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.
Nothing wrong with that, I guess.
Unless you're a newbie who wants to eat!