My husband was a bush pilot in Alaska for a few years. He was based in the tiny Inupiat village of Unalakleet (you-na-kleet) on the Norton Sound in northern Alaska. One year he had to work over Christmas so I flew up there to spend the holidays with him. He told me stories about the place and showed me some pictures, but I didn’t really know what to expect.
I flew to Anchorage and then got on a smaller plane to Unalakleet. We flew over jagged desolate mountains that melted into smaller hills and finally flattened into the sea. We landed on a gravel runway that was longer than the town itself. Everything was so white I couldn’t tell the difference between land and sea.
I spent the next few days flying around with my husband in an even smaller plane to even smaller villages with names like Shaktoolik, Koyuk and Kaltag delivering Christmas presents and food for the upcoming celebrations. We followed the mighty Yukon River inland to the Nulato Hills where the thermometer plummeted to 40 below zero. After flying we took a snowmobile up into the hills to soak in the views. One day we bundled up and walked down to the river to watch a dog sled race. The short days were a perpetual sunrise and sunset as the sun rose around 10am, hovered along the horizon, and then set around 4pm. My eyelashes froze together as we strolled the icy seaside watching for aurora in the endless and unobstructed night sky.
During my stay we spent a lot of time with the family that conducts flight operations in Unalakleet. They are some of the most hardworking and kindest people I know. They graciously invited us to a Christmas celebration with their extended family, which was predominately made up of Inupiat people. We had all the usual luxuries of a Christmas dinner in the lower 48 with turkey and mashed potatoes, they even had a lovely little Christmas tree.
We also had some native treats. I tried muktuk, which is a small piece of whale meat and blubber. It was as terrible as it sounds. I chewed it for a bit then gave up and swallowed it whole like a pill with eyes wide, nodding, and smiling, choking out an enthusiastic yum! I also tried akutaq (ah-goo-duk), sometimes called Eskimo ice cream. It’s a blend of white fish, crisco (traditionally moose or caribou fat), vegetable oil (traditionally seal or whale oil), sugar and wild berries sort of whipped up into creamy deliciousness. This was my favorite.
I had a lovely, adventurous and magical Christmas that year in Unalakleet. But I haven’t told you the whole story. The truth is that I feel very conflicted about sharing my story of spending a lovely Christmas with Native Americans, a holiday thrust upon them by white people. I also feel compelled to report that there is so much hardship in these native villages. Climate change is making it harder for the Inupiat people to continue their subsistence harvests and the later forming ice causes erosion that is destroying some coastal towns. Contact with the outside world has brought good things like medicine, education and healthcare, but along with those things come alcohol, drugs, loss of a sense of purpose and sadly, a high suicide rate.
Around this time of year it is easy to keep ourselves in a bubble and forget about the struggles of others while we drink and be merry. This can be either a coping mechanism or ignorance, but neither makes it ok. So let’s remember that there are so many people out there struggling to make ends meet. This Christmas I challenge you, dear reader, to be kind. Give a homeless person a meal, stand up for someone being discriminated against or just say hello to a stranger. Let’s make the world a better place even if it is just for one day of the year.
Bonus Camp Read!
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kanter
If you are at all interested in what life in the northern Alaskan tundra is really like then you should read this. The novel tells the story of a white boy known by his Inupiaq name Cutuk whose artist father brings the family to the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land in a sod igloo. Cutuk grows up and learns the ways of the land but never fits in with the Native American culture. He grows up and becomes curious about the outside world and when he travels to Anchorage is bewildered by modern day life. Seth weaves in realities of his own life growing up in northern Alaska with this sometimes harrowing tale of a boy reconciling two very different worlds. I picked up this book at the Anchorage airport on the way to Unalakleet and found it to be a great companion on my trip.