A Story from Alaska

I think over again my small adventures.
My fears,
Those small ones that seemed so big.
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.
And yet there is only one great thing.
The only thing,
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.
(Old Inuit Song)

4489 North Star Street, Barrow, Alaska 99723
I was in Alaska from 1991-1995, and in Barrow, on the northern coast, from 1992. This was my house in Barrow. You can see that it was on pilings, which was because of the permafrost. It was impossible to build directly on the ground because the heat from the building would melt the permafrost and the building would sink. So they sank pilings into the ground and poured water around them, which then froze. Ice was the foundation of the building. The smaller front part of the house, where the door is, is an arctic entryway or “qanitchaq” (kawny-chuck) in Iñupiaq. This was a space for cold storage (and, if you didn’t keep your door locked, a sleeping place for stray dogs and drunks) as well as an “airlock” that kept the coldest air outside (there was another front door inside the qanitchaq).

This was me and an Iñupiaq elder named Margaret Gray, whom we all called Megee. It was a great privilege and an honor that she allowed me to be a part of her circle of friends. As a rule, Iñupiat and whites (“taniks”) in Barrow do not mix, and for an elder to have younger tanik friends was unheard of. But Megee lived on her own, in her own house, so she did things her own way. I could tell you a thousand stories about Megee, even though she herself rarely spoke about the past. Everything I know about her, comes from mutual friends. One story stands out. When Megee’s father was a baby, I suppose this would have been around 1880 or 1890, he was born during a starving time. His family couldn’t take care of him, so, as was common practice in those days, they attempted to practice infanticide: they left him alone on the ice to die. Fortunately, another clan came by and adopted him, saving his life. The thing that amazes me is that I actually knew Megee and ate her food and laughed in her house; I have a blanket made by her; I have photographs and recollections; yet she was born into a stone age society that hunted with stone harpoons, starved when there was no food, and lived a family-centered clan lifestyle that is impossible for me to imagine. Megee died the summer I left Alaska. I’ve always had a funny feeling that maybe I was sent to Barrow just to meet her; I guess I’ll be finding out one of these days.

Siqquq, the Little Yellow Husky Dog
This was my dog. She was a female Alaskan husky from a dog team in Barrow. I named her “Siqquq” (See-kook) which meant “hard” as in stubborn. (The name was also close to “Sitquq,” the Iñupiaq word for “knee,” so as my pronunciation was poor I would be asked, “Why do you call your dog a knee?”) She was stubborn, too. She wanted to pull a sled and do nothing else–not walk nice on a leash, not stay quiet in the house, not be my buddy. She didn’t even like to pull me skijoring, which was a type of cross-country skiing done with a dog who is harnessed to help pull you. It’s supposed to be fun. I wouldn’t know. I had to give her away shortly before I left Alaska.

Megee and Friends
Here is a Christmas photo of myself, my Mom, and a few friends at Megee’s house. It’s Christmas, around the winter solstice; notice it’s pitch black outside the window. From left to right are Megee; my Mom; myself (about 100 pounds ago); George Cowan, who was living in Seattle last I heard; Gregory Emmanuel, a Greek citizen who is now living in Arizona; and Lacen Horter, an Oregonian who has lately gone back home to Oregon. I keep in touch mostly with Lacen; Gregory’s gotten hard to keep track of, and George and I never really got to know each other.

Buddy the Bald Eagle at the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, Sitka
Here are a few photos from outside of Barrow. This is me at the ARRC on a trip to Sitka. My mother was visiting and she and I were taking the ferry through Southeast Alaska (the panhandle, usually referred to as just “Southeast” by Alaskans), and we stopped to see the big birds. Buddy was the ambassador for the Center and traveled throughout the country teaching children and grownups about raptors and conservation. Buddy is the handsome one with feathers; I am the hairy one on the right. Yes, I had a full beard, and a ponytail too if you can believe that. Buddy spread his wings to pose just as the picture was being taken.

Denali National Park
This one is looking into Denali National Park, which is where Mt. McKinley is located. The name of the mountain is McKinley; however, the park is Denali, and most Alaskans call the mountain “Denali” or simply “The Mountain.” “Denali” means “the high one” or “the great one” in Athabascan. He is lord of all he surveys, mainly because there are no peaks near him that are anywhere near as tall. Denali is visible from the whole of interior to southern Alaska, from Fairbanks down to Anchorage. If you go to the park and you get to see the mountain, you are very lucky, because his summit is shrouded in clouds most days of the year. (N.B. In 2015 President Obama renamed the mountain itself “Denali,” and in the heart of this Alaskan that seems much more appropriate.)

Mom and I at Denali
Here are Mom and I near Denali National Park. Mom came to visit me several times in Alaska, starting the first summer I was there, which was when this picture was taken. In all I spent four years and a few months in Alaska, in both Fairbanks and Barrow, and it is a time I now would not trade for anything in the world. They say that Alaska gets in your blood; nothing could be more true. I became an Alaskan and brought back with me to the Red River Valley the Alaskan values I prized so highly: freedom of spirit, love of the magnificence of the Creation, independence of heart, and a certain quirkiness you won’t find just down the street. Alaska is a blessing to our great nation, and to all who go there.