I took this photo on Christmas day while standing in the doorway of my apartment. Rudy had just ventured out for his afternoon scratch-n-sniff session and, in spite of the biting cold (that haze is the humidity that escaped from the house when I opened the door), I stood there for a moment, admiring the sapphire tones and azure hues of our southern sky in December.
Reminds me of a mood ring that I had in junior high.
Compostionally, this is no great shot, I know. It would have been better if I'd walked down toward the lake, away from the telephone poles and power lines, but the idea of bundling up and getting out there was less than appealing. I settled for a cluttered shot and hurried my dog along, so I could shut the door and get warm again.
Then I realized that the winter solstice had come and gone without my even mentioning it. Not that it's a big deal, exactly, but it does mark the point when we begin to gradually gain light again.
And that's a good thing.
Toward the end of January, the sun will peak above the horizon for the first time in about sixty days and by spring it will be our constant companion again. But, for now, this is the light we see...in the afternoon...when it's not cloudy...or blowing snow...like today.
Wind from the E at 30 MPH (26 KT) gusting to 33 MPH (29 KT) Visibility 5 mile(s) Weather Blowing snow Precipitation last hour A trace Temperature -4.9 F (-20.5 C) Windchill -32 F (-36 C) Dew Point -8.9 F (-22.7 C) Relative Humidity 82%
I'm pet sitting for my neighbor during the holidays. Poor Izzy is all alone except for the time I spend with her (and her toys). I know that, being a cat, she is probably asleep most of the time, but I decided to give her something interesting to do between my visits...just in case.
How do we get food? How much does food cost? What types of foods do we eat in the Arctic?
I get these questions a lot.
And, although I try to answer them in a straightforward way, it's never as easy to do as it seems that it would be. Like many things about life in a bush village, there is no single answer to the question of securing supplies. Personal experiences and opinions vary greatly. There never seems to be one final, authoritative piece of knowledge for anything. If I had to nail down bush wisdom in a sentence it would probably go something like this.
"This is absolutely the way it is...except when it's not."
In fact, part of the local dialect uses word combinations like sometimes/always, sometimes/never, or always/never. For example, one might hear, "I sometimes always go fishing in October." Or, "I sometimes never find any fish in that stream."
Strange phrases to newbie ears, I know.
Maybe phrases such as these are more of an accidental colloquialism than a purposeful use of vocabulary, but I have to wonder if the habit of combining what seems like opposing terms is actually rooted in the ambiguity that one faces in a land of extremes such as the Arctic.
Still, when people ask questions, they don't usually enjoy indefinite jargon like sometimes and maybe. They want facts. And, since facts about the Arctic usually travel in elusive tangled herds rather than standing alone, I often resort to brief responses that shed a little light here and there rather than attempting total illumination all at once. That's not nearly as satisfying as absolutes, I know, but no one walks away empty-handed either.
One of the first lessons that I learned after moving to Atqasuk is that generalities can lead one astray and so can specifics from too many sources.
Arctic knowledge is sort of hexagonal (at best). There are at least six sides to every story, multiple pieces of wisdom to cover every problem, each one valid and correct under the right circumstances. And, yes, it can be just as tricky as it sounds.
So what does all that have to do with how we eat?
Quite a lot.
As a new teacher moving to an Arctic village, I was faced with the challenge of getting food to my new home from over 5,000 miles away. I was given several suggestions, all from well-meaning veteran residents of the Slope.
Some said, "Send as much as you can from home."
Others said, "Wait until you get to Anchorage and send everything up from there."
Still others said, "Wait until you get to Barrow. It will be more expensive, but you can get everything you need."
And still others said, "Don't worry with all that shipping. We'll make a big order as a group before school starts."
I spent literally hundreds of dollars shipping things like green beans and pasta from New Orleans (two months before I moved). I spent hundreds more shipping things like dish soap and toilet paper from Anchorage on my way up to the North Slope. By the time I got to Barrow, I had almost no money left. I remember going to the AC Store and filling a cooler with perishable items and, for the first time, becoming acutely aware of their weight. Ugh! Dragging the cooler, my luggage, and my dog crate to the plane, I received my first lesson about Arctic life and food.
Weight is a very big deal.
When I arrived in Atqasuk, I found that none of the boxes that I'd mailed up months ago had arrived. Well, plenty of books and school supplies were there, but nothing I could actually eat. I had only the items in my cooler which meant that butter, cream cheese, and milk would have to sustain me until the rest of my boxes arrived.
At that time, thankfully, Atqasuk still had a community store. There wasn't a whole lot in it, but that was okay because I didn't have any cash. I remember writing an out-of-state check for a few boxes of macaroni and cheese. What came to be known as "the yellow meal" was just about all I ate until the rest of my supplies trickled in through the mail.
At some point, I realized that everyone who had kindly offered advice about dealing with food had been right...and wrong. Arctic life is hexagonal, at best.
Temperatures have dropped back into the normal range for this time of year. I checked the airport website a few minutes ago...
Temperature -36 F (-38 C) Windchill -56 F (-49 C)
That's about right for December. It's definitely nippy.
Our little heat wave last week was immediately followed by several days of fog. Many of you probably already know (or can guess) that fog does some serious shape-shifting when the mercury begins to drop, but not before wrapping itself around every conceivable surface it can find.
Recipe for a Flaky Crust?
1 part temperature (extremely cold works best) + 2 parts Heavy Fog
Mix thoroughly and allow to set.
This produces a very flaky crust that will keep for weeks and weeks.
However, avoid exposure to wind!
And, if you can't avoid it, watch your head!
It's difficult to see in photographs, but some of these lines have about three to five inches of frost surrounding them. That's a six to ten inch diameter!
Fences add an elegant variation to the recipe, don't you think?
The snow (still) piled up on the railing of my porch has acquired a layer of frosty feathers.
Friday and Saturday were blustery days full of stiff wind and lots of blowing snow, the kind of blowing snow that wreaks havoc with airline flights and deposits impassable drifts across roads and between buildings. That's always bad news for those with travel plans...or groceries on the way...or hopes of getting mail.
On the other hand, it's good news for kids of all ages who will play for days and days in those nice, deep, wintry troves of frozen fun. It's also good for those of us (who are not waiting for groceries or mail) who adore the look and feel of fresh layers of snow.
After two full days of the blustery stuff, I opened the door Sunday morning and was greeted by a wall of about four feet of snow precariously balancing on the rail around my porch (these photos were taken the next day after I'd cleared the steps and the piles had settled some).
I was also greeted by an even thicker wall of warm, moist air. Warm, moist air? Was this...June? July? August? Okay, it wasn't straight-out-of-the-shower moisture or steam bath mugginess, but 28 degrees above zero feels like a whole different season compared to -10F or even -30F!
Kids all over town spent most of Sunday building snow structures and sledding. The whine of snow machines began around 9am and still haven't ceased. Weather like this is perfect for long snow machine rides on the tundra. There is always a race to see who will be the first to tackle those powdery fresh drifts or break the trail.
The warm reprieve inspired quiet walks as well, a pleasure usually reserved for summer.
Yet, as I write, temperatures are already dropping. I suspect the air is drying too. Sub-zero will be the norm again. Then all this beautiful, silent fluff will revert back to its former state as a styrofoamy solid, squeaking with every step, making quiet walks a physical impossibility.
Last night our temperatures warmed up about thirty degrees from -31 F (-35 C) to just below zero. As I write this, the airport instruments are showing -2.9 F (-18.8 C). That probably doesn't sound like much of a warming trend, but it makes a big difference, believe me.
Two nights ago, I took my dog out for a walk...or at least I intended to. He was certainly up for it, but about thirty feet from the building he started picking up his feet. Those of you who live in colder regions know that's a sign that it's too cold for unprotected feet. My old dog never got the hang of wearing booties, so he either has to be willing to tough it out or stay inside. When he started falling down, I helped him decide that it was too cold and quickly took him back inside.
Last night was a completely different story. At -2.9 he seemed fine outside, frisky even. He showed no sign of pain at all. Temperatures around zero just don't seem to be all that bad. I can always tell when temperatures drop to about -10 F or lower because the moisture inside my nose always begins to freeze (nice gauge, huh?).
However, this is a windy place and the windchill today has been in the negative 20's, so unprotected skin is still at risk. A couple of my students already have nasty frostbite marks on their faces. So it makes sense to dress warmly and be careful to cover up everything. That sounds simple enough, but it's not always an easy task.
Especially if you're three.
Check out one of my favorite beauties getting into her gear. Those zippers can be tricky...even for me!
By the time I walked up, she already had her inside shoes off and her snow pants on. I caught her struggle with her zipper on video (so cute). Watch her feel for the emblem on her hat. Smart girl. :)
Then Aaka helped with mittens...
...and the overcoat...and the scarf...and the boots.
Finally, if the kid is still breathing, he or she is ready to go outside!
It was a team effort between school staff (who organized) and Healthy Communities (who supported with funding).
All I can say is...Ed Sullivan would have been proud.
It was a variety show with variety in spades!
Not only was there great singing...
a completely original handpuppet video,
and an amazing guitar solo.
There was even one act that literally defied definition!
And the refreshments were pretty awesome too!
In spite of being sick, I was really glad to have attended. And I was so proud of all the contestants. I think performing in front of family and friends with absolutely no chance for anonymity might be even more difficult than facing an audience of strangers. But each performed beautifully. No one choked or cried or backed out at the last minute. It was a fun night full of laughter and applause...just the way we like it around here.
One of the highlights of the evening (besides the Sisters of the Boa Act, that is) was when quiet, unassuming, Peter took a walk on the wild side with his electric guitar. I was expecting him to play some sweet little ballad on his acoustic because I knew he was self-taught and a little shy. I just figured he'd play something low-key and safe.
Think big time rocker without the absurd persona.
I think the entire gym was shocked and awed as his fingers fluttered up and down the strings. He ended up walking away with a well-deserved first place prize. Congratulations, Peter! Can't wait to hear more.
If the video above doesn't work for you, give it a try here
Didn't see your favorite act in this post? Look for more photos on my Flickr account (click any photo and you'll be sent there automatically).
So what do you do on Halloween night when temperatures are hovering around zero and you live hundreds of miles off the road system?
You make your own fun. That's what you do!
Puuqtaluk is an annual Halloween event that involves costumed dancers and a full night of silliness and laughter. For a more detailed explanation, click here.
It's difficult to appreciate the craziness of Puuqtaluk unless you experience it for yourself. The costumes can be a bit...er...off-putting if viewed out of context.
If you're not a local, it's hard to imagine just what might be lurking behind the gruesome grins.
The whole idea is to remain anonymous.
See what I mean?
But Atqasuk residents know that it's all in fun. No one relishes frightening anyone. The costumes are meant to conceal and distract from the dancer's identity and sometimes they actually pull it off.
Take this guy, for instance.
You'd never know it by looking at him, but there is a stand-up comic buried beneath all that ugly. (A very creative dancer as well). This year he won first place in his age group and then went on to compete against all age groups, including adults, to win the grand prize!
Here he is after winning for the second time that night. Awesome!
So here's the drill...
#1...a space is cleared for dancing...dancers on one side and the audience on the other.
#2...loud music is played in two-three minute segments allowing participants to dance individually as well as alongside competitors.
#5...the winner reveals his/her identity and collects a prize.
#6...everyone repeatedly watches videos of students and friends dancing their crazy dances (or am I the only one that does that?).
It began quite uncharacteristically. I woke up early and still felt great! I can't explain it. There was no good reason for it. It just happened. In spite of staying up late and not feeling well for the past week, there it was. I was awake at 6:25 a.m., without the aid of an alarm clock and didn't feel like I'd been hit by a truck or was being sucked down a gigantic drain.
Is this how morning people feel every day?
My dog wasn't prepared for the early start (he's not a morning person either) and continued to snooze on his bed while I made my favorite scrambled omelet, read, checked my email, and had time to do a leisurely catch-up on almost every blog that I enjoy, including a few new ones that I had never seen before.
That was huge!
It was still dark outside. Only a house or two showed signs of life. No snow machines or four-wheelers buzzing here or there. No dogs barking or kids yelling. Nothing. Just quiet and stillness and the soft glow of streetlights on freshly fallen snow.
Not long after lunch, there came an intermittent pounding on the doors of the four-plex where I live.
Trick-or-Treaters? Already? In the middle of the day?
One after another, they kept on coming, some unknown force drawing them away from the warmth of their homes toward hands full of chocolate and Sweet Tarts and bubble gum and toys.
Eventually, I realized that this is the first Halloween that I've spent in this village that didn't fall on a school day. Even when Halloween fell on Saturday, we had Saturday school, so most of our kids are accustomed to trick-or-treating almost immediately after school. Without the confinement of school, they were free to get an early start.
And they did!
One after another, they showed up on my door step with faces sweeter than the candy in their bags.
On Friday afternoon, one of the young men in my Literature class looked out the window of our classroom and sighed, "I think we might have a brown winter."
I sighed as well and had to admit that I'd been having similar thoughts. Then we comforted each other by agreeing that certainly we'd get more snow soon, but with three snow falls come and gone, it didn't look hopeful.
The river and lake have frozen over and ice fishing has commenced, but temperatures in the mid-thirties have stolen our snow at least three times since September. One morning last week, the ground was covered with a thick layer of very slippery ice, but no snow.
Then today it snowed again, a nice thick layer, and everything looks clean and white, at least for the moment.
I write this with trembling hands, unsure of where to begin or what to say. This is what I know.
Saturday morning our school secretary (also the mother of several of our students) packed up her sled and four-wheeler and left for a day of caribou hunting. Fall and spring are prime hunting seasons in this area and Wanda is a caribou hunter.
Wanda was taught to hunt by her father. She is an excellent shot and seldom comes home empty-handed. As a single mother, she has continued to hunt, fish, and gather subsistence foods, teaching her own children similar skills. This is what the Inupiat do. This is their way. Six days ago, Wanda began an ordinary journey that ended today with an extraordinary outcome.
Late Saturday night, into the earliest morning hours of Sunday, one of Wanda's daughters realized that her mom should be home...and wasn't. Notifying our local search and rescue unit set an enormous effort in motion. And across the village telephone lines burned an incredible and frightening fact.
Wanda was missing.
I won't try to relay the distress that a thing like this produces. The search and rescue team, mostly unpaid volunteers, spent five nights and five days tirelessly scouring the tundra over-land while a chopper and rescue plane searched from above. A grid was mapped out, evidence was analyzed, prayers were prayed, and tears were shed.
Everyone knew all too well how the story could end. Five nights alone on the tundra, braving temperatures in the low twenties with 20-40 mile-per-hour winds seemed like too much to bear. But no one was willing to underestimate the power of a miracle or the strength of a determined Inupiat woman armed with survival skills and fueled by a will to live...for herself as well as for her children.
Yet, after so many days without a trace, brave faces were beginning to weaken. Eyes glazed over as fatigue and fear of the worst crowded in. Rumors proliferated causing spirits to soar then quickly crash against the harsh reality of truth. People of the North are not strangers to this. They have lived for centuries with the vicious bite of the elements at their heels. Death is a part of life, but not knowing is an added burden that no one can be prepared for.
Where is the line between delusion and hope? And who has the right to draw it?
Thankfully, Wanda's family and this community won't have to answer that question after all. This afternoon Wanda was found, not only alive, but in good shape. She was exhausted, sore, wind-burned, possibly a little dehydrated, but conscious and talking and walking on her own two feet.
Her survival skills had served her well and left her with a story to tell. This is what the Inupiat do. This is their way...but I'm not sure anyone expected such a powerful and beautiful end to this particular tale.
This is a surviving story. One that was lost has made her way home.
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")