Chester Noongwook, the last dog-sled mail carrier in the United States, is 76 years old and retired. He recently survived a brain aneurysm, but he looked strong and alert when I met him in Savoonga, a village of about 700 people on St. Lawrence Island, a 90-mile-long collection of mountains and tundra in the Bering Sea. Noongwook, who still hunts whales, showed me a book he co-authored, Watching Ice and Weather Our Way, which records Eskimo observations of the natural world. Then he gave me a lesson in the language of ice.
Maklukestaq, he said, is a Yupik Eskimo word for solid, slightly bumpy ice, capable of having a boat pulled across it. There is less maklukestaq of late. Ilulighaq refers to small- or medium-sized cakes of ice, big enough to support a walrus. Nutemtaq—old, thick ice floes—are safe for a seal or whale hunter. Tepaan is broken ice blown by wind against solid ice, dangerous to walk on.
In all, the Yupik language has almost 100 words for ice. Their subtle variations, passed down verbally over thousands of years—no written Eskimo language existed until about 100 years ago—can mean life or death for those who venture over frozen ocean, tundra lake or river. Elders are repositories of knowledge. Their photographs hang in schools, like those of presidents in the lower 48. But in some places, I was told, conditions have changed so much that elders have begun to doubt their ice knowledge.
“The world is spinning faster now,” Noongwook said, by which I took him to mean that the weather, and the ice, have become less predictable.
Chester’s son Milton Noongwook, 49, is the former secretary of the local tribal council. Showing me around Savoonga in an ATV, at one point he pulled out a Sibley Field Guide to the birds of North America. He said so many new kinds of birds are showing up, villagers need a guidebook to identify them.
As we drove up to the shore, Milton pointed to a series of large wooden boxes set deep into permafrost to store frozen walrus meat—winter food. He pulled aside a door and in the dark below I saw hunks of meat amid a sheen of frost. But it was also wet down there.
“It’s melting,” Milton said. “It never used to do that. If it gets too warm, the food will spoil.”
Back in Barrow, I got a ride with a taxi driver from Thailand. “I’m here because I love snow,” he told me. I ate dinner at Pepe’s North of the Border Mexican restaurant. At midnight I found myself at a roller rink where a rock band, the Barrowtones, performed for people who might have been tagging bowheads earlier in the day.
On my last day, Richard Glenn took me in a small boat to the junction of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Seals popped up in the water. Glenn watched the sky, ready to turn back if the weather grew rough. We chugged through three-foot swells to Point Barrow, the northernmost tip of the North American continent. On the beach, orange ribbons marked an ancient burial ground. After a skeleton was found in 1997, community elders gave permission for Anne Jensen, an anthropologist with the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, which handles village land titles, to dig up the remains of the other 73 burials and, with help from Barrow high-school students, move them to Barrow’s cemetery.
Glenn said that although there was no ice visible at the moment, it would soon begin to form. He spoke of it with love, the way a Vermont hiker might discuss leaf color in October or an Iowa farmer goes on about corn. Glenn said that one day, a few years back, he’d watched the sea go from liquid to ice in the course of a 12-mile hike.