AKP Teacher's Institute 2009- A Personal Journal

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!