The Bones of a Village

New enough to reveal steel and aluminum nails, old enough to be well-weathered by the Arctic climate, the bones of this seal-skin whaling boat were left behind when Point Hope (Tikigaq) relocated two-and-a-half miles inland in the 1970s. Point Hope is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America.

The Inupiaq name for Point Hope Village, Tikigaq (tick-ee-yahk) means index finger and described the way the gravel point once hooked into the Chukchi Sea. Time and tide long ago washed away the crook of the finger, leaving behind a triangular point near enough to deep water that the whales that first drew the Inupiat people here thousands of years ago still swim close to shore. The 2.3 mile hike from the current town out to the point gets a little tough once the road ends and the pea-to-chunk-size gravel begins, but it is well worth the effort. In addition to bowhead and other whales, which are frequently sighted, the collision of currents at the point holds large schools of finger-sized baitfish, which in turn draw flocks of Arctic terns, gulls, murres, puffins, jaegers, guillemots and ducks while various sandpipers patrol the shore. At times, the sea and sky are filled with hundreds–if not thousands–of birds. The small fish also attract roving schools of pink, silver and Chinook salmon and sea-run Dolly Varden which in turn are followed by spotted, common and bearded seals. Walruses show up from time to time as well.

The walk to the point passes through the Old Village, a ghost town of semi-subetranean homes made from sod, whale bone and driftwood as well as more modern, wood and metal houses. It’s fascinating to walk through the Old Village and contemplate what life would have been like up here before electricity, running water, guns and gasoline engines–when the only “grocery stores” were the great herds of caribou 25 or more miles to the east, bowhead whales swimming in the freezing Arctic Ocean, and the various fish, seals, berries and plants gathered in their seasons.

Cloudberries and Freezer Jam

Ball Jars filled with freshly-picked cloudberries (often locally called salmon berries). We’ll add a little lemon juice, pectin, and sugar to the crushed berries, mix and simmer this in our bread maker for an hour-and-twenty minutes, pour the mixture back into the jars and put them in the freezer to set. This will provide us with some of the most tantalizing jam imaginable. Cloudberry jam… 

The morning was cool and cloudy, with mist and banks of fog rolling across Point Hope. We’d been told that we’d find berries about three miles east of town along Seven-Mile Road, and so seven of us had gathered to make the hike out. Two of the men carried 12 gauge shotguns and a third carried a side arm. Bears are always a possibility.

The wildflowers which all but carpeted the tundra when we arrived here nearly a month ago are mostly gone now, though here and there a few tiny yellow Alaska poppies and beautiful blue but deadly monkshood and other flowers are still blooming. And then, right about at three miles just as we’d been told, there they were… cloudberries, growing together in small patches where mounds of earth were just high enough above the boggy tundra to allow roots to drain. The unripe cloudberries (Rubus chamaemorus) were deep red and beautiful. The ripe ones are the amber-orange color of Chinook salmon flesh, giving their close relatives, salmon berries (Rubus spectabilis), their names.

Wherever cloudberries grow across the upper latitudes of North America and Europe, they are a prized delicacy, agreeably tart when barely ripe, becoming creamy rich and sweet as they continue to ripen. They contain twice as much vitamin C as oranges. Growing very close to the ground, the berries were surprisingly inconspicuous at first. But once our eyes adjusted to what we were looking for, the tundra seemed to sparkle with their red, orange and amber glow.

We picked for about two hours, happy to have worn Muck Boots as we slogged through the soft, wet ground. By the time hunger caught up with us and it was time to head back, Barbra and I had about three pounds of berries between us–enough for a few jars of the freezer jam which would make the hike well worth the effort.

On the walk back, the sun began to push its way through the thinning clouds, lighting the land around us. It was then that Barbra and one of our friends spotted a large white bird perched motionless on a hump out on the tundra. “It’s got to be an owl,” I said. “Let’s see.” We made our way toward the white shape until there was no doubt we were looking at a large snowy owl. These owls are huge, the heaviest in North America. When it finally spread its magnificent wings and lifted off, it revealed an underside of almost pure white–a male in its prime, grown fat on ground squirrels.

Seeking Silver Salmon

Coho Salmon

Trolling is boring, I thought. Two summers ago we drove around in our boat outside of Whittier at incredibly slow speeds dragging a couple of lures only one silly little pink salmon came to bite. Heck, you don’t even get hold the rod!

This was my impression.

That has changed.

This summer while in Seward, we heard the silver salmon (Coho) run on Resurrection Bay was hot. Out on the bay, Jack got gear ready for trolling; I was prepared to enjoy the scenery. But no sooner did he put a lure in the water and set the rod in the holder than we got hit! We quickly strategized–I drive, Jack tends rigs, fish hits, Jack shouts “FISH,” I drop the boat into neutral, Jack reels in the fish, I grab the net, and Voila–major fun! Then we switch–Jack drives, I reel in the fish, and Jack does honors on the net!

The limit for silver salmon in Resurrection Bay is six fish – which meant with two limits, we could keep 12.. The first 11 salmon came easily. Naturally, that last elusive fish took us a while to find. We took a break from trolling by catching other fish that day…halibut, lingcod, and rockfish. When we went back to trolling, a dime-bright silver was waiting for us. When we finally pulled up at the cleaning station at the marina with our beautiful catch (two Chinook, several large silvers, halibut and rockfish)…even the locals were impressed.

Grizzly

At the summit of the Exit Glacier trail, we put our packs down and let our eyes sweep across the Harding Ice Field. It looked like a vast lake of white, dotted here and there with the dark, bare rock of mountain peaks pushing up from the ice field like islands.

“What’s that out there?” Barbra asked, pointing far out on the ice field.

“Probably just some person,” I replied, barely looking up.

As the dark object continued to lumber toward us, Barbra finally picked up the binoculars. “It’s a bear!”

Sure enough. On the hike up the trail, we’d spotted a sow black bear with two cubs grazing in an alpine meadow. With the image of the black bear fresh in our minds, it was clear that what we were now looking at was a grizzly. A massive one with a large shoulder hump, probably a male.

We marveled at the speed with which it made it’s way across the frozen landscape, it’s tracks stretching out as far as the eye could see in its wake. He appeared to be heading straight for Exit Glacier, which, we imagined, he would follow until he came to a river where he could find spawning sockeye salmon.

Glaciers are like rivers of ice, pushed down mountains by the weight of the ice fields where they are born. It is not known for certain how deep—how thick—the Harding Ice Field is. Judging from the mountain peaks that surround it, it must surely be thousands of feet thick at its deepest places, and it spawns dozens of glaciers, each one carving its own path in the mountain rock as it flows. Exit Glacier moves at a rate of about one and a half feet each day, grinding out a valley under the tons of ice it carries.

Rhythms

School has been out for a week. The sun is up all day. Children are playing. People are out socializing. Hunters have their boats on the sea ready for the ice to open enough to hunt oogruk (bearded seals). The birds are mating and nesting. Soon it will be time to gather eggs.

The rhythms of Sarichef island hum along.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern hawk owls (Surnia ulula) are typically found in boreal forests but are visitors to open land as well. Although primarily visual hunters, their keen sense of hearing allows them to locate prey up to a foot below the snow. Lots of voles here on Sarichef Island. Day by day, more new species of birds are arriving–gulls, geese, ducks, sandpipers, songbirds. Here and there amidst the snow melt and winter-brown vegetation, a few shoots of green are poking up.

Predacious Diving Beetle

Looking like a lab specimen on glass under a microscope, this 3/4 inch long predacious diving beetle was photographed where it was found in a vernal pond swimming in a few inches of very clear water over a bed of ice. These beetles suddenly seem to be everywhere, scooting through the myriad clear, shallow, temporary ponds with their oar-like back legs.