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.
Welcome to the Arctic! This space is dedicated to observations and experiences related to daily life in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Atqasuk. Questions and comments are invited. Thanks for visiting! Quyanaqpaq!
nuna:tundra, the land atikluk:snow shirt, parka cover
Interested in Inuit culture? Check out these films...
The Fast Runner is an excellent representation of ancient Inuit culture. The R-rating is for nudity, violence, and some language. Subtitles are utilized throughout. I do not recommend this film for children, but it's an extremely accurate portrayal of the culture. It was introduced to me by an Inupiat woman who raved about it. And I agree!
For a preview, click here.
The Snow Walker is another excellent representation of Inuit culture circa 1940's. This film is rated PG, I'm guessing for language. No subtitles that I remember. It starts a little slow, but gets much better. It will leave you with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the survival skills of this culture.
For a preview, click here.
Great For Kids!
Whale Snow by Debby Dahl Edwardson is a warm and culturally sensitive story centered on the Inupiat subsistence tradition of whaling. It is available in both English and Inupiaq translation. The illustrations, by Annie Patterson are exquisite and add to the quiet softness that the story inspires.
To order this title on Amazon.com, click here.
The Alaska Geographic series is an excellent informational resource. The edition entitled North Slope Now deals exclusively with this area and even features relatives of my students. Although it was published in 1989, it is still current enough to provide a general understanding of culture, lifestyle, and issues faced by this northern-most region.
To order this title from Alaska Geographic, click here.
More about Kaktovik Disaster of 2005 (from Dec post, "The Edge")