgame.

December is our darkest month. In fact, we’re only a few days away from the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. While it’s true that the lack of sunlight can be a difficult thing to endure, I have been amazed by all there is to see…even in the dark!

Under the cover of night, an ordinary streetlight can transform snowflakes into diamonds. Miles away, against an ebony winter sky, a pair of frolicking snow machines resemble Castor and Pollux playing a game of tag. It really doesn't take a lot of illumination to create an impressive display. Even the faintest stream of light can be interesting or encouraging or both.

I’ve heard it said that, even if you don’t have all the light you want, you must walk in the light that you have. I'm not sure where I heard that…or who said it…or when. But it's good advice for navigating down uneven paths or through unfamiliar territory. It's something I need to remember (better) when I'm in between streetlights or have ventured farther than usual from the porch. No matter how dark things seem to be, it is my hope to walk in the light that I have.


The photo above was taken around 11:15 a.m. on a sleepy Saturday morning, exactly one week ago. I was standing in front of my house, facing south, getting ready to walk to school. This is the light that we have right now…for about three hours a day…if it isn’t cloudy...but only in the southern sky.

The photo below was taken two or three minutes later, 1/4 of a mile up the road, facing north. Yes, the sky is dark, but Christmas lights, for me, are always something of an unexpected delight. And streetlights can be friendly walking partners too.

Santa would be pleased

Of course, the aurora borealis, commonly known as the northern lights, is an unexpected delight of a completely different kind. This photo was taken by Brad...a friend and the first principal that I worked with here on the North Slope. He captured this image while chaperoning a student basketball tournament in another North Slope village, Anaktuvuk Pass. Those peaks you see in the background are part of the Brooks Range. When I talked to Brad about using his photo, he asked if I wanted him to relate the “full” story. You know, how they had to trudge up the hill through snow that was 50 inches deep while the temperature plummeted down to -900 F! The kids managed to survive by huddling together for warmth until just before he snapped the photo, but alas, twelve people died in the capturing of this image. Well, that’s the uncensored, unverified, undoubtedly enhanced version of the story. And I love it! Ha! Thanks, Brad.

Northern Lights

Maybe the simplest, yet sweetest, light I see is the one that welcomes me home each evening. I know the snow looks cold, but doesn’t the light look warm? I love coming home to this soft, saffron glow.


I shot a few seconds of video on my walk to school the other day. What you see are the lights of the village. What you can’t see is the sideways snow that is blowing past me at about thirty miles per hour. These aren’t blizzard conditions…just a little wind and blowing snow. I have walked to school on days when all I could see was the next streetlight up the road! On days when I can’t even see the streetlights…well...I'm still here, anyway.

Thanks to Steve Patterson for allowing me to borrow from his blog, Balance, for this posting. His poem so exquisitely illumines the delicate dance between darkness and light...and the promise of things unseen...I was really glad to be able to include it.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Arctic Mirage

Early Thursday morning, as I left for school, I glanced across the lake and noticed a familiar twinkling on the western horizon. Some seventy miles away the lights of Wainwright, radiating through the icy air, flickered like tongues of fire against the dark, velvety sky. In spite of the distance, details of that neighboring village were clearly visible. The pulsating signal from the airport, numerous streetlights, and even headlights from moving vehicles, were easily identified. Although it sounds like a hallucination, I was actually seeing what I believe can be described as an Arctic mirage.

I searched the internet for information and, more importantly, photographs of the phenomenon. My initial Google search yielded 35,400 results. Yikes! I sifted through about twenty sites, searching for photos that accurately depict what I have actually seen over the years. So far, I haven’t found anything that even comes close. The biggest difference seems to be our lack of sunlight. None of the photos that I’ve encountered were taken at night. However, I did find some interesting facts and explanations, so I’ve included some related links in the sidebar to the left of this posting for those who are inclined to delve deeper. And here is a nifty little diagram that I will definitely be using with my students in the future.

Arctic Mirage

Since childhood, my only concept of mirage has been an eerily fluid image (usually an oasis) floating above the burning sands of a stifling desert. In movies, mirages are usually figments of the imagination that inevitably evaporate with increased proximity to reality. But the phenomenon that I’m describing isn’t a work of the imagination. I’ve heard it said that truth is stranger than fiction. That definitely seems to apply here. The scientific explanation just makes the occurrence of Arctic mirage that much more intriguing. The basic principle is that various factors work together to allow one to see things that actually do exist beyond the horizon. I read about explorers and other sailors who used the mirages to help navigate toward known geographical locations. How amazing is that?

Both literally and figuratively, how cool would it be to have the ability to see beyond the edge…around the corner…or over the next hill? I’m not talking about psychic phenomenon or fortune-telling or even a desire to know the future. I’m more interested in the idea of being visionary. There are those who, for whatever reason, have the ability to see beyond the horizon and encourage others toward it. They don’t know every detail of the journey, but they are certain of the destination because they’ve "seen" it. Maybe we all have visionary moments at different points in our lives, fleeting but helpful glimpses of what lies ahead that keep us moving in the right direction. I like that idea. It’s something I hope to remember every time I see the lights of a neighboring village flickering through the darkness…and especially during the times when I don’t.


Monday, November 26, 2007


Three on a sled and one hanging on

If necessity is the mother of invention...convenience must be the mother of ingenuity...or at least its distant cousin. No one really needs a sliding hill, but when it's dark all day, having a nice steep loading ramp at your disposal is certainly convenient. The ramp behind the school is a perfect hill-substitute and a favorite "sliding" spot for local kids, especially right after school. It's about fifteen feet high, very steep, and slick, slick, slick. Some kids slide down on their feet while holding onto the rail. Most prefer to fly down on a plastic sled or cardboard box, hoping to "ramp" on the snow at the bottom and become airborne before crashing. The thrill of taking flight appears to overcome the fear of pain associated with hitting the pavement of packed snow and ice. Throughout my youth, I was always dying to try this. These days I'm pretty sure if I tried this, I would die!
Crashing is a big part of the they say. :)


Have box...will travel!

Box full of fun

I'm okay

Cold? Who could be cold when we're having so much fun?

Cold-Who's Cold

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Utility Pole

I wore my big parka today…first time this year. It wasn’t really cold enough, but over the last few days the wind has been hurling snow at about twenty-five to thirty-five miles per hour and there’s nothing better than fur to keep a sharp wind from cutting through the bones.

Drifts have been building up across the roads and beside houses. I’ve had to dig out the doghouse five times. I guess that’s pretty much what you would expect this time of year. Without the sun to keep it company, the wind seems to spend a lot of time racing itself across the tundra, swirling snow from the sky with snow on the ground in a frantic, turbulent sort of dance.

But, about a week ago, there was no wind. In its absence, an unusual stretch of calm settled in like a down comforter quietly unfolding across the land. Moist air lingered for a few days and wrapped itself around every solid surface until the whole village was transformed into a wonderland of frost.

Frost has always fascinated me. Growing up in southern states, I think it served as a substitute for the snow that I always hoped to, yet didn’t, experience very often. But, I don’t remember seeing frost like we had here last week. After a few days without wind, layers of feathery crystals began to build up like a sculpture being created in reverse. Ordinary objects, wrapped in a fuzzy disguise, appeared more interesting and fun. Mundane structures…like fences or handrails…seemed delicate, even beautiful. Hard lines all around the village softened. Battle scars from clashes with the elements were temporarily concealed by the elegant, shimmering mantle of ice.

Of course, the wind never stays gone for long and when it finally did return the frost was quickly sheared away. But, while it lasted, it was exquisite…and kind of fun. Tinged by the pale yellow glow of streetlights, the sight of our frost-covered village almost made me feel warm and fuzzy during my early morning treks to school. Considering the climate, that’s not an easy thing to do.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture the glittery, shimmering effect of the frost in my photos. Either the camera I'm using can't do it...or I just don't know how. But, I do think you can see how thick the frost was. This looks a lot like latticework, but is actually a chain link fence.


Playground one playing on it these days.



This silly picture is the sock that I use to cover my doorknob. If I don't keep the knob covered, it will collect moisture, frost, or snow inside the keyhole and will freeze up. A frozen doorknob is very bad news...especially with a half-mile walk back to town. I also have to keep it covered during windy weather in the summertime because the dust blowing off the road causes a similar problem (even worse). A sock is a simple, yet fairly effective, solution!


Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Who knew that Monday morning would usher in yet another arctic anomaly? I certainly had no clue! As you can probably imagine, unexpected changes in daily routine often present more than a few challenges within a classroom. I'm not big on surprises when it comes to keeping my kids on track. However, this departure from the typically lockstep morning schedule proved to be a rabbit worth chasing.

With a name like Pamyua (pronounced BUM-yo-ah) you'd think this would have something to do with Inupiat culture or language, right? Well, almost. Pamyua is actually the name of a Nordic indigenous band originally formed by two brothers, Stephen and Phillip Blanchett, who are of Yup'ik Eskimo and African American decent. Sound like an interesting combination? Just wait. It gets better! The female vocalist of the group is a Greenlandic Inuit and Pamyua's musical style is largely inspired by gospel, R & B, funk, and jazz! Whew! While that may sound a bit schizophrenic, it was actually lots of fun.

In 2003, Pamyua was chosen to represent Native American music at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards. Following that performance, their third album, Caught in the Act, won Record of the Year at the Native American Music Awards! And here they were...performing in our little the middle of the arctic tundra!

Lead vocalists are (from left) Ossie Kairaiuak, Stephen Blanchett, Karina Moeller, and Phillip Blanchett.

Pamyua Singers

Phillip Blanchett dances a traditional Yup'ik Eskimo dance...very expressive and comical! The drums being played by Ossie and Stephen are identical, as far as I can tell, to drums used by Inupiat Eskimo culture. The only difference is that Yup'ik Eskimos beat the top of the drum while Inupiats hit the skin from underneath.

Yup'ik Eskimo Dance-Phillip Blanchett

At first, I think the kids were basically stunned. Their faces tell the story better than I ever could.


But it didn't take long before the music found its way into their souls...or at least their arms...and they were fearlessly swaying and clapping and laughing. It was truly a beautiful thing.

Raise Your Hands2

If your curiosity is stronger than your aversion to download time...take a quick peek at Pamyua...during their limited (Monday morning) engagement at the Arctic Cotton Club. :)

Monday, November 5, 2007

Puuqtaluk Past

Would you dance alone in front of an audience...all eyes on you?

1 (8%)...No way! They don't make a good enough costume for that!
9 (75%)...Maybe, if I could wear a disguise.
2 (16%)...No problem! Who needs a costume?

A few friends and relatives have asked about the year that I participated in Puuqtaluk. I have to admit that I could never have done it without the disguise. I envy those two brave individuals who indicated in the poll that they wouldn't even need a costume to dance in front of a crowd. All I can say to that is...yikes! My enthusiasm for personal humiliation falls squarely with the majority...maybe even toward the lower end of the scale.

For me, doing Puuqtaluk was a stretch. But, I have to admit, the whole experience was a total blast. From finding over-sized men's clothes at a thrift store in applying brown eye shadow over my entire face to hide my was all one big hilarious challenge. I stuffed three (or was it four?) pillows in the shirt and pants. And I wore three shirts (one a turtle neck) and muscle-man padding that I'd found with the discounted Halloween costumes. That added several inches to my arms, chest, and stomach (muscular inches...don't you think?) and helped to round out the overall physique. I had to stuff about forty plastic grocery bags into the size 11 men's work boots, in both the feet and the legs, just to keep them on. Men's gloves and a 52 inch belt finished off the ensemble. It was important to find the largest belt possible because I had noticed at previous Puuqtaluk competitions that contestants often stuffed their clothes with pillows, but used a small belt which made their identity easier to guess. So, I was sneaky. I kept stuffing and stuffing until I felt like Old West Santa...much harder to identify.

It took a while, but I finally found the photos. Some of you have already seen these. As I warned back then...I'll warn again...brace yourself! Puuqtaluk costumes, in general, are not for the faint of heart and mine was no exception. I think the thing that made my disguise rather unsettling was that it was somewhat realistic. People did a lot of double-takes as they looked my way. Children stared from a distance, unsure if I was Puuqtaluk-ing or actually a strange man lurking in the corner. Even adults steered clear as they walked past me, avoiding eye contact. At the end, when I pulled off the mask, there was a loud, "Aathaaa!" which, loosely translated, is Eskimo for, "Holy cow!" My students were amazed and exceedingly proud that their teacher had danced in public, fooled everyone, and even won second place. They were also more than a little interested in my prize money!

I took these photos at my principal's house on the way to the community center that night. My principal was sitting on the couch and kept stealing glances at me and then looking away. He said, "I know it's you because I recognize your voice, but that get-up is just creeping me out!"

Cowboy Close Up

Go ahead, admit it. You know you're jealous of my natural beauty!

Cowboy Dancing

His daughter was a little braver...too funny!

Cowboy with Principal's Daughter

Friday, November 2, 2007

Puuqtaluk Arrives!

Puuqtaluk is a night of silliness and laughter. Sometimes it's the costume that is humorously absurd. Sometimes it's the dancing. Sometimes the contestants actually interact with the audience (or one another) in some ridiculous way. But, no matter the age or dancing ability of the participant, the objective is always to make people laugh.

However, there is another objective to the competition that is almost as important as the humor. The identities of the participants are always kept secret. Part of the fun, for the audience, is trying to guess who is dancing in spite of the disguise that is worn. Contestants often wear several layers of clothing stuffed with pillows in addition to a mask. They may wear mismatched gloves, over-sized shoes, or even walk in an unusual way all in an effort to prevent anyone from guessing who they are. The ultimate accomplishment for a Puuqtaluk participant is to have tricked the audience, to have remained anonymous to the end. How exhilarating it must be to receive cheers of astonishment from the crowd as the mask is lifted revealing the dancer's true identity!

And, of course, receiving a hefty prize check isn't too bad either.

Okay, I forgot to mention that the baby division doesn't really follow the same rules. They pretty much just toddle around and look cute. This little sweetheart won first prize in that age group. She even beat out her older brother who became shy at the sight of the audience.

The Youngest Winner2

I'm not sure what baby-boy-left is trying to do to baby-boy-right, but it sure looks like he's determined to do it, whatever it is. These two have more in common than being adorable in their costumes. They were born on the same the same hospital!

Let Me Adjust That For You

This is one of my students. He's pretty excited to have won first prize and is standing at the table waiting for his check. I took this photo right after he revealed his identity. You'll notice he's still sweaty from doing all that dancing dressed up in a heavy disguise.

First Place Winner

These three were contestants in the 14-17 year old division.

Puuqtaluk Contestants

Here the participants from that same division (14-17 yrs.) are dancing as a group.
Each is also required to dance alone. That's the part where the mask is really handy! How frightening!

Puuqtaluk Dancers

These nasty looking characters were contestants in the adult division. The one in the middle actually won first place.

Nasty Looking Characters

Believe it or not, this ominous figure is actually a rather slender and attractive mother of SIX! All of her children, ages 2 to 8, were in the audience watching mommy dance.

Puuqtaluk Dancer

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Quest For Candy

Trick-or-treating began early this year...around three o'clock in the afternoon! I didn't get home until 4:30, but within minutes heard a knock at the door and the familiar chant, "trick or treat!" As I opened my front door, armed with both candy bowl and camera, these were the faces that greeted me. Almost as sweet as the treats, don't you think?

Notice that some of the children were toting pillow cases instead of traditional Halloween bags. A pillow case full of candy? Was that child-like optimism or seasoned realism at work? I'm almost afraid to ask! As a teacher, sugar overload seems a lot more frightening than any Halloween ghost or goblin. I'm sure there are plenty of teachers out there, as well as parents, who would agree.


Click on any photo for a larger image or to see more...

First Trick or Treaters

This trick-or-treater, a student in my class, happily rode alone. He suggested that being on his own might increase the amount of candy he'd receive! I forgot to ask him how it worked out.

Lone Trick or Treater2

And then, sometimes they arrived in bundles...full of giggles and smiles and just a little bit frosty.

Candy Quest

Trick or Treat Transportation

Monday, October 29, 2007

Puuqtaluk Approaches

As far as I'm concerned, nothing could be more of an Arctic Anomaly than the marriage of an ancient Eskimo amusement with a comparatively contemporary European celebration. Most of us are familiar with the more benign elements of Halloween: painted faces, colorful costumes, and the fevered race for sugary treats. Although the climate of the Far North does present a challenge at times, the Inupiat (young and old) have embraced this holiday with incredible zeal and have even gone a step further by incorporating a traditional game into the festivities.

On Halloween night, after trick-or-treaters have safely stowed their treasures at home, everyone gathers at the community center. The competition that follows is based on an ancient Inuit game that is much older than the earliest memories of any elder. Costumed participants take turns dancing to music each hoping to elicit the most uproarious laughter from the audience. Only the silliest and most absurd dancers win a prize. Although the costumes can be slightly unnerving, the activity isn’t intended to frighten. The night is centered on one of the most cherished of Inupiat values…laughter.

The Inupiaq language dictionary defines Puuqtaluk, quite simply, as the celebration of Halloween. After considerable inquiries on the subject, I am faced with the dissatisfying conclusion that no one really knows how or when Puuqtaluk and Halloween initially tied the knot. But, in spite of its dubious origins, the union does appear to be a happy one.

Since Puuqtaluk is still a couple of days away, I'll share a few photos of Halloween past and follow up with photos of this year's competition later in the week. You'll find that the activities, as well as the smiles, are quite familiar and provide something of a bridge between past and present, old and new, and two cultures that have more in common than one might think.


Click on any photo for a larger image or to see more.

Painted faces can't hide the smiles of these not-so-frightening beauties. Of course, the face paint only stayed on about thirty minutes before they started complaining that it was "itchy" and washed it off. But, it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

Pumpkin carving is a favorite among the activities at school. Pumpkins are flown in a few days prior to Halloween. I wouldn't even venture a guess at what expense. But, as you can see, the boys pictured are having a blast cleaning the slimy "guts" out of their pumpkin. It's hard to nail down exactly how much a great experience is worth.
Pumpkins 1

Most classes save the seeds and bake them with lots of seasoning. It's become a tasty tradition that everyone looks forward to.
Pumpkins 2

Last year, the fifth and sixth grade class made pies with their pumpkins. They proudly shared the pies with the elders who visited at lunch time.
Pumpkin Pies-06

These kindergarten students excitedly display their entry in the pumpkin carving contest. I'm pretty sure their teacher controlled the knife while the students had a good time adding feathers to their creation.
More Sillies

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Something Fun

On my walk home from school yesterday, I noticed two girls on the pond in front of my house. The older girl was a student from my class and the younger was her first grade cousin (my little neighbor & favorite walking buddy). I was really surprised to see that the girls were each sporting a new pair of ice skates. I'd never seen anyone try to ice skate around here, although there is an ice skating rink in Barrow. I took a few pictures of them having fun on the ice. They giggled and squealed as they tried to help one another remain upright. Later, I caught the girls on video as they made their way to the gym for after-school recreation time. Kids seem to have the idea that the pond is some kind of short-cut to the school. I'm not sure that it really is shorter, but there are footprints all along the edge of the ice...a testament to their firmly-held belief.

Here are a few photos...just in case the little video doesn't function as it should. By the time the video was made and the last sunset photo was taken, an ice fog had moved in softening the sunlight into an incredible melding of colors.

Helping Hand 3

Like I said, the little one is my walking buddy. She's cute as a button and could, as they say, talk the hind leg off a mule!

Ice Skating Cousins

This was taken after the ice fog had moved in. Unfortunately, the low-light conditions weren't ideal for my little camera with no settings for such things.

Ice Fog and Sunset

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Just Beneath the Surface

Coal on frozen beach1

When I ventured down to the river a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't completely convinced that the ice was safe to tread upon. But I’d heard that there was lots of fishing going on and I was curious. So when my new friend, Ami, suggested checking it out, I grabbed my camera and my jacket without hesitation. Within minutes, I found myself navigating a precarious path across the crusted river, sugary snow making every step a vertical challenge!

Along the frozen beach, I noticed quite a few chunks (like the one in the photo), pitch black and brittle, obviously different from the surrounding rocks. For me, those ebony pieces are faint reminders that there is more to this tundra village than meets the eye. Back in the 1940’s and on into the 50’s, Atqasuk was the site of a thriving coal mine. Oddly enough, tiny Atqasuk was the supplier for larger villages such as Barrow. Today, other than a few dilapidated structures, there is no outward indication that the mine existed. Only crumbs of coal that make their way down to the river hint at what actually lies below.

Although the coal mine did populate the area for a while, Atqasuk is actually a permanent community for another reason…subsistence. The land was claimed in the 1970’s because it was a valued hunting and fishing camp. The Inupiat, a coastal people, traditionally spent most of their time on the Arctic Ocean hunting whales, seals, and walrus. However, they made seasonal trips inland for trapping, hunting caribou, and freshwater fishing. When the Federal Government pressured the Inupiat to choose the land that they would claim, this area was a cultural treasure they couldn't afford to lose.

It seems like an odd history for such a remote location and I thought about that as I made my way to the various groups huddled around small holes. Ice is an amazing thing. Only a week or so earlier there had been boats on the water. It's doubtful that the fishing nets even had time to dry before they froze. As I watched fish being pulled out, one after another, I marveled at the abundance of the river. Like the coal, it was another reminder not to be fooled by the appearance of things…to look closer and dig deeper and find the treasure that so often lies just beneath the surface.

Click on any photo for a larger image or to see more...

James is taking a break from fishing to warm up his hands and his stomach with some piping hot noodles. His wife, Johanna hand-carried the bowl of noodles all the way from their house! What devotion!

James B- Warming up

While James finished off his lunch, Johanna kept the fish coming in. By the time I took these photos they had already caught about thirty using fish tails and maktak (whale blubber) for bait.

About 5 inches thick

Some of these are white fish. Some are grayling. The white fish and grayling are both scaled fish. I think the white fish have a different shape to their heads, but thrown into a bag like this, I can't really tell them apart.

Fish in the bag

Once it's frozen, the river makes a great highway. And, I might add, it gets a lot of use. You can probably see that by the tire tracks in the snow.

River used as a highway2

Monday, October 15, 2007

About Darkness...

October sunset

I am asked quite often what it's like to live in a place where the definition for day and night can be so skewed. I guess the first thing we should do is set the record straight. There is no line of demarcation with six months of daylight on one side and six months of darkness on the other. Call it myth or misconception, it just doesn't happen that way. The transition from one extreme to the other is much more subtle as we gradually gain or lose sunlight in increments that are somewhat difficult to perceive.

You may have noticed the small black sticker on the sidebar of this blog indicating the time of sunrise and sunset in Atqasuk. Each day we're losing about ten minutes of sunlight. In a few more weeks we'll be saying good-bye to the sun for approximately 60 days. Well, technically, that's true. The sun will no longer rise above the horizon. However, that doesn't mean we won't have any discernible light at all. There will still be some ambient light, though that will eventually decrease as well, until finally the earth has traveled and tilted as far as it's going to. We'll reach our darkest point in late December. Then the process of slowly gaining light will begin.

Although it's only temporary, the darkness can be difficult to handle. For some, the loss of sunlight feels suffocating like a blanket covering the earth....thick and heavy and confining. The latest Buggy Side poll indicates that voters were evenly split. Exactly half thought they would prefer 24 hours of daylight over darkness while the other half expressed that they would feel uncomfortable with too much of either one. That's understandable and I think many Atqasuk residents would agree. Dealing with darkness can be tricky. Sometimes I'm not as aware of that as I should be.

There are some things that can only be experienced in the dark and I tend to be happy with the trade off. Winter is the only time (up here) that fireworks make any sense. Although the Northern Lights aren't confined to the darker months, excessive sunlight makes them impossible to see at other times of the year. And who would want to live in a land without stars? By summer's end, I'm ready, even anxious, for that time of year when some of the most spectacular mysteries of the universe are clearly visible from my bedroom window. Darkness does have a bright side.

Sometimes, I must admit, I don't even notice whether it's light or dark. Maybe it's adaptability or just being overextended. My days tend to revolve around the busyness of school and it's easy to function within the insulated cocoon of my classroom, unaffected by the sun (or lack of it) outside. But, sometimes, it really does feel, well...extreme. Wearing sunglasses at 3 am? How crazy is that? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dark? How bizarre! Without the natural designation of what is day and what is night the order of things can get really turned around.

In Atqasuk, it is often said, that people have their days "upside-down." It sounds funny, but it's an easy thing to do. So much to do with time is artificial. Measuring and scheduling the moments is a purely human preoccupation. Without the aid of any calendar, the earth continues on its path, governed by its own rhythm, without much consideration for our conventions. Long ago, before any of us were here, the Inupiat understood that better. Like many Native people, they lived in closer union with the earth. Their lives were framed by the seasons. They worked with the earth's rhythm instead of around it. It might have been what we now consider a primitive exsistence, but it certainly made sense in the greater scheme of things. On these dark, frigid, mornings, as I wake to the tenacious yapping of the alarm clock beside my bed, I have to wonder if progress is really so progressive after all.


Believe it or not these boys are riding their bikes on the frozen pond in front of my house! You can see that the October sun is hanging low in the sky. A few more weeks and it won't emerge above the horizon again until the end of January.
On frozen pond

I happened upon this cutie at the post office one windy day. As you can see, she was very well prepared for the weather! We've been experiencing lots of wind for the past couple of weeks...anywhere between 20 and 40 mph.
Prepared for a windy day