Date Posted: 03.27.06 Location: 66°33'N 145°16'W, Fort Yukon, Alaska Weather Conditions: Sunny with some clouds -5F / -20C
“Look up,” yelled Paul.“Snow buntings!” Little white birds with black streaks were ‘zoooooofing through the air,’ as Mille describes the swift, flittering movements of these elegant birds. Flying low over the ground, they are considered a first sign of spring, no matter where you travel in the North American Arctic. Fittingly, it was Monday when we saw the first buntings – which was the first day of spring – and within an hour of seeing them we officially crossed the Arctic Circle!
Not that we could tell that we crossed into the “Arctic Circle” as we were dogsledding down the Yukon River. There are no road signs or any other markings beyond the fact that our map stated we were at “Arctic Circle 66°33' 31.1” North.” We just happened to have taken out the map to check where we were on the GPS. We had been following a trail since leaving Circle and, at times, the trail was drifted over so that we could barely see it ... But Freja was doing a great job following it, feeling for the trail with her paws and ‘reading the snow’ ahead. This is something an experienced Polar Husky lead dog can do better than any of us, so we constantly keep a keen eye on where we are going but also very much leave it to Freja to find our way up the river.
That morning, when Mille went outside, she thought she could hear something in the distance and, sure enough, a snowmobile came up the river to the tent soon after. Pulling a small sled with their bags, Jerald and his son, Josiah, were on their way from Fort Yukon to Circle, where Jerald had parked his truck. From there, they were driving 400 miles to Anchorage to watch the high school state basketball championship. See, Fort Yukon’s Basketball team, the Eagles, had made it all the way to the playoffs and, as we are writing this report, they are one game from being in the finals!!
This meant we had a nice, fresh trail to follow the last twenty-some miles to Fort Yukon. Unfortunately, it made one tricky turn and we ended up going the wrong way because we just followed the trail – and not our map – taking us straight to a trapper’s cabin after a difficult crossing of thin ice and around a large area of open water where Paul really got to test his skills as “ice checker.” Once we got both dog teams swung around on the narrow trail, we looked at the map, got our bearings straight, and set out for Fort Yukon.
Equipped with warm mittens and a hat made from beaver and musk-rat furs, Josiah and his father make the more than 500 mile journey – of which the first 100 is by snowmobile – to the basketball play-offs.
A couple of hours later, the Polar Huskies made their way up the bank of the Yukon River and onto First Street in Fort Yukon. Cruising in grand style, the team ran a mile or so through town (admittedly not stopping at the stop signs), taking a couple of turns, and stopping on Sled Street, right in front of the home of our hosts, Richard and Kathleen Carroll, where their nice, cozy, warm cabin was awaiting our arrival. With little more than 550 people living in Fort Yukon, it is the largest Athabascan community (or ‘Indian village,’ as they call it here) and one of the oldest settlements in Alaska. Called Gwichyaa Zhee (house of the flats) by the Gwiich’in people that have lived in the area for thousands of years, the community of Fort Yukon was established in 1847 by the Hudson Bay Company around the trading post where Natives would bring furs to sell. Today, trapping, hunting, and fishing are still a part of life in the community.
That evening, after a delicious moose stew dinner – while we were visiting and having tea – someone knocked on the door, followed by the whirling entrance of Julie, a small but dynamic woman with a huge smile. Hit by the northern lights when she was very young, Julie is known for her tremendous energy. It is said that one should never tease the northern lights, and Julie told us how, along with her sister, she was indeed yelling at the northern lights when they came down and hit her! Today, Julie lives with her large family – about 180 miles east of Fort Yukon – on their homestead out in the bush. They only come into town for supplies and to sell the furs that they trap on the land. However, her oldest daughter just joined the army and is now in Iraq where she is having a hard time dealing with the heat! To relieve the swelling and blistering she is experiencing, Julie was sending her daughter a large package of rosehip salve and pitch (sap from the spruce trees) – straight from the Alaskan forest to the desert sands of Iraq! Julie also brought us goodies. Hearing about our journey ahead, she gave us a large bag of smoked moose jerky lined with delicious moose fat. Every fall, she and her family hunt two to three moose, which they then prepare, dry, and smoke to give them meat supplies for the entire year.
On the topic of delicious food, Tuesday night the community held a really nice gathering at the Tribal Building with a wonderful feast of food, door prizes, and a blessing for the GoNorth! journey ahead. Our feast was not the only gathering in Fort Yukon this week. The second was because last weekend a much respected Elder, Mary Thompson, passed away. Tuesday morning, Mille was at the local university building – a beautiful, large log cabin where locals can take online distance learning classes via teleconference to the University of Fairbanks. There was the most wonderful smell in the entire building so Mille – crazy as she can be these days for food and good smells – soon found her way to the kitchen area! Here she found kind people cooking up meals for the family of Mary Thompson, as is tradition. The funeral was being held on the following Friday and it is also tradition that the entire community help with the preparation of the grave. Over the last couple of days, more than twenty men had been taking turns digging into the frozen permafrost. No matter where you are it is difficult to dig a hole in the ground after a long winter of frost but, in the Arctic, the permafrost makes for frozen ground year-round. Once you dig beyond a couple of feet you reach that permafrost. These days, though, the weather is drastically changing in this area – which is called Interior Alaska; the average annual temperature has risen by as much as 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1949! The Elders here have not checked the temperature gauge much for the last sixty years…but they do talk about lots of changes.
A fish wheel made by the local trapper Earl, for catching fish in the summertime on the Yukon River.
Mostly they explain how the waters – lakes, streams, and the Yukon River – are changing. Lakes, swamps, and streams are drying up, in large part as the permafrost, which actually holds the water, is melting. The Elders talk about how this means changes to what is growing on the land and changes in the animals they hunt and trap. In the early summertime, when the locals head out on the land for their annual duck and goose hunting, a favorite catch is the White-winged Scoter duck. Coming from the bottom of the James Bay lowlands in Canada, the Scoter duck – or as it is called in Gwiich’in, ‘Nja,’ – used to fly here to lay its eggs and raise its young in the many lakes around the Yukon River communities, where it could feed on freshwater shrimp. With the low water levels, only a few lakes are now deep enough to have freshwater shrimp for which the Scoter Duck can dive! Another concern this year – beyond the environmental changes causing the loss of water fowl to this area – is the danger of hunting and eating migrating geese that come here from Asia, carrying the bird flu.
Yes, the birds and fowl really come from around the world to raise their young in this area, throughout the Yukon Flats Refuge. To many rare species of waterfowl, this refuge is what the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is to the Porcupine caribou herd. And just like ANWR, the Yukon Flats is being considered for oil development. That was the reason for the last community gathering in Fort Yukon this week. On Thursday, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service invited the people of Fort Yukon to a “scoping meeting” to get information and let their concerns be heard about a proposed ‘land swap’ which would open up the foothills of the White Mountains for oil development. As is often a case, issues are not one-sided, and this one certainly is not! Some of the most valuable areas for protecting the many waterfowl that make the Yukon Flats Refuge so unique are low wetland areas surrounding the native communities along the Yukon River, such as Fort Yukon. The Natives, through the organization ‘Doyon Native Corporation,’ own this land. The Doyon has offered this land to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the Yukon Flats Refuge, if they will ‘swap it’ in return for lands in the foothills of the White Mountains. These foothills were explored twenty-some-years ago by the Fish & Wildlife Service and it is believed that there is oil and gas under the land's surface. So, the Doyon organization is looking to swap the land in order to be able to start exploring for oil and possible jobs. As part of this land swap, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would receive two percent of any revenues made from oil development.
Renowned for their beautiful beadwork, the people of Fort Yukon traditionally (and still today) are very dependent on moose for their resources. This is a small, waterproof pouch made from moose bladder!
Lipton with Fort Yukon students; the team presented to the high school, middle school, and elementary school.
On the banks of the Yukon River, birds – like swallows – hollow out the dirt to make nests for laying their eggs in the spring.
The only problem is that Doyon is a large organization representing more than 14,000 people in a very large geographical area, with most of the people living far away from the Yukon Flats. The decision to try to make a land swap is not the wish of the majority of the people actually living in this area – caring for and being dependent on this land for their traditional way of life. And on top of that, because the Natives living here do not own the rights to what is under the surface of the land, they will not make any actual profit from development. What they might gain is the possibility of jobs, and a payment of $40 million-dollars over the next forty years! With very few jobs in the area for the little more than 1,200 people living here, some do support the land swap because they believe it will bring the possibility of better jobs, roads, and industry to the area. But, the majority believe exploration for oil will bring destruction to the environment and disturb the animal population that they depend on for hunting and trapping. Beyond that, many are questioning whether this will just be the beginning of oil development in the area and whether the line should be drawn to not allow oil development within the borders of a refuge. Because it is also the job of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to protect the rights and way of life of the Native people living within the borders of the Yukon Flats, many here are very upset as they try to fight for their beliefs within their own Native organization. As you can probably imagine, it was a meeting of heated emotions. Elders spoke loudly, trying to lead their people toward what they think is the right way to care for the land and how they think the animals of the area will be affected by oil exploration. Do you think one should consider the environment and animals of an area when it comes to looking for resources to meet our need for oil and gas to fuel our cars and heat the houses we live in? Share your thoughts and projects in Animal Collaboration Zone 03 and make sure to join this week’s chat on “Biodiversity,” Wednesday March 29 at 12 noon CST!
We all lean on our leaders for guidance – and as Freja showed earlier this week, and so it goes for the Polar Huskies too! Freja earns her status as this week’s first Polar Husky Superstar for being such a great lead dog. With a brilliant mind and excellent work ethic, she is the most experienced lead dog on this expedition, which is the first in her life. For many years, Aksel – who is now retired – would be the guy in front when the demands would be high on the lead dog, whether it be to follow a difficult trail, go head-first into the wind, or navigate the way through town. As a matter of fact, coming into Fort Yukon was the first time ever that Freja led the way into town! She used to be a bit intimidated by trucks, snowmobiles, and herds of people spilling out onto the road in front of her, but if you didn’t know it, you sure couldn’t tell now. Running ahead of the pack down First Street, she held her tail high in the air, staying entirely focused on getting the job done – in style.
This week’s first Polar Husky Superstar is Freja.
Tucker earns the title as this week’s second Polar Husky Superstar.
Freja began to learn the ropes of being a lead dog by running in tandem with her mother, the great ‘Cola.’ At first, she was put up to run with Cola because, at just two years old, she loved to go – fast – and she was really eager to take commands and go hunting for any dark dot in the distance. This is exactly how Tucker ended up in lead as well ... except Tucker was just a year old the first time he was put in lead! At four years old, this is Tucker’s third expedition and he's turning into a great lead dog. Now running much of his time in tandem, sharing the lead position with Freja and learning the ropes from her, Tucker is a super-happy dog. He is very high-strung and an extremely hard puller ... one of those rare lead dogs who will actually dig in to start the sled all the way from the front. Like his brother, Buttra, and sisters, Rubi and Xena, Tucker can almost seem a little crazy with his wild energy and never-wanting-to-stop attitude. At first, we really didn't think he would have the ability to listen, concentrate, and sit still (lead dogs have to be good at that, too) long enough to actually take commands and take charge of an entire team behind him. But we were wrong! Tucker seems to have all the potential to be a Polar Husky leader, pulling his fellow team members through adventures and challenges ahead and, for now, across the Yukon Flats.