The annual departure of river ice wasn't really a dramatic production this year. The jam at the southern bend finally broke loose initiating the frozen procession toward the Arctic Ocean...minus much of the ripping and roaring that I've seen in the past. There were still some signs of violence. Shreds of willows swirled in the current and chunks of ice were fringed with dark soil that had been stripped from the banks somewhere along the way. For the most part, though, the flow was more of a gentle slide than the mad rush that it can be.
This little video is somewhat dark and only shows a moment of the ice "going out," but I thought I'd go ahead and include it. There are more photos on my Flickr account as well. My curious dogs make cameo appearances. They weren't quite sure what to make of the whole thing. As usual, Precious finds something to carry around. She's a lab...retreiving is her thing.
Toward the end of May, when things begin to get really slushy, people start making frequent, yet otherwise unnecessary, trips to the river. They watch...and wait...and watch...and wait. They know all too well that it's impossible to predict exactly when the ice will "go," but that doesn't curb the irresistable urge to guess. More than anything, though, folks just don't want to miss it. So the normally quiet riverbank hums with activity virtually around the clock.
Massive slabs of ice are inevitably beached as the water level rises and falls several times throughout the process of breaking up.
My dogs were showing clear signs of cabin fever and, in spite of a To Do list as long as my arm, I was aching for a walk as well. The wind was chilly, but carried an earthy scent that made me want to be outside and breathing deeply. I looked forward to hearing the symphony of birds that "perform" each spring by the thousands. I was anxious to see the river ice up close and listen to the crystaline sounds of its splintering and shattering. Rumors had been circulating that the ice could "go" any day...at any moment. I wanted to see it for myself and do my own prognosticating. I was ready for a quiet walk hoping to listen to anything and everything that nature might have to say.
Barely had I walked beyond the shrinking mountain of snow behind my house when I heard a familiar smallish voice calling to me from the road...
I waved and smiled, but kept walking. My dogs had already disappeared down the hill...terrorizing a parka squirrel, no doubt.
Girl 2: Hi, Kimberlee! Where are you going? Are you going to walk your dogs?
I nodded an exaggerated "yes" that they could see from the road. I waved and smiled, but kept walking.
Girl 1: Kimberlee, can we follow? (yelling a little louder)
I stopped, sighed deeply, smiled and motioned for them to come.
Two giggling girls bobbed quickly across the uneven, spongy, sometimes soggy tundra. The giggling never stopped or even tapered. Every false step or unbalanced movement inspired fresh bouts of silliness and laughter.
When the girls reached my side, I turned to face them. "Okay, girls..." I began. "I'm taking a nature walk. Do you know what that means?"
"Yes." They both responded eagerly. "Okay," I said. "Tell me what it means." They looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders in unison and then giggled. No clue.
I explained that I wanted to hear the birds and the sounds of the ice cracking and the wind. I explained that those things can only be heard if we're quiet. I asked if they understood. They both nodded that they did.
"And you're sure that you want to come with me and stay quiet the whole time?" I asked using my most teacherly tone.
Girl 1: I do.
Girl 2: I do too.
Me: Okay, but remember, we're listening. Right? (they both nodded in agreement). And then...
Girl 1: Your dogs don't bite, right Kimberlee?
Girl 2: Her dogs don't bite. You just have to stand still, right Kimberlee?
Me: That's right.
Girl 1: Did your dogs ever bite?
Me: No, but you shouldn't run up to them. Let them come to you.
Girl 2: You have to stand like this, huh Kimberlee? Right, Kimberlee?
Me: That's right.
So we walked toward, Tikigluk, a small stream that meets the river...while the small stream of conversation continued to flow ever steady and persistent. A never-ending variety of subjects tumbled from the lips that had sworn to be silent....rubber boots...bicycles...fishing...small ponds that form when snow melts in the crevices of the tundra...who has been to Anchorage...who wants to go to Anchorage...who has been camping...whose daddy caught a tuttu (caribou). Finally, I decided a reminder might be in order.
Me: (Whispering) Girls, remember? We're listening for birds. Do you hear them?
Girl 1: (Whispers)...Yeah, I hear lots.
Girl 2: (Whispers)...Yeah, I hear lots too.
Me: Let's listen for a minute. And we did...for a minute.
Then we came upon a strange pattern of drying mud on the path.
Girl 1: Ew, look at this!
Girl 2: It looks like a big snake.
Girl 1: Yeah, it looks like a big snake.
Me: It does look sort of like a snake. I wonder why the mud is only peeling in this one spot.
Girl 1: Yeah, I wonder why.
Girl 2: Yeah, me too.
Girl 1: It looks kind of gross. I'm not touching it.
Girl 2: Yuck! I don't wanna touch it.
Me: Well, you don't have to touch it, but I don't think there's anything gross about it. It's just dirt.
Then we found ptarmigan tracks in some slushy snow.
And a pair of ptarmigan farther down the path.
The male was willing to pose in spite of our proximity. I tried (unsuccessfully) to record his comical vocalizing. The sound of ptarmigan cackling always makes me smile. Thankfully, the girls were content to listen as well.
Girl 1: Kimberlee, how come he's white?
Girl 2: Yeah, and the other one is mostly brownish. How come he's white?
Me: Well, the female was white too, during the winter. In the summer she needs to be camouflaged so she can be safe from predators. Do you know what a predator is?
Girl 1: Stuff that eats them?
Me: Yes, like foxes.
Girl 1: So...how come the other one isn't camo-flodge?
Me: That's a good question and I'm not really sure why he's still white. I'll have to look that up.
Girl 1: Like on the internet?
Me: Yes, maybe. Or in a book...like an encyclopedia.
Girl 1: Oh.
Me: Maybe the female thinks he's more handsome with white feathers and she told him not to change.
We found signs of new growth.
And the vaguest tinge of green in an ocean of Fall's left-over gray and brown and maroon.
Then we reached the top of the hill. Ice, flowing down toward the Arctic Ocean, was piling up at the bend.
Girl 2: Hey, that's my dad and my mom! (both girls ran down the hill toward the river)
I spent a few more minutes at the top of the hill enjoying the air and the view and the lack of conversation.
Once we were together again at the bottom of the hill, we noticed that the creek at Tikigluk was flooded. Normally only a few feet wide, the stream had swollen to about twenty feet across at the mouth where it flows into the Meade River.
Upstream melting snow, still clinging to the hills, slowly fed the building rush toward the river.
My dogs, splashing through the mud and water, helped to ignite a fresh batch of questions straight from the hot little minds of two tireless thinkers.
Girl 1: Kimberlee, can your dogs swim in the river?
Me: I think they could. They know how to swim, but the river is really cold. I think they know it's not safe and that's why they aren't going in.
Girl 2: They know they can't go in?
Me: They seem to know it's not a good idea. See? They stay where it's safe.
Girl 1: And it's cold. They probably don't like it cold.
Me: You might be right.
Girl 2: Kimberlee do you let them get muddy?
Girl 1: And they're all wet too.
Girl 2: Do you let them be muddy in your house?
Me: Well, I have a towel on the porch and I try to dry them off before they come in.
Girl 2: But they're still muddy?
Me: Yes, they do bring some of the dirt in on their fur and I have to vacuum a lot.
Girl 1: Oh.
Girl 1: And, Kimberlee. Could we have another tea party?
Girl 2: Yeah, a tea party!
Girl 1: Yeah, like before. Can we have a tea party, Kimberlee?
Me: Yes, we can do that. But it might have to wait until I get back from my trip.
Girl 1: And we'll have cookies?
Girl 1: And we'll use that little tea set?
Me: Yes. We'll do it just like the other times. Hey, listen. (we all stop and listen to the sound of ice cracking and falling against other chunks of ice)
Me: It sounds like glass breaking doesn't it?
Girl 1: Yeah, like if you threw a glass and it broke. It sounds like that.
Me: (whispering) We can hear so many things when we stand quietly like this.
Girl 1: (whispering) Yeah. I can hear lots.
Girl 2: (whispering) Yeah. I can hear lots too.
We stood quietly listening together...for a minute.
Girl 1: Kimberlee, you want to hear a joke?
(very deep sigh)
Nature Lesson: When setting out to appreciate nature with eight year old girls...it may be necessary to appreciate the nature of eight year old girls!
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")