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.
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")