As I fly towards Point Hope, Alaska, I have Sarah Palin’s line turning over in my head, who, when asked to comment on her expertise in foreign policy during the 2008 presidential campaign, reportedly said that she could see Russia from her house. If she lived in Point Hope, I thought, she might actually have been right.
Despite that she never said it (what she said was “You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska,” which is much less funny and also happens to be true, from both Little Diomede and St Lawrence islands), and despite the Russian coast being still a couple of hundred miles away, it doesn’t stop me squinting out across the deep, vast blue of the Chukchi Sea to where the curve of the horizon merges with the glare of the endless sun. It is June 4th. The sun has been above the horizon for five days and will not set for another thirty nine. Below, the ocean and the melting ice mix and overlap like marbled paper.
The five other passengers doze or prod their smartphones. The pilot sips tea from his thermos. It is early evening although you would not know it and I have been traveling all day. A jet from Anchorage to Nome, another from Nome to Kotzebue, and a wait of several hours in the terminal until we are called by our first names and each asked our weight so as best to arrange us in the Cessna. The rest of the space is crammed with every conceivable cargo that cannot be found at home. It has cost me more to get from Anchorage to Point Hope than it cost to get from London to Anchorage. When they travel here they make every trip count; Point Hopers do not pop to the shops. Apart from the barge that docks once a summer it is not easy to get things to Point Hope, although now that it has stopped charging for postage Amazon Prime is spoken of with the same sort of reverence as those doing relief drops in a war zone. About the plane there are various parts for snow machines and quad bikes, there are crates of cans and Coca Cola, there are basketballs and blenders and a widescreen television. One man has six takeaway pizzas on his lap.
For an hour we fly over a landscape with barely a mark of human habitation. What signs there are, a cabin with a scrubby airstrip, an abandoned fish camp, a boat out on a river, only serve to make the land appear yet more deserted, the occasional quiet noises that alert you to an otherwise deafening silence.
Point Hope is a community of Inupiaq Eskimos, and their word for the village is Tikigaq, which translates along the lines of “something like an index finger”. Several people in Point Hope will show me, extending their index from their fist so that the knuckles form the foothills to the north and the thumb becomes the headland at Imnat. The village of Point Hope is somewhere around the cuticle. It takes a little imagination, although not as much imagination as it takes to conceive that people could actually live here. I have never seen somewhere so improbably located. It is worth finding Point Hope on a map simply to appreciate the tenacity of the human race and spirit. From the sky it is a scatter of houses thrown across a gravel spit, a frozen lagoon to the east (between the first and second knuckles of the index finger), to the west, the north, the south, a frozen ocean. Fairbanks is the nearest city, more than five hundred miles to the south east, the nearest village close to a hundred. Yet there have been people living here on this point for more than two thousand years, which makes it a strong contender for the longest continuously occupied settlement on the continent. The current population is seven hundred and sixty-four.
When I telephoned Art Oomittuk to arrange my visit the first thing he had said was: “Have you heard the news?” as though it might have been on CNN.
“What’s the news?” I said.
“Good news,” he said. “Tikigaq got six whales.”
I get a ride into town from one of the pick-ups that were parked up on the airstrip and find Art at the fire station where he has recently started working. He clocks off and takes me across town to Uncle Jo’s where he has arranged for me to stay. The land about is flat, immensely flat. Not a tree, not a rise, to break up the horizon. The wind blows wildly, unchallenged, but there is some good warmth in the sun and the light has a fierce clarity to it. Jo’s house, like most of the others, is a rectangular structure much like a portacabin, raised up on stilts above the gravel. It is built from cheap wood panels and roofed with corrugated iron and looks entirely unsuited to winters of minus 50. When the village was moved in the seventies, the ocean encroaching, they simply picked the houses up with tractors and drove them across to the new site. They are brightly painted in Caribbean colours; many have a line of driftwood out the front to delineate some sort of garden on the gravel. Jo’s, at a hundred dollars a night, is by far the cheapest place in town.
“I’ve brought you your iglaaq,” Art calls out as we walk in. Your foreigner. Jo Towksjhea is sitting in the kitchen with the radio on and a family-sized pack of Doritos open on the table in front of him. I wonder how long he has been sitting there. His face is weathered, wrinkled, brown, his hair sparse and grey, little more than stubble. His mouth drawn tight, his eyes blinking and owlish behind round spectacles. He gazes up at me from his chair. Art shows me where I’ll be sleeping and then he leaves us to it. We sit in the kitchen, facing each other across the table. The heating is up to maximum.
“Where you from?” he says.
“England,” he says.
“London,” he says.
We look at each other.
“How many kids you have?” he says.
“I’m not married. I’ve been with my girlfriend three years.”
He rubs at his ears. “My ears are no good now. Too much guns. Too much Honda. My eyes are no good now. I think I’m getting old.” He smiles. “Seventy nine years old,” he says, shaking his head, as though he has just uncovered an improbable fact. “People predict I’ll get to 90. Too old. Too much. Too old to work now.” He crunches on another Dorito. “I wanna work alright. I’ve worked all my life. Now I got a good pension, social security. Got all the money I need. Got nothing to do.” He grins and his top teeth come loose and lurch to one side. “Nothing to do. Do you like music?”
He plugs in his Gibson and picks his way through his songbook, gospel tunes he has mostly written himself, almost all about his wife. He plays me ‘He’s at the End of the Road’ and ‘If God called us We’ll Die from this Earth’ and ‘We Shall Be Together Soon’. His voice is quiet, scarcely there. When he finishes we sit together in silence, the soft hum of the amp, the midnight sun slanting in low through the window, hitting the songbook, the gilt of the Bible. After a time he shakes his head. “She died ten years ago,” he says, “and I miss her so much.” He says it with a quiet astonishment. Behind him on the wall, amongst family portraits and icons of Jesus and a photograph of a whale breaching, is a hand-drawn portrait of her.
“Lucy loved the whaling,” he says. “She never stayed home during umiaqtuq. I was a harpooner, long time ago. Then we made our own crew. When me and Lucy started she didn’t want to buy a boat and so we made our own. We built six.”
Out through the back door of the house he shows me where some of the frames are still stacked. Umiat, the boats are called. They are wooden, perhaps twelve feet long, built to hold six paddlers and a harpooner in the bow. I follow him through to his bedroom, and there above the door is his old harpoon. “The happiest times in my life,” he says. “They were the six whales that we caught, and when me and Lucy got married. One year we got two.”
The bowhead is the longest lived mammal on the planet. A whale landed recently on the North Slope was found to have embedded in its skin a lance tip from a style of harpooning technology which went out in the nineteenth century. Whaling began here somewhere between 600 and 800 AD, and despite that the harpoon is now tipped with steel, not bone, and the chamber is filled with explosives, an Eskimo from the first millennium arriving in Point Hope today would recognise the rituals of the hunt. For six or eight weeks of spring, commencing when the bowhead begin their migration north, crews camp out on the shorefast ice and wait for whales to show themselves in the leads which open up between them and the sea ice. When one appears they paddle quietly after it, the harpooner launching his weapon from the bow when the crew get him in range.
Inside the shaft is a darting gun with a plunger trigger that fires a shell into the whale, which will, all going to plan, kill it instantly. The steel tip remains in the animal, attached to a length of rope and a float to mark the whale’s position if it dives. Word spreads by radio and cellphone; the community rushes down to haul it out with block and tackle. It is butchered there and then, hunks of blubber sliced from the stomach and boiled up to keep everyone warm. Art had invited me to Point Hope for Nalakutaq, a three day celebration of the whale which is held every summer if the hunt has been successful. Six is a good haul, and I’d been assured it would be a good party.
Jo pulls out some photo albums and carries them through to the kitchen and together we turn the pages. There are photographs of births, of funerals, of high school basketball matches (the Tikigaq Harpooners and Harpoonerettes). A photograph of a new Toyota pick-up, another of his father in hospital, sunken in his bedsheets. A group of old women skinning a polar bear on the floor of this kitchen that I sit in. Graduations, porcupines, a trip to Seattle. The men in shell suits and big bad hair, in case you thought the eighties had not pervaded the very farthest reaches of the West. One of his whales, vast, the ice red with gore, him and Lucy standing for their photo in front of it. A seal skin pegged out to dry. The Stars and Stripes and an iceberg behind. They are photo albums of a life, the life of an American, the life of an Eskimo. Probably anyone’s would be comparable, they are of birth and love and death and of the moments that become stories, although I am struck by how often the same faces recur, here bearing a coffin, here at a party, here butchering a whale. They are photos, also, of a community that endures.
Every morning at about seven the CB radio whines and explodes into life like some sort of cockerel. “Good morning, Point Hope, good morning.” Throughout the day it will scream sporadically, turned up to maximum so that Jo can hear it, terrifying me as I sit writing at the table in the silence. “Happy birthday to my baby daughter Michelle.” “Anyone got any diapers, till we get our OC dividend on Friday? This is Peggy and Jo. Like to borrow some diapers.” Often there is tinny gospel music.
Once, someone who has had enough of gospel music follows it with 50 Cent. “Happy happy birthday, Auntie. I sure love you.” “Community clean-up starting on Church Street now, picking up the trash.” “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Amen.” “Josie has been airvaced to hospital in Anchorage with pneumonia. Can everybody please pray?”
Jo’s morning ritual begins when the radio starts squawking. He rises, fries up bacon and eggs on the hot plate, and works his way through pot after pot of the thin, watery coffee that he will drink without cease until bedtime. Then he bundles himself up in black parka and mittens and goes out for a spin on his Honda, the generic word for any of the makes of quad-bike that are the transport in town at this time of year. That first morning I go out with him.
We drive west out to the point, me pillion, bouncing along the ridges of the gravel beach past snow machines (as Alaskans call snowmobiles) and fish racks and the half dismembered carcasses of walrus, penis bones removed for carving, hazed with flies. To our right through the fog are the funnels of the power station where the old village used to stand, to our left the frozen sea. Occasionally Jo pulls to a stop and insists I take a photograph.
At the point we stop and he cuts the engine. So this is it, the point of Point Hope, the north-westernmost point of the Americas. “In World War Two the army came to town,” Jo says, turning round in his seat and peering out through his parka. “They signed up my Dad to the Alaskan Territorial Guard. Dad had to stand at the Point every day to make sure no enemies were coming. Every day, from morning until night. Nobody ever came. He hunted seals the whole time.”
So this is it, the point of Point Hope, the north-westernmost point of the Americas.
It must have been hard for Jo’s father, Rueben Towksjhea, to believe, walking to work every day, staring out to the horizon, that anyone in their right mind would ever turn up to America by this route, let alone launch an invasion. There is not much to invade. It is hard to believe, standing here, that there is anyone else in the world. Grinding and heaving throughout the eight months of the winter the sea ice has piled against the beach in bergs that rise a couple of storeys high, pushing up like miniature mountain ranges, a dull white beneath the lour of the sky, a haze of blue in the shadows between. They are scattered haphazard, the building blocks of ice giants. We get off the Honda and walk out. Jo climbs slowly to the top of the first rise and stops, his knees giving him trouble. I walk out a little further. There are deep cracks in the ice, pools of glass blue meltwater. Jo motions at me to go on. I wonder how much he assumes I know about ice, how much he assumes anyone who is twenty-nine must know. I have read of sheets that break off without warning, taking those on them out to sea. From the next rise I can see the water. The cloud is low, the sea silver. A flock of murre pass, maybe fifty strong, strung out on a thread above the line of the water. The horizon far off, dark blue. There is a gentle grunting, the sound of walrus.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published their Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 they were predicting an ice-free Arctic by the end of the century. Yet in 2012 an unprecedented thaw saw ice coverage drop to 3.5 million square kilometres, just half the surface area and a quarter of the volume of the 1980s. Kim Holmen, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, said that the melt “has taken us by surprise and we must adjust our understanding of the system and we must adjust our science and we must adjust our feelings for the nature around us”. 2013’s Fifth Assessment Report carries revised estimates of a “nearly ice-free” ocean being at least a 66% possibility in summer by 2050, with less conservative scientists discussing dates that come as close as 2020. Whenever it is to happen, it will be a state that no human has ever witnessed, consequences utterly unknown.
The ice bounced back a little in the 2013 season, following a particularly cold summer, to the sixth lowest extent on record. ‘And Now It’s Global COOLING!’ shrieked David Rose, a man who likes to write his headlines in capitals in the Daily Mail. Though often considered economically beneficial, leading as it will to the opening of new shipping routes, oil wells and mines, a study by economic and scientific researchers in the journal Nature described the melting Arctic as an “economic time bomb” that could cost upwards of $60 trillion over the next ten years [Whiteman, Hope & Williams]. Considering the entire world’s economy amounted to $70 trillion in 2012, it is not a figure to be taken lightly, and is perhaps the reason organisations such as the World Bank, not well known for their environmental stance, have begun to urge business leaders to reflect upon the consequences. Much of this cost derives from the 50 gigatonnes of methane locked in the thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, the release of which, according to the report, will result in “more extreme weather, flooding, drought and poor health”. All this is, it continues, a conservative estimate, not taking into account the costs of such factors as ocean acidification and methane released from the thawing of land-based permafrost.
I walk back, up the pressure ridge to where Jo is, and stand there, looking out with him. “There’s too much water in the world now,” he says after a time.
“Too much water?”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Because I can see it.”
“But why do you think there’s more water now?”
He shrugs, as though he can’t see the point of the question. We’re talking about effects, not causes. “I don’t even know. Too much snow, or the ocean getting bigger, or something. The water comes right through the airstrip now. That’s why they say they have to move it. They might have to move the town again, in later years. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be dead.”
Steve, Art Oomituk’s older brother, is the mayor of Point Hope. When I walk down to meet him at the City Hall, a geodesic dome that doubles as the bingo hall, he is just heading out in his truck and he offers to show me the sights.
Steve is a big guy with drooping moustaches, his eyelids grey and thick and heavy. “I was born here,” he tells me, “lived most of my life here. Art, my younger brother, he wanted to go away to college. I said to him, I’m going to stay here. And when you come back, you tell me what you learnt, and I’ll tell you what I learnt.”
We drive out towards the Point through a wide expanse of grassland, the site of the old village. The graveyard is still here. Once the people were buried above ground, Steve tells me, the whaling captains on racks of whale jawbones, the others lain out on sleds. Not easy to dig graves in permafrost. “The dogs got into ’em. The gulls, the ground squirrels.” When the missionaries came they made them gather up hundreds of years’ worth of skeletons and place them in a single mass grave in the centre of the graveyard. Despite the crosses that now mark the graves, the whole yard is still fenced with whale jawbones. Two jawbones to a whale, hundreds of bones. Point Hope took six whales this summer, and that was a good year. These bones must go back centuries.
We drive on. “That’s Nanny’s house,” he says, pointing out the window of the pickup at a sodden mound, the long grass the colour of straw after a winter beneath the snow. “She was the last one to live in a sod house. She moved out in 1975. I used to bring her wood and water, feeling my way in the dark.” I ask him if I can get out to have a look. “Sure,” he says. “Watch out for polar bears.” I am unsure how to watch out for polar bears. “Sometimes they like to hide in that house over there,” he explains.
I open the car door and walk out across the foggy tundra. A piece of white plastic flickering in the wind catches my eye and I turn, jumpy. I have been told they are as quiet as cats. I feel absurd to be nervous thirty feet from this truck like a tank driven by a man who has lived here his entire life. In the fog the power station has disappeared, the water treatment plant, the village. There are only the mounds, receding into the murk, like little fairy hills. Each one of them was once a house. Each house accommodated many members of a family. Point Hope, at its peak, may have had 6,000 inhabitants.
The entrance to the igloo is shrunken and tilted now, the doorway blown full of snow. The door jamb and the lintel are made of driftwood – the closest tree of any size is a hundred and something miles away on the south slopes of the Brooks Range, though coming closer, as Alaska warms, at a speed of roughly a hundred metres a year. (In 2008 there was a forest fire north of the Brooks Range where there was no word for wildfire in the local dialect.)
I stoop and peer inside. The roof, the walls, the entire structure is a lattice of bowhead whale ribs, jawbones, scapula, greening with age and lichen. Pale light drifts in with the fog through the cracks. Each rib is perhaps ten feet long, bulbous on one end, tapering and flattening out to a point. This is the qanitchaq, the entrance passage, and if it were not collapsing and drifted with snow it would lead through to a living area, built from driftwood, where in the months of darkness and forty degrees below families would pass their lives beneath the snow.
Steve grew up in such a house, living with his grandparents. They had had partial power but the village could not afford to run the generators all the time. All they used was a single light. The heating came from a wood burner and from seal oil. “Did it get warm?” I ask him. “Jeez! So hot I couldn’t stay in there. But we’re used to the cold. Even now if my house is too hot I can’t sleep.” Another tunnel leads off to Steve’s great aunt’s house next door.
We drive to the edge of the bluff and sit there in the car, looking out. It feels like we should be eating fish and chips. Out there beneath that grey and swept horizon, according to the US Geological Survey, is an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of gas, 13% and 30% respectively of the world’s remaining undiscovered reserves. Shell had explored these seas in the eighties, but oil was $40 a barrel then and the ocean was full of ice. Things change. Since 2005 Shell have ploughed close to $5 billion into the Arctic, acquiring leases, preparing to drill. There are those who stand to profit and there are those who worry about the implications of spills and industrialisation in such a fragile system, and often they are the same people. I ask Steve how he feels about offshore drilling. “We’ve seen it before, this hunger for oil,” he says. And he tells me a tale.
Whales were hunted commercially from the 1600s, but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the first whalers came up through the Bering Strait and into the life of the Inupiat.
Whale oil, rendered from the mammal’s blubber, provided illumination and the lubrication of machines in the rapidly industrialising parts of the globe, whilst the baleen of the whalebone whales, that class of whale that feeds by filtering plankton through its baleen plates, would be used to shape the fripperies of the modern bourgeoisie – umbrella ribs, corset stiffeners, billiard cushions, skirt hoops – its desirability and price waxing and waning with the fashions of the time. Like nutmeg once, like cocaine now, its conspicuous consumption in the well-to-do parlours of the world belied the gross risk to people and destruction of environment necessary to keep the industry ticking over.
Like nutmeg once, like cocaine now, its conspicuous consumption in the well-to-do parlours of the world belied the gross risk to people and destruction of environment necessary to keep the industry ticking over
A series of technological advances, in particular the ability to render the blubber on board, thus permitting much longer voyages, had led to a whaling boom, yet by the 1840s the industry was in freefall. The very size of the whales, the vastness of their pods and the seemingly boundless ocean must have meant that those that hunted them could scarcely have contemplated their demise. Yet in 1843 the Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchant’s Transcript, the American trade journal, wrote that they had been giving “some attention to the future prospects of the demand and supply of sperm oil. Our accounts from the fleet in the Pacific, by recent arrivals, shows a great falling off in the quantity of sperm oil taken during the last season, as compared with previous years” [cited in Bockstoe]. First the Atlantic and the Indian, and then the Pacific, had been largely hunted out, initially by the British, and then by the Americans. For rapidly expanding nations, dependent on the oil for both lighting and lubrication, this was of some concern. “America needed oil desperately at that period,” writes Ivan Sanderson, “and was willing to pay handsomely for it” [cited in Williams]. Herman Melville wondered whether whales would go the way of the plains buffalo. A resource which had seemed infinite for the previous two hundred years was apparently not sustainable. Peak whale had been reached.
Whether owing to the almost omniscient look-outs of the mast-heads of the whale-ships…and the thousand harpoons and lances darted along all continental coasts…Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc;
he wrote in Moby Dick, “whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.” Yet he concluded that Leviathan would not, that he would forever have recourse to “firm fortresses, which, in all human probability, will for ever remain impregnable. The whale-bone whales can at last resort to their Polar citadels, and diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls there, come up among icy fields and floes; and in a charmed circle of everlasting December, bid defiance to all pursuit from man”.
Yet those fortresses were not, apparently, impregnable. Captain Thomas Welcome Roys already had something of a reputation as a whaler when he took over the bark Superior in July of 1847 and set sail from Sag Harbour. When he arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, in March 1848, they had just 120 barrels of oil, a paltry amount for eight months at sea. The oceans really did seem empty. Roys had heard tales from Russians of a “polar whale”, docile, bounteous, and rich in oil, and it was to these that he turned his attention. He fitted the ship out for a second year’s voyage and set sail for the Aleutians. He arrived in May and was unable to penetrate further through the frozen waters, but by July he was able to continue.
“The crew thought they were going to their deathbed,” Steve says to me. “They’d heard the Arctic was this frozen land where no one could survive.” The ship came close to mutiny as Roys pushed them on through endless fog and a driving, frozen rain. “Then they saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and they came out of the fog into so much daylight.” It was summer in the Arctic and the sun turned circles in the sky above them. And they found what they had come for. “Roys wrote in his log that there were so many whales that you could run along their backs and never touch the water.” Steve looks at me, shakes his head.
The bowhead is second only to the blue whale in its size, weighing up to sixty tonnes, and its adaptation to Arctic waters means that its blubber can be up to twenty inches thick. Coupled with its docility and twenty-four hours of daylight to hunt by, it was better than Roys had dared hope. “Grey whale gave 35 barrels of oil and its baleen was short,” says Steve. “The sperm whale gave fifty barrels of oil and had no baleen at all.” When Roys returned to Honolulu he took with him 1,800 barrels of oil, from just eleven bowheads. It had taken them thirty-five days to get a quantity of oil which normally took two seasons. It is not known how much baleen he had on board, but a single adult male can carry up to six hundred baleen plates, weighing thirty-two hundred pounds. At $5 a pound Roys had made himself a fortune. He described it in his log as “the greatest place for oil in the world” [see Lowenstein 2008]. He published his discovery in a church journal and the news swept through the industry.
The next year, in 1849, 154 ships, more than one fifth of the world’s whaling fleet, set sail for the Arctic Ocean. They returned with 206,850 barrels of oil and 2,481,600 pounds of baleen. In 1850, 144 ships took 243,680 barrels of oil and 3,654,000 pounds of baleen. The whalers came from all over, bringing with them the global gamut of germs, liquor and venereal diseases.
“In the seventy years that followed this exploit,” Lowenstein writes in his book Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska: 1826-1909, “twenty-seven thousand separate whaling expeditions penetrated the same waters, 150 ships had been lost, and almost twenty thousand whales from a population of thirty thousand had been slaughtered.” One subspecies of bowhead had the dubious honour of being named after the very man who had set in motion their demise. Balaena Mysticetus Roysii. In Schmitt, Jong and Winter’s biography of Roys they write that “it should be noted that present-day cetologists have not been able to confirm the existence of this subspecies because of the scarcity of bowhead whales, which are considered endangered animals”. And it was not just the whale population that was decimated. “Given that the men would also spread diseases and abuse Native women,” writes Lowenstein, “the human cost of trade relations was incalculable”. The 1905 census of Point Hope put the population at 126 people.
“twenty-seven thousand separate whaling expeditions penetrated the same waters, 150 ships had been lost, and almost twenty thousand whales from a population of thirty thousand had been slaughtered.”
The initial commercial boom was short lived. “After three fat years,” continues Lowenstein, “the rest of the decade was commercially dismal…One twentieth-century theory suggests that the first rush of hunters may have wiped out a whole southern Chukchi Sea bowhead subpopulation.” And alongside this decline in whaling, the first murmurings of the coming oil age were sounding. In 1846 Abraham Gesner, a Canadian, had demonstrated a kerosene lamp to a packed house on Prince Edward Island. Extracted from coal his process was expensive, but oil strikes in Pennsylvania in the 1850s and refinements of the technique to use crude instead of coal meant that by the early 1860s there were around thirty refineries producing kerosene in the States, selling at around thirty cents a gallon. A clean burning fuel with no smell and around seven times cheaper than whale oil, the effect on the market was immediate.
“It saved the whale,” Steve tells me. Whilst perhaps a little too simplistic and too temptingly poetic to credit America’s first oil boom with single-handedly sparing the bowhead – the differential in price was as much an effect of the whaling industry’s rapacious nature, driving its own resource so close to extinction that to continue to hunt it became unviable, as it was due to the abundance of a new resource – it certainly played a large part.
With the industry collapsing the whalers turned their attention to the walrus. The oil was cleaner, the ivory could be traded, the hunting was easy. “They’d go down to the beach and club a thousand or two,” says Steve. The walrus did not last long. Yet still the whalers stayed on, for even as the price of whale oil plummeted the price of whalebone continued to rise. Whatever else might have been changing in the world there was still only one way to keep a corset stiff. They took to hacking off the heads for the baleen, leaving the rest of the carcass adrift to be pecked at by the gulls. Then it turned out plastic could be made from crude also, and that was the end of that. In 1915 one whaler made a voyage to the Arctic, and came back with no catch. The bowhead population has since somewhat recovered.
Whatever else might have been changing in the world there was still only one way to keep a corset stiff.
“We survived it,” says Steve, “but here today, in 2000, we see the hunger for oil coming back. It’s knocking at our door again. They want to drill right in the paths of the whales, the seals, the walrus. They make us who we are. The animals are our identity, our food, our clothing, our shelter. That’s why we call it the gift of the whale. The whale is at the heart of everything. Our drums are made from the membrane from the liver of the whale. Those are for the songs, the dances, the stories. Our spirituality as a people. It has been passed from one generation to another, how to care for them. How to respect. Because without them you’re nothing. You don’t hunt. You don’t dance.”
That they have made it even this far with any of their culture left intact is remarkable. Since the whalers came to Point Hope, a steady stream of missionaries, H-bomb detonators, oil companies, environmentalists and journalists have been plaguing the village. “White culture was brought to us,” Steve says. He’s seen them go from an entirely subsistence lifestyle to a partial cash economy. “We have a culture which is still somewhat intact. But there are no dogs’ teams in the village now. No one living in a sod house. We need money for electricity, to heat our homes, to put gas in our Hondas, to pay for our cable.”
Would he want to go back? He shrugs. It is the impossible question. “You want to take the best of both worlds,” he says. “I have a mix of food in my freezer.”
These changes had happened in the memories of even the middle-aged in the village. Steve could recall when the money had started to come in. In the early seventies, in the wake of striking oil in Prudhoe Bay, an issue came to the fore which had failed to be dealt with since America bought the land off the Russians in 1867. Namely, who owned which bit? If the land was going to be parcelled up, if oil leases were to be sold and infrastructure for transport installed that would run the length of the state, then some decisions needed to be made. Governor Walter Hickel believed that
you can only claim title to land by conquest or purchase. Just because your granddaddy chased a moose across some property doesn’t mean you own it
[cited in Palast]. Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, disagreed, as did, unsurprisingly, the natives. Udall suspended all transactions on land until the dispute was settled. In 1971, ANCSA, the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act, was signed. It gave the Alaskan Natives one billion dollars and forty million acres of land (one tenth of Alaska), divided along cultural and tribal lines into twelve regions. In each region a native corporation was established to manage the local wealth. Overnight the natives became stockholders, with the expectation of annual dividends. Much of the inherited land was rich in deposits of minerals, oil and gas, in timber and in fish. It was, to quote John McPhee, “widely described as the most openhanded and enlightened piece of legislation that has ever dealt with aboriginal people”.
Elsewhere McPhee writes, “It was good only insofar as they agreed to change their way – to cherish money, and to adopt the concept…of private property”. To become, in short, capitalists.
“We ate a lot of native food,” says Steve. “Now we have a store. We need to buy gas for the Honda, shells, to have a freezer for the food. We’re so entwined in a Western way of life, with electronics, TV, drugs, alcohol. You can get on a plane and go anywhere you want. You can get on the internet and see anywhere you want. Problem is, it costs money. We are so connected to the outside world. But we are so connected to this world too, in this diameter. Thirty square miles of it. We want our younger generation to get educated, to become doctors, lawyers, and we want them to come back here and take the jobs that other people have. But some of them, they don’t come back.”
Elaine, some relation of Jo’s that I don’t quite get, is sitting in the kitchen when I get back, visiting, polishing two brass candlesticks that used to be Jo’s mother’s. The television is tuned to the shopping channel. The candlesticks are from the Episcopalian church, Jo tells me, though I’m unsure exactly how they worked their way into his mother’s possession.
Out on the table also are a number of artefacts. A flint arrowhead, a flint ulu (a crescent bladed knife used only by women), a couple of bone tools that could be something or could be something else. Amongst the peanut butter jar and the phonebook and the radio, who knows how many thousands of years old? Once they would go down to the beach and dig them up. They’d find mastodon tusks there too, poking out of the collapsing banks. Now they get a 10,000 dollar fine for digging on state land.
“You want one?” Jo says to me, handing me the ulu. I push it back into his hand – you should keep it, I say, it’s yours, it belongs here.
“What about you?” he says to Elaine. She shakes her head no. “I got too much trash,” she says. “One day we shut up our dog in the qanisaq when it was about to pup and it ate all the bone tools we had. Ate ’em all up.” Jo smiles, his false teeth hang loose. He puts the items back in their zip lock bag and rests them on the shelf.
“No matter where you are in Alaska,” says the television, “all roads lead to a McDonalds.” Not here they don’t, I think.
It is my turn to cook dinner. I make dahl with the lentils I have brought with me. Jo is perplexed but enthusiastic. “No white man food when I was young,” he says. One night he makes me beluga soup, but mostly he’s on doughnuts and Doritoes. He still sweeps the work surfaces down after with a goose wing.
We used to keep it in the ground but we can’t no more. Too warm
“The hunting’s different now, with the white man food in the store. We used to store our food underground. Now the ground’s getting warmer. Soon as you put the food in the ground it get stink. We used to keep it in the ground but we can’t no more. Too warm. Maybe one day we won’t have a winter no more.”
Are young people interested in learning the old ways? “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Some of them are. Most of them like the white man’s ways. Both are good. But I like to live Eskimo. None of them speak Eskimo. When I speak to them, the boys and the girls, they just look at me, they don’t understand. I hate that.” Jo, with the weary familiarity of indigenous experiences the world over, was beaten for speaking Inupiaq at school.
“The kids are different now. Now they use dope. We didn’t use dope. They don’t work. They use dope so much it will start growing out of their fingers. Where do they get it from? I don’t even know. Someone told me up Kivalina River they have dope plants. Grow by themselves. That people go up there and smoke. I don’t know. Everything is changing.”
I swing between thinking of elders as two things: people heralding from a long and unbroken tradition of knowledge passed down, with a wisdom to stand back and contemplate the churn of modern life, a wisdom which we have lost ourselves; and a bunch of old men muttering how kids aren’t what they used to be, and how everything has gone to hell in a handcart.
Later that evening two young guys come round to visit Jo, their cheeks frost bitten, their English inflected with Inupiaq slang. They have been out helping looking for a young couple who have gone missing round Novik, who left on a snowmachine about a week ago. No one seems to be holding out much hope, but no one wants to stop looking.
“Got a walrus yesterday,” says one of them. “I learned from those Savoonga guys, make two holes here and put the rope in there and pull it out like that. First time I pull one like that. You ever do it like that, Jo?”
Jo shakes his head, animated by their conversation.
“I harpooned it,” says the other one, quietly.
“You gonna be harpooner?” says Jo.
“Sure hope so,” he says.
“He had a chance. When we were out on the ice. One came up real close to the ice.”
“I thought it was a beluga. We just saw the ripples.”
“He got the harpoon ready and the guy was getting the buoy from the boat and he knocked the boat and he was gone. I woke up and I heard the guy going ‘Throw it! Throw it!’”
Jo gives them some tips about where to look for walrus off the point. They listen, attentive, whilst he speaks, this elder passing down his life.
When they have finished talking hunting I ask the two guys how they feel about the plans for offshore exploration. “With all the activity the whales might go further out. Or they might come closer. Those whales they hear everything. I’m trained as a mechanic. I could probably get a job on one of the rigs. But what’s a few jobs? Money comes and goes. But the ocean – what am I trying to say?”
“The ocean is our garden,” says the other one. It is a line I hear so often I feel it must have been conceived in some media focus group.
“That’s right. This is the oldest settled place in North America. We want to be able to carry on hunting that wildlife for thousands more years. You saw what happened in the Gulf, right? But if the government wants to do something then they gonna do it. That’s how it’s always been, since they been. A few hunters and whalers ain’t gonna make any difference.”
A little while later they stand to go. “You looking forward to the festival?” says one. I say I am. “We’ll get you on that blanket toss,” he laughs. “Better start practising on the trampoline.”
A beautiful sunny day. It is possible, at last, to see the distance. Finally, after days of fog, the planes are coming in, relatives of Point Hopers who have been grounded in Kotzebue for days, thinking they might miss the festival. They’re just in time. Bering Air is the airline that serves Point Hope. In town they call it Barely There.
High scrapes of cloud, cats’ claws. A strong wind blowing from the south so that it is colder than the past days. Jo has been getting ready all morning, getting out his zip lock bags and his cooler, paper towels, black bin liners. He goes out to church. Yesterday he cut his hair, although I confess I wouldn’t have noticed had he not asked me what I thought. Jo is, except by the very strictest definition, bald. He goes out twice more to find out on which side of the Point the festivities are starting. The CB radio is crackling all morning, and there is gospel on the wireless from Kotzebue, dim amongst the static.
We go down just before two, me pillion on the Honda. The four boats of the Unasiksikaaq clan that took whales this season have been pulled up off the shore ice and are perched on sleds lain upon their sides so that they are each four feet off the ground, regimentally aligned, north to south, from one sea to the other. One is fibreglass, the other three traditional wooden frames skinned with ugruk, a sort of bearded seal that weighs in at almost a thousand pounds and lounges around off the point. The paddles, also, are a mix of the handmade and the factory made, some driftwood, some varnished ply, some yellow and blue plastic. Each crew gathers by its respective boat, dressed in their own team colours, jacket and baseball cap, the logo and name emblazoned upon them. Kinneeveauk. Tuzroyluk 153. There is something very American about it. Extending from the front of each prow is the harpoon, several feet long, a wicked tip like a dolphin leaping.
The rest of us, the crowd, gather round them, the Hondas pulled up in a circle like night-time on a wagon train. Like kids on the estate where I lived in King’s Cross, their cars drawn up around them. Much of the town must be here, although there is an obvious lack of young men, and also less people, I am told, than there once were, when they sat many rows deep and the whaling crews numbered twenty. The decline is put down to the price of gas, coming in from the outlying villages just isn’t as feasible as it once was. But still I am impressed by the turnout. Even the two cops are here, though whether to ingratiate themselves or to keep an eye on things is unclear. They are eating the free doughnuts.
Mostly the dress is a mix of jeans and thick jackets, but the women are in parkas of bright and cluttered design, many floral, lined with beaver and wolverine fur, most with the yellowing claws still on. Most people still wear mukluks, the skin and fur boots, in the winter because nothing better has yet been invented. People mill about, meeting and greeting. Lots of people come up and hug Jo. I realise that he is one of the oldest people here, an elder, and respected as such.
Jacob Lane Junior, the captain of Kinneeveauk, kicks off proceedings, as captain of the first crew to catch a whale this spring. His wife stands beside him. Like many here he is a big man and he carries it with authority. He thanks us all for coming, wherever we might be from. He thanks the Lord, his hand raised to the heavens, for providing the whales. “And I give thanks for your hunters, who have gathered this food for you. Who have hunted in the ways that their ancestors did, hunted the whale, and we share food with you now in the ways that our ancestors did, not just with the people of Tikigaq, with all of you.”
There is a succession of speeches, some harder to hear than others. Two of the older men speak entirely in Inupiaq. Not many will understand them, though Jo does, sitting on the ground beside me, complaining that his butt is frozen. There is a black preacher, followed by a white preacher, who lead the crowd in hymns I have never heard. There are some very good voices amongst the women. The crowd is almost entirely Eskimo. There are two white guys taking photographs with long lenses, there are the two cops, and there are two women from Barrow to spay the cats and dogs, or ‘fix’ as they say here. And then there’s me. I sit between Jo and the woman who won this year’s Miss World Eskimo International Olympics.
A raven dives at a seagull. And the food starts to be handed out. Jo hands me a zip-lock bag. Each crew starts bringing round handfuls of what looks like gore. I shyly hold my ziplock open as though I may or may not want some. Jo encourages me to be more forceful. This is the mikigaq. For three days the whale meat is placed in large bins and stirred, the juice skimmed off, until it begins to ferment. The women hand it out, a great bare handful into each zip-lock, a great handful from each crew, until my zip-lock is brimming with meat the colour of liver, sloshing with juice. The women have whale up to their elbows. The vets mutter about botulism. Jo hands me a paper plate.
I have failed to bring a knife so I have to pull it apart with my fingers. Eskimos don’t speak much when they eat; I have already learnt this at various tables as my questions fell one after the other upon an awkward, gnawing silence. A hush descends over 700 people. The ferment is delicate and clean, fresh, juicy, surprisingly tender. There is also muktuk, comprising of the blubber and the skin, a thick band of each, black skin, white blubber, like slices of a chessboard. The fat is sweet and fizzy and dissolves in the mouth, the skin has the texture of a very firm mushroom. Together it is quite an experience. It reminds me of sweet shop combinations, rhubarb and custard.
Eating raw meat is a slow process, as though you are more amalgamating the animal than ingesting it. I eat what I can; the rest goes in the zip-lock for Jo for later. Then come doughnuts, followed by cake, all chocolate and green icing, and then coffee. What we can’t eat of the doughnuts and the cake go into more zip-locks. Point Hope, like most Alaskan communities I’ve visited, is more or less powered by zip-locks.
Kids bring round bin-liners, gather up the trash. Jo tries to get me to invite Miss World over to his house, but whether for me or for him I’m not sure. And then everyone drifts off, until the only people standing round the boats are five of the white folks – me, the two photographers and the two vets, rubbing whale off our hands and onto our trousers.
The next morning I drag myself out of bed about half 8 after a night of lying awake in the light. Jo is up, rushing around at a smart hobble, the CB radio is crackling with everyone wishing Point Hope a good morning.
“What time are they starting today, Jo?”
“WHAT TIME THEY STARTING?” I find myself lapsing into the village English, dropping my grammar, my own English sounding far too formal.
“Now!” he says, with an anxious tremor in his voice. “I wait for you.”
I down a cup of thin coffee, heave his cooler outside for him and bungee cord it to the Honda, hop on the back, riding side saddle this time because that seems to be how it’s done, and we gun it down to the site. Save for a handful of guys setting up we are the very first people there. Jo is unfazed. I carry his box and his cooler over to the best of the ringside seats, right next to the coffee urn. The boats from yesterday have been arranged in a half-moon, propped up on their sides and supported by their paddles. A black tarpaulin has been put up as a wall behind them, running a full half semicircle around the site, keeping out the wind. In the shelter of the boats are wooden sleds, covered with caribou skins and cushions. A number of enormous whale jawbones lying on the ground, others propped up in tripod shapes. A flagpole has the flags of the four crews that caught whales, in the order of the catches, with the Stars and Stripes, much bigger, at the top, flapping in the southward wind. We sit there with the wind raging about us, an ashen sky, an urn of coffee, styrofoam cups. It is much like an ill-advised English fete, except for the men that are turning up in four wheelers in gradual succession are heaving whale flippers out onto the ground. Huge flippers, that take two and sometimes four men to lift, using meat hooks to get a grip, and when they drop them they rock back and forth and settle like enormous tyres. It is hard to credit that they were once part of a mammal.
The crowds slowly gather and once we are all seated the whaling captains stand, with the food they offer behind them for this harvest festival, and give their speeches. Rex Rock, whaling captain, head of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, is dressed full length in furs, his wife in a striking turquoise parka lined with the ruff of some mammal.
“This is proof, right here, that God loves each and every one of us,” he says. He is obviously used to speaking in public. “We have some awesome traditions,” he says, a hand on his heart, the other gesturing. “Things are changing, out there on the sea ice. We have to keep hunting, the ways that our elders hunted. When I heard one of our elders on the radio, giving thanks, saying how hungry she was for the food, I said to my kids, you listen to that, that’s why we go out. We hunters, we never go out for ourselves.”
There are other speeches. Jo is invited to give one. He speaks entirely in Inupiaq. When he comes back he is smiling, a little boy. “How’d I do?” he says. “How’d I look?” I tell him he looked great.
More mikigaq is handed out, into our zip-lock bags. Doughnuts, Eskimo ice-cream of various varieties. Many people separate up the ice-cream into individual zip-locks. I don’t, and then realise that some are made of sugar and some are made of meat. And then begins the carving of the flippers. With knives like hockey sticks the young men set about them, cutting them crosswise into thin slices, pushing them into piles, looking too perfect to be food. They are handed out like a prize giving, individuals called up to the front and thanked for what they have done for the village. Jo is called up several times – as an old whaling captain, as a friend, as a relative, an elder. There are in-jokes and sometimes peoples’ Inupiaq names are used. Flippers are given to the girls that made the mikigaq, to the kids, even to the iglaaqs, whether they come from Point Lay or from England. Jo pushes me up to go stand in line. The flipper wriggles like a fish and I have to take it with both hands. It is a large piece and when I get back to our seat Jo fairly punches the air with delight. People are already chewing on them. I can’t get my teeth through it, it is like gnawing on cartilage or muscle.
It goes on, and on. The baleen is divided up, a piece for each elder. The white paste between the slices is meant to be a delicacy, something like chewing gum. Whale plaque. I ask Jo what they do with it. He shrugs. “They always give us it,” he says. I am cold, the south wind blowing straight through me. I walk back to the house.The next day it is foggy again, thick, milky, hugging the ground. The planes are grounded, and whenever I tell anyone I am leaving tomorrow they just smile and say “Good luck with that.”
I am up at half seven and Jo is already heading out the door with a cool box about four times bigger than yesterday’s. Today, it seems, is the big one. I walk down through the wind at about half past eight. Hondas go up and down. Kids are bouncing on the trampolines. Down by the lagoon two polar bear skins are strung out to dry. Good eating, I’m told. Ice has formed overnight on the electricity wires and it is blowing off in clumps. In ten days it will be the summer solstice. The first of the pink flowers, some small velvet catkins, are pushing up through the tundra.
I pass Isaiah, from the fire station, on the way down to the camp. He walks over and we shake hands.
“What’s Adam doing?” he says.
“Just walking down to the feast,” I say. “You had a good few days?”
“I been up all night,” he says. “Mechanics. Fixing Hondas.” He smells like weed. The door behind us keeps opening a crack and closing again, an indistinct face in the doorway. “I don’t go down much to the feast,” he says. “Just been being bored, mostly.”
“Why don’t you go down?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I just don’t much, I guess.”
“I noticed that it’s mostly the kids and the old people,” I say. “Not that many guys your age.”
“Some are,” he says. “The guys that work hard. The guys on the whaling crews.”
“You don’t work hard?”
“You’re not on a whaling crew?”
“I am,” he says.
“You like the whaling?”
“That’s why I’m here,” he says. “Only place you can go whaling like this. Pretty fun. Lots of work.”
“But you don’t like the feast?”
“There’s some people down there make me welcome, alright. But there’s some people that don’t. That’s the only way I can say it. Mostly just being bored. Waiting for the store to open.”
The conversation seems to have gone as far as it will go. We shake hands and I walk off down the road. At the camp I walk over to where Jo is sitting beside some other elders. They shuffle up on the caribou skins and make space for me. The camp is laid out as yesterday, the semi-circular windbreak, except now there is another a little way off, behind which the women are cooking. They’ve been at it since seven. Men are not allowed back there. Jeremy, one of the white teachers who has stayed in town because of his local girlfriend, asks the men who are shivering if it’s possible to start a fire. The men shake their heads. “We don’t do that,” they say. “Not here.”
“I’ll do it.”
They look at him. “We don’t do that here.”
“Go warm yourself by the women’s fires,” says one of them. They look at each other as he walks off. “He’ll learn,” says someone else. Before long he is back, shivering with the rest of us.
The food that comes from the kitchens is constant. There are duck eggs, collected from the tundra, pale blue-green and speckled. There are sourdough pancakes, scrambled eggs and pork fat. There is snow goose soup, perhaps the same birds that I saw in Fairbanks a month previous. Cake and fruit and doughnuts. And there is lots, and lots, of whale. Cooked this time, the flesh, the muktuk, various bits of innards. We eat and eat.
There is a dual purpose to the meal, in part to gorge, in part to gather for the future. The men perch on their sleds like vultures. I am told to move when I block their view. Whenever a new dish emerges from the kitchen there is a flock of them that ease to their chilled and aching feet and hobble hastily over to the pot, clutching a hand full of zip-lock bags, stuff them in their cooler. I am not quite as enthusiastic, which means that generally I get to the food too late, just a thin rind of blubber swilling around in the bottom of the dish. Slowly Jo’s cooler is filling. It is a way, I realise, for those who are unable to hunt, the old men, the widows, who do not have enough, to be able to take what they need without having to ask. It is also, this year, for the other villages, because except Savoonga out on St Lawrence Island, Point Hope is the only community to have landed whales this spring. It is the first year Barrow has not got a whale since 1951. Whether this is a freak year or “the beginning of the end”, as one woman puts it, is too early to say, but certainly the predictability of the ice is changing, and with it the whales’ patterns of migration.
By the time I get down to the basketball court that evening the dancing has already started, and it seems as though the entire town has come. A line of men sit on a row of chairs, each with a drum like a bodhran, the skin a stretched membrane of whale liver, beating out a rhythm, chanting. Behind them another row, of women, harmonising with the men. Steve is there, Art, others whom over the weeks I have come to know. I sit beside Ellis, Art’s girlfriend, a photographer from Holland he met when she was up here on assignment.
One after another groups stand to dance. Sometimes two, sometimes ten, sometimes all men, sometimes all women, sometimes a mix, an entire family. Sometimes a married couple. The routines have been choreographed in advance. Each dance begins slowly, a series of deliberate, expansive gestures, until all of a sudden the beat picks up and the dance becomes jerky, rhythmic, stylised. They become walrus, harpooners, warriors, a vocabulary of stylised characters. The moment it picks up, it is like the drum and bass drop, the moment everyone is waiting for. The dances between generations of the same family captivate me. The boy and his Dad wow everyone. Watching a grandson and grandmother together I marvel at how proud the teenager seems. And somehow all my searching questions of tradition, culture, youth, progress, they seem to fall away. This is it. Right here. This is community. And whether or not it is based on 6000 year old traditions, whether or not people are moving away, whether or not the problems of suicide and domestic abuse and alcoholism, a thousand people have turned out to a school gym on a Tuesday night to dance in front of each other. To perform their piece for the community. And I can’t help thinking that if more of us could enact such communal coming together, despite our political differences, family feuds and sexual orientations, then we might be doing better than we are. In this room are those who grew up in sod houses lit with seal oil, and in this room there are those that grew up on Facebook and use Inupiaq as slang. But they are under one roof. I wonder if the fact that oil has paid for that roof makes a difference.
This is it. Right here. This is community.
Then the drummers start to bark like walrus, the signal to stand. Steve stands, Art stands, the rest of them, and all the gathered crowd about the walls, they start to stand up also, all for the final, all together dance. Teenagers dance, toddlers, whaling captains, old women. It is as odd as a wedding crowd on the dance floor at midnight not Duran Duran but age-old songs and drums made from whale livers. And there is Jo, moving stiffly but he knows the moves, and somehow his face is framed in the light, and he almost seems to glow.
And finally, finally, there is more whale. Brought in in great plastic buckets, each crew carrying it in in long chains, applauded by the crowd. The whalers give speeches, the priests bless the food, we sing a hymn.
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
The meat, the muktuk, is handed out, frozen this time. And for each and every person, a cube of heart. We sit there, and we take our knives from our pockets, and we slice slivers of whale heart, and we eat. As I leave, one of the teenagers shakes my hand, cigarette hanging from his mouth. “Did you like our food?” he says.
Another guy I met a few days previously grins at me and holds out his hand as I pass. Suddenly I feel welcome here. Suddenly, I start to get this. Suddenly, much to my surprise, I realise that I am not ready to leave.
And I must. At last the sun has come out and the day is sharp and blue with a clarity which I have rarely seen. Last night Ellis had suggested that we go out and see Jo’s cabin before my flight.
We are late getting started, organising the transport, and the plane is leaving at three. I sit behind Jo, and Ellis takes the other Honda with her three-year-old Anna Kupak on her back, wrapped in layers like a fragile parcel. We head out of town going west, along the southern beach. Piles of driftwood, knotty strands of kelp, a baby whale washed up and thick with flies. The tundra is yellow, red. Pushing up to the shore the sea ice is thick, rotten now but still extensive. In town they say that it might all go out within the next few days, letting through the remaining whales that are still trapped further out. Some think that Point Hope might get another yet. For now, it is still here, the snow at its edge dirty with the earth of the eroding shoreline, and it is hard to imagine that it could look any other way. Yet way out beyond the ice, the sea is clear and blue. Jo points at some tracks, heading out onto the ice. “Bear,” he says. “Brown bear.”
He opens up the Honda as we thrash along the beach. The air is clear and clean enough to make me grin just to be in it. Tears prick at the corners of my eyes. A burst of murre scoot above us, spread out on the sky. Along the beach, every mile, every half mile, are camps, some old, some new. At one a lone man with a rifle, hunting seal. At another a whole family, meat on the fire, the children running along the shingle like any beach holiday anywhere. We pass a camp long since abandoned, and with a caw a raven takes off from its nest at the top of a lookout station built entirely out of driftwood. “Jabbertown,” Ellis shouts to me above the engines. Still standing. Babel. There is a grave beside a collapsing dog kennel.
The mountains ahead draw closer. The end of the Brooks Range, or the beginning, the first foothills of a sweep that traverses Alaska before becoming the Rockies more than a thousand miles away. Beneath the first of the cliffs Art and his cousin have their camp. Ellis has told me it is the most beautiful place she has ever seen, lush and green, like Ireland. We will not have time to get there today, and presumably that means, much as I would like to tell myself otherwise, that I will not have time to get there, ever. We make a turn, coming up off the beach and onto the tundra, and there beside a lake still frozen is Jo’s cabin. The Hondas lurch across the tussocks, through bog. We stop and shut the engines off. Stillness, silence. The place is expansive, vast. The hills becoming mountains, the high crackle of the birdsong, the sweep of the wide blue sky. I feel euphoric, just to be here.
On the door of the cabin there is a notice that welcomes others so long as they keep it tidy, and a verse out of Corinthians: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Inside the cabin is a wood stove, a bucket of coal, a gas burner, a crucifix. A single bed, some pilot crackers, other bits and pieces found in places rarely inhabited. Ellis produces a can of Dr Pepper and we share it, the four of us.
“This is a special place for me,” she says. “We came here when me and Art were falling in love. In all of the photographs, we’re glowing.”
Jo points out the broken window, the perspex on the floor, the hole now covered with plastic sheeting. “Bear,” he says, the way someone might point at a nibbled loaf and say “mice”.
We sit there, the four of us, the 79-year-old Eskimo, the Dutch lady married in, the half-Eskimo, half-Dutch three-year-old, and me, the tourist, passing around a Dr Pepper. Outside, the birds are singing.
We walk out to the beach and ground squirrels scatter before us. This is where Jo’s old camp was. This is where Jo was born, his father back in town, his mother by herself. We look for it. It is a couple of years since either of them have been out here and it takes them some moments to find it. All that is left are a few driftwood beams, a rusting oil drum, what they call the Alaska state flower. The rest has fallen away into the ocean, as each and every year it eats away at a little more of the land.
The term ‘Eskimo’ is often considered pejorative, yet is commonly in use in Alaska, both amongst whites and amongst the Inupiat and Yup’ik themselves. As a way of underlining the connection between these two Arctic groups, and their connection with the rest of the circumpolar indigenous, there is no other word. As such, I have used it in this article.