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Reporter's Notebook: Life Above the Arctic Circle

Published On: Sep 11 2013 10:55:00 AM AKDT

There is a lot of preparation underway in Alaska's arctic communities, before winter takes over.


Kotzebue in the late summer is, unexpectedly, a noisy place.

The largest city in the Northwest Arctic Borough, the community is a commercial hub for about a dozen villages scattered nearby. The sounds of power boats, four-wheelers, barking dogs, greedy seagulls fighting over fish scraps-- they create the cacophony that is Kotzebue today. For me, it was a trip somewhere new. For Channel 2 photographer, Bronwyn Saito, it was a trip back home.

Our assignment to tell the history of Kotzebue first took us to the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center, run by the National Park Service. Willie Goodwin, the native liaison for NPS and a long-time member of Kotzebue's village elders council, has a wealth of knowledge of Kotzebue's most recent history. He spoke about the exhibits in the center that are aimed to help visitors learn about the importance of subsistence, a tenet of the Inupiat culture, still being practiced today. The exhibits display the food sources by season. Caribou and salmon are staples in the subsistence diet. But Goodwin says just as Kotzebue has changed, so have the migration patterns of the animals they rely on.

"We watch these changes you know. We know what's happening with climate change because the animals tell us," Goodwin said.

Goodwin explained traditions have rarely wavered, through the missionary settlement by Russians in the late 1800s and the influx of government and military presence in the mid-1900s. In fact, Kotzebue has long served as a gathering place for trade and transportation, he said. Every summer for centuries, thousands of people traveled from all over Alaska and Russia for the annual trade fair.

"They traded for things that helped them survive through the winter and in their daily lives. It was the largest gathering of Inupiat Eskimos in the whole world," Goodwin said.

The trade fair continues to this day.

Goodwin spoke about the Inupiat culture of living off the land and sea, which led us to meet Ada Cleveland.

Cleveland spends her summer days on the shore, cleaning, cutting and drying the salmon that find their way into her net. The squawking seagulls stand by, waiting to get their share. Ada jokes about how everyone in Kotzebue, including the dogs and seagulls, all want a piece.

"Would you believe I have guard dogs? No, I'm joking, they're seagulls,” Cleveland said. “They're hungry! They wait; they know.”

While she's not too eager to share her catch with the seagulls, sharing is important to Cleveland and many others who practice subsistence in Kotzebue. A lot of what she catches is given to local elders.

"They're the ones that taught us how to live off the land,” she said. “So we've got to give them back something for showing us their knowledge.”

She examined the hanging salmon, pointing out the fish oil that drips during the smoking process. She plans to vacuum-seal most of it and freeze it for winter. Inside the dry rack, burning stinkweed choked the salty air with smoke. Ada says green stinkweed doesn't fully ignite, that's why it's perfect for smoking salmon. But anywhere she goes, the smell of smoke lingers in her clothes – she says she always smells like it. We did too after spending some time with her.

Out on the arctic tundra, the very spongy ground is speckled with ripe blueberries. We tried to watch our step so we didn't crush too much of the fruit that draws locals. One woman we met while picking berries said they were a lot larger this year, mainly due to the warm summer that Kotzebue had. Her hands were slightly stained purple.

The next day we met Polly Schaeffer who was berry-picking with her niece visiting from Anchorage. She gathered the blueberries in her aimmaq, a birch basket made specifically for berry-picking. She plans to make jam and freeze the rest of the berries.

We learned that the tundra holds a lot more than just blueberries: There are salmonberries, cranberries and blackberries that grow sweeter as the weather cools. But Schaeffer also pointed out Labrador tea -- or as the locals call it tundra tea. Tundra tea is used for drinking and medicinal purposes. The popular arctic herb has a crisp, distinct smell that drifts across the tundra breeze.

"That's the first thing you smell after the snow goes out," Schaeffer said.

Locals enjoy spending time in Kotzebue's backyard. On this day, it was sunny, slightly breezy and people were taking advantage of the good weather -- perhaps one of the final few warm days of the season. Schaeffer says there are many financial benefits of subsistence, and of course, health benefits too.

"There are lots of vitamins and anti-oxidants in the berries -- really healthy for people,” Schaeffer said. “And look at all this fresh air we're getting. And you get the exercise.”

As Bronwyn and I spent time with Schaeffer, we couldn't help but pick a few berries ourselves. There is a pleasant, isolated feeling out there on the vast tundra. I can imagine that it's somewhat similar to what life is like in Kotzebue, 33 miles above the Arctic Circle.