Friday, May 3, 2013

Memories of Spring in an Arctic Alaskan Village

To many Americans April heralds the arrival of the famous showers, the first spring flowers, and cherry blossoms.  Not in Arctic Alaska.  At the dawn of the 1970s I sampled several “springs” in Point Hope -- a village at the tip of the last big promontory that faced Siberia at the northwestern corner of Alaska.  There I found an April where I wore my down-filled Eddie Bauer parka -- good to 70 degrees below zero-- every day and never once lowered the zipper because I was too warm. 

Those were the days before the Marine Mammal Protection Act, when guided hunts for polar bears were a big industry in the Arctic.  My job as an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist -- collect biological data from polar bears taken by hunters.  Guides worked in pairs out of villages like Point Hope, flying out over the polar seas in supper cubs, tiny single-engine planes fitted with skis instead of wheels and stuffed with the parka-clad pilot, a similarly clothed hunter seated behind him, some survival gear, and cans of aviation gas for refueling out on the ice.  Some called them flying coffins.  The planes would head across the frozen Chukchi Sea, often crossing the International Date Line searching for polar bears on the ever-shifting ice pack.  GPS and satellite enhanced weather forecasts did not exist.  Getting trapped by blizzards, breaking a ski when landing or breaking though thin ice were ever present dangers.

Stories of pilots scraping the ice to find grass where they landed -- whoops, this is Siberia, of Russian MIG jets screaming over hunters who had landed on Soviet ice, of an underground pipeline of illegally killed bears smuggled across the Arctic into Canada rang in my ears.  It was a heady time where I was the only person around who could enforce hunting regulations.  While the chance of confrontations was ever present, I mostly savored life in an isolated Inupiat village, a place surrounded by frozen seas on three sides and frozen tundra on the forth, completely isolated from any roads or other outposts of civilization.

Our water supply was a block of ice cut from a tundra pond and set in a pan on the oil stove, the reservoir more chunks of ice piled in our grimy arctic entryway.  Our toilet -- a bucket fitted with a seat in a tiny closet with a piece of canvas for a door.  Our transportation -- our bunny boot- clad feet.  Our only electronic communication with the outside world -- a lone community telephone.  I loved it.  My job consisted of meeting the returning guides and, if they were successful, arranging to measure the hides and skulls, determine it’s sex and take a tooth to determine the bear’s age. 

While the hunters were gone, long days gave me the freedom to explore the surrounding ice pack -- to feel  the power of shifting ice, to wonder what block of ice might be hiding the polar bear whose fresh tracks I had just crossed.  I would jump across leads extending as far as I could see in both directions knowing that, if they widened before my return, my routine would change in a negative direction.  I watched sheets of mid-calf thick ice inexorably sliding towards me, riding on top of the ice on which I stood  as one mass piled on top of the other.   As they approached, I simply stepped onto the oncoming sheet and continued on my way, stepping onto successive sheets pushed by distant winds until they piled up in giant pressure ridges on shore.

In Point Hope I first encountered life as a celebrity of sorts.  Every day after school, the village children would rush over to the shack we lived in and bang on the door.  “I could visit?” echoed through the room.  Soon several excited parka clad children would rush into our one-room unpainted house.   Bang, bang bang on the door.  “I could visit?” and the room would fill up with wide-eyed cherubs crammed into every available space until they overflowed into our tunnel-like Arctic entryway. 

Once, a young boy with a perpetual runny nose, maybe seven or eight-years old showed up without his usual knitted head band.  We queried but he didn’t know where he had lost it.  A week later it was back around his ears.  Where’d you find it?, I queried.  “Around my neck.”

One day when school was out, another boy followed me around the village as I set off exploring long-abandoned sod houses.  That’s when I paused to take his picture with a bowhead whale bone in the background, the reference photo for my recent painting, “Eli.”

                                    Eli    12 X 16 inches    Alkyd on Canvas


casey said...

Love your stories, Unc! I just started reading a book about (in part) polar bears, and your first-hand account makes it all the more interesting. More stories!

Don and Karen Cornelius Artwork said...

Thanks, Casey. The plan is to share more as this blog unfolds.