Nose Pressed to Glass

Sea Ice1_n

Sea ice fascinates us. Our village can be seen in the upper left of this photo. At the time of the photo, north winds had blown much of the ice away from the land. The “sticky ice,” the ice which clings to the shore, can usually be relied on to be safe to walk on. Even this sticky ice is subject to the whim of Mother Nature’s strong winds and current. 

Sea Ice2_n

Piles of ice form along pressure points of the frozen surface of the sea. There are many histories of boats navigating too late in the season and becoming stranded or crushed between these pressure points.

Sea Ice3_n

Recently, wind from the south has closed this lead – the open water to the right. The view from our village today is solid ice as far as the eye can see. The villagers are readying their seal skin boats to go whaling. Soon the bowhead migration will begin. When the north wind blows open a lead, the whaling crews of Tikigaq will patrol the open water in hopes of catching animals that are in their Spring migrations. These whales make up a critical part of the subsistence catch in this Inupiat village.

Project Chariot_n

I’ve recently been reading the book The Firecracker Boys. This true story is about a crazy post WWII idea some engineers and scientists had for using a nuclear bomb to blast a harbor between the peak in the center of this photo and the ridge on the left. This is about 25 miles east of Point Hope. The proposed  H-bomb  was to be 163 times the strength of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Scientists and engineers promised to sculpt the land based on human requirements. It was part marketing (using bombs for good) and part wild scientific experimentation. It’s a shocking and crazy true story!

PHO 1_n

Nose pressed to glass, I peered out from the bush plane window as we lifted straight up, like a helicopter, in the 40 m.p.h. north wind. It seemed scary on the ground. With gusts well above 40 m.p.h., the plane arrived, landed on the airstrip and never turned into the usual parking area. I fought my way toward the plane, slipping along the airstrip as if being pushed down by a strong arm. Once in the plane, I felt calm and safe with skilled bush pilots at the controls.

PHO 2_n

From the air, the village looks like a patchwork quilt as rooftops peak above a blanket of snow. If the snow and ice were sand, Point Hope could be any beachfront real estate in the world!

Last Light: Arctic Foxes, the Coming Dark

Arctic Fox on Point Hope Beach_n

Point Hope, Alaska, along the south beach: An Arctic fox is silhouetted in the gold of a late fall sunset.

On Wednesday, December 5, the sun will rise at 1:37 pm. It will climb for just 19 minutes and 30 seconds before it begins to descend. At 2:16, it will sink beneath the ice-sheeted sea. It will not rise above the horizon again for 28 days. During this time, afternoon twilight will be the extent of our natural light. Cold and darkness will clamp down hard on our village. The Arctic winds this time of year can make a well-built house shudder.

Arctic Fox near old Tikigaq, Alaska. Nikon D90

The photo above and the next two are of an Arctic fox we found hanging around the deserted Old Town site of Tikigaq a mile or so west of Point Hope three weeks ago. They’re intelligent, inquisitive animals and will sometimes approach quite close.

In mid fall, foxes and snowy owls show up in numbers near the village. They patrol the beach for fish and whatever else may have washed up and they hunt the tundra for voles and squirrels. As the days grow short and the real cold sets in, they scatter.

Arctic Fox 2_n

This one is very likely out on the sea ice now, scavenging the remains of seals killed by polar bears. These foxes often travel vast distances during the course of a winter in search of food.

Arctic Fox 3_n

Caribou have moved down from the hills, and sometimes we see them now out on the tundra a few miles east of town. Wolves follow the caribou, and a few hardy ravens manage to scratch out a living throughout the winter. Every so often, we see a flock of murres – seabirds – heading out in search of open water.

The Arctic Foxes at Tikigaq Cemetery

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!

Tikigaq Cemetery

Weathered jawbones of bowhead whales form a fence around the cemetery in Tikigaq, (Point Hope) Alaska).

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.

Bowhead Whale Stew

An original caribou antler and walrus ivory carving by Edwin Weyiouanna guards a bowl of bowhead whale stew.

Outside it was -11 degrees Fahrenheit. The steady 25 mile per hour wind brought the chill down to negative 40, making it a good day to stay inside and cook a big pot of comfort food.

I could feel the frigid north wind seeping in around the edges of the window over the kitchen sink as I stared apprehensively at the three, one-pound cubes of thawed whale meat draining in the stainless steel basin. The odor of the dark red meat was decidedly un-beef-like, but it was mild and agreeable nonetheless – not at all gamey or fishy. The texture was a bit like that of fresh halibut – soft and dense. The meat of the bowhead whale, the largest genus of right whale, might be compared to especially tender filet mignon. I had no idea what cooking would do to the texture, or what the meat would taste like. “Good beef,” I hoped as I rinsed the meat and considered my next move.

For the past 27 years, Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook has been a faithful companion – my go-to reference when I’m not sure what to do next in the kitchen. I turned to Claiborne’s basic recipe for beef stew, made a few modifications to take into account what we have on hand and our own tastes, and proceeded from there. The end product was probably the best meat stew we’ve ever had (allowing for the fact that our creation would have been improved with the addition of three cups of good red wine, which is, of course, unavailable up here.) The meat was wonderfully tender and no more strongly flavored than, say, strip steak, and complimented the seasonings and other textures in the stew beautifully. I served three piping hot bowls of stew with freshly baked cornbread muffins while daughter Maia cued up the film The Triplets of Belleville on our big movie screen – the perfect recipe for staying warm north of the Arctic Circle.