AKP Teacher's Institute 2009- A Personal Journal



Some people are excited to experience different cultures and environments. Others avoid them whenever possible. This is a personal account of the 14-day journey of a 60-year old white woman from Salem, Massachusetts who relished the chance to go north of the Arctic Circle.







Please be forewarned: I am not a naturalist, anthropologist, or intrepid explorer. That means the following information is offered from my own totally biased and unscientific point of view.

Hope you'll enjoy reading it anyway . . .

Why was I the only one who wanted to go on this adventure?

All 100+ volunteer educators at the Peabody-Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, MA where I have been a docent since 2004, received the following email from our coordinator:

I have attached a description about a teacher workshop, Iñupiaq Land Use Values and Resources. It will be held near the Anaktuvuk River, in far northern Alaska...The total cost of the program would be covered by ECHO funds, however, it is important that you read the description very carefully. This is a physically challenging trip and you will be required to produce a product - a lesson plan. If you are interested, let me know by Monday, May 11. Depending on how many people express interest, I'll draw a name.

An important family commitment conflicted with the dates, so I didn't even respond to the email. However, when the plans got canceled in mid-May and no other docent had applied, I was on my way in less than two weeks!


Are you crazy? Many docents and some friends and family expressed dismay when hearing about my plan to live in the wilderness, among total strangers, eating meat (I've been vegetarian for decades) and having to carry whatever I bring.

Except for the wolves and grizzly bears, and despite limited camping experience, leaving my rather pampered, modern lifestyle did not faze me.

Figuring out what and how to pack was a different story, and the puzzle kept me up at night. However, thanks to Kathy, the 2008 PEM-sponsored participant, Google searches and lucky guesses, my "luggage" ended up being a small backpack lent by neighbor Joe, clothes borrowed from friends Damon and Barbara, a few new waterproof items from a local Army surplus store, and my old fleece and hiking boots.

With weather that went from freezing rain to hot and sunny within a few days at camp, I packed well. Able to stay comfortable and dry, I even lent clothes, first aid and beauty supplies, and gave a camera to other participants.

Speaking of which, all the photos offered here were taken with my remaining two waterproof disposable cameras, plus a few shots from Al, Kim and the Internet.

The Course

The 11-day Teacher's Institute course entitled: "Iñupiaq Land Use Values and Resources,” was co-sponsored by lisagvik College and ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations).  It teaches participants how to subsist in the natural environment using ancient skills and technologies and, hopefully, gain an understanding of the complex relationship between people, the land and its natural resources. The course also emphasizes culturally appropriate behaviors in the treatment of the land, resources and one another (Iñupiat Core Values) and use of the Native language — Iñupiaq.

Why Anaktuvuk Pass?

In its seven-year history, this course always took place around Barrow on Alaska’s northern coast, not too far from Ilisagvik College. In 2009, for the first time, it was being held elsewhere and in a very different, interior terrain. That meant we would experience none of the following:  salmon, constant wind, polar bears, the harvesting seals, walrus, and whales — and the support of a college and city nearby. It did mean: some small trees, towering mountains, warm weather, relatively abundant and diverse plant life, grizzlies — and the charm and limitations of a rather inaccessible village of only 300 people, more than half under 16 years old.

The change in location started with a suggestion from an elder from AKP (Anaktuvuk Pass), Rachel, a course participant the previous summer. Her idea to use AKP apparently caught fire, got approved and was now a reality. That meant residents of AKP and the 2009 course participants would be pioneering an always tricky "first year away" together. As things evolved, AKP was a wonderful choice. The people were generally very friendly and helpful and the climate, at least while we were there, delightfully moderate and bug-free.

Who's in Charge?

Course leaders were Fannie and her assistant Martha, both employees of Ilisagvik college. From AKP were Camp Guides Ben and Payuk and Camp Instructors/Elders Ada, Lela and Rachel. Assisting was Ben's fiancé Rainey, an artist and educator from Barrow very familiar with camp life and cultural traditions.

All contracted staff were Native people of northwestern Alaska known as Iñupiat. They are part of the indigenous world community from circumpolar regions known as Inuit, formerly called Eskimo. The inland Iñupiat from AKP are known as Nunamiut, and they share much with Iñupiat from the coast: language (Iñupiaq), traditions, government (federal, state and Native/North Slope) and many economic, social and family ties.

Although not official leaders, the non- Native course participants from AKP, school principal Brian, teacher Kerri, and National Park Service Ranger, Al, provided valuable support in the village and at camp. The stories of how they each ended up in AKP from their origins in New England were also quite instructive.

In the end, despite coming from different places and having never worked together or in the AKP locus before, those in charge and their helpers seemed to do a good job. They met most course objectives and kept us safe. I, for one, am most appreciative.

1. Salem to Fairbanks to AKP

1. Salem to Fairbanks to AKP

THURSDAY, Day 1 — On May 28, I left my husband Doug at the Boston airport for Anaktuvuk Pass (AKP), which translates as “Place of Caribou Droppings." I would soon be joining 13 other students for a springtime adventure in the interior of Alaska, a place I NEVER thought to go!

When my Northwest Airlines flight, with a single stop in Minneapolis, landed in Fairbanks, it was 11:30 pm Boston time, but only 7:30 pm Alaska time. I then faced my first major challenge, apart from wearing too heavy, knee-high waterproof boots for 13+ hours — adjusting to a different time zone AND almost endless sunlight.

I was quickly tested. Along with a small group of participants from Barrow who were also staying at Sophie's Hotel, I worked out room assignments, changed into fresh clothes and went in search of dinner. Ironically, "Chilli's" was closed so we ended up at "Boston's" and then shopping at a 24/7 Walmart. After buying earplugs for the group and a new pair of bright yellow Mary Jane’s, I returned to the hotel and fell into bed at 6 AM Boston time. With soft Alaska light streaming in though holes in the drapes, it was almost impossible to sleep.



When we went to Sam's Club the next morning to buy all the food and supplies we'd need in AKP, I was still quite jet-lagged. However, my experience provisioning Project Adventure workshops soon kicked in. Along with a few other participants, I helped Martha fill a long train of shopping carts with cans of bug spray, tubs of Crisco, a gross of bacon, gallons of Tang, heaping bags of apples and potatoes, many pounds of chicken and beef, and reams of paper towels and toilet paper. It seemed we were going out in the wild, but not quite in the "traditional" way.

Our shopping, one of my least favorite activities, worked out well. Despite the complete absence of caribou to kill and eat, nobody starved and not much was wasted. We did get some important supplements — from the AKP school larder, elders' freezers, a successful Dall sheep hunt, berries gathered, roots dug, a fish caught by Ben, and delicious meals from the AKP "camp" restaurant and generous AKP residents, such as NPS Ranger Al. The lightweight t-shirt from AKP's Simon Paneak Memorial Museum and the $1 Walmart shoes, together with cut-off camouflage pants, became my hot weather outfit — something I hadn't anticipated needing so far north.

FRIDAY, Day 2 —After loading the rental cars with our luggage and provisions, we drove to the small airport of Wright Air Service for transport to AKP, 2 hours away. We were weighed, along with our personal gear (my pack at 22 lbs.) and flown in shifts in a 9-passenger, Cessna Model 208B. We put in our earplugs before takeoff and then all the other participants fell quickly asleep. I was too excited to close my eyes, despite the lack of visibility. When the skies opened up about 15 minutes before we approached the village, I got my reward. All around our tiny plane loomed the tops of craggy, dark grey mountains that looked close enough to touch. It was an amazing sight. At that moment, really for the first time, it hit me: This is Alaska!

After landing, we were met by a small group of AKP residents who quickly moved our gear onto trucks and Argos for the two-block ride to the school. As we walked along the village, I was surprised to see it had buildings, paved roads, and even streetlights. However, when I looked beyond the village, towering high above everything were those huge mountains covered with snow and ice, and then seemingly nothing. I was up above the Arctic Circle and it didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before.


2. In AKP- Preparing for Camp

2. In AKP- Preparing for Camp

The Village "Basics"

Since our food and camping supplies weren’t being flown in until the next day, I had to buy lunch and dinner at the modest “camp” restaurant, a feature of every village in the North Slope. Because almost everything is imported to AKP, the restaurant's varied menu, delicious food, reasonable prices, large portions and credit card machine were a welcome surprise. As a longtime vegetarian, my $10 chef salad was also a perfect transition to the bacon, sheep organs, caribou stew, ham, hot dogs, and no greens I'd soon be eating — and there was enough left over for the next day's lunch.

So nobody would have to sleep on the floor at Kerr’s apartment, I opted to share a double bed with Martha in the transient visitor building. Unfortunately, plumbing pipes are a constant problem in the freezing climate and ours broke soon after we moved in. That left us with no bath or toilet onsite, a dreadful odor and flood of feces. To me this civilized space was much less pleasant than conditions would be at camp, where I used the tundra or "honey pot" as a latrine, sponge-bathed and washed clothes in a fast running creek and drank melted snow water.


Night Light

Before going to bed, I emailed Doug from Kim’s laptop that I’d be out of cell and email range for 8 days and Martha showed me how to play the popular card game Snerts. In the middle of the night, after fitful attempts to sleep with daylight spilling through cracks in our boarded-up window, I went to use the bathroom at the school. Hearing noise from the gym, I peeked in to find village kids still playing basketball. I guess that's what it means to be upside-down"— when day and night get reversed.

SATURDAY, Day 3— — Our first morning in AKP I fried up heaps of bacon at the school’s kitchen and enjoyed my first taste of tundra-harvested blueberries and salmonberries. I also got to view and touch the many wolf skins that Ben, our hunter-guide, had "harvested" while driving his Argo to AKP. On two consecutive days, Ben had killed all but two wolves of one pack, all the wolves of a second pack and everyone of them were male. Although obviously proud, Ben offered a good example of the Inupiat core value of humility and did not boast. In the same way, Iñupiaq hunters say they're going to “look around” rather than to “get an animal.”

At our only group meeting before camp, Ben, Rainey and the elders set out guidelines, especially about grizzly bears and other dangers. They also gave us a map and history of our campsite about four miles from the village, named Praise the Lord by Ada’s husband. Fannie then outlined the Iñupiat values and duties we would be expected to share, and gave each of us a yellow waterproof notebook in which to journal. After Martha gave a valuable lesson in Iñupiaq (the language of the Iñupiat), we trooped over to organize the supplies which had been delivered by cargo plane.

With a late arrival by Katie of the New Bedford (MA) Whaling Museum, our group was now complete. Working together for the first time, we repacked the food lockers and loaded up the Argos that would deliver our tents and gear to the campsite to be set up the next day. We were almost ready to go!

In the afternoon, I toured the village— its lake, cemetery, health clinic, general store, museum, "Lela's Store" next to her home and trampoline full of grandchildren, and the informative National Park Service Ranger Station. Then, after dinner, I went to Rachel's house with Martha and the muktuk she'd prepared in Barrow to gift AKP's elders. Muktuk, when cut into precise 1/4" black and white squares is an elegant Inupiat delicacy of marinated whale skin and blubber –definitely an acquired taste.

Rachel’s house had drying frames along the side on which hung caribou hides and her backyard was festooned with a wild variety of birdfeeders. Even though she and her son were in the middle of dinner and not expecting us, Rachel welcomed us graciously — the Iñupiaq way! Her home was an eclectic mix of old and new, with a TV tuned to the NBA playoffs, gloriously colored handmade parkas on hooks by the entry, Inupiaq music blaring from a radio, and caribou stew simmering in an electric griddle.

When Rachel described how she, at age 9, walked for weeks with her family from their home far out in the tundra to AKP to relay news of the death of a relative (also the Iñupiaq way) and then never left AKP, I was awed. Being the “last nomadic people in North America” was not just a generic account of the Nunamiut, but Rachel’s personal story. It was also the first of many such stories that she, Ada and Lela would kindly share during our week together.

Before going to bed, I repacked everything for an early morning departure for camp and washed up in the school. With the showerhead blasting water at brutal pressure and unable to locate a light switch, I groped around in the dark and wondered how much more primitive things would get out on the tundra. Whatever, I was excited, nervous and ready!

3. At Camp

3. At Camp

SUNDAY, Day 4— On our way!

After breakfast I climbed into the front seat of Rachel's Argo in the seat next to hers. At the last minute, Martha jumped into the back and nestled in between the piles of gear. Rachel is not one to hang around, so we left ahead of everyone. We took a route out from the gravel pit, unaware that all the others would go a completely different way. 

When we got to the top of “Lookout Hill,” we stopped to wait for the group to catch up and I foraged my first batch of Arctic berries and a plant called "Northern Labrador Tea". After a while I relieved myself behind a huge boulder covered with bright orange lichens. As I looked around at a scene right out of National Geographic, I felt incredibly lucky to be in this amazing place, watching the diving antics of long-tailed jaegers and seeing only mountains, ice, and endless sky. It was then that I had my most touching experience of the week. With me sitting between them, Rachel and Martha, remembering it was Sunday morning, suddenly broke out singing the Christian hymn, “The Sweet Bye and Bye,” in beautiful harmony and in Inupiaq.

We finally gave up on being joined by the others and took off again across the still mostly frozen, brown tundra. The AKP landscape cannot be captured in words or pictures, although great ones can offer some inkling of the immensity of the area, the antiquity of the former-ocean, now-mountains, and the other-worldly and magical beauty of the arctic clouds and ice.

Argos, costing around $15,000 including shipping to AKP, are a cross between bumper cars and hummers. They can plow through mud and small trees, dance merrily across ice and slush, and lurch jerkily up and down hills. Like much else at camp, I not only adjusted to the Argo ride, but came to love it— once I learned to brace one leg for stability, anticipate rough spots and howl at every spine-jarring bounce. The landscape I really never got “used to” so much as gloried in it from a place deep inside of me.

Setting Up "Praise The Lord Camp"

We arrived at camp in time to help finish setting up tents, organize supplies, gather wood for the campfire, and fill pails with snow to melt for drinking water. The tents, sleeping bags, mats, and cooking gear, all supplied by the college, had been cleaned and readied for storage by last year's Institute near Barrow...as they would be again by us, at week's end, back at the village.

Seemingly without conscious intent, tents got divided by gender, age and, except for ours, Inupiat or non-Inupiat. Although fairly large, the tents' round shape precluded more than 4 persons comfortably in each. Since Martha and I were the same age and there was only one extra space in the elders' tent and Martha seemed to want to be with them, I opted to bunk with the middle agers. That included Kim and Stacy, both Iliisagvik College students and Fannie, although she was hardly ever in the tent except to sleep or get treatments from Kim, a reputedly gifted massage therapist.

The other tents were divided as follows: The guys–Al, Brian, and teachers from Anchorage and Wasila, Jim and Kevin, respectively; The girls– Josie, Alicia, Eva and Cindy, ranging in age from 16 to mid-20's and from different coastal villages, except for Josie who was from AKP and Lela's granddaughter; The younger women–Kerri and Katie, and teachers from Fairbanks, Laurie and Oline. Since most went to bed after and woke before I did, I'm not sure where less permanent members of camp slept, such as Payuk, Phillip and overnight guests. Ben and Rainey had their own tent which, like our kitchen tent, was built from wood and canvas.

While waiting for the food and kitchen tent poles to arrive, some of us went for a walk on the thick ice river in front of our campsite. We each took a long, sturdy wooden branch to poke into the snow to gauge the depth and, hopefully, avoid falling into a crevice or get wet pants.

I remember how the elders in a friendly, teasing way mocked my choice of stick, which was pitifully skinny and whose side branches I had neglected to trim away. It was a good example of their using a sense of humor to guide, with just the right timing and appropriate edge.

This river of snow-covered ice was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It shimmered blue and green from the depths, while all along the bank a ribbon of icicles, like a hem of crystal shards, tinkled and chimed as they broke off from the thick edge of the ice platform.

As we treaded carefully along the bank, Al explained about the ice, as Rachel had earlier that day. I think they said it was not really a river, but what lay on top of the always-frozen, glacial water underneath – just as the tundra lay on top of miles of always-frozen land or 'permafrost' below.

Al also said the surface of both would soon melt, the ice to be replaced by deep, quick moving water and the hard arctic desert becoming a mostly impassable, muddy maze of low, twisted branches bursting with flowers. To our amazement, he was right! These intense springtime transformations happened right before our eyes (and tents) within a few days.

Bear Sighting #1...+ a Magic Song

After a tasty dinner of dried caribou soup, Pilot crackers and tiny bite of muktuk, I sighted the first of 13 grizzly bears we would encounter during our time on the tundra. Even across the wide ice river and half way up a mountain, the bear looked positively massive in Kerri’s scope.

My adrenaline rush mixed with raw fear is hard to describe, but it was a moment I shall never forget. Since my only recurring nightmares always involve bears attacking or eating me, I brought that concern with me in a big way and the sight left me feeling very anxious, even into the next day.

Then, with everyone out hunting for a Dall Sheep except for Martha, Stacey and me, and while getting water from the creek alone a fair distance behind our campsite, I got the strong sense a bear was close by. With the proverbial "hair standing up on the back of my neck," I became so frozen with terror that I could hardly breathe.

It was then that a low guttural sound started coming out of me –a chant with sounds, not any discernable words–which, as I hummed it more and more loudly and clearly, everything changed. Time seemed to slow down and the air got very quiet and then my body started to feel quiet too.

I gradually felt so grounded to the earth and safe that, as I began walking again, I was able to stand tall and confident without even a twinge of fear. I returned to the campsite happily that morning with buckets full of water. The feeling of calm continued with all subsequent thoughts and sightings of bears, together with strong respect for these animals and our relationship to one another.

It was truly an “aha” moment. It also made me wonder if Nunamiut warnings to sing loudly to avoid surprising a bear was also to help humans move into some kind of altered, relational space with these creatures with whom we share the world. Oddly enough, when Payuk played the drum later that night and some of the Inupiat began singing, the sound was eerily similar to what I'd been chanting up at the creek.

Which is not to say that I gave up the small orange whistle hanging from my neck whenever out walking by myself. As with our store-bought groceries, it's ok to have a modern backup plan.


Night on the Tundra

We had two dogs at camp, one Rainey's and the other Ben's brother's. Both were usually chained to opposite sides of our campsite to guard against intruders. Unlike most canine “pets,” Iñupiaq dogs live rather harsh lives, left out of doors despite the weather and, sometimes, even used as bear bait. Rainey’s dog obviously adored her and they probably had a close relationship. However, as Jim learned our first day in AKP when he got a sharp bite on his nose, she could be extremely dangerous. Having the two dogs act as sentries and knowing how aggressive they could be, did help me to sleep better at night.

And sleep I did. Despite the lack of darkness, the many noises surrounding us, including loud talking around the campfire and some snoring, I could curl up comfortably in my light sleeping bag next to the tent wall and fall fast asleep. As I drifted off, not wearing earplugs like my tent-mates, the human sounds somehow got filtered out while the natural ones lulled me into dreamland.

When I awoke during the night and went outside, these late evening/early morning moments were very special. All was finally silent, one of the dogs always awake, and the endless landscape glowed softly in the dim artic light. One dawn I sat a long while behind the tent watching the hazy golden ball of sunlight travel at the level of the horizon across the ice, into Anaktuvuk Pass and then slowly out of sight behind the mountains. Magical!

We had our only heavy rain storm on the final night at camp, when I woke to a deafening chorus of water all around. There were loud raindrops pelting the roof of our tent, snow waters rushing down from the mountains behind us, melted ice river flooding past out front, and the crashing booms of huge chunks of ice breaking off from the edges of a glacier. The violence of the noise was so overpowering and close that I was sure we'd soon be washed away in a torrent of churning water. However, when I peeked out the tent flap to investigate, it was just an amazing symphony of spring melt and rain. To my great relief and surprise there was no danger and everyone else was sleeping through the noise.

That I'm too old to sleep through the night and had to frequently exit the tent turned out to be a good thing. With a younger bladder, I may have missed some of the splendors of the Arctic with its unique late night sights and sounds. I was equally lucky that falling back to sleep right away was never a problem . . . and that the elders had warned me to keep an emergency stash of large baggies in the tent. As with so many other of their teachings, it was sage advice.

4. Living on the Land & Lessons Learned

4. Living on the Land & Lessons Learned


The week of camping and last days back in the village were full and diverse. This section offers an outline of some experiences and what I learned from them. It is a synopsis written mostly within one month of the events and, as such, changes as I continue to recall and understand more.

The Sheep Hunt

On our first full day at camp most of the group went hunting for a Dall sheep that we had special permission to kill out of season. I let Al go in my place, since I hadn’t known we were leaving, he seemed more eager and some of us had to stay back with Martha to help make the donuts. I also figured, wrongly as it turned out, that we’d be doing lots more hunting in the future.

Many hours later the group returned with the remains of a large, older ram that had been shot by Ben. Because its skin was molting and therefore of no use, it was cut away and discarded. The sheep was then pushed off the mountain to a lower site, beheaded, gutted and cut into large pieces. When I saw hunks of the sheep being removed from the large garbage bags into which they'd been dumped, missing the hunt was less of a disappointment.

All that evening the Inupiat women and Kerri cut up the sheep using incredibly sharp ulus (women's knives), while the rest of us rinsed and roasted its meat, organs and marrow bones over the campfire. All parts were up for grabs, including the glands between the toes and toenails, and I enjoyed some of the more common ones, such as the liver, heart, tongue, and marrow. I think that eating animal organs as a child that were prepared by my maternal grandmother helped me to be an adventurous eater and appropriately polite that night.

The Iñupiat respect the animals on which their lives depend, despite their ability to now order food over the Internet and have it shipped in. However, they did toy with the ram's head and then drop it unceremoniously on the ground behind the kitchen tent. Maybe I'm a silly sentimentalist, but I felt bad and one night sat right next to the head, writing in my journal and feeling like I was keeping the ram's spirit company. No wonder Martha, who noticed me in that place,  later called me "eccentric."

Who's Making the Donuts?

You probably make Uqsruqquqtag or “Eskimo donuts” the same as most other donuts, from flour, water, sugar and salt. Except, above the Arctic Circle, a warm non-drafty place in which dough can rise is hard to find. That’s why the Inuit use body heat and place the dough in a pre-oiled bag between one’s back and the inside of a parka. You know its ready to cook when, after a few hours, the lump grows arms and hugs you. While Martha was carrying the dough, she also harvested berries and melted snow — multi-tasking on the tundra.

According to Stacey, an Aleut native from Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska, the technique for forming donuts differs between Aleuts and Nunamiut. I couldn’t do either well. Traditionally cooked in seal or animal oil, but now in Crisco, we spent hours bending over forming and then frying hundreds of donuts. When the group returned from the hunt and finished off all the donuts within a day, the hard work was worth it. To my great delight, I found that slathering them with peanut butter produced a great tasting, almost healthy, vegetarian snack.


  • Berry Hunting

Every day I gathered berries that had somehow managed to  survive the harsh winter. These berries are sources of important vitamins and taste delicious. Once I learned to identify the leaves and growing habits, it was easy to find enough to make a simple “jam” by simmering the berries down with a bit of sugar and water (also good on donuts.)

I heard some of the elders talk about camping out for days in August when the berries are fresh and ripe for picking. Maybe AKP families have fun with the berry harvest like we do back in New England with our blueberries in spring and apples in autumn.

Drums and Dancing

There was only a bit of singing, dancing and drumming while at camp. The Nunamiut drum is a large disk with a wood frame, caribou bone handle and head now made of parachute silk instead of traditional skins. Its sound comes from striking the frame with a long, flat wooden stick. Payuk and Phillip, an AKP student who helped out, drummed only a few songs for us, but it was enough to demonstrate the powerful vibration and rhythm of Inupiat drumming and chants.

Some of us had fun doing an "Airplane Dance" led by Fannie and Alicia, after which Cindy and I tried the drum. When I began to chant and bang away (rather poorly), someone yelled, “Linda’s going Native.” I stopped immediately, concerned that I'd broken some taboo since I’m not Iñupiat nor male, and maybe only men play their drums. However, later that night Ada gave me a big hug and Lela thanked me for “working so hard,” so it seemed no offense had been taken — a big relief.


Rachel spotted a wolf one day in front of our camp. I never saw it– just thrilled at the idea that wolves are still out there and part of our world. My attitude toward wolves didn't match those of the Nunamiut. For them, an overabundance of wolves has led to too few moose and other small mammals. They believe reducing the wolf population (but NOT by shooting them from planes) is a good thing, and view the sale and use of wolf skins as important sources of income and insulating material.

I still prefer wolves be left alone. However, I understand how, if they are “harvested” by Native peoples in traditional ways, it benefits the entire ecosystem. It also promotes continuity of hunting, hide arts and clothing design for future generations, important Native traditions. I also want to note that the front entry of the AKP school is graced with a glass case holding a stuffed wolf and i think it's the school mascot.


Although the Nunamiut display a healthy caution around bears, they seem to treat them primarily as peaceful cohabitants of the land. The small number of bear attacks of humans around AKP in 50+ years backs up their viewpoint. Apparently the lack of competition for food or space in the vast tundra and minimal garbage left around to "spoil" bears for human food, major problems in other regions, explain why these grizzlies tend to be less aggressive.

I also learned that brown, grizzly and Klondike bears are the same species that grow to different sizes because of their diets, the brown being worst-fed and Klondike, who gorge on rich salmon, the best fed. The Klondikes must be immense, because the grizzly that Ben and Rachel drove away from camp with the sound of their guns looked big as a tank.

My attitude towards polar bears, on the other hand, worsened ever since Kim described how one stalked and ate a man who lived next to her in Barrow. That left me really glad we were in the interior with Alaskan grizzlies, rather than on the coast with polar bears. I doubt I’ll ever view their cute images on holiday cards in quite the same way and understand why people in Barrow may prefer to jog indoors, even in good weather.

And Other Animals

In general, hunting and using all parts of a "kill" for survival became more real. I got to see traditional Inupiat parkas trimmed in wolverine and wolf and thick caribou hides used as sleeping mats and boots. I ate dried caribou and fresh sheep meat, sewed unwieldy strands of caribou sinew into caribou and wolf hides, and became intrigued by a puzzle presented by Ben, of how ram horns were traditionally turned into ladles by his people.

The Circle of Life with humans dependent on large mammals, who in turn rely on smaller ones like lemmings and ground squirrels, and plants like lichens, was hard to miss. It was also a rare treat to see wild animals— 2 foxes, 3 hares, and 4 sheep — just hanging out.

Winged Creatures

For birds, in addition to the fierce long-tail jaegers on Lookout Hill, I saw American golden plovers with distinctive “S” marks on their cheeks, teams of hovering and diving Arctic terns, a Lapland larkspur, a ptarmigan still in its winter white plumage and some rednecked phalaropes wading in a pool of just-melted snow. At Tree Lake, Ada and I spotted a pair of huge tundra swans that she remembered from past family camping trips and their nesting site, an island far out in the middle of the lake. I later learned that these are the birds who sing a haunting melody upon departure and death — the original "swan song."

For insects, there was a swarm of oversized mosquitoes that invaded our tent the last night and one moth or butterfly caught and released by Alicia. That we weren’t at camp long enough to witness the bird and bug population explosion just beginning on the tundra was both a good and bad thing.


Whether looking down at the small stuff or gazing out over the wide expanse, the topography of the tundra is amazing on many levels. Diversity and availability of plants, particularly lichen and willow, seem to be key reasons humans live in AKP and are able to survive. At week's end, I collected a variety of plant samples, pressed them into my journal and got names from Al, Kerri and reference texts.

However, as the elders pointed out, it’s less important to identify plants with scientific names than to appreciate their beauty and utility. The wildflowers, fruit and spore-bearing plants are surely beautiful to look at–no small benefit in any environment, but especially in a desert. Walking among bright showy blossoms, colorful berries and textured leaves that carpet the tundra, seemingly overnight, was a wondrous experience.

The plants also provide food and habitat for a variety of animals and insects on which people depend. Most important is the abundance of lichens, such as the easily overlooked and seemingly insignificant orange splotches all around on the rocks. Even though humans don’t eat these lichens, they rely heavily on the caribou herds that do.

There are also many species of willow that grow in the AKP region which, unlike on the coastal tundra, are sheltered enough from mountains to grow taller than a few inches. As we found out, these "trees" provide valuable firewood, walking sticks, edible salad-type green shoots and, when we'd packed away all the silverware, rather passable eating utensils. Traditionally, they were used as roof and wall supports for yurt-like tents or itchalik and for making baskets and snowshoes.


Many wildflowers contribute to human survival in different ways. For example, Northern Labrador Tea makes a soothing, antioxidant hot beverage. The stem of the young wooly lousewort, when peeled, is sweet and healthful to eat. Humble mosses, of which there is a huge quantity and variety, are used as wicks for diapers, to get rid of bugs when held over a fire and “smudged,” as packing material for hunting and trapping gear to mask any human smells, and as a disinfecting hand wash. Who would have guessed?

Root Hunting

Rainey and Ben searched out a good place for edible roots called masuand we went there for a half-day field trip. The elders and Rainey taught us how to identify a particular dead looking stick under which one could dig to unearth a tasty root. Using sawed-off, shed caribou antlers we clawed away at the soil and rocks until we reached the prize, which varied greatly in thickness and length.

I found a hole that Rainey said a bear had partially dug and then abandoned. When she mentioned that these holes often retain a sweet bear smell, I bent down and sniffed, but couldn't detect any scent. I did, however, feel tied to the wild creature and awed that a bear had been digging at that exact spot just before I got there.

After a picnic lunch and fun game of "find the spoon," we returned to camp and cooked some masu. The roots were delicious boiled or roasted, and tasted like parsnips. Before leaving the village, I was offered some raw masu to take home, which I gladly accepted. They are now in a bag in my freezer, ready to show, cook and share.

Why a village at Anaktuvuk Pass (AKP)?

In our modern, built-up environment of highways, supermarkets and bottled water, it is easy to forget how access to navigable paths, edible food and fresh water traditionally determined where population centers were located. Flying over the seemingly uninhabitable Brooks Range was a good reminder and in time I was able to understand how even the remote village of AKP offers rare advantages to living almost anywhere else in that vast region. As I learned from camp and exhibits at the National Park Service station, AKP's key survival-enhancing factors are (1) the meeting of two large rivers on which people could travel, obtain drinking water and fish, (2) the spring and fall migrations of caribou, other animals, fish and birds, and (3) availability of plants supportive to people and their prey animals. That a school was built in AKP 50+ years ago also influenced Nunamiut families to move to AKP from outlying areas.

Gender Roles

The historical division of labor between those strong enough to hunt and those able to nurse infants, and roles evolving from that division, became a bit clearer to me at camp. It is not possible to underestimate how much I appreciated Ben’s courage and stamina to search for hunting sites, chase grizzlies away from camp and bring home the sheep. For the first time in my "feminist" lifetime, it became a bit clearer how females became submissive to males. In a world in which survival depends  on physical size and strength, males will probably rule.

However, I also came to realize how changes in technology mess with traditional gender concepts. Today the "weaker sex" can bring down large animals with guns rather than spears, drive Argos and work as hard and long as men. Throughout our week at camp, all the women of every age and background, and especially the elders, proved that reality. It seems skills and interests rather than gender increasingly determine who does what in AKP as much as in Salem, and that this change challenges all societies in our modern, mechanized world in different ways.

One of the most important things I was told by the elders is that people living in an environment that leaves little time and energy for anything beyond basic survival rarely produce art. They explained that those with more life-sustaining natural resources, such as Athabascan Indians, the Tlingit from Southeast Alaska, Unangan from the Aleutian Islands and other Iñupiat from Alaska's north coast have created art for generations, while the Nunamiut have just recently begun making art with some masks and jewelry.

That is an idea of art production new to me and important when considering the disparity between any communities and even individuals everywhere throughout time. However, "art" has many definitions and I believe some of the clothing made by the Nunamiut women fall into that category. Their winter parkas, although no longer of caribou skins, are created of bright, intense colors, diversely textured fabrics and carefully selected and arranged furs for ruffs, cuffs and hems. These coats demonstrate refined sensibilities, artistic choices and high level of skill. That their tiny stitches, tight seams and superb construction are not just beautiful, but protect against -40 F temperatures does not lessen their aesthetic value. They are exciting works of art.

Mask Making
I was told that AKP-style masks came on the scene around 50 years ago when two village men made a few and wore them to a winter celebration. Today many of the elders produce masks that are being sold at the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum and shops in AKP, some Alaskan airports, art museums and cultural centers.

On one of our field trips not far from AKP's Tent City, Ada, Lela and Rachel offered us mask making instructions and materials. For a few hours under the warm sun we practiced the many difficult techniques. We painstakingly carved caribou hide off the wooden mask form on which it had dried without cutting into the wood. We sewed synthetic or real caribou sinew through the tough hide to attach cow hair eyebrows, wolf fur moustaches and fox fur hairstyles. Using a razor sharp ulu, we scraped caribou hair from the hide into a plastic bag trying, mostly without success, to keep the hair from blowing all around.

All was presented by the elders in an organized, thorough and encouraging manner, which made it one of the most valuable learning experiences of the week. So I could watch over the final trash burning, I opted not to make my own mask the following day. However, I did not come home empty handed. The last day in AKP I bought a wonderful mask made by Lela, who allowed me to charge the purchase on a credit card, and Ada gave me some caribou skin and sinew so I could demonstrate mask making techniques back home.

Although AKP masks may not seem difficult to create, I learned firsthand how much skill, stamina, imagination and time is required to make them. Some say they were inspired by masks made by coastal Inupiat over the centuries. If so, their creation not only supplements incomes and offers artistic expression but preserves a tradition across the generations— like Lela guiding Josie, her granddaughter, in the use of a thimble with sinew.

Fishing and the Wing Fan

Another field trip was to fish at Napaktualuit or Tree Lake, located just under the massive Napaktualuit Mountain and its double waterfall. Only Ben caught anything, a very shiny, grey/blue/green fish called a grayling, which tastes like trout. Since I had never done any casting and was eager to try, Jim helped me. However, too soon my hook got snagged on a floating ice island and broke off as I pulled to free the line. When Fannie threw me a disgusted look, I decided to give up fishing and walk around instead.

I soon came upon the remains of a ptarmigan (locally called an Arctic chicken) and pulled off one of its wings to bring home, I was amazed to see it was made up of many segments that opened and closed like a fan. When I showed it to Alicia, she told me some Iñupiaq dance costumes use fanned-out wings from large birds of prey. It was later explained if wing segments are pulled apart just after a bird’s death, they never fold back on themselves and are the ones used for costumes. My wing is now home waiting to become part of a future museum "fan tour."

The Artifact

Just after finding the wing, I spied a blue/green glassy rock that stuck out from the muted tones all around. Since I always collect rocks and hadn’t gotten one yet from AKP, I stuck it in my pocket. However, when I showed it to someone on our ride back to camp, she said it looked like it could be a knapped tool of some sort. I then asked Ada, who thought it looked like a hide scraper. 

When Kerri expressed concern about removing artifacts from Native or Federal lands, I showed the rock to Al and asked his advice. On his suggestion, I offered it to Ada to donate to the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum, where her daughter Vera is the curator. So he could check it out with some experts, Al took photos and measurements of the rock before giving it to Ada.

I don’t know where the rock will end up, but have gotten information that it is a bifacial tool, never finished being made into a knife or projectile point, is made of chert that weathered from a glassy-to-dull surface, and is anywhere between 100 to 12,000 years old.

I have mixed feelings about finding and taking the rock. I would never knowingly disturb archeological evidence or remove artifacts. Those actions thwart irreplaceable knowledge and the legal protections of the past. However, since I only thought I was taking a pretty souvenir, like I bring shells from trips, I don't feel too guilty. That I held something from people who lived a long time ago is also a thrill.

If Ada does give it to the museum, I hope it will be on display with the warning, "Do Not Disturb ANY Rocks in and around AKP."

AKP school children, other visitors and the church

Throughout the week, despite a long Argo ride over rather rough conditions, we had many visitors to our camp. Apparently sharing good and bad news personally and being outside in the natural world are important Nunamiut values. A highlight of these visits was the day 18 AKP school children came to visit. I had seen many of the kids back in the village riding their bikes while listening to iPods, playing basketball and jumping on trampolines, so it was fun to interact with them at camp. They seemed so happy to be with us, despite some drizzly weather, and it was great to watch them with their elders, principal and teachers.

I also got to meet Louis, the head of the AKP summer school, whom I would see again on Sunday morning at the charming Chapel In the Mountains Presbyterian Church. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in August 2009, AKP is understandably proud of this sacred space constructed of spruce logs cut and dragged from hundreds of miles away to the south where trees can grow.

As substitute minister, Louis delivered a very touching sermon about Jesus as the potter and then my experience with AKP came full circle. Like she had a week earlier on Lookout Hill, only this time accompanied by Ada, Lela and the small AKP congregation, Rachel led the singing of “The Sweet Bye and Bye” hymn in Iñupiaq. There is no way to adequately express my gratitude or its effect on my heart.


Final Days

Final Days

Leaving the Land

I was sad to leave our camp. Living in such a pristine landscape is so different from anything in my regular man-made world. Although we had some modern conveniences, they did not subsume the natural environment.

The opportunity to be a human animal in nature — and feeling so right as that animal — was a rare and awesome one. Whether washing up or filling pails at Cocoa Creek, digging for masu in the bear hole, witnessing the speed and intensity of springtime thaw, hearing the thunderous crash of ice, or the vibratory silence of the arctic night, feeling so comfortable in and connected to that natural world was the highlight of my experience.

On our way back, we stopped at a short wall of rock behind which hunters lie in wait for approaching caribou herds, called a blind. So not to scare off the herd, hunters allow the first group of animals to move through the blind before attacking. Upon seeing the large pile of caribou antlers on the ground in front of the blind, I offered thanks and a blessing for the land and its inhabitants.When we got back to AKP, thanks to Al’s generosity, I was able to take a hot shower, launder all my clothes, eat his wonderfully prepared Thai dinner and view The Voice of Our Spirit.

This video, which Rainey helped produce, speaks to the loss of the Iñupiaq language and culture. Offering a depressing account of how the Iñupiaq language, traditional songs, dances and rituals were outlawed by the U.S. government and nearly lost, the film helped explain why our course emphasized speaking Iñupiaq. It made me glad that I could now read the language of so many consonants, and now thought of caribou as “tuttu” and bears as “aklak.” Louis had given me a copy of AKP’s fourth and fifth grade text “A Nunamiut ABC – A Coloring Book” to take home with me.

Unfortunately, despite the good things, returning to the village was difficult for me. I hated being inside buildings and on the roads with their hard surfaces and artificial light and noise. Even in bed, I missed the earth beneath my body and couldn’t get comfortable. It seemed getting used to "civilization" would be the final, and maybe greatest challenge of my experience.

The Memories Endure

At our final group meeting, we exchanged contact information, tied up some loose ends and cleaned and prepared all the camp gear for storage. Although most other participants left in the morning, I had a later flight, so got to re-visit the museum and NPS station again, buy Lela’s mask, share lunch with Al and Ada, visit Ada’s home and meet her son and young granddaughter.

On the Cessna flight back to Fairbanks, over clearer skies than my earlier trip, I saw the natural beauty of this part of Alaska, as well as its ugly pipeline, mining sites and miles of dead trees. Then, back in the city and my hotel, AKP was quickly replaced by hordes of tourists, miles of asphalt and shopping malls and the acrid smell of nearby forest fires. I holed up in my room that night, eating tundra berries, opening and closing windows and trying to adjust.

On my last day in Alaska, wearing pants bought at 6 am to replace my blood-stained camouflage cutoffs, I became a tourist. Using the hotel shuttle to get around, I cleaned up at a spa and then saw impressive displays of Inupiat art and history at the UA Museum of the North and bookstore of the Alaska Geographic Morris Thompson Center. After dinner at one of Fairbanks's many Thai restaurants (what is it with Thai food up there?) I took an overnight flight back to Boston.

With a blue “AKP Alaska” refrigerator bag full of roots, berries and Labrador tea, overstuffed backpack and lots of amazing memories, I arrived home safely to my husband Doug, dog Dudley and cat Nimbus 2000. Although it took almost a month to get used to East Coast time and the cool rainy June weather, I started working to share my course experience with others right away.

Reflections and Gratitude

As one of the older participants (not much younger than the elders), I’m happy I was able to meet the many physical, emotional and spiritual challenges of the experience. Although I did my share and never shirked my chores, I made a conscious effort to not get sick or hurt in that remote place. That meant I respected my age and body and was careful to avoid unnecessary risks so I wouldn't be a burden to anyone and could return home in one piece.

For example, I meditated every morning, did yoga regularly, took pineapple enzyme supplements to better digest the non-vegetarian diet and got adequate sleep. Most difficult was skipping two major temptations —a brisk swim in Tree Lake and night climb up the mountain. As it turned out, I did a good job. Although my skin was terribly dry, even in my nostrils, from the moisture-sapping arctic desert and I had some breathing problems from sleeping in a tent downwind from campfire smoke, I returned home in better shape than when I left. I had a nice tan from the sun reflecting off the ice and was 5 pounds lighter.

That all members of our group cooperated and tried to follow the protocols and values of the Iñupiat of the North Slope made good health and other positive outcomes possible. Being very different people from diverse backgrounds negotiating a new place and project, there were enough potentially sticky situations to have derailed us at many points along the way. However, to our combined credit, we didn't let it happen. For this I am most grateful to all my co-participants, guides, leaders, AKP residents and, especially, the AKP elders, who made this experience so safe and rewarding.

I also want to thank those at PEM, Ilisagvik College and ECHO for their work connecting and sharing cultures and making this unique adventure possible for me and others. My hope is that this account and other ways of sharing my experience will support their work and help honor and preserve Nunamiut land and culture.

Blessed Be!