This November 19, 2011 sunset looking out over a Chukchi Sea nearly frozen solid reminded us of a Mark Rothko painting. The quality of light in the far north is often breathtaking.
Bowhead whale mother and child: Walrus tusk ivory with bowhead whale baleen eyes set on bowhead whale baleen. The baleen is scrimshawed with marine animals commonly hunted for subsistence by the Inupiat people of Point Hope, Alaska.
As we’re preparing to leave Point Hope, we wanted a piece of local art to take with us – something that captures the spirit of Tikigaq (the traditional name of this village). Henry Koonook is both an outstanding carver and a friend, and so we commissioned this piece.
Detail, scrimshaw on baleen of ringed seal and walrus.
Henry still does most of his work with hand tools, using local natural media.
The entire piece measures about 11″ x 3″. Henry Koonook’s signature and the year the piece was created are visible in the lower right corner.
Bowhead whales constitute a vital part of the subsistence-based hunting and gathering culture in Point Hope. (Their numbers, which plummeted during the days when whaling boats from the world over pillaged the Chukchi Sea, are growing at a steady pace in recent years.) Seals and walruses are also culturally important. We are happy to take with us to our new home this piece of art that represent this beauty of this Arctic village by the sea.
The dancers in this short video are 6th grade students at Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat village 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. They are performing traditional songs and dances, passed down through the generations, sung in their native language.
The annual school Christmas program in Point Hope is a little different than in most communities. Yes, there are seasonally popular songs and carols, but many of them are sung in Inupiaq, the language of the Tikigaqmuit, the Inupiat Eskimo people of this small whaling community on the edge of the Chukchi Sea. There is also lots of drumming, singing and dancing performed according to traditions that extend back in time beyond memory. The drums – which resonate much more loudly than one might suspect them capable of at first glance – are made from material such as the membrane of sea mammal organs stretched over wooden frames. The beautiful mukluks (boots) many of the participants wear are hand sewn from seal, caribou, beaver and other natural materials.
The dances celebrate the past and the present. Aaka Irma (Irma Hunnicutt), who volunteered her time to come to our school and teach the students these dances, has an honored place as an elder in this village. Although the students speak mainly English in their day-to-day lives, these celebrations give them the opportunity to honor their language and heritage. This is a place where traditions are still passed down generation to generation; where some of the clothing and much of the food is still provided by the surrounding land and sea; where traditions are alive and vibrant and honored.
On this occasion, the students and Aaka Irma invited their classroom teacher to dance with them.
Friends who share a love of baking and cream-filled pastries dipped in chocolate ganache warmed up a rainy afternoon in our kitchen north of the Arctic Circle.
Perfectly turned out pastry puffs filled with delectable cream and dipped in chocolate ganache are the the stuff of home bakers’ dreams. Cream puffs and eclairs require a special dough called pâte à choux. Worked to exactly the right consistency, this dough bakes up light and flaky and leaves a hollow space in the center of the confection. Although we used traditional vanilla-flavored pastry cream, we also imagined filling these airy profiteroles with fresh whipped cream, homemade ice cream and even savories such as smoked salmon cream.
Making cream puffs and eclairs can’t be rushed. The pâte à choux dough requires time and attention in order to get it to the correct consistency as it cooks on the stove top. Next, it must be carefully piped onto a baking sheet and placed in the oven where it will finish. Creating the pastry cream is fairly easy, and making chocolate ganache is magical.
All that work, and between three bakers, three tasters and steaming mugs of of rooibos almond tea, our eclairs and puffs disappeared in short order.
Pâte à Choux
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 4 oz. unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- up to 4 eggs
- Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Pour milk and water into medium pan.
- Stir in salt and sugar.
- Add butter.
- Bring mixture to a boil over medium heat.
- Take mixture off heat and stir in all the flour. Mixture should look like mashed potatoes.
- Return pan to low heat and stir continuously. This will dry out the dough a little.
- Dough should come together to form a ball.
- Starchy residue at the bottom of the pan is an indicator that the dough is dried out enough.
- Take dough off stove and place it in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Turn it to low to allow the dough to be cooled off by the mixer.
- Mix in eggs one at a time, watching that the dough does not become too thin. The dough should be soft, creamy, and shiny.
- Transfer the dough to a piping bag with a large tip.
- Pipe ball shapes onto parchment-lined baking sheets, leaving plenty of room for these puffs to double in size.
- Bake puffs for 10 minutes.
- Turn oven down to 325 degrees F and continue to bake for 15 minutes.
- Fill with chilled whipping cream or pastry cream – savory or sweet.
These will freeze nicely.
Fashioned from polar bear fur and finished with intricate beading, this Inupiat yo-yo has transcended it’s traditional purpose to become art. Based on a bola design, in olden times tools like this were made of rocks tethered together with sinew and were used to catch birds.
Beautifully crafted by Molly Oktollik, one of the elders here in the village of Point Hope, Alaska, this Inupiat “yo-yo” isn’t what most of us envision when we hear the word yo-yo. In former times, they were made of rocks held fast on sinew tethers and in the right hands were a formidable tool for catching birds. Ptarmigan, for one species, are often easy to get close to, and ducks and sea birds returning to their headland roosts typically fly in on a low trajectory.
These days yo-yos are crafted as pieces of art, or, when less elaborate, as toys. It takes a certain skill, but the two ends can be made to rotate in opposite directions – that is, with one end revolving around the center handle clockwise, and the other revolving counterclockwise. It’s a pretty cool trick if you can get it to work.
An umiak with its recently sewn seal skin stretched tight sits on the Chukchi Sea ice, waiting for whaling season to begin in March.
May 17, Point Hope, Alaska: Near-blizzard conditions forced a one-hour delay to the start of school yesterday, the day before the end of our school year. A little snow and high winds notwithstanding, all 30 of our 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students eventually arrived. It’s much more calm today. Scattered snow flurries have been breaking up an otherwise sunny day, and at 19 degrees Fahrenheit, the McKay’s buntings and gulls that showed up a few weeks ago when the weather was warmer (in the low 30’s) are out again. Looks like clear weather for our flight out tomorrow.
Near shore, the going is easy across the frozen sea. But the ice ridge on the horizon hints at the arduous work involved in breaking the trails that will allow whaling crews to get their boats and gear out to the lead (open water).
This marks our third year in Arctic Alaska. We’ll be back for a fourth in August. We’re up here in Point Hope at a time in our lives when Time to study, Time to write, and Time to hone our skills as photographers, writers and chefs is especially valuable. Yes, it’s cold – brutally so at times-, and there is the entire month in mid-winter when we do not see the sun. But that’s part of the narrative. So are the dazzling displays of northern lights, the sublimely sweet cloudberries that grow only in these extreme latitudes, and the Arctic foxes, snowy owls, polar bears and whales that are part of the fabric of life up here. Learning to stock a gourmet kitchen in the bush nearly 1,000 roadless miles from stores in Anchorage has prompted us to master “from scratch” cooking to a level of expertise I doubt we would achieved had we remained in our comfortable bungalow back in California.
A fresh dusting of snow powders ice sculptures that were pushed up when shifting winds caused massive plates of ice to collide. Anytime you’re out on the ice, you’re mindful that another shift in the wind could push the ice apart again, leaving you stranded. You learn to keep an eye on the cracks.
By this time next week, we’ll be in Seward living aboard our summer home, the sailing vessel Bandon. Among other things we’re looking forward to is an intensive wine appreciation course we’ll be taking with another couple. We’re also eager to do some serious shooting with our new Nikkor 200-400 mm telephoto lens- a tool that should help us get intimate photographs of the amazing wildlife in and around Resurrection Bay. Daughter Maia will come up in July for our annual visit centered around fishing, hiking, great meals (and great conversation) and general catching up. The puzzles of turning out excellent meals from our small galley, figuring out where the salmon are in the nearby sea, experimenting with our new tenkara fly rods on smaller streams and maybe finally getting good photos of wary tundra swans are among other things that will keep us happily occupied in the coming months.
A whaling hook marks the trail out to the camps. This was a good year in Point Hope – five bowhead whales, lots of beluga whales, and everyone came back safe. Each whale represents tens of thousands of dollars worth of groceries that didn’t necessitate a river being drained for irrigation, fertilizer being spread (that ends up over-nutrifying nearby water systems), or a single drop of pesticide being sprayed. Nor were barrels of fossil fuel burned getting this food up here.
An important part of our summer in Seward involves seeing to our own provisions. When we return to Point Hope in August, we’ll bring with us 200 pounds of salmon, halibut, rockfish and lingcod fillets – enough for us and for gifts for our friends up here. We’ll also be making shopping runs to Costco and other stores and ship up the usual bags of flour, rice, beans and sugar as well as everything from jars of Kalamata olives to tins of anchovies.
Wherever this summer finds you, we hope you’ll be following your dreams or taking steps to make those dreams come true. And we hope you’ll continue reading CutterLight.
Sincerely, Jack and Barbra
This photo was taken on December 22, 2012, a day in the midst of the month during which the sun does not rise above the horizon in Point Hope, Alaska.
The sun dipped below the horizon 31 days ago on December 6 and did not rise again till yesterday, January 6. And yet, there was light each day, dim, brief, often breath taking.
We walked to the beach on one of those days when the sun didn’t rise. It was about 3:00 pm, and the sky was filled with shades of red, violet, amber and gold. The sea, which lies just 300 meters or so from our doorstep, is locked in ice. This time of year, polar bears are always a possibility as they roam the ice, searching for food.
Maia’s hand is dwarfed by a fresh polar bear paw print.
Edging the beach where ice met land was a fresh set of polar bear tracks. The evidence that we share this environment with these magnificent animals was thrilling – but also a reminder that caution is in order. We scanned in every direction as far as our eyes would take us. No movement. The bear had probably passed through in the dark of early morning.
Arctic foxes often follow polar bears in hopes of dining on scraps of the bear’s kill. Above, you can see the small paw prints of a fox near the bear’s tracks. Notice the tell-tale scrape marks in the snow on the forward edge of some of the bear tracks. Their long claws leave these scrapes as the bears amble along.
We waited and watched and listened. The wind moving over the seemingly endless frozen sea was all we could hear. In the distance to the east, we could see Cape Thompson’s snowy cliffs bathed in light etched against the pink horizon. As we walked along the edge of the sea, we found a murre, apparently exhausted, tucked into a snowy alcove against a bank of ice. The bird was lucky the fox had already passed by. Although the murre found the strength to take flight as we drew near, it is doubtful it went far. The Arctic winter is unforgiving.
Walking west, toward the sea, on a December day in Point Hope…
Daughter Maia was in the village for a two-week visit over winter break from college. Unfortunately, the Northern Lights didn’t cooperate, but the sky still put on some amazing displays.
Stunning in their soft, white coats, Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) are common in this part of Alaska. The size of a small dog and as soft on their feet as a cat, these omnivores forage on whatever is available, from berries to insects to small mammals and birds – and it appears, big, fat marine worms!
In the past few weeks, there have been spawning events on our beaches near Point Hope. A couple of weeks ago, we were hearing about small fish – probably capelin (smelt) – coming ashore with the surf. More recently, we’ve been finding large marine worms on the beach. The size of Ball Park Franks, the appearance of these worms has coincided with egg cases in areas of coarse sand and gravel. In turn, these spawning events have drawn numbers of snowy owls and Arctic foxes looking for easy meals to the point of land west of town.
Morning sunlight slants through the jawbones of bowhead whales commingled with crosses at the Tikigaq cemetery in Point Hope, Alaska.
Not so long ago, National Geographic Magazine ran an article about domesticating foxes. Apparently there’s been some success, as breeders in Russia select the most gentle, friendly, trainable and inquisitive offspring generation upon generation. At an average size of six to eight pounds, Arctic foxes would be just the right size to curl up on the sofa for an evening of popcorn and a movie.
Like ribs pushing up from the tundra, these bowhead jawbones mark the resting place of one of Tikigaq’s last shamans.
The diversity – and sheer number – of animals and plants that manage to hack a living out of this cold land amazes us. Far from being the vast, frozen desert the Arctic has often been described as, each season brings with it an astounding number and variety of flora and fauna to the land and sea around Point Hope. Tracks in the snow near our house reveal that we have a weasel or two living beneath our porch!
After four consecutive weeks of daily rain – a precipitation rate almost unheard of in this semi-arid region of the Arctic – we’ve had several days of brilliant sunshine. The past three mornings, the gravel that makes up the ground here in Point Hope has been hard underfoot. Frost. The cloudberries are over, and the frost means it’s time to go pick cranberries. In the old days, the dead were not buried. “The land all around was our graveyard,” I was told by one of the people of the village. But when the missionaries came, they told the people of the village that the dead must be buried. And so this cemetery was created.
Today while Barbra and I were eating lunch, we saw a snowy owl outside my classroom window. Last week a brown bear – a grizzly – passed by the edge of town. This might be a good weekend to get up early and walk up the beach in hopes of seeing a walrus.
Although ripe cloudberries are golden amber in color, the syrup they produce is a luminescent dark pink. Thick and flavorful, mixed with carbonated water, the syrup makes refreshing Italian sodas. This morning, it topped our Belgian waffles.
We’ve already turned about 20 pounds of freshly picked cloudberries (click here to see cloudberry photos) into two kinds of jam as well as sorbet. Our most recent venture out on the tundra yielded another eight pounds that I hadn’t counted on. When I asked a berry-picking friend what she thought I should make, she enthusiastically replied, “Syrup!”
The syrup, which is easy to make, turned out a beautiful dark pink color. I hadn’t expected this because the fruit I started with was a lovely salmon color. The seeds seemed to color the juice. I made freezer jam with the remaining pulp in order to save every luscious part of the berries. I thought if the “pulp jam” didn’t look good, it could still be used as a key ingredient in fruit breads. Any kind of berries could be used to make this syrup with an adjustment to the amount of sugar used.
Aqpik (Cloudberry) Syrup
Ingredients: (Yields 4 cups syrup)
- 10 cups of berries
- 4 cups of water
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- Place berries and water in a large pot. Cook on medium high heat.
- Boil berries for about 15 minutes.
- Line a strainer with cheesecloth. Elevate strainer over a bowl so that syrup can drain through cheesecloth and into the bowl. (I used a strainer that stands by itself set on a wire cooling rack set on a large mixing bowl.)
- Place berries in pot and puree them using an immersion or stick blender.
- Pour pureed berries and all liquids from pot into cheesecloth lined strainer.
- Let berries sit in strainer for at least two hours to drain off liquid.
- Take the liquid that has drained into the large mixing bowl and put it in a pot.
- Add sugar to the pot.
- Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until syrup boils.
- Skim off any foam and discard.
- Pour juice into canning jars to freeze or into decorative bottles to refrigerate.