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Thursday, August 26, 2010

My hard life....

My life is hard.....

Or at least that is what some people think of it. I get comments a lot about how tough I am, how the life lead must be harder than the one they live. How they admire me for my persistence and dedication and strength for being able to handle the heavy burden of living a subsistence lifestyle....

Mostly I just blink at these comments. Maybe an eyebrow lift or two. Almost always I do not respond.

Mostly because I think it odd that people think this life is hard. Comparatively. I wonder what they mean by "harder". Physically? Mentally? Financially? Socially?

It's a tad bit physically harder. I read once that just being out in the country here and doing what we do, you will burn more than 4500 calories a day. So we eat a lot more than most people, usually high calorie foods snacks. Visitors that we take out are always amazed at how hungry they seem all the time. I think that this would be a benefit though. Muscles get worked and are toned while we hike and ride and hunt. Calories are burned and endorphins are released as we fish and gather herbs and pick berries. My body feels ...useful. Part of this world. Though sometimes the next day my muscles rebel and laugh as I grimace with each move.

Our lives revolve around a non-timetable. A general gesture and nod to a calendar. Though we know when things will be ready for harvesting as the year progresses, we also cannot tell exactly when things will happen. Just this last week we were dismayed to find that the plump little salmonberries had turned pale and white, like ghosts of their former bright orange selves. Which means they are beyond ripeness and have started their death knell. It's sometimes frustrating and sometimes wonderful, but most of the time it is an odd exercise of what becomes a monster ability for patience and acceptance. An acceptance of the fact that we cannot control some things, an acceptance of a greater dance of which we are only an audience. We never work for time, only for food or clothing or tool.

The time thing bothers me the most when moving from world to world. The western world is obsessed with clocks and calendars. You are even judged a better and more superior being the more you adhere to this measure of time. It's a sign of honesty and general intelligence. But in the other world it is definitely not an asset, and in fact can be a persons downfall. I can imagine that in more ancient times if you restricted your harvesting to a few hours a day and during only a few days a week, you would find yourself a victim of natural selection. In this world you are judged on wether or not the task is finished and finished with honor and attention to detail, no matter the time taken.

I also think that some people have a certain type of misconception of living a subsistence lifestyle, that for some reason we do it exactly like they did it two thousand years ago. The Inupiaq Eskimo of the arctic have thrived here simply because of our amazing talent to adapt and accept. We are magicians of tool and invention, of theory and imagination. We can take a hunk of moss and use it for a thousand things, a length of wood, a million things. So in this day and age we definitely take advantage of the tools the modern world has provided us. Some people are surprised to find that we use range finders, and high powered scopes, and vhf radio's ,and satellite phones and gps devices, and high tech clothing and footwear. We use every tool we can, because in the end it is not how we did it that matters, but only that we did it and that makes it fit this world. One example of this is when the Alaska Fish and Game had to stop posting updated locations of collared caribou because everyone would get online and use the coordinates to hunt caribou. It makes me chuckle that they did not even once imagined that it would be used for something other than ooh-ing and ahh-ing at in the lower 48.

Another comment I get a lot is about the knowledge that is needed to live a subsistence life style. That maybe it is somehow more greater and more vast than anything really imaginable. But in the end it's not much different than other knowledge. That once learned and embedded into instinct it becomes automatic. It's like asking if an accountant has to relearn how to add and subtract and count every time they balance books. Some things become part of your base knowledge. The only difference is that our books and universities are actual people, Elders with as many stories as wrinkles.

I could write forever on this topic. But I'll end it with what I usually comment: that our life is not more difficult. It is just Different. And Different is not harder or easier nor better or worse.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A day of fishing....

Yesterday we went fishing. Our mission was to get enough fish for the winter, and some extra to give away. This was our second trip to the same spot this fall.

We had planned the day before to go fishing if everything was "good". Good weather, good vehicle, good wind, good amount of gas, good food we could bring. We decided to take the dogs with us, hoping to burn off some of the major energy they build up over a few days. It was a good distance away, over some foothills, through the Anaktuvuk river, and over some more foothills. But it's worth it, as the fish are plentiful and if the wind is there there will be no bugs.
The drive out was uneventful. We stopped frequently to look around for animals. Moose, bear, caribou, wolf, even the cream colored sheep high in the mountain crags. The dogs hunted for ground squirrels, but they were so noisy that they were heard a mile away. I picked blackberries along the way, and tested to see if the cranberries were ripe yet. They held a hint of sweetness, not quite ripe enough for picking.

When we arrived at our destination we were greeted by sun dappled mountains, and a brisk wind tormenting the bugs. Perfect.
We stopped and immediately pulled our fishing rods out. After 15 minutes of fishing we caught 10 grayling. We picked the two biggest ones and cleaned them, stuffed them with onion and spices, and then wrapped them in a thick layer of tinfoil. Along the way we collected dried willow wood, which we then used to create a small fire. We threw the fish onto the fire along with a few small pieces of caribou we had brought along. We unpacked the food and settled in. Listening to the crackle of the fire, poured a cup of coffee from the thermos, and waited for the feast.
Me drinking coffee. I was shocked to see how absent I was from our photo albums. So I promised myself I would hand the camera over to B3 once in a while. I exist after all!
Two of the dogs decided that swimming was on the fun menu and so had to be tied up to the argo so that we could fish. Here you can see Bullet the husky mix, watching the fire and it's cooking morsels to the left off camera. He was not too angry as he took the opportunity to take a long nap in the sunlight. In the background is B3, watching a couple of sheep across the valley in the mountains with his spotting scope. He is today stalking those same sheep I'm sure.

We caught 30 large fat grayling.

We started back just in time, with just enough light to make it back without using our headlights. The mountains darkened to the color of fresh bruises, behemoths of weight and age. The moon made an entrance, like a jealous cousin, flashy and unnecessary on such a pastel night.
We also caught some of a jet flying overhead, like a comet burning. I always wonder if the people look down and wonder if there are people on the ground, looking up at them, wondering if they know they exist. Or if they are only paying attention to their watches, tiny task masters with clicking voices.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Barking dogs.

My dogs bark alot.

I have four of them so it's a pretty intense experience. They become blurs of red and gray and brown and black fur....

They bark at people walking by, at vehicles, at other dogs barking in the distance, sometimes I'm not too sure what they are barking at. And it's not a sweet southern hound bay, but instead a harsh quick mouth and teeth showing bark. One filled with something primal dating back to when man first tamed wolf.

We trained our dogs to bark. To alert us to any movement or intrusion. To be brave and examine disturbances. It's the only way I sleep at night when I'm camping in the arctic wilderness. Because unlike most Lower 48 campers we hunt while camping, and we leave piles of meat near us, be it caribou or sheep or fish. All yummy, yummy things to wolves and bears. And the dogs are trained to be extra alert when meat is present.

Of course there is no "off" button unfortunately. So they bark a lot at home, outside in front of our house. Sometimes they bark at robins, and the other small songbirds h
oping to find a tidbit or two in our yard. They are very vocal beings, as sometimes they break into song and howl with throats raised to the sky. Cementing their bond with each other, or maybe just wishing there was something else to bark at.

It's a very odd opportunity to examine cultural differences. Between us and the western world.

I used to work at a veterinarian hospital in California where they also boarded dogs for long periods of time. My job was to feed and walk and medicate the animals, to observe and report on behavior. So I got to observe hundreds of dogs. Most were pure bred , with proud chests and hip problems. Most were house pets and companion animals, and trained not to bark at people, or at anything really. I found it interesting that when they barked they would look at me with guilty eyes, as if they just committed a social faux pas. Did you know that there is a breed of dog that cannot bark at all?

So when "Lower 48ers" pass by our home (and there are at least three plane loads a day of tourists in the warm months) and the dogs bark and bounce and cause general exuberant havoc I observe the people from our living room window. Most scoot across to the other side of the road, their steps slow, their eyes never stray from the mass of loud fur. Their nostrils flare and hands reach to cover mouths. The brave and/or young ones nervously smile and stop to take pictures of my barking dogs, maybe even cell phone videos, like our animals were some captured wild beasts, incredibly in the midst of humans.

I would imagine that they would think the dogs behavior uncouth and disruptive.

But when other Inupiat Eskimo walk by our home and they are greeted by our pack of noise they usually smile at the dogs, no hint of surprise mirrored on their faces. They usually find them amusing. Some even mention to me how good our dogs are, how perfect for picking berries or fishing or hunting and camping they would be. They are in a different way praised for their loudness. Some of the Inupiat stop and chat, not finding it odd that they have to yell above the barking. None of the Inupiat try to approach our dogs, because they know they are working.

They are very good dogs.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Despite what some people are thinking, I have not been silenced by marriage.

In fact I have been held hostage, by berries, and fish and long cool days filled with the smell of crushed labrador tea. I have been told that this type of kidnapping is normal at this time of year, and can sometimes last till the first few snow falls.

Despite this I have been writing. Short bursts, rough drafts. I haven't published any of these of course, and the longer I stare at them the more idiotic they seem. I think my muse is quite angry at me, as she has been peppering me with ideas for weeks, and I brush them off my shoulders and pile them neatly next to the photos that never make it either.

The nights are growing longer and the mosquitoes have finally gave up on their desperate sanguinarian mission and we find ourselves exploring nooks and crannies of the tundra that Nature herself has forgotten....and other deep and profound areas of other deep and profound entities thoughts.

Today I marveled at the way the tundra has sprouted mushrooms almost overnight because of all the wet weather, they look like pale flesh colored zits on the richer hues of the coming fall. Some were the size of dinner plates, though most were the size of grapefruits. And I realized that many village children would not even know how big a grapefruit was, but most if not all would know how big a caribou heart was, or how big a sailor boy cracker was, which are pretty much all the same size. And it made me smile. And I was told the other day that the older people would call mushrooms "they will take your hand off" in Inupiaq, and I thought that there must have been an awesome story behind that name.......

I thought I would let you all know that I still plan to keep this blog alive....if albeit a little random!