Archive for September 2012

Alaska Trip (Part 8) — The Gwich’in People and a Threatened Way of Life   12 comments

I’ve put off writing this blog post for a couple of weeks.  I don’t really know how write it — as a photographer I’m much more comfortable with images than with words.  It’s a subject that I feel strongly about, but those feelings don’t translate easily into cogent paragraphs.

So let’s just start off with a little simple history and fact setting.  I’ll ramp it up from there.

The Gwich’in people who we visited on our August trip above the Arctic Circle are indigenous to Northern Alaska and the western Yukon Territory in Canada.  There are somewhere between 8000 and 9000 Gwich’in spread throughout 15 different villages, with approximately 140 to 150 in the village we visited (Arctic Village).  Most books and websites will simply refer to their existence for “more than 10,000 years” and attribute their being there to the land bridge that is thought to have once connected Asia and North America.  The elders that we spoke with simply say “we have always been here”.  What is not in dispute is that these people have lived and thrived in one of the world’s harshest environments dating back into pre-history.

The Gwich’in are one of the world’s last remaining subsistence cultures.  They live off the land.  In particular, they live off the caribou herds that migrate throughout the Arctic region, and as a result are often referred to as “the Caribou people”.  A typical Gwich’in eats in the vicinity of 250 caribou-based meals each year.  In our short stay we had caribou steaks and caribou stew, prepared by our hosts.  Virtually every inch of the caribou is eaten or utilized in some way.  These are not wasteful people.

To continue to survive as a subsistence culture the Gwich’in obviously need a healthy, thriving caribou herd.  That, unfortunately, puts them smack in the middle of the debate about drilling in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge called Area 1002.  There are hundreds of articles (and, ugh, biased emails) written about 1002.  There is no way I can cover the entire debate here, nor do I want to try.  But the gist of the Gwich’in dilemma is this:  1002 is smack in the middle of the calving grounds of the caribou herd that the Gwich’in depend upon for their very way of life.  So when oil interests tell you that “It is only 2000 acres out of 19 million refuge acres”, remember that it is not just any 2000 acres.  It is the source of regeneration for the herd upon which thousands of people depend.  That’s an important consideration.  It’s also irresponsible to hold a discussion about drilling in the Arctic without putting that issue front and center.

We know — let me repeat, we know — that caribou will leave an area where humans are present.  They’ve been hunted by humans for thousands of years.  They’ve learned and adapted.  To think that caribou are oblivious to human presence is beyond illogical.  Simply put, when people are present, caribou leave.  It’s how they survive.  Big Oil argues otherwise, but think about it — does that really pass the common sense test?  And the bottom line is, if the caribou leave the traditional birthing grounds in Area 1002 it is likely that the herd will be irreparably harmed by both lower birth rates and / or higher predation.  In either case, the size of the herd will decrease and the Gwich’in subsistence lifestyle will be harmed, and even possibly eradicated.  That’s not a caribou issue — it’s a human rights issue.

So at what price are we willing to sacrifice an entire culture?  Is this that bullshit “manifest destiny” concept redux — the one we were taught in grade school as a rationalization for penning lower-48 Native Americans onto reservation lands?  Well, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently released a study that did not support Big Oil’s ongoing narrative.  The CBOs conclusion was eye-opening:  Drilling in ANWR will provide America’s oil needs for a total of six months . . . beginning ten years from now . . . with a resulting price decrease of one to four cents per gallon.

So here’s the $64 million dollar question:  Are you willing to sacrifice the livelihood of thousands of indigenous people for a 6-month price decrease of 4 cents per gallon, beginning somewhere around 2020?  If you are, feel free to “unfriend” me and stop following my blog.  If you aren’t, I urge you to contact your Representative and Senator.  Tell them that 4 cents per gallon isn’t worth the price that will surely be paid by the Gwich’in people.

David Radcliff, our learning tour leader, told us of something a friend of his once said:  “You won’t care about a river that you don’t know.”  To paraphrase that saying, you won’t care about people who you don’t know.  So here are some people who I really would like you to know and care about:

(Above)  This is little Charlie.  He lives in Arctic Village, Alaska.  His grandfather hunts caribou for the village.  (And yes, I’m playing the cute kid card.  Hey, it’s my blog.)

(Above)  This is little Charlie’s grandfather, Charlie Swaney.  Charlie is my friend, and an ardent advocate for the Gwich’in way of life.

(Above)  This is Charlie Swaney, doing what he always seems to be doing: watching for caribou.

(Above)  This is Marion Swaney, Charlie’s wife.  Marion once shot a grizzly bear that threatened the group up at hunting camp.  Don’t mess with Marion.

(Above)  This is Sarah James.  Don’t let the smile fool you.  Sarah was one of the Native Americans who occupied Alcatraz prison in San Francisco during the 70’s.  She has also led protests in Washington, D.C.  Sarah is politically savvy and smarter than any ten of us put together.

(Above)  This is Gideon James, Sarah’s brother.  Gideon, like Sarah, is an advocate for his people.  But Gideon also served the United States as a soldier in the Armed Forces.  His division was on alert and ready to be deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

(Above)  This is Fannie Gemmil.  Like Sarah and Gideon, she is a Gwich’in elder.  Fannie was also a TWA airline attendant (“stewardess”, back in the day).  She missed the way of life in Arctic Village and moved back there from California.  Fannie is very involved in her grandchildren’s lives.

(Above)  This is Derek.  He lives in Charlie and Marion’s home.  In Arctic Village, the broader community looks after one another.  Derek tagged along with several of us visitors much of the week.  I will always remember the nap that he and I took on the tundra grass one afternoon up at hunting camp.  And yes, I just played another “cute kid” card.  IT’S MY BLOG!!!

Posted September 25, 2012 by ~ Bruce in People, Travel Photography

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Alaska Trip (Part 7) — On The Ground in Arctic Village   2 comments

After the spectacular 300 mile flight from Fairbanks we were all anxious to leave the airstrip and meet our hosts in Arctic Village.  For half of our eight-person group it was a return trip.  For the other half — Melanie and me included — it was a new experience.  And to be honest I had absolutely no idea what to expect.  I have been on native reservations in the lower 48, but those were easy drives from the motels we were staying at.  Arctic Village — as I mentioned in my last post — is 150 miles from the nearest road.  We were here to stay until our flight out a week later.

Part of the deal when you fly a prop plane is that you travel light.  Each person was allotted 40 pounds, and Melanie and I had spent a good deal of time weighing our packs and gear before we ever left Pennsylvania.  The combined 80 pound limit seemed like plenty, except that had to include the weight of a tent, stakes, rainfly, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads before we even got to the usual clothing, toiletries, and so forth.  Oh yeah, and my camera gear weighed in at 8 pounds — so there went 10% of our allocation.  In the end, we managed quite nicely by washing things out in streams and lakes, and by — how shall I put this? — extending the wearing period.

Back to the point of this post, Arctic Village.  We were prepared to carry our gear the mile from the airstrip into the village, but instead found our hosts waiting for us with ATVs and a pickup truck.  In a matter of minutes we were transported to the home of Charlie and Marion Swaney, who hosted us in their home for the week.  Several of our party slept in the house while the rest of us found a beautiful location for our tents, about 400 or 500 yards behind Charlie’s and Marion’s house.

Anxious to walk around the village, Melanie and I quickly set up our tent and then set out to explore.  Below are our first experiences in Arctic Village:

(Above)  Loading our gear onto the ATVs at the airstrip.  The ride on the back of the pickup truck sure beat walking into town . . . although I had no inkling of the amount of hiking I would end up doing in the week ahead.

(Above)  Trivia question:  What is this?  If you said two 15 gallon gas cans you’re only partially correct.  The real answer is that it is $300.  That’s because gas has to be flown into Arctic Village, raising the price to $10 per gallon.  Now consider that the Alaskan pipeline passes only 100 or so miles from the village and has delivered billions of gallons of crude over the years — little of it benefitting the Gwich’in people in the village — and the perversity of the situation is striking.

(Above)  Our host, Charlie Swaney — hunter extraordinaire, environmentalist, advocate for the Gwich’in way of life, and truly great guy.  I miss our conversations already.

(Above)  Charlie’s wife, Marion Swaney, was our host both in the village and — later in the week — up at hunting camp.  She introduced the subject of “Wanda”, a mythical (?) wilderness woman who apparently tends to keep the men away from home when they go out hunting for caribou and moose.  I promised her I’d come back to Arctic Village since I somehow missed out on any Wanda-encounters on this trip.

(Above)  One of several beautiful little lakes behind the Swaney home.  This was the view that greeted us every morning when we awoke.  It was also the probable source of the mosquitos that rejoiced in our presence.

(Above)  Our own version of “Occupy the Tundra”.  The tundra grasses were wonderfully colorful and SOFT.  Very nice to sleep on.

(Above)  David Radcliff demonstrated his technique for keeping mosquitos out of ears and eyes.  As the week went by I really learned to appreciate windy days.  The wind drove off the pesky insects and provided some relief.  (According to Charlie, mosquito season was pretty much over by the time we arrived.  I still managed to empty half a bottle of DEET.)

(Above)  Melanie unpacks the sleeping bags from the compression sacks, with the tent doors zipped tight to keep the mosquitos outside.  At night we could hear the high-pitched noise of dozens? hundreds? of mosquitos just outside the tent.

(Above)  The lakes around us were home to this — and other — Loons.  Lying in the tent and listening to them in the morning was wonderful.

(Above)  Arctic Village has a mixture of modern, old, and in some cases abandoned, buildings.  There are about 140 to 150 residents, although the Gwich’in nation in total is much larger and stretches through the Canadian Yukon and Northern Alaskan regions.  Here are two of the newer buildings: the post office and the school.

(Above)  There was some construction going on in the village.  Here, a second story is being added to a home.

(Above)  The setting for these homes is stunning.  The mountain behind this home is located in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, across the Chandalar River from the village.

(Above)  A view of the village edge from the banks of the Chandalar River, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Note the plane coming in to the airstrip.

(Above)  My camera didn’t do justice to the scale of the mountains.  Here is a plane coming into the airstrip, with the mountain as a backdrop.  The mountains are part of Alaska’s Brooks Range.

(Above)  One of the older log homes abandoned in favor of more weather-tight new construction.

(Above)  The newer Episcopal Church where Sunday services are held.  Sarah James — village elder and activist — asked us to help clean and organize the inside of the church, which we did later in the week.  Several folks in our party organized and held the Sunday service in this church, with some village members in attendance.

(Above)  The old historical church which has been restored.  Sarah invited us into the church, and she spent several hours speaking to us about Gwich’in life, history, and modern-day challenges.

(Above)  One of the challenges is that none of the homes in Arctic Village has running water or indoor plumbing.  That means daily trips to the water purification building — about a quarter mile from Charlie and Marion’s house — and, of course, trips to the outhouse when nature calls.

(Above)  The water purification equipment is located in the “Washeteria” — the only place you can go to get a shower or use a modern washer and dryer.  For people whose average annual income is around $17,000 per household, these fees — like the cost of gasoline — are prohibitive.  And I was very depressed to learn that as a 55 year-old I am considered an “elder” in Gwich’in culture.  I guess it’s like carrying an AARP card — the benefits are negligible and it makes me feel old.

(Above)  Dogs outnumber the people in Arctic Village.  Charlie explained that they serve as watch dogs around the village and when out hunting (as well as companions, of course).  We brought this male, Nay Quoy, along to hunting camp in case any bear or wolves approached the camp.  A few years ago a starving wolf (with porcupine quills in it’s mouth) came into the village and attacked some of the dogs, so the predator threat is real.  Still, all of Charlie’s dogs were gentle and friendly, and I found it hard to walk past any of them without stopping to say hello.  The Swaney’s had (I believe) six dogs.

(Above)  This guy was named “Chance”.  He was along the path leading back to our tent, so I probably spent more time with Chance than any of the others.  He would get so excited when we passed by that I felt guilty if I didn’t stop.

(Above)  Woody was the youngest of the bunch, and quite a character.  He was king of the snow machine (not snow mobile) and always looked ready to fire it up and take off.  By the way, that’s a 550cc engine in that snow machine.  Charlie uses it to pull a sled loaded with fire wood in the winter.  He estimated that he brings in 300 to 400 sled-loads of firewood for the village every winter.

(Above)  Life is hard in Arctic Village, but it does have some benefits.  Here is a million-dollar view from the Swaney’s front porch, late in the evening.

In my next post I’ll try to cover what I know and learned about the Gwich’in people.  Of all my Alaska posts, I hope that will be the one you read.  Because WE hold the fate of these people in our hands.

Posted September 10, 2012 by ~ Bruce in Landscapes, Nature and Wildlife, People, Travel Photography

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Alaska Trip (Part 6) — Flying to Arctic Village   1 comment

In my very first Alaska trip post I mentioned that our trip to Alaska was actually two separate learning tours with New Community Project.  The second part of our journey was to Arctic Village, a remote community about 300 miles north of Fairbanks and 120 miles above the Arctic Circle.  The descriptor remote only suggests the isolation of this village.  It has been referred to as the single most remote community in the western hemisphere.  The nearest road is 150 miles away.  Everything — people and goods — arrive via airplane.  The map below shows where it is in relation to the rest of the state of Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.

The native Gwich’in people of Arctic Village live in an extreme environment.  This past January (2012) the average daily low temperature was minus 32.8 degrees fahrenheit.  The lowest recorded temperature for the month was minus 54 degrees f.  The lowest recorded temperature that I could find was minus 67 degrees f in January 1993 (and matched in January 1989).  On the other hand, summer temperatures are commonly above 70 degrees fahrenheit and occasionally move into the 80s.  As you will see in the photos that I will post in the coming days, we often hiked in t-shirts.  Other times we wore multiple layers.  The word changeable doesn’t even begin to describe Arctic weather, and we were there in the comfortable month of August.

For this post, I’ll focus on the remoteness and terrain of the arctic and sub-arctic as we flew from Fairbanks to Arctic Village.  The aerial views were unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Some of these photos are from our flight in, and some are from our flight back out at the end of the week.  Nevertheless, the progression of photos below is from south to north (Fairbanks to Arctic Village).

Note:  Taking photos through the plane windows created a somewhat bluish color cast that I had trouble fully eliminating when processing them in the computer.

(Above)  We flew from Fairbanks to Arctic Village in an 8-seat Cessna Grand Caravan 208B.  Much of the interior space was dedicated to supplies being flown into the village.

(Above)  Our pilot — Mick — was a native Alaskan who has probably flown the 600 mile round trip hundreds of times.  At least that was what I was hoping!

(Above)  The view was “expansive” to say the least.  Thousands of square miles of uninhabited land.

(Above) in the flat flood plain areas north of Fairbanks the streams meander crazily.  Spruce trees grew around water sources — including streams and snow-melt lakes that sit on top of the permafrost.

(Above)  Not too far north of Fairbanks we glimpsed the Alaskan pipeline.  Note that part of it is above ground and part is below.

(Above)  The first mountains we came to were (I believe) part of the Yukon-Tanana Uplands area, including the White Mountains and Ray Mountains.  These are low mountain ranges by Alaskan standards.  When framed by high broken clouds however they make for wonderful photography.

(Above)  We crossed the Yukon river north of the mountain ranges.  The Yukon river is roughly the point where we crossed the Arctic Circle.

(Above)  Someone asked me if Arctic Village could be reached by river.  I guess maybe it could — if you want to turn a 300 mile trip into a 1,200 mile trip.  (Note:  The Yukon river basically runs east-west — not north-south — but you get the idea.  The rivers up here don’t run in a straight line.)

(Above)  As we traveled further into the arctic the Brooks Range came into the distant view.

(Above)  The tundra colors intensified as we flew further north.  Many of the lakes that sit on top of the permafrost have noticeably receded over time.  This is due to higher average temperatures in recent years that thaw the permafrost.  As the permafrost thaws, more water is absorbed into the ground.

(Above)  The pilot began a rather steep bank and suddenly Arctic Village appeared below us.

(Above)  Surprisingly colorful homes were an abrupt change after 300 aerial miles of wilderness.

(Above)  The Cessna banked even more steeply and I was only able to capture one reflection-marred photo of the gravel runway . . .

(Above) . . .and suddenly we were on the ground.  A collection of pickup trucks and ATVs — along with soon-to-be new friends — were waiting for us.

(Above)  And that’s where I’ll pick it up on my next post.

Posted September 2, 2012 by ~ Bruce in Landscapes, Travel Photography

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