Sunday, March 13, 2011

Spring, when a man's fancy turns to...

Spring Fever is running rampant in Barrow. I know this because I got a text from one friend who asked when we were buying a snowmachine so we could go geese hunting with her and her family (more on that later).

Whaling preparations are in high gear. Each spring the umiaq frames have to be covered with the skins that make them waterproof. 
This involves sewing seal skins with the waterproof stitch to place on the umiaq. The boat is then left outside in this perfect weather to bleach it and dry out the skins. The women who sew use traditional methods to stitch the skins. They spend long hours at this task. The room you see here is located in the Iñupiaq Heritage Cultural Center. This is named, "The Traditional Room". You can't tell from the pictures, but the floor is solid cement. I don't know about you, but I know I wouldn't be able to spend one hour on that floor without being in hefty pain the next day. It is typical for these sewers to work 12+ hours until the skin is ready to go. 
Think about the responsibility of this. If they don't sew the skins correctly and make the boat waterproof, the hunters will perish! The skins are sewn together with caribou sinew. I was told it took 48 caribou legs to finish the skin sewing on this boat. 

What is hard to describe and what you can't ever experience unless you go there is the smell associated with this task. It is somewhat reminiscent of the rancid salty sea smell I associate with hauling the boat out of the water while standing on the grid in Juneau. Multiply that ocean odor by 2000% and you will get some idea of what it was like to hang out in the room. The seal (ugruk) skins are rendered in seal oil throughout the winter to prepare them. 
This process causes the fur to fall off so you get a nice smooth surface to work with. That is what causes the telltale odor. The odor permeates everything and is so strong, you immediately smell it when you enter the center at the front doors (this room is in the back with no connecting doors to the Center).

If you hang out for awhile, you notice several folks coming and some going. The whaling crew and captain are on hand throughout the process (clearly they have a vested interest in the preparation.) There is a huge table of traditional foods to keep up the strength of those sewing. There is also an undercurrent of excitement in the room.

Husband was lucky enough to come across this umiaq and proud owner. We're pretty sure this is the whaling captain who graciously allowed this picture to be taken. The skins will be white when the drying/bleaching process is complete.

Finally, I leave you with this picture. As Husband says, "no ugruk were harmed in the making of this umiaq". It's fiberglass. The wave of the future? Really? It saddens me to think the traditional preparation of the boat with all of the rich tradition and ritual may one day be lost. I hope this is just a fluke <--HA, HA! HA! A get it ?!?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ice Treats and Alligator Meat

I know you must be wondering what medical care is like here. There are some unique facets to dental care. There are two main dentists that service Barrow. Ours comes once a month for 7-8 days. He and the staff work from early morning to late at night (Husband has an appointment at 8:30 p.m. next month). I had an appointment today (at the decent hour of 11 a.m., however, it is Sunday!) The dentist normally works in Anchorage. He works these hours in Barrow to serve the needs of the community. And they don't come up June-August (mostly because no one is really here...teachers have gone on vacation and non-teachers are out fishing and hunting).

I've been finding some things around town that I'm beginning to take for granted but that I'm pretty sure you won't. For instance, we went to visit a friend the other day and caught this shot. Just a bunch of parkas and dog leashes in the cunny chuck (qanitchat <--Inupiaq spelling) (that's the outer room or what you may know as a mud room where all the coats and boots live).
Now, here's the neighbor across the street having his driveway plowed. Bring on the big guns! When we plow around here, we go ALL out. No shovel on the front of a pickup truck for folks around here (it would never do the job). This was the weekend after the blizzard I wrote about and the snow drifts were tremendous. The very cool thing was that right after the neighbor had his drive plowed, he had the driver plow ours as well. SWEET!
Here's something I've never seen before here in Barrow. Come to think of it, I've never seen this anywhere in Alaska.  Lest you think I'm making this up, we made sure we also got the local store logo in the shot.

What do you think? Was it fresh meat? Seriously? Where did this come from? And do you think I could find any in the store? I looked, trust me! Not an alligator in sight by the time we got there. Also, a typical price for any cut of meat. I can't wait to ask folks at work if they got a hold of this special over the weekend!

We love our jet service twice daily. It's our lifeline to the "outside". It's a mighty long plane ride going to anywhere from here. For instance, this week I went to a conference in San Francisco (well, they said it was SF, but really
it was in Burlingame). It took 14 hours to get there from start to finish (with just one hour layover in Anchorage and an extra 2 hour delay in Seattle). The delay in Seattle was because SFO was experiencing high winds (hmm...I wonder if their idea of high winds and ours are the same).

Just have to leave you with some shots of our walk on water today. It's March and the ice is front and center. It's a unique feeling to be walking on the Arctic Ocean.
What you probably don't know is that it is not a flat ice. The only mountains we really see in Barrow are the ones formed on the ocean by the ice as it moves along the coast. Some pretty spectacular "ice shoves" as they are called. The dogs just love this walk. They amuse themselves by running from ice mound to ice mound biting off a piece to chew. Husband and I think they find the ice treats a real delicacy (one dog's ice treat is one man's alligator meat, I suppose).