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")