Polar Numbing Stinging Cold

It’s cold in Point Hope.

Better words for cold according to the thesaurus –Siberian, algid, arctic, below freezing, below zero, benumbing, biting, bitter, blasting, bleak, boreal, brisk, brumal, chill, chilled, cool, crisp, cutting, frigid, frore, frosty, frozen, gelid, glacial, having goose bumps, hawkish, hiemal, hyperborean, icebox, iced, icy, inclement,intense, keen, nipping, nippy, numbed, numbing, one-dog night, penetrating, piercing, polar, raw, rimy, severe, sharp, shivery, sleety, snappy, snowy, stinging, two-dog night, wintry

We were warned when we left Shishmaref – “It’s cold up there.” We thought a few degrees colder would not make too much of a difference. Hmmmm…. I’ve been comparing Shishmaref to Point Hope. It’s true, it is only a few degrees colder here. But this week the “real feel” temperatures have been hovering around minus 40! When the high says 4 degrees, it’s likely that we may hit the high at 3 o’clock in the morning, not mid-day as you might guess. The sun does peek over the horizon, but not enough to warm anything yet. So, we are relying on wind currents to bring us some warmer air flows.

Last year, Jack bought a wolf ruff for my parka. One of our Shishmaref friends finished it and attached it to my coat. It makes a huge difference in blocking the wind. I have polar fleece pants with a wind-blocker lining. I have thick neoprene “muck” boots. I often wear two hats–one with a face blocker. For me, all these are necessities, even for the relatively short walks to school, the post office, or to the store.  One of my students walked home from the school last Saturday without a hat and got frostbite on her ear!

I can feel every crack in my armor.  If my mitten exposes my wrist, it hurts. The slit between my hat and the face blocker stings with cold.

The words in the thesaurus don’t do justice to the cold up here.

Arctic School Bus

When I heard that Point Hope had a school bus, my first thought was that a bus seemed extravagant in a village that stretches barely over 1/2 mile  from tip to tip. Not only do we have a school bus, but it’s a shiny, brand-new school bus that just came off the barge this summer. Wow, I thought, our school district is rich!

Once winter set in, my perspective changed. These days, walking the scant 150 feet from the front door of our house to the school is no small enterprise. Bundled up from toe to nose and nearly getting blown off my feet by icy blasts of wind, I totally get the school bus. Within minutes, any skin exposed to this wind begins to hurt! Who would walk to school in those conditions? There are days I wish I could take the school bus.

A Point Hope Thanksgiving or Do You Have Turkeys North of the Arctic Circle?

Translucent pink Muktuk (whale skin and blubber), whale meat, and whole Arctic grayling were passed out to guests at the Point Hope Thanksgiving feast.

Like Shishmaref, the residence of Point Hope generally don’t have big family Thanksgiving celebrations at home. It is a community event. Turkeys and hams flood into the village in preparation for the big feast. (Yes, we do get turkeys north of the Arctic Circle.) Anyone who volunteered an oven received either a turkey or a ham to prepare. We received a 22 pound ham which we cooked and delivered to the school gym. Large quantities of traditional dishes such as stuffing, candied yams, corn and cranberry sauce were brought in to the school pot-luck style. By 4 p.m., volunteers had carved turkeys and hams and all the side dishes were readied to be served.

After key community members gave speeches expressing thanks, the village was ready to share the meal. The first course? Muktuk (the layer of whale skin attached to the pink blubber shown in the above photo) and chunks of frozen whale meat. Many people brought out sharp knives and small containers of seasoned salt and immediately carved into their frozen chunks of whale. Others, like us, had brought Ziplock bags in order to save the pieces to eat later at home. Both muktuk and whale meat are traditionally eaten raw, boiled, or fried. We talked to the owner of the local restaurant who suggested slow cooking the whale meat in a stew. Sounds like a good idea. Tune in later for that culinary feat. The community also shared whole frozen grayling, dolly varden, and big chunks of salmon. Of course, the elders were served first, but there was plenty to go around to everyone.

The next course featured platefuls of traditional Thanksgiving fare. Seated around the perimeter of the school gym on the floor and in chairs brought from home families and friends engaged in conversations. There were probably 500 people altogether. At one end of the gym, tables covered with huge sheet cakes were waiting to be cut and served for dessert.

Obviously, Thanksgiving is not a traditional Inupiat celebration. In our readings of Alaska history and in conversations with history buffs, we’ve learned that the Inupiat people had celebrations and traditions similar to many of the traditions that the missionaries introduced several decades ago. The similarities made it easy for the Inupiat to adopt new holidays. For example, the divvying up of whale meat was already a fall tradition. Folding Thanksgiving into this tradition was logical.

Arctic Sunset

At 2:21 p.m. on December 6, 2011 the sun will set in Point Hope. Of course, in most places, the sun will rise again the next day. This is not the case here. The sun will not rise again until 1:56 p.m. on January 7, 2012.

This afternoon, I could see the most beautiful pink and orange reflection out my kitchen window. The sunset and the ocean called to me. It was 12 degrees out with just a light wind, tolerable with my down jacket, mittens, face mask, and snow boots. The colors in the sky were magical. Swatches of blues and pinks hovered above the icy sea washed with an electric orange glow. The snow leading to the beach was pristine except for scattered caribou prints. Seven foot cliffs of packed snow loomed over the eroded beach. The edge of the ocean was covered in undulating sheets of ice showing only patches of open sea. The frozen crust lifted and fell slowly as the ocean below it was beginning its winter slumber.

In California, I used to visit the coast in order to replenish my energy. The foaming and crashing sea along the West Coast always rejuvenated me, especially when my spirits were low. The Arctic Ocean imbues a person with a sense of calm and peace. As I looked to my left and right up and down the icy beach, others, too, were taking in the view.

Epic Storm Hits Point Hope, Alaska

Looking out a high school window, we watched our sturdy home strain against hurricane force winds.

Monday, November 7, 2011. We watched the NOAA reports as a violent storm was pounding the Aleutian chain on its way northeast up the Bering Strait. On Tuesday morning, we headed to school as usual. The storm was supposed to hit our village hard at 9 p.m. All in the village were abuzz with the coming storm. A double warning had been issued – hurricane force winds and storm surges. The last storm of this magnitude to hit Point Hope was in 1974. I’m not sure how much of the town had moved to the new site (our current site) by then, but we heard stories that the underground storage areas had been flooded and some of the surge waters had made their way into the village.

The students were asking all sorts of questions: Will it flood? What would a 15-foot wave look like? Have you ever been in a hurricane? We tackled all the questions and found a video to watch about weather as the wind picked up outside and near whiteout conditions obscured the post office from view just across the street from the school.

In the late morning, the decision was made that the students should be sent home. The school bus (yes, this small village has a school bus!) delivered the students safely home and our staff prepared to turn the school into an emergency shelter.

Later, Jack and I tucked in at home. In anticipation of losing power, we charged our phone and laptop, set out flashlights, candles and matches, and filled our water bottles.  By late afternoon, the wind had been whipping through the town. Since there are no trees, it was difficult to visually assess the wind speed. The internet said 23 mph, then 39 mph, then 53 mph, gusts were being reported to 90 mph. Our house began shaking as the gusts grew heavier, and framed pictures on the walls were moving. The heavy wooden doors on an outside cabinet that houses our propane tank began creaking on their hinges and banging open and shut. We could hear the wind roaring through the village.

Through the worsening conditions, our sturdy little house generated confidence. No matter how it shook and shuddered, we were sure it would hold together.

At 5:00 AM, we awoke to fierce winds and no power.

The school had officially become the village’s emergency shelter. Families streamed in with blankets and cots for the elders and sleeping bags and air mattresses for the young. Our school is fairly large. One wing houses the elementary, one wing houses the high school with the middle school,  a small gym (which also operates as a cafeteria) and a large gym in the center. There was ample room to house the 500 people who ended up in the school. Our terrific cafeteria staff worked diligently to feed all the guests breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some rooms became quiet rooms for elders. Other rooms held whole families including nursing mothers and pets.

It was reported that a transformer had been knocked out, utility poles had been snapped, and wires were hanging loose. The high winds precluded linemen from flying out to our village. No one panicked. I think people knew the storm would pass, the winds would calm, the ocean waters would recede and power would be restored.

This morning, when the winds had quieted, Jack and I walked to the coast. The ocean waters were still roiling and the waves were still crashing against the shore. But it was only in the way a tantrumming child beats his fists to the ground when he is nearly out of steam. A seven foot bank of snow was packed up against the berm. The waves hammered away at the bank, evidenced by floating chunks of snow in the waves.

With the winds nearly blown out, planes were finally able to land, delivering the linemen. With steady work from one end of the town to the other, power was restored in it’s own wave from east to west. By about 4:30 p.m. most of the village of Point Hope was lit and houses were warming–and luckily so at that because had the outage lasted longer, there surely would have been frozen and burst water pipes in the freezing cold. The epic storm of 2011 is officially over.

Sod and Whalebone Home, Tikigaq

This semi-subteranian sod, driftwood and whalebone home was the last such structure to be inhabited in the old village of Tikigaq on Point Hope. It was abandoned in 1975, and by that time was hooked up to electricity. Prior to electricity, these homes were illuminated and heated with seal oil lamps and are reported to have been quite warm. Near the homes, people dug cellars which served as year-round deep freezers.

Caribou, seal, walrus and whale bones are scattered across the grassy tundra, and where people once lived now ground squirrels make their homes. Much of the land that was once inhabited has long since been washed away as generations of winter storms have eroded the peninsula. There have been times when polar bears have used structures in the old village as temporary winter dens. Snowy and short-eared owls, which hunt by day, along with marsh harriers keep the squirrels and voles in check.

Old Tikigaq–The Last Shaman


The last of the shamans of Point Hope, a man by the name of Masiin, lived in this house in the now-abandoned village of Tikigaq.

The history of shamans in Inupiat culture is a complex one. At the turn of the century, a man identified in texts as both a shaman and a chief, Atanjauraq, grew wealthy trading with the whale hunters of several nations who had settled near Point Hope in a polyglot village called Jabbertown. The ruins of this village are still discernible, albeit barely, as raised mounds a mile or so east of present day Point Hope. Atanjauraq’s increasing wealth was accompanied by a taste for alcohol. As he grasped for ever more power, he created enemies and ended up murdered by his own people while sleeping off a drunk.

Shaman Masiin, the last shaman of Tikigaq, died of natural causes in 1958. In his book The Things That Were Said of Them: Shaman Stories and Oral Histories of the Tikigaq People, Tom Lowenstein reports this story told by an individual named Asatchag.

“It was 1953, wintertime. My wife invited Masiin to supper. And after we had eaten, the old man told several stories. Then he called me by name and told us he’d been traveling last night. He’d been to Russia. And when he’d flown round for a while, he saw the Russian boss. ‘That’s a bad man,’ said Masiin, ‘so I killed him.’ Next day, at three o’clock–we had a battery radio–I listened at my coffee break. The news announcer said Stalin was dead.”

To add mystery to the above story, it is reported that Masiin did not listen to American radio, and knew no English.

Bush Alaska: Arctic Snow Fence


The first snow fell a few days ago. Brilliant sunshine melted it. Snow fell again yesterday. So far the sun is winning the battle. As the days are getting shorter, it is certain that the snow will win.

Our lagoon has iced over in large patches. There are short tracks on the ice where people have briefly ventured out but returned.

The snow fence stands ready for the winter. It looks strong and resilient having beaten back the drifts year after year.

The fence in Point Hope looks much sturdier compared to the fence in Shishmaref  (http://wp.me/p1305P-1T). This can only mean that we are ready for gale force winds.

Whalebone Graveyard Fence


Point Hope is a whaling community. The villagers primarily hunt bowhead whales. The jawbones of the bowheads are used to mark feasting areas and (above) the graveyard. The graveyard is completely surrounded by the jawbones, which average about seven feet tall. Some looked to be well over ten feet! It’s impressive to note that every two bones used in this unusual fence represents one whale.