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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2 responses to “Alaska Trip (Part 7) — On The Ground in Arctic Village

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  1. Bruce, thanks for sharing. Love reading the post. Photos are great! Can’t wait for the next one.

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