Changes: With Feet in Two Worlds Now

Point Hope from plane n

From the air on the south side of the peninsula, our village of Point Hope is a small interruption in a vast, roadless, icy land. This photo was taken in late January from a little six-seat plane as we flew in from a trip to Anchorage. What’s missing in this picture? Sea ice. There should be a thick sheet of it in the foreground where this year there is only open water.

Back in early November, we made the decision that this would be our final year in Point Hope. We’ve loved living here, and the decision was not easy. The people of this village – our adopted hometown these past three years – have been kind and generous and fierce and proud, attributes we greatly admire. Our students have been wonderful, and when you teach in a building where from kindergarten through senior high there are fewer than 200 students, they all become your students. In our combined 30+ years of teaching, neither of us had ever bonded with students the way we bonded with the students of Tikigaq School.

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Freezing rain turned this stalk of grass into a silvery jewel. Rain in January in Point Hope is not completely unheard of, but days in a row of such weather during what is usually the coldest month of the year is highly unusual.

In mid-December we turned in our resignations, not sure where we would go next, urged only be the sense that it was time for us to go. The pull is a feeling that is difficult to describe or explain. The letters of resignation were short, polite, appreciative, but with them we cut the cord. No safety net. No turning back. We began to focus on our next move.

Aurora feb 2014 a n

A few nights ago, the aurora borealis put on a show. This was not one of the dancing, colorful displays we’ve seen in the past, but a steady, emerald swath glowing just above the northern horizon. 

At first, we were limiting our consideration to Alaska, dreaming of a situation in the Southeast where we might live within an easy walk of our boats and our new school. Our free time was consumed wtih the routine but critical tasks associated with a job search: revising our resumés, shoring up our references, researching schools and communities, distilling our careers and lives into tightly written letters of introduction. As two souls with nomadic DNA and Gypsy blood caught in this modern “career path” world, it’s a process we’ve been through many times.

But this time around, there was a twist to the job hunting. We both constructed online career histories on Linkedin, a networking website for professionals. Out of the blue, Barbra received a query from a headhunter with an agency that places teachers, administrators and technology experts with overseas schools. Although the particular company the inquiring person represented didn’t interest us, it got us thinking.

What if…?

Could we…?

What would we do with our boats?!?

tikigaq old bones_new

Early morning light bathes whale bones in the ghost town of Old Tikigaq pink and gold after a night of fresh snow.

After careful research, we signed aboard with Search Associates, an agency that works with over 600 internationally-minded schools in 160 countries. While we lacked the experience with International Baccalaureate programs these schools desired, our backgrounds are rich in quality experience and our references are strong. We allowed ourselves to dream, and although we thought that in order to get our foot in the door we’d accept the right position in virtually any country, there were a few countries that were very much on our short list. Our dream list.

One of those countries was Mongolia. Several years ago, when we were living in Sacramento, our local Trout Unlimited chapter invited a guest who had recently made a film about fly fishing in Mongolia for lenok (an ancient form of trout) and taimen (the world’s largest trout/salmon). The vast, sparsely populated countryside was sublime. The rivers were pristine. The idea of a remote camp out on the steppes, the guides speaking Mongolian, the huge night sky filled with stars after a day spent pursuing species of fish few anglers will ever encounter, our stomachs filled with rock roasted meat, our minds pleasantly humming with yak-milk vodka, and beyond the camp neither a light nor a human sound for as far as one could see or hear, is an idea that has been growing in us ever since.

We are due in country on July 31. It appears that we’ve already found a nice apartment just a few minute’s walk from the International School of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar. We’re thrilled. This is just the dose of “New” we’ve been craving.

A couple of weeks ago, we were in the Anchorage airport, flying back to Point Hope when we suddenly encountered a scent that, for us, will always be pleasantly, irresistibly memorable. Muktuk. Whale fat. We looked around and soon found a small group of people who appeared to be Eskimo pushing a cart loaded with coolers, no doubt the source of the mildly sweet, rich smell. “We’re two among 0.00000-something percent of people in the world who can instantly identify that smell,” I said to Barbra as we laughed about our arcane expertise.

This morning one of Barbra’s students, Dmitri, came to school wearing the same scent. “Wow,” Barbra said with a smile. “You smell like muktuk!”

“Yeah,” Dmitri smiled back. “It’s good, isn’t it.”

Little stories like that keep us wanting to explore and experience.

pt hope from plane dawn n

Sunrise over Point Hope, a village by the Chuckchi sea.

Inupiat (Eskimo) Yo-Yo with Polar Bear Fur

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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.

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!

Tikigaq School 5th Graders Perform Point Hope Eskimo Dances

The rhythms are played on traditionally-crafted drums; the dances have been passed down from generation to generation. These fifth graders demonstrate that Inupiat traditions are alive and well in Point Hope, Alaska.

With the help of village elder Aaka Irma, my fifth graders and I learned an old Point Hope Eskimo dance that hadn’t been performed in some time. Under the guidance of our Inupiat language teacher, Aana Lane, the students also practiced popular traditional Point Hope dances. The students performed these dances for the Christmas presentation last month to an enthusiastic crowd.

The group of students I have this year is very connected to their culture and heritage, particularly when it comes to dancing. It’s amazing to see every student in the class become so completely engaged in a cultural tradition. During their performance in December, the students captivated the entire audience. The performance culminated with the students inviting one and all to join them on the gym floor in the closing Common Dance – a dance familiar to virtually everyone in our village.

Winter Light and Polar Bear Prints, Point Hope, Alaska

Sun, 3 PM Dec 22, Point Hope_n

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 in Polar Bear Track, Dec 22, 2012_n

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.

Polar Bear Tracks on South Beach Dec 22, 2012_n

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.

Maia walking to ocean Dec 22 Point Hope II_n

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.

Point Hope South Beach Dec 22 3 pm Nikon D90

Arctic Spring

Hand stitched ugruk (bearded seal) skins cover the wooden ribs of this traditionally-crafted boat as it sits atop a rack in Point Hope, Alaska. With spring officially here (the Vernal Equinox was March 20), whaling season has begun. Whaling crews have been going out to break trail these past few days. This is rough going across the frozen, buckled landscape of the Arctic Ocean. 

Each Arctic day is lengthening by eight minutes, and the sun is shining with perceptible warmth as months of negative double digit cold gradually give way to highs approaching an even zero degrees Fahrenheit. Although the seas continue to be locked up tight, that is how it should be this time of year. Once the trail is broken, the village’s two whaling crews will set up their camps far out on the ice near open water, where, with boats stitched together from the skins of bearded seals at the ready, men dressed in warm, white parkas will wait and watch.

A small skiff seems to await the Chukchi Sea’s thaw.

Last year, three whales gave themselves to the village. That is the way people here say it. Animals are not “killed.” They give themselves, and for a whale to give itself, the hunters’ skill, preparation and worthiness must all come together. Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the Americas. Perhaps the oldest. Here, the unique interplay of sea and river, hills and tundra bring salmon, char, seabirds, caribou, whales and even berries to the inhabitants. Compared to many other villages, the people of Tikigaq (Crooked Finger – so named for a narrow thrust of land at the tip of the peninsula that long since eroded away) have seldom had to go far for food.

The whales are bowheads, a right whale. These baleen whales may weigh 30 tons or more. Occasionally ivory, slate and jade harpoon heads of old are discovered buried deep in a whale’s blubber, indicating that they have a lifespan of at least 150 years. Although commercial whaling in the 1800’s pushed populations to near extinction, they have gradually recovered and numbers in the Chukchi Sea continue to grow by about 3% each year to over 10,000 currently.

Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak’s painting (above) depicts the circle of Arctic seasons. Her painting shows open water for less than half of the year.

When we leave the village in mid-May to spend our summer further south in Alaska, much of the tundra and the Chukchi Sea will still be locked in ice. When we return in mid-August, the tundra will be carpeted in shades of green, some of it already giving way to Autumn’s gold. In high summer, flowers bloom in profusion, but by August, most will be done. Berries – cloudberries, cranberries and crowberries near the village, joined by blueberries further out – will follow. Waves will tumble on the shore as though the ice never existed, and salmon and char will be swimming in the clear-green water.

Fire in the Sky: Aurora Borealis Point Hope, Alaska

Mars hangs above a water silo aglow with lights from the school, a band of auroral light seeming to shoot from the silo like flames. (Click on photos for larger images.)

No photo – and certainly not our first attempts – can do justice to a northern sky on fire and dancing with the eerie green and purple glow of an Aurora Borealis. On this night 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, temperatures were an icy negative 10, pushed even lower by a steady breeze. As the sun sank below the frozen sea to the west, the full moon emerged in the east, close to Earth and huge, the color of a blood orange, hanging on the horizon. Jupiter and Venus were aligned, Mars glowed red as an ember against the black sky and Orion’s belt burned bright. Washing over it all was a breathtaking display of slowly moving green bands, some of them edged in purple, some of them jagged and electric, the band on the northern horizon streaked with pink mixed in with the green.

It’s not uncommon to see a bit of faint green or greenish yellow in the night sky up here. But what we were seeing on this night was of a different magnitude – a rare event tracing back to a spike in activity on the Sun a a few days ago. We made a few quick phone calls to friends. “Go outside and look up!” Meanwhile we got our camera and gear together, realizing, suddenly, that we weren’t  sure how to capture any of this. We met one of our friends in front of the school and walked with her toward the lagoon on the north side of town, away from the lights. In every direction, from horizon to horizon and straight overhead, what we saw stunned us. “This is amazing,” we kept repeating.

Note the three aligned stars of Orion’s belt to the left.

By the time we got our camera figured out, our fingers hurt with cold and the peak of the lights was past. But we still got some photos. A large part of photography is capturing light, and this was a quest for capturing light on a sublime scale.

Fireworks over the Columbia River while sharing a bottle of wine from a balcony at my apartment in Astoria, Oregon, tumblers of Scotch and a sky so impossibly filled with stars we felt like the deck of our mountain cabin in Yosemite was sailing through the Milky Way, a full moon hanging over a becalmed ocean on Prince William Sound with not another boat on the water, a campfire, mesmerizing, at our tent site at Oregon’s Sunset Bay State Park… night skies to come in remote anchorages on the Pacific… Our lives are filled with light.