Sunday, October 07, 2007

Alaska, part 1

Charles here.

I have so many things to say about Alaska that it’ll probably take a few blogs to get it all down. I’m going to start backwards, with my trip to Point Hope, because as good as Anchorage and Bouchercon were, my time in Point Hope was the best thing about the trip. And Point Hope will no doubt take a few blogs.

Point Hope, for those of you who haven’t been there, is a Tikigaq whaling village about 300 miles north of the Bering Strait. It’s located on a narrow spit of sand and stone and tundra that stretches about 20 miles out into the Artic Ocean. People have been living at the site for more than 4,000 years, often in large communities made up of whalebone-and-sod homes. Today about 1,000 people live at Point Hope, and while there are still a few abandoned whalebone-and-sod homes, folks live in wood-frame homes about the size and shape of a double-wide trailer. There is electricity and running water and the Internet service is generally as good as what I have at home. Other than the traditional handmade Tikigaq parkas with their gorgeous beadwork and fur trim, folks wear the same North Face and Carhardtt coats, Gap shirts and American Outfitter sweaters. Most kids have MP3 players and every kid at the school had a new Apple laptop. They’re up on the latest music, movies and TV shows, and, of course, the community suffers from the same teen problems you’ll find anywhere. The adults feel that the kids were not as tough or as motivated as when they were younger, and many I spoke with feel that the best way to spend a long winter’s night is with a cup of hot tea and a good book.

Lesson number one: I have much in common with the people of Point Hope.

Point Hope is a whaling community. I know, when I heard that I said to myself, ‘that’s just a tourist thing.’ But since there are no tourists at Point Hope, I had to rethink that assumption. Nellie Sears, the wonderfully kind librarian at the school, let me know in no uncertain terms that, next to family, whaling is the most important thing in her life. She told me how every winter they get ready for the whale hunts and how she is still the cook for a whaling crew. They still go out in wood-frame/walrus skin boats and, while they use high-powered rifles, they still have to harpoon the whale first or they risk losing it under the ice. Nellie told me how the whole community gets involved when a whale is killed, from helping in the butchering, the rendering of the blubber and the sharing of the meat. (For the record, whale meat tastes like really fishy, really oily fish – not as bad as I had feared but not as mouth-watering as I had hoped.) Then there are the community celebrations and the blanket toss and all these really cool, very traditional things that I was way too early in the season to experience. The people I met loved the winter, said they got depressed in the spring when everything started to melt, enjoyed hunting no matter what the season, knew everybody in their community, enjoyed the town’s isolation and had no interest in living in a big city.

Lesson number two: I have nothing in common with the people of Point Hope.

A couple more things for this post. First, I stayed at the home of Kurt Schmidt, a science teacher and a guy who has spent many years in Alaska. He’s a hunter, he raises a real falcon, he’s a self-taught guitar player of some caliber, a good cook and a frighteningly good writer. After some convincing, I got him to share an essay/story/poem he was working on. I don’t know if it’s the cold or the months spent alone, but his words resonate with an icy-sharp clarity and a bone-chilling honesty, all at a depth I’m afraid to explore. I tried to convince him to get his stuff out there, but like most self-made people, he’s not big on public acclaim, happy if he can capture what he’s feeling in just the right words. I envy his vision.

The second was my ‘perfect moment’, that one moment that crystallizes the whole trip, the essence of the experience. For me it was standing alone at the very tip of Point Hope – to the north nothing but the Artic Ocean and the pole, to the South the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Strait, and in front of me, far over the horizon, the north coast of Siberia.

I picked up two rocks. One I tossed out as far as I can throw – not very far but far enough so it came down where waves from both bodies of water collided.

The other I put in my pocket.

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