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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

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Week 4: Celebration Times!

Week 3: 80 Pounds of Butter?

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Week 1: Preparing


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Eskimo dancing! Many of the dancers at the feast wore beautiful boots like these made from seal, caribou, and wolf hide.
Date Posted: 05.08.06
Location: 70°07'N 143°36'W
Weather Conditions: Partly cloudy with sunshine 25F / -4C

“Tuuung, tuuung, tuuung, tuuuung – aiiiiiii, aiiiiiiii,” the air filled with a harmony of voices, the floor vibrated as feet stomping the beat, following the drums in the hands of the Elders; whale blubber, caribou roast, salmon, s’mores, and hot dogs; smiles, laughs, and the warmest of hospitality – beautiful gifts bestowed upon us in every sense of the word. It has been a remarkable week in so many ways. Our team waved goodbye – hands, hugs, and tails – to two team members who had been instrumental in Team GoNorth! successfully making it across the Brooks Mountain, as well as to the kindest people in the wonderful community of Kaktovik. It was also more than exciting to welcome the arrival of two new team members – one was expected…the other was not!

Traditional arrow made from driftwood and bowhead whale.

Gathered around the kitchen table with the Burns family we were all admiring an arrow made from driftwood and the baleen of a bowhead whale, as well as the arrow tip and small tools, carved smooth from rocks. Our hostess, Nora Jane, found these tools at the water’s edge when she was walking along the shore of the Kaktovik Lagoon. “This has always been home to us,” she explained. When people were living on the land, traveling as nomads up and down the coast, they gathered here to hunt and trade. The first community of small houses, built from sod and driftwood, was set on the shores of what is now known as the Kaktovik Lagoon. Suddenly, on a day in 1947 the US Military arrived to announce that the community was to be moved in order for the military to build a hangar and a runway for its planned operation in the area. Before anyone realized what was happening, houses, ice cellars, and belongings were being bulldozed, and the people of Kaktovik were told to build their new community about a mile away. As if once was not harsh enough, the community was actually moved a second time because the military decided to put another landing strip and hangar at the very site of the new community!

Mrs. Johnson’s 5th and 6th grade class.
Watch the bonfire on the beach by the Arctic Ocean!

On that airstrip, the day after our arrival, Jens boarded a small Cessna airplane to set-out on his forty-some-hour journey back to Denmark, despite the stormy weather picking up again with gusting winds and whirling snows. The weather became so fierce that the “Bonfire on the Beach” event for the community to “Come and Celebrate the Arrival of the GoNorth! Dog Team” had to be postponed from Saturday until Sunday. Hosted by Mrs. Johnson’s 5th and 6th grade class of the Harold Kaveolook School, the big and especially the small then came out en-masse. It was still winter-windy but the students had gathered drift and scrap wood for the bonfire so everyone could stay warm, gathered around on the beach behind where the Polar Huskies had been staked out all week. Pots of beans were sizzling, hot dogs were roasting and the s’more sandwiches of graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows were a sure ‘first-time-hit’!

Aaron brought us nice gifts from Minnesota! Cool shirts from Mr. Clay’s class at Eden Lake Elementary School and bracelets from Ms. Knutson’s and Ms. Fonkert’s class at the Orono Middle School.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, thrilled to be joining fellow teammates on the expedition trail, Aaron was packed and ready to go! Teacher Explorer Amy had arrived the night before from Pennsylvania. At the crack of dawn on the morning of departure, shortly before heading to the Minneapolis Airport to meet up with Amy, the phone rang at Aaron’s house. It was Amy calling with sad news that because of personal reasons she could not continue her journey with Team GoNorth! Fast on his feet (true to being the veteran of 35-some marathons), Aaron immediately called Polar Husky Lead Teacher Mick Hamilton of Northfield Middle School in Minnesota – asking him to join Team GoNorth! as this year's Teacher Explorer…

Watch Mick’s first impressions of the Arctic.
Watch Mick meet a snow fence!

Mick quickly roared, “YES!” With the blessings of family, principal and fellow teachers – and less than five hours to latest possible departure, he was eager to go. “I had been meaning to get Polar Husky stickers for a while, and I finally put one on my car last week that reads, ‘I would rather be out exploring the Arctic!’ And here I am, in the Arctic exploring – well, exploring other cultures!”

Watch the dancing...
…and watch the drumming at the traditional Eskimo Dance.

The night of Mick and Aaron’s much anticipated arrival Mrs. Johnson’s class went full-out, hosting a carefully planned “Come Meet the Team” celebration dinner. Tables were decorated with student-made flyers about the team, while the walls were adorned with pictures, expedition facts, maps, and their incredible, colorful Polar Husky drawings. The food feast included delicious muktuk which is raw, salted whale blubber. Beautiful Eskimo dancing followed as the Elders and youngsters lined up to perform traditional dances, “telling stories” with their hands and bodies to the music of singing sounds and big drums.

Eskimo drumming.

The traditional Inupiaq Eskimo drums were most often made out of the stomach lining from the bowhead whale. The Inupiat Eskimo have a use for every part of the bowhead whale which is to them, what caribou is to the Gwich’in people we met earlier on this expedition. As Elder and Reverend Isaac Akootchook explained to us during a long morning visit we had with him in his home, the bowhead whale is the spiritual animal for the Inupiaq Eskimo people.

As part of his research program Aaron handed out cameras to the students in Ms. Johnson’s class so they could take pictures of ‘what Kaktovik is to them.’
Watch students Phillip, Archie, and Simon help Paul and Mick collect snow samples to be shipped to NASA.

Today the community is allowed to hunt three whales and it is truly a community event! The herds of bowhead whale migrate by Kaktovik, along the shores of the Arctic Ocean in late spring and fall. But, it is in the fall that everyone – old and young, men and women – gathers to whale, heading out to sea in small boats and then butchering on the beach. We spent most of a day in Mrs. Johnson’s classroom with the 5th and 6th grade students to learn how they have been using the GoNorth! program and hear about their experiences with the incredible blog they put together and kept updated throughout the program. Listening to their whaling experiences was inspiring – from the whale shack, to how the whale is pulled up on the beach, how they all jump on top of the whale standing shoulder to shoulder to measure it (just like it has always been done), to how they stand in line to hold the eye of the whale.

Visiting with Whaling Captain and Elder Isaac Akootchook.
Listen to Whaling Captain and Elder, Isaac Akootchook, explain the whale hunt.
Watch Henry’s thoughts on the expedition as he is getting ready to fly out, departing GoNorth! – for this time!

Investigating the eye is actually one of the best ways to tell the age of a whale! “One of the whales we harvested last season was more than 150 years old – they even found the tip of a stone arrow in its blubber,” shared Nora Jane. Henry was very surprised to hear this, explaining, “Today that is very rare because it has been so long since any Natives made their arrow tips from stone.” He has traveled throughout the Arctic whaling communities, talking with Native whaling captains to learn about bowhead whales and traditional whaling. Before it was time for his departure from Kaktovik on Tuesday Henry made sure to meet with the local whaling captains, whom he knew from his earlier work. Both of Nora Jane’s grandfathers were renowned whalers: Captain Tom Gordon and Captain George Leavitt. The latter came from Scotland as a whaling captain but soon learned the ways of the native Inupiat Eskimo, hunting for whale on the ice instead of, as was then practiced by commercial whalers, on the boats.

Vertebra of a bowhead whale, lying on top of a "flipper" bone which is about four feet long.

Whereas hunting for whale has always meant food and resources for the Inupiat Eskimo – the reason for the big “whaling rush” in the mid 1800s was actually oil! When the blubber of a bowhead whale is rendered it makes quite a bit of oil, which was then, among other applications, used for soap, rope, and leather making. Beyond the fact that whales are a natural resource, just like oil, there is even more of a connection. Long before any “oil companies” arrived in this region looking for oil, the Natives of the area knew of the oil seeping from the ground. It was actually a whaler who discovered the oil seeps that led to what is known as ‘the Prudhoe bay oil strike!’

Mick enjoys his first bite of muktuk (whale blubber) at the Eskimo Dance.
Watch Nora Jane Burns share her thoughts about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Watch student Tracy Burns read a poem she wrote about how pollution harms migrating birds of the area.

Today Kaktovik is known around the country as the community of Inupiat Eskimo living within the borders of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that supports the exploration for oil. This is really only part of the truth. As Nora Jane, who works for the North Slope Borough, clarified that she, like many people in the community, goes back and forth as to whether or not to support drilling for oil in ANWR. She is very aware and concerned about how it could impact the caribou as well as other animals, how it will impact the land, and the dangers of pollution that go along with oil exploration. At the same time she thinks it is extremely important that the locals of Kaktovik have a say in how oil exploration would be handled, by taking an active role in talking with the oil companies. She truly believes that drilling for oil can be a very important tool in securing jobs and making a future for the people of Kaktovik. But, probably most important to Nora Jane is her belief that much of money made from oil exploration would make it possible to offer better education and health systems to the people in Kaktovik and all over the state of Alaska.

Aaron walking into the sunset in Kaktovik.

“It is very difficult for me to imagine any sort of oil drilling and seismic trucks exploring the land for oil in the incredibly beautiful area we just dogsledded through,” admits Paul. “On the other hand, being in Kaktovik one quickly realizes why this is not an easy decision for the community – this is their back-yard!” One might say that the ocean is the front-yard of Kaktovik, and the townspeople will have absolutely no say in whether or not any drilling for oil will take place here. The 1002 area of ANWR, where it is being debated whether or not to open up for oil exploration, is actually Native land, owned by the people of Kaktovik; whereas the ocean floor is not – and has already been leased out for oil companies to explore!

A polar bear skin being dried so it can be prepared for use as clothing and mukluks.

The Elder Isaac is, at 84 years of age, still a much respected whaling captain. He detailed how off-shore drilling, as it is called, is of great concern because of the effects it might have on the migrating bowhead whales. While we were at his house, enjoying coffee, breads, and incredible insights from his life in Kaktovik (since being a tiny boy, running his father’s dog teams), a local stopped by with a picture sent to him from the current, May 2006, issue of National Geographic Magazine. The cover image is of a polar bear standing on top of whale carcasses – taken at what they call the ‘whale graveyard’ in Kaktovik! When the bowhead whales have been butchered, whatever is left of the carcass, like the jaw, is put out in an area at the end of the airport runway where the bears – both polar bears and grizzly bears – gather to feed on the bones. This helps a bit, in an effort to keep the many, many bears that gather around the community every fall off the streets and out of the houses.

We are now in polar bear country!

Right now we are keeping an eye out for the polar bear ourselves! After this wonderful week in Kaktovik, we are back on the sleds, running along the shoreline of the Arctic Ocean. On the first full day of running we saw our first seal in the distance, and where there are seals – well, there are usually bears. But the Polar Huskies are on alert. For sure we know they are pumped to be out on the go again, after what was certainly the craziest departure yet from any community along the route. When one wired Polar Husky team managed to take-off without any mushers onboard the sled, the other team rapidly followed with all four team members hanging onto the sled while yelling ‘Quyanapak’ – the Inupiak Eskimo word for ‘thank you’ – over our shoulders and into the wind…