Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tour du Nord

This week I was in Wainwright for a few days. I was facilitating training and staying at an administrator’s house, which is really very nice. So I walked to the local store to get something to drink (those small plane rides make me really thirsty).  Not a Diet drink of any kind on any shelf. All full sugar drinks in cans. No plain water, only colored, flavored water. That was a little disconcerting…

The good news was the store was open. On my ride in from the airport I heard they had closed the day before because they were out of food. I know…you probably think I make some of this stuff up. Incidentally, as we were leaving two days later the sign on the local hotel stated, “Closed after 3:00 p.m. No Help.” No one to work, so they close up shop! That’s life in the village.

I know I could never live here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very lovely little village, but the Internet connection (rather lack of) drives me crazy! I get one little triangle on my wifi status…that’s it.  On the other hand, it could be good for curtailing the amount of work I do at home. On the other hand, how would I shop? I don't know how anyone in rural Alaska survived before the online mall. Come to think of it, I do know...I lived rurally before the Internet was widespread. Causes a disease lovingly referred to as STYD (shop till you drop) every time you get Outside!
Actually, we are victims of this disease right now as we can't get everything by online shopping. Curiously, there are numerous sites that won't ship to Alaska. I think the state is still considered a foreign country in much of the Lower 48 where most of these vendors are located. But, I digress from the Wainwright trip.
My fellow trainer and I were due to leave on the 5:00 p.m. flight and due to arrive back in Barrow before 6:00 p.m. There is but one local airline that flies to the villages. It is notorious for changing the schedule without notifying anyone. Knowing this, we called them at 4:00 to make sure the flight was leaving as scheduled and were assured the schedule was intact. Keep in mind, there is no one locally and that call went to a Barrow agent while the flight was in the air. Another call at 4:30 reversed that information. "What's that you say? The flight already landed and took off for another village and was on it's way back to Barrow? SERIOUSLY?!!!"

You see, the pilots make executive decisions mid-flight sometimes...or according to whim...or according to the color of their shirts...or I really don't know how. It doesn't appear to matter whether or not you have reserved seats on a flight...that doesn't have any bearing on whether or not the flight comes in as scheduled, or stops for a freight drop and takes off in a hurry. This is not the first time I've had this happen to me, nor is it the only story one hears of this as one travels around the North Slope. In any case, it was the last regularly scheduled flight for the day.

That was the bad news. The good news was that a charter was coming in to transport the 15 or so participants from our training back to their home village, so we could get seats on that flight. The corresponding bad news was that the charter was going to make three stops before heading back to Barrow. So, what would have been a 35-40 minute flight turned into a "three hour tour." My colleague and I just settled back with our books to enjoy the peanuts, no drinks, and no lavatories, the latter of which really was the biggest challenge of all!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Chosen

The pace of work this year is unbelievable. It causes frequent cries of OMG, or often, SERIOUSLY?! Sometimes I just have to laugh, because what else can you do? This is my excuse and I’m sticking to it to explain why it’s been so long since I’ve had a chance to add to my saga.

We held local elections the first week in October. I’m taking an Iñupiaq conversation course, so we learned how to say, I voted: Naliġaaniktuŋa. (nuh leh wah nek toong ah) It translates more literally to “I have made a choice.” The most cool thing about voting here, (besides the fact that you get to vote, of course) is that your “I voted” sticker is in Iñupiaq! Actually, you get a choice between English and Iñupiaq. I almost didn’t get a sticker, because I couldn’t figure out who had them. But I really wanted one, so I searched around a little. 

Our polling place was unlike any I’d seen before. There was a table to pick up the ballots for the North Slope Borough, another table for the City of Barrow elections, and another table for the School Advisory Council seats. The stickers were on the Borough table in case you were wondering.

It was CROWDED. Really! Hard to find a place to park (though the parking lot is big) and hard to get out in all the traffic when you finished. There was a crowd in the polling place. You had to wait in line to vote, for goodness sakes! I’ve lived in large and small cities and even during a presidential election I don’t recall this kind of fervor for voting. Funnier still, folks were complaining about the small turnout. Let’s put this in perspective…this was a Borough and City election…the mayor was being elected, a few propositions…nothing really controversial. The turnout? A little over 50%. REALLY!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fun and Games

It is likely at some point you've already seen pictures of the nalukataq (blanket toss). However, you may not have seen this particular take on it. This is a young woman who had a baby son within the past year. When her turn comes on the blanket, the tradition is for her to toss gifts to the crowd, such as furs, candy, food items, and clothing. Only elder women of a certain age are allowed to be the recipients of the gifts. So, they must scramble to catch the items as they are tossed into the air.

The excitement is palpable, the elders move like spry young women, and the crowd is rewarded with lots of stories to later recount.

Once nalukataq is over, the crowd takes a break to prepare for the final events. Many folks go home to change into traditional dress in preparation for the dancing that will take place in the school gym that evening.

The festivities do not begin until the drummers take their place in the chairs set up for them on the gym floor. Stevie is a member of the drummers and explains that the dances are specific to the family of the members performing the dance. Families are called in order from the member who is eldest in the community to youngest.

As the clock approaches 11:00 p.m., the dancing is finished. The drummers have played for over three hours without a break!

The last event of the celebration is the distribution of quaq. This is highly anticipated. This is frozen meat and fish that has been stored in the siġluaqs (the ice cellars). This is highly prized as the meat and fish take on a special flavor while it is stored in these underground caches.

We all leave with yet more ziploc bags full of goodies. It has been quite a day...long, tiring, and memorable!

Come and Get It!

Under every storm cloud is a silver lining. So goes the story of fellow camper Ben's lost camera. Because he didn't have his own camera to document the day, I asked him to take mine and just take pictures of everything. That, by the way, is why I'm actually in some of the pictures! Also, I get to share some of the activities from the men's side.

You see, there are two windbreaks on this day and the men and women are separated during the preparation activities. On the women's side, all of the cutting and cooking is going on and there is support from men who bring firewood, drop off pieces of meat to be cut, and carry heavy items. We frequently saw some young boys helping with garbage, too.

On the men's side, as Ben explained it, the atmosphere is quite different. The men gather together and tell stories and visit with friends and relatives. I surmise this is, in effect, their "gratitude" day. Their hunting skills have made this feast possible. This is the day they get to relive their adventures and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Well-deserved, I'd say. Who among those of us reading this story would voluntarily head out on the Arctic Ocean in a skin boat to hunt whale in cold, windy conditions so common to the Spring whale hunt? These brave and courageous men not only keep families fed, but keep age-old traditions alive for the younger generations to learn and subsequently follow.

 The men anxiously await distribution of the "goodies."  At frequent intervals, women will walk over to the men's side with various buckets, pots, and platters of food shares.

The arrival of some food items is more anticipated than other items as Ben found out. In particular, he found it is very important to note when the batches of donuts are being brought over. Once the purveyor starts walking into the area, all of the men rush over to greet her in a swarm of hungry humanity!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Take My Ulu, Please!

Not only is the third day of the feast the longest day, it is chock full of activity from sun up to sun up (remember, it's June above the Arctic Circle, there is no sun down).

We arrive on site at 8:30 a.m. and already the bustle is in full swing. Pots are boiling, ulus are being sharpened, the windbreaks are up and the crowd is beginning to gather. The cutting area is already surrounded by women beginning the task of cutting the various donations of meat, fish, and fowl into bite size pieces to be cooked and distributed to all who attend. It is quite a sight to behold.
I walk into the area with fellow camper LA (like the city). (We had paired up on the four wheeler during the now infamous Cape Thompson trip, so our dynamic duo was a given whenever we had to ride somewhere.)
We walked right up to the heart of the cutting action and set out to join in on the work. We were given latex gloves, our own ulus, and huge chunks of assorted parts to cut up.

Let me just say that I was somewhat amazed at the immediate acceptance of our presence. Think about we are a couple of tanik (white) women who walk up and just join in. Certainly, we asked for help in how to do what we were doing, but in the long run, there was a general understanding that we probably knew how to cut up parts. Here's the other thing: this was a huge undertaking. If someone wanted to help get the job done, woe to anyone who would not welcome that offering.

As I recall, I started out cutting up a whale heart valve, then progressed to the biggest tongue I'd ever encountered (also whale)! Then another heart valve came my way, but this time I really had to dissect it (wished I'd paid a little more attention in Biology class). Then, I finally got the big payoff as the meat from the ugruk our crew had caught was placed before me. I gently unlashed the string that held it folded together. This was the end of our story with our ugruk, and I had been able to be a part of it through this final chapter.

 As we progressed, someone would come by and pick up the pieces we had cut, put them in a huge bowl, and carry them off to the cauldrons.
Me and LA

Periodically, someone would come by and tell us the pieces we'd cut were too big, so we'd start cutting them smaller. Then a little while later someone else would come by and tell us the pieces were too small, so we'd start cutting them bigger. We had a lot of fun with that cycle all day long!

All around us, an amazing support system was in operation. Out by the pots, some of the men kept the wood pile stocked. As I mentioned, at the cutting board we had the runner who picked up the cut pieces. There was also: the garbage bag carrier to gather up discarded parts, the Angel who passed out hot coffee, the purveyor of soda pop, the shares distributor (we always had our Ziplocs at the ready), the hot  donut distributor (never before have donuts been THAT good) and always someone was bringing by yet more hunks of parts to cut up. Seriously, the mountain never seemed to diminish.
Unalik, YUM!

Periodically, food would be brought to us hot off the fire. When they brought by the unalik (boiled whale blubber and skin) it just hit the spot. Take a look at our pictures. It was not warm out. We were wearing long underwear, under our regular pants which were under our waterproof pants. That jacket I'm wearing is down and I've got a down sweater and fleece vest under it. At the point we chowed down on unalik, we'd already been cutting for a couple of hours. The hot morsel, full of nutrients was just the thing to keep us going for what turned out to be another three hours.
Hank's sister, Shirley
Nothing, however, came close to the cup of polar bear soup. Seriously...polar bear soup. You don't have that offered to you every day. It was heavenly, with potatoes, carrots, and polar bear meat. I had seconds.

I know I'm making it sound like all we did was eat, but these food breaks happened over a span of five hours.

Some of the women went the distance and kept cutting the entire time, others took shifts for as long as their knees and backs could stand it. LA and I persevered throughout the day. Frankly, when we looked around us and saw our  "sisters" in it for the long haul, we decided we weren't leaving until they did. All ulus were finally surrendered at 1:30 p.m. amid a sea of smiling faces and a sense of overwhelming accomplishment.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Moveable Feast

When we arrive on the second day of Quaraq, much work has been done to the site. Wind breaks have been erected for the comfort of the participants---and I might add, they were heartily welcomed. Even though it was a partly sunny day, the wind was blowing and it was rather nippy without the protection of the windbreaks.

This day is marked with blessings from several pastors, once again giving thanks for the bounty and "gift of the whale" bestowed upon the community. The village is a ghost town as the entire community has gathered for the festivities. All of the umailiks speak to the people gathered. Each has a message of humble thanks to God, to their crews, to the community for their support and the message conveying the tradition of sharing with the community. While they are speaking, the wind is gusting and they must project their voices to be heard by the crowd that has gathered. The raspiness in their voices are indicators of the non-stop work they have been involved in during the past week. Consider how exhausted these folks are. They have been preparing for days for the feast and most have gotten little if any sleep. The women have been cooking, the men have either been hunting or most recently constructing the windbreak structures.

There is much anticipation in the crowd, as there will be distribution of more of the whale harvest. Of note in my observations was the traditional dress worn by several members of the community. Fur parkas, maklaks, and atiqluks were in abundance.

On this day, each of the whaling crews distribute the meat from the tale of the whales they have caught. Before anyone arrived that morning, crew members had delivered the whale tails to the feast site. After the thanksgiving speeches were completed, they broke out their knives and began slicing the tails into individual portions. First of all, take a close look at those knives. They are extremely sharp. We actually found one just like this on the beach last summer. We asked our neighbor what the protocol was in such a find and he basically said, "finders keepers." The crew members work furiously, slicing the tails into individual portions. They must work quickly as the main event on this day is the distribution of the slices to the crowd. It doesn't surprise me how quickly they slices are cut, I noticed this furious workpace last fall when we noted that the three whales caught in Barrow had been totally butchered in the space of 4 hours.
Once there are ample slices to distribute, the umailiks and their wives call out to the crowd for either individuals or certain groups to come up and get a share. Individuals might be called as they are special friends, respected colleagues, relatives...whatever. Groups included pastors, families, folks who had never caught a whale, folks who had...pretty much anything they thought up. As we had been told by our guides, the protocol was to get your slice and take a bite as you walked back to your seat...showing your appreciation.

Finally, near the end of the distribution, apples and oranges and sodas were handed out by crew members. These were particularly enjoyed by the children among us!

Feast Your Eyes On This!

In Barrow, the event that marks the feast celebrating the catching of the spring whales is called Nalukataq--it means blanket toss. In Point Hope, the celebration is called Quaraq. It lasts for three days and has very distinctive events on each day.

On the first day, one notices that the boats of the umailiks who have caught whales have been brought onto land and placed in a single row with their crew flags flying and paddles tilted upward.

 The upward tilted paddles signify the crew has caught a whale. [In Point Hope, there are two clans. Only crews from one of the clans caught whales this spring. Had the other clan also caught whales, all of the activities about which I am relating would be repeated on the celebration grounds of the other clan.]

On the first day of celebration, we all arrive at the gathering place around the umiaqs. We sit on the ground to get out of the brisk wind that is blowing. The umailiks greet the people, thank them for all of their support, thank God, and seem to humbly accept the honor of having been chosen by the whales to receive this gift of bounty and sustenance. After the speeches are finished, the crews pass out mikigaq, which is fermented whale meat that has been marinating for days in pots. This is a good time to talk about preparations for this celebration.
The women on the crews that caught the whales have been hard at work for a good month in preparation for the event. Mikigaq has been cut and marinated. Other pieces of whale meat that will be handed out as Quoq have been cut and stored in the ice cellars.

Maktak has been cut and stored. Hunters have gone back out from the crews that caught the whales in search of other animals to add to the feast. Hunters from all over the village are out in the hope of catching additional food to add to the feast....and they have been successful.

In some houses, donut dough is being prepared, in other houses, Eskimo ice cream is being prepared. The two items are favorites of mine. First of all, the donuts are delicious, especially when you get them hot out of the fryer. Forget glazed, chocolate dipped, or sugar coated, these plain donuts will knock your socks off. Then there is the Eskimo ice cream. This is prepared with a mixture of lard and oil. Into this is mixed in whatever flavoring the cook desires. I had one "scoop" that had tuttu meat in it and another that had berries. I really like the berry one. It was really rich to my taste and I couldn't eat much, but really liked it. We were also treated to various fish spreads that were prepared for the feast, my favorite being the sheefish spread. Very mild, white fish that makes a great spread for the ever present pilot bread. Back to the activities at hand....

Our instructor mentored us on the proper way to receive our shares. 1. Always carry plenty of ziploc bags. 2. Always have your bag open to receive your share; don't make the giver wait on you. 3. Always make sure you don't miss any of the rounds of distribution. 4. Always say thankyou. Mikigaq is a delicacy truly prized by the Inupiaq. It had a bit of a sweet and sour taste...not bad, but I couldn't quite get used to the texture. Once all of the mikigaq was distributed, that day's activities were over. Time to go home and get ready for the following day.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Journey and the Destination

You know how when you are in some kind of life crisis and someone (in my case, it was usually my dad) will say to you, "it's not about the destination, it's about the journey." Well, this field trip we took was about both, in the physical and spiritual sense.

On the sunniest and warmest day of our camp, we went on a field trip to Cape Thompson. We'd heard about the interesting terrain at Cape Thompson and we could see it from anywhere in Point Hope. 

Stevie regaled us with stories about climbing "Suicide Hill" (on fourwheelers) for days prior to our trip. More on that later, but suffice it to say, it sounded like a great trip to me. We also heard a lot about many adventures gathering Murre eggs. Apparently, one has to climb the cliffs to get to the nests where the eggs are. Sometimes one winds up in rather precarious positions strapped to lines that are held by your "friends." There you are, balanced on the side of a cliff with jagged rocks and pounding icy surf below you. Sounds like about as much fun as bungie jumping. (Maybe you like bungie jumping, and if so, you should probably volunteer to dangle for the Murre eggs.) Since it was too early in the year for egg gathering, we didn't experience that adventure, but I wasn't too broken-hearted about it.

We had a caravan of 7 four wheelers. Kind of reminded me of a motorcycle gang going on a long
ride. We all got onto our respective rides and headed to town where we got gas. The cost of the gas went on one credit card, so we had to line up in a row, never replacing the pump in between each four wheeler fill up. Off we headed toward the Cape. The first part of our ride was dirt and gravel roads. It was still pretty early in the summer, so there was still a lot of ice on the beach. Normally, the ride follows the beach all the way, but we had to go inland a bit because the usual route was too snowy. Quite early on in the ride we encountered maniks. Traveling through this terrain was like skiing down a heavily moguled hill. It jarred every joint in the body and it was difficult to find the fall line (okay, it wasn't a hill, so it wasn't technically a fall line, but the premise was the same...finding the most direct route to the destination).
I followed Stevie closely so I wouldn't lose the line and wound up with some cool pictures of our "gang" as they caught up with us. We stopped often to "smell the roses" (as my friend Pausauraq would say). It was a long way out and took about 3 hours, but as we neared the Cape, the sun was warmer and the sky just kept getting bluer.

At one juncture of the trip, we came across a little creek that was kind of deep. Some of the guys scouted out a spot where we could all cross. Turned out, you had to get a running start, blast through the running water and get the four wheeler up a pretty steep bank. I sat on the other side of the crossing watching (with another camper on the back of the four wheeler) while we tried to figure out why we couldn't get our machine in neutral. From across the way, one of the guys yelled over to rock it a little...and that worked. Because of our delay, we were last to make the crossing. No one had made it up the steep bank without help from other folks in getting the machine over the last 6 or so inches of the embankment. Lucky me...all eyes were upon us, the last vehicle to try it (and don't forget, I am a novice rider).  Having a somewhat competitive nature (those who know me are rolling on the floor laughing at that understatement right now), I was plotting how I could clear the bank without assistance...just to show it could be done. I had my fellow camper on the back of my machine, so I did have a little grounding weight. I also had the advantage of less weight in the driver seat than anyone else. So I did what I normally do in these challenging types of situations, I gunned it and closed my eyes! Imagine my delight when I opened my eyes and we had made it to the top of the bank! After a 3 second celebratory cheer, we were off on the rest of our ride.

Imagine riding along an uninhabited stretch of beach with bits of ice floating in the water on a sunny warm day, when all of a sudden you turn to the left toward the mountains and there stands a the middle of nowhere! It's not just any old house, as we find out that Stevie's brother has been a co-builder of this dwelling. How cool is that? We get to explore inside. Clearly thought went into where to place the house and which way it should face in order to reap the benefits of the location. The loft and the carvings inside were truly unique. 

As a bit of a "six degrees of separation" kind of story, it turns out that I met Stevie's brother in Barrow in the spring. He is an artist and has many pieces in displays of honor in several Alaskan places. In Barrow, he designed and sculpted some of the big ice carvings during the Spring festival that I wrote about a few months ago. 

Stevie's Brother, Art
I had taken lots of pictures of those and then had the honor of actually meeting the artist...the beauty of living in a small town. So having seen his work in Barrow earlier, I had no trouble recognizing the style of the carvings we found in the house. We stayed for awhile but were all excited to make our way to "suicide hill."

"Suicide Hill" so named for its steepness and unforgiving terrain was the only way to get to our destination. I must relate, our guides and our instructor were a little bit nervous about some of us (okay, me) being able to negotiate the hill. 

I, on the other hand, did not think it would be any harder than some of the trips I had done when I owned a motorcycle when I was "30-something." One just had to make sure one didn't stall out during the climb!  

Once I got to the top, I could say that I thought it actually looked steeper than it felt during the climb. The view was spectacular. Just couldn't get over how far we could see, what we could see, where we had been. 

Of course, this stop provided ample opportunity for both Stevie and Hank to regale us with stories of their past adventures in the area as well as history from these parts. At one point Stevie told me about a time when he'd been out in this area in the winter time on a snow machine. The weather was uncooperative and it was snowing and blowing, creating whiteout conditions. Now consider that we now have some mountains to contend with, whereas in the village the terrain is just flat. Being younger and apparently not as wise as he now is, as Stevie tells it, he proceeded driving his snow machine when he should have stopped and waited out the storm. All of a sudden he found himself sailing off the edge of a cliff into the snow below. Fortunately, there was nothing but snow to fall on and he didn't get hurt. It did take him a couple of hours to dig out the snow machine after that fall. 

Again, fortune was with him as it didn't suffer any damage and he was eventually able to make his way home. It was a good learning opportunity for him and I'm sure his story has cautioned many a young rider during the winter.

Our trip was complete with picnic, hot dogs, and s'mores. Some of our campers took this opportunity to claim fame to stepping into the Arctic Ocean. You won't see my picture among them. Though I have walked on the Ocean and in the Ocean (with boots on), I don't find a particular draw to wading or swimming in water that I know will take my breath away. More power to those who do become members of the Polar Bear Club. I believe the criteria include dipping your head under water...I'm getting chills just thinking about it. 

The meal was relaxed and gave us all time to relax and enjoy our surroundings some more before we headed out. Then it was back to camp in Point Hope. What I found during the trip back, was that I apparently missed the memo that went around that the object of the trip back was to go as fast as you could all the way back. I mean, we were screaming! It was really fun, and even though I did have it set at full throttle, I had the smallest machine and consequently was last most of the way. At one point, I couldn't even see where anyone was...not even their dust. Nonetheless, my rider and I arrived at camp within minutes of the rest of the "gang."