Thursday, December 19, 2013

Above the Arctic Circle - Visiting Kotzebue

I had the good fortune and great opportunity last weekend to travel pretty far north on the globe - north of the Arctic Circle!  As the administrator on duty with our girls basketball team, it was a great chance to explore a new part of Alaska (village life, aka "the bush") and learn more about the culture and history of Native Alaskans.
The Arctic Circle (red line) is located at 66° 33′ 44″ north of the equator.
 We traveled to Kotzebue, "Gateway to the Arctic." 
Kotzebue lies at the tip of a gravel spit that reaches into Kotzebue Sound in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic region. Its location near the drainages of the Noatak, Kobuk and Selawik rivers make it a transportation and supply hub for villages that lie along these rivers to the east.

Situated 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Kotzebue provides access to some of the finest river running in Arctic Alaska due to its proximity to the Noatak, Kobuk and Selawik rivers. Shore Avenue, Kotzebue’s main drag, is a narrow gravel road only a few yards from the water at the northern edge of town and offers views of salmon drying out on racks, fishing boats crowding the beach to be repaired and locals preparing for the coming winter. This is the optimum place to watch the summer’s midnight sun roll along the horizon, painting the sea reddish gold in a beautiful scene of color and light reflecting off the water. Beginning in early June, the sun does not set for about six weeks.
 With all that said, we travelled in the heart of the dark winter.  Which means that the sun only makes a partial appearance for less than an hour above the horizon.  Can we say darkness?  Matter of fact, because it had been so snowy and stormy recently there, one of the locals told me that particular day (Saturday) was the first time they had seen the sun in over two weeks.  Wow!
At no surprise to me, the school (which is also connected to the elementary & middle schools) is the heart of the town and community.  Community events & meetings are held here, as well as housing any out of town school guests.  So, this is not only where the basketball games were played, but because there are no hotels in town, it is also where we slept and ate our meals.
Shortly before lunch time on Saturday, I decided to brave the cold and take a short walk around town to take in the sights and take some pictures.
Here is my 1/2 to frozen-ville self just 7 minutes into my walk.
Did I mention that it was -24 degrees?
But being able to see how peaceful the town looked, how the sun had not quite peeked out from below the horizon at almost 12 noon was pretty amazing.
Here is a taste of some more sights and sounds:
Snowmachines driving the roads... complete with grocery bags of food or tiny children buckled in.

The front parking area of a duplex house - boat, SUV, ATV 4-wheeler, and snowmachine.  
This is probably the most commonly used vehicle of all of them for 6 months out of the year.
Local volunteer fire department.
The fire chief, who I ran into later that night at the basketball game, told me he leaves his truck (that is parked on the side of the building on the right side of the picture) running all day long so that it will stay warm if/when he has to leave.  ALL day long?  Oh my.

I decided to stop in at the one store that is in town to see what the grocery selection looked like... as well as to defrost afte walking for 15 minutes.  Take a peek at some of these prices... crazy!
Yes, that does say 1 gallon of milk = $9.99
I actually made a Costco run before heading up to Kotzebue and filled my large suitcase with lots of items that was requested by the Asst. Principal - oranges, fresh bread, pineapples, etc...all things that literally cost an arm & leg to ship up to the out skirts of rural Alaska!

Shortly after 12 noon and the sun has still not popped up over the horizon.
Before I left for my weekend adventure, one of our English teachers passed a long a "must read" book to me that centers around Alaskan history & the culture that so many outsiders have little knowledge or understanding of... to include me.  Fifty Miles from Tomorrow is an unbelievable read for sure!  Born twenty-nine miles north of the Arctic Circle, William L. Iggiagruk Hensley was raised to live the seminomadic life that his Iñupiaq ancestors had lived for thousands of years near Kotzebue. In this stirring memoir, he offers readers a rare firsthand account of growing up Native Alaskan, and later, in the lower forty-eight, as a fearless advocate for Native land rights. In 1971, after years of tirelessly lobbying the United States government, he played a key role in a landmark victory that enabled the Inupiaq to take charge of their economic and political destiny.

A glimpse at my bed for the weekend - military issued camping pad & Arctic Sleeping bag + Abby's travel pillow.  Perfect.
The team, coach and me headed back out at 2pm that afternoon to get a concentrated dose of NW Arctic history & culture at Heritage Center which is run by the National Park Service.
We were lucky enough to see a glimpse of the sun as it peeked for a short time about the southeastern horizon.

Dog sledding camp - if you look closely, you can see many of the dogs outside their little houses in the yard.
For as far you can see, the frozen waters facing westward that merge into the Arctic Ocean.

Alaskan decorated rooftop
A brave sole ice-fishing.
Inside the elementary school (which is the wing of the school we were housed).
Also, to no surprise was how awesome the school's gymnasium is.  It makes complete sense that not only do they have an amazing facility given that so much of the community uses the school, but also because about 9 months of the year, the region is frozen and kids spend a lot more time inside.  Basketball and wrestling are the most popular sports - and these kids are really good athletes!  After our Saturday game, they keep the gym open for kids to play... I'm talking elementary-aged kids hitting 3-point shots and making lay-ups look easy.

As we waited at the terminal Sunday morning, I couldn't help but notice one of the ladies standing in line near me with her kiddo.  In true Native Alaskan way, she was carrying her youngest in a traditional Amauti which is a very thick arctic jacket with a baby 'pocket' in the back, baby even fits under the over-sized hood!

I certainly think that my weekend in Kotzebue was one more adventure I can cross this off of my Alaska Bucket List.  I loved it!

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