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Week 14: The Finale

Week 13: Quyanapak!

Week 12: ANWR's Colors

Week 11: A Piece of Heaven

Week 10: Caribou People

Week 9: It's a... Bear!!!

Week 8: Caribou Kidneys...

Week 7: A Way of Life

Week 6: Polar Husky Power!

Week 5: End of the Road!

Week 4: Celebration Times!

Week 3: 80 Pounds of Butter?

Week 2: Check. Check. Done!

Week 1: Preparing


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“Stop drilling, you may hurt the animals in Alaska,” reads a drawing hanging in the Tribal Council office.
Watch ‘Sense of Place’
Date Posted: 04.17.06
Location: 68°07'N 145°32'W Arctic Village, Alaska
Weather Conditions: Sunny, blue sky 0F / -17C

“B12…B-1-2…,” at the Tribal Council office, with family and friends around her, Lorraine Tritts reads the numbers into a small two-way radio. The airwaves buzz with, “Bingo!” and some of the kids jump on a snowmobile to go give the lucky winner the prize. Almost every night is a bingo night in the small community of Arctic Village. We did not join the game but, at the Tribal Council that night, we did enjoy a delicious spaghetti dinner (made with caribou burger!) to raise money for the upcoming spring carnival. The Tribal Council office is covered with posters, pictures, maps, and poems. Looking along the walls, there is no doubt what is important to these people: the caribou.

Mille’s beautifully beaded purses of caribou skin were made by students – by Fiona (left) and by Renita (right).
Go shopping! Explore downtown Arctic Village and walk inside the one store in town.
Listen and meet Athena.
Listen as Cheyenne and Athena translate English words into the Gwich’in language.

For thousands of years, the Neest’all Gwich’in band has lived in this area along the Chandalar River and the mountainous valleys, moving about with the seasons, nomads in search of fish, game, and especially, caribou. Calling themselves “People of the Caribou,” they were – and still are – part of the animal’s natural cycle. Throughout time, the caribou have provided most of what was needed to live – food, skins for clothing and shelter, and bones carved into fish hooks, skin scrapers, and other tools. Today, the caribou are still all-important to the way of life in this small community of about 100 people. “As a young girl, we survived because of the caribou,” explained Athena. “Though we no longer live in skin huts or wear only caribou clothing, more than 85 percent of the meat resources in town still come from caribou.” Without roads coming across the mountains from the outside world, and no barge (because the Chandalar River is too shallow to allow for shipping by water), the only way any goods or food can make it into the community is by airlift. That makes for expensive groceries. Even a stick of butter is almost priceless!

Henry and Jens working on pouring fuel. We will now be in two tent units instead of one!
Watch Jens 'ironing' with a wood stove!?

Charlie Swaney, a respected hunter in town, tells us that when the caribou do not come back, it is a very hard time for people in the community. These past three years there have been few caribou in the area; they just didn’t come during their migration, like usual. Some believe it was due to smoke that filled the air from forest fires south of the village – especially the large Pingo Fire that came so close to Venetie (which we wrote about in last week’s update). But this is a good year – the caribou are back. Earlier this winter, the Fish & Wildlife Service came up to count the caribou surrounding the community; their estimate was more than 78,000 head!

Caribou meat being dried above the wood stove in Charlie’s home.
Listen as Charlie explains how to hunt caribou.

A few evenings later, we were honored when Charlie asked us to join him when he was going to skin a couple of caribou that he had just hunted at a lake on the outskirts of town. Henry and Mille jumped on a snowmobile with Charlie and headed out for what Mille believes is one of the most amazing experiences she has had in the Arctic. “My father is an avid sports hunter, so I grew up eating a lot of game meat and helping my dad skin a lot of deer, hares, pheasant – and a few pigs as well – on my grandfather’s farm,” she shared with a grin. “But I have never seen anything like this. With the caribou carcasses still warm, Charlie barely used a knife. He would make a few initial cuts and then used his hands, fists, and body movements to remove the caribou hide as if he was in a carefully-rehearsed dance. Not a single movement seemed to be without a reason.” While Charlie skinned, he explained about the caribou, how their cycle of life is carefully intertwined with the Gwich’in life in the community, how he was taught by his grandfather about the caribou, how he has taught his children, and is now teaching his grandchildren. An orphan, Charlie told us how he grew up often wondering why he was here. Hunting his first caribou when he was nine-years-old, he explained how he has been able to provide for his family and support his community with his skills as a hunter. “One day I realized, I think this is why I am here,” said Charlie, pointing to the caribou. Mille continued, “Driving back on the snowmobile, emerged in the majesty of the mountains surrounding this community and a bit overwhelmed by the entire experience, I really started to grasp just how threatened the people here feel by the idea that anything or anyone might possibly interfere with the ways of the caribou.”

The caribou hunted now fill the freezers in town for all to share in sparse times and to prepare for the upcoming spring carnival when families, friends, and children from other communities travel from afar to join in celebration of their traditions and the arrival of spring. Arctic Village is known for its very traditional ways, particularly during the carnival, when contests include a race to see who can skin a caribou head the fastest (the caribou heads are then thrown on a fire to be grilled), a caribou leg-skinning contest, and – safe to say a bit less traditional – a "bubble gum/saltine/funny face/staring contest!" “Wish I could participate in that one,” says Jens…

Charlie shows the cocoons of bot flies found on the inside of the caribou’s skin.

It was Mille making a funny face when she realized where bot flies come from! When we arrived at the lake on Charlie’s snowmobile, pulling up next to this huge caribou bull lying on its side, Charlie pointed to the nose of the caribou and said, “That’s where the bot flies come from.” “I actually thought he was joking!” laughed Mille. Then Charlie removed the caribou’s head and started showing us the inside of its throat while explaining how it is very different from a moose. Charlie explained how the bot fly develops in its cocoon on the inside of the caribou’s skin, and once developed migrates out, emerging through the nose of the caribou!

Timothy Sam teaching traditional knowledge of living on the land.
Watch as Timothy explains how chewing willow twigs can get you going.
Watch as Timothy explains about extreme survival foods – ptarmigan turds.

The Gwich’in of this area do not eat the bot flies – as Henry had experienced being a tradition in other areas of Alaska. But, if necessary, they know they can eat ptarmigan turds! Elder Timothy Sam has served in the military for 40-some years, and has taught more than 30,000 troops arctic and desert survival skills, based on traditional knowledge. We were more than thrilled when he offered to share his knowledge with us. Though Jens is the only GoNorth! team member who has served in the military (in Denmark), Tim soon had us standing straight and in awe of his knowledge as he shared often simple but valuable lessons. Tips and tricks – beyond extreme survival foods (Henry has promised to give the ptarmigan turds a try when we come across some fresh ones ... we’ll keep you updated!) – included building two small fires rather than a single large one when needing to dry out, then sitting between them so that you, and clothes hung next to you, dry on both sides at once; caribou hair in the tips of even cotton gloves makes for toasty-warm hands in minus 40-below temperatures; eat burned, ground caribou bones if you have diarrhea; yellow pitch (the sap from a spruce tree) can be applied to a wound to enhance healing. Jens added a tip, too, “Since squirrels eat so many pine-cones, their meat contains a lot of the healing ingredient found in pitch and, for that reason, you can actually apply squirrel meat as a compress on a wound if you have no pitch around.” Paul then shared one of his favorite tricks on how to light a fire with wet matches. “You take the match (preferably a paper match) and rub it in your hair, the hair sucks the moisture from the wet match and, eventually – if you have enough hair – the match will be dry and you can light your fire!”

Watch what’s cooking at Arctic Village High School!
Watch how popular the Polar Husky trading cards are.
Explore near the Arctic Village school ground.

It is obvious to us that the community of Arctic Village takes great pride in passing on traditional knowledge. Among the 40-some students at the school, Lillian is known as the "best cook in town." Having enjoyed a couple of her masterpieces, we have to agree that her food is mouth-wateringly delicious! Lillian is the Gwich’in language teacher, but she also talks frequently with the students about how their Elders would behave and teaches crafts, dance, and cooking. In March, the school’s lunch program had to end because the cost of food shipped in from the outside was so expensive that the budget was all spent. Now the students, with Lillian’s help, prepare lunch using traditional recipes. The day we visited the school to talk about GoNorth!, we were treated to a terrific lunch of caribou stew, beans, rice, fry-bread, and upside-down cake.

Watch rules of the Chinese Auction  - yes, that is the pie Henry won!
Watch the Chinese Auction in action as Jens really tries to be the lucky winner of the Carhartt pants ...

Speaking of goodies, one evening the youngsters in town grilled caribou burgers and prepared a feast for us and the rest of the town. This was followed by a 'Chinese Auction,' a game none of us had ever played before – and only Henry mastered. He actually won the first auction item of the night, bringing home a grand prize to be consumed for breakfast the next morning ... a delicious apple pie!

Though most of the power in Arctic Village comes from generators burning oil that is flown in, the town also has several large solar panels.
Watch as Jens tells about his "sense of the Arctic."

Yes, we admit to totally indulging in the hospitality of this unique community, situated in the midst of some of the most spectacular scenery one can imagine – absolute eye-candy. And now it is time for us to finally head into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to experience the spirit of this place held close-at-heart by so many. On that note, make sure to add your findings about ANWR to the Earth Zone and join this week’s World Resources chat on Thursday April 20, at 10 AM (CST). We are also eager to see what all of you are doing for your Earth Day celebrations on April 22! Prepared and ready to meet the crux of this expedition, we are about to head up the Gilbroy Pass for the trek across the mountains of the Brooks Range – with the caribou ahead of us.

This week’s first Polar Husky Superstar: Ruby.

This week’s Polar Husky Superstars, Ruby and Lightning, will be more than excited once they realize they are on the tails of caribou! One of our most spirited pullers, Ruby is a very sweet dog, tough-as-nails, and a pulling machine. Always hard at work to keep her line as tight as a violin string, Ruby will launch herself into the air at the sound of the command to go – often starting the sled even when she runs far forward in the team. She is actually such a valuable puller that, although we think she has all the potential of an excellent lead dog, we have been hesitant to move her up-front simply because her awesome power will be missed pulling the weight closer to the sled. While she gives all she’s got, Ruby will also make sure to let her running partner know that it is time to get to work – particularly when she gets a whiff of something that can make the team go "Polar Husky Hunting." At first, often scaring her running partner, she will lurch as she throws herself forward, looping into her harness, looking for any animals ahead – but most often it ends up being a game where her partner gets to play by going fast, fast, faster.

Lightning – this week’s other Polar Husky Superstar.

Ruby is also the mother of our latest litter of Polar Husky puppies. The youngsters on this expedition all love running and playing this game with their mother, especially her daughter, Lightning. Just sixteen- months-old, Lightning is still very much a puppy at heart. However, while GoNorth! ANWR 2006 is Lightning’s first expedition, she is also showing us again and again that she is a brilliant young lady who loves to hunt, go fast, have fun, be kind, and get lots of loving. She is a bit of a trickster, but once she realizes it is time to show her best behavior, Lightning actually knows how to act like a Polar Husky veteran already. Just like her mother, she takes her work quite seriously while being extremely alert and always looking for an excuse to set out for a chase. Leaving the community of the caribou people, heading down the trail of the caribou to cross the mountains, promises lots of opportunity for just that …