Adventures of an Arctic Chihuahua

Living Small at the Far Edge

Archive for Inspiration

Landing Like Cranes

I Prayed Bernoulli Was Right!

Sunday evening I flew out to Noorvik, a village located just north and west of Hotham Peak and south of the Brooks Range along the Kobuk River. The pilot was interesting and new to me (Irish perhaps?). We began our take off on a lesser-used runway. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable I can be with change until found myself flying with this new-to-me pilot on an unfamiliar runway.  I looked out the window towards the wings and struts, comforted by the familiar rivets of this particular plane. I prayed Bernoulli was right.

The flight in all honesty was fantastic!  We took off in a southerly direction and parallel to the shore which gave an excellent and expansive view of the Kotzebue Sound.  Except for about one mile of open water along the shore, the sea ice stretched out unbroken until, in the distance, there was nothing left to see but an even larger expanse of the Arctic Ocean sea ice.

Further upriver and east, tundra water is a dark tannin color, the color of deeply pigmented and dried, rusty moss.  The thawing waters stretch out in this color, with a broken patina of frozen waxy white on top.  In this betwixt state, many of the rivers and tundra lakes look like large leopard skinned agates spilling out across the flatlands. 

We landed in Noorvik the way the birds do…with a slight hesitation just before setting the legs down. The pilot came in at such an acute angle I began to wonder if we might run out of airstrip before the plane came to a complete stop. Our pilot floated in like a crane.  We had plenty of room.

At the airstrip, I was greeted by one of the Health Aides who carried the key for the place I’d be lodging in (the home of a colleague).  There was a note written on the envelope inviting me to make myself comfortable and avail myself of the homemade yogurt, mixed fruit and freshly picked cranberries (lingon berries in my own Swedish tradition).  I did as bid, and then set out to village work.

A couple of hours later, and in need of a break, I pulled out a bird book, walked down to the river with my binoculars and took another close-up look at Alaska. 

The paths down the hill are sandy, wet in the low areas, with many signs that 4 wheelers on their way to the water went ‘round (thus widening the puddle), or had been stuck in the muddy trail.  I had to walk tippy toe in the mucky parts or by clinging to the tough and pliant willow whips while keeping to the narrow and grass tufted margins. A couple of times I decided to take a more direct route, through the drier brush.  In the thicket, I found broken paths about the height and breadth of a large man.  I chose one path heading the general direction I wanted to go then began walking easily through the pre-cleared tunnel.  Within a yard or two of the entry, the willows unexpectedly gave way to a wider clearing, perhaps a 6′ x 6′ space littered with bolus moose droppings. 

A Moose‘s bedroom! I felt somehow invited, but also intrusive, as though the occupant would soon return and want to rest without company.  I checked to make sure the scat was actually dried and old, then ventured on with confidence. I hoped to catch a better glimpse of the songbird that seemed to be following, yet also eluding me. 

I must have wandered into the Moose’s living room at that point. So many animals live at the edge of water here. I happened upon a pond full of Equisetum or Horsetails (a plant species of prehistoric origins) and several wetland birds, more moose scat (fresh this time), and recent hoof marks. I hesitated and proceeded with more caution, but as any diehard birder would do, I came to my senses and stepped boldly forward into the kitchen as it were, hoping to catch “just one more bird” for the lifetime list…. even if it meant the end of that lifetime. What a way to go!

I survived however, and by the river’s edge, where the brush opened to powdery sand, I sat overlooking a small cove, a nearby bank, and low-lying flatlands across the river.  Here a flock of Sandhill Cranes called out in sounds described by some to be between those of a French horn and a squeaky barn door.  I watched as a group of about 17 of the giants took to the air, necks outstretched and leading the way over the Kobuk River.  I wondered where they were going so urgently this sunny midnight.

With that signature moment, and a suddenly cooler breeze, I headed back to lodgings and sleep.  I stopped to take one last look for the small and nondescript bird, this Virgil to my Dante.  As though to bid adieu, the bird posed in full view not more than a few yards away.  By binocular I could see the crimson spot on its forehead, the only distinct feature on this otherwise unremarkable creature.  This tiniest chakra identified my little friend as a female Common Redpoll.  I could call that a day.

There were more sightings in Noorvik, between working moments and up until my return flight.  I waited out at the airstrip, binoculars in hand, chatting to residents who came to pick up cargo or passengers.

The way home was by Cessna 207, possibly the smallest of the Bering Air fleet. Only the pilot and I were aboard for the trip back to Kotzebue. What a gorgeous view though!  Tundra swans stood out like the fuzzy white spots on dotted swiss skirts. Flowing rivers coiled and tapered to nothing. It was as if someone had mixed two batters, one dark, one light, then swirled.   We passed back over the leopard skin agates and pelts, back over the cracked and rusty tundra, the waxy and granite waters, back to the fragile gravel spit we call the Baldwin Penninsula and home.

Gidget met me at the door as she always does.  She wags so excitedly I have dubbed her the Helipup and my home, the Helipad.  She nearly takes off as I lift her up for a proper greet.

It feels good to be here.  Life is good.

 Near or far, simple or complex, bird-by-bird, in fair exchange, I’d love to hear about the details of YOUR life. How do you learn to land softly in a bumpy world? Nothing is ordinary when we look with wonder.

More tomorrow then…

Jennifer and The (small but large hearted) Arctic Chihuahua


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Andromeda Strains

.One down, six more to go. The first 24 hours of this crisis on-call rotation have been emotionally challenging..

In any small community, residents are related to one another in more ways than one; for example, your mother-in-law might also be your child’s teacher.

In the Northwest Arctic, family is extraordinarily important so extended family members are considered part of the immediate family.  In conversation, there are few, if any, referrals to degree of separation (i.e. second cousin). Everyone is either a brother, sister, auntie, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, child, grandchild or cousin. Adoption is culturally embraced; frequently the first born child is adopted to a grandparent or other relative. Large families are the norm. 

 “Everyone is related to everyone else” I have heard it said.

Historic and generational traumas (epidemics, religious oppression, cultural decimation, boarding school practices, language suppression) compound the modern societal or individual hardships and traumas (unemployment, poverty, doubled-up homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, suicide, assault, domestic violence, sexual assault, bullying, child abuse, accidental death). In such a small and tightly woven community, the smallest ripple of these tragedies is capable of triggering great tidal waves of grief upon the region’s people. Inupiaq in the Northwest Arctic, Alaska have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world.

The Inupiaq subsistence way of life is challenged, global warming is evident in local changes, the soaring cost of fuel oil and gasoline prices ($8+/gal) impact the ability to reach elusive food sources, to provide for one’s family or to stay warm in temperatures easily to -50F. Many of the young, strong and healthy, those who have no elders to care for, leave the area for work or college and never come back.

Increasingly influenced by a global cash economy, the region’s commercial centers are growing into more densely populated and urban-like centers. Expansions of adequate housing, employment opportunities, educational or health facilities are limited by proximate land, human resources, materials, extreme weather conditions, a permafrost foundation and the fact that we are ‘off of the road system’.

“It ain’t easy living here.”

This region is full of strength and potential as well.  Consider, after all, that a people and culture surviving for over 30,000 years isolated in one of the planet’s harshest climates, must embody several extraordinary and impressive resiliencies! These strengths however, are not the qualities brought to my attention during a rotation of crisis intervention.

“It ain’t easy working here.”

After a long day, and what seems to be an even longer week ahead, it was comforting to come home tonight to find a  familiar friend online. She provided a running synopsis of a fictional world crisis, I provided the cathartic, if not essential, heckling. We ‘watched’ the new release of Michael Crichton’s “Andromeda Strain.”  I didn’t actually ‘see’ the movie, but I had seen the original version back in the 60’s or 70’s and could follow today’s storyline fairly well. Neatly settled onto her recliner in the ‘Lower 48’, my my dear friend watched the 4 part mini-series while I read her instant messaging from a laptop in the Arctic. During the commercials, we chatted.  Solar bird baths were mentioned. Gidget napped at my feet. Her dog no doubt napped in her lap or someplace nearby.

These are the moments I speak of when referring to “Living Small,” the shared or individual moments that comprise our day-to-day lives, spending time with a friend for example. These moments are easily overlooked and whether modern or traditional, near or far, in the final analysis, they are the stuff of life as we know it. 

Once again, I had better slip off to catch some sleep while I can….more blogging another day.

“Keep Coming Back” as they say in some rooms…or drop us a line. 

Be thinking of you,

Jennifer and Gidget