AKP Teacher's Institute 2009- A Personal Journal

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.