Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Alaska Issue

The Essence of Alaska Lies Somewhere Between Myth and Reality

An Alaska native grapples with the meaning of his home state

Inupiaq culture has traveled from fur-clad hunters with stone-tipped harpoons to kids carrying iPhones—in just 200 years. (Public Domain)
Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly

On the edge of Point Hope I climb a jumbled pile of sea ice. The giant cubes are tilted and heaped, forced up by a storm sometime before I arrived, and later drifted over with snow. It’s early March, a few degrees above zero, and to the southwest the afternoon sun shines faint warmth. From the north a stiff breeze has bite. I watch carefully where I put my feet; I could fall in, wrench a knee, jam my crotch, or pinch a boot down in a fissure. Small tracks show that a fox has climbed up here. The tracks are set, firm but fairly fresh, probably from last night. I come to older, bigger tracks and occasional brown splats. They tell me a human has been here too—one who wore Sorel boots and chewed tobacco.

At the top, I marvel at the unseasonably warm day. I expected minus 20 and a howling ground blizzard. Now in perfect visibility I stare out across the stunning flatness of land and sea. At the horizon, the sky and earth meet in shimmering shades of silver, gray, white, and blue. The ocean is still but shows a struggle in process—the Chukchi Sea is trying to freeze and very much not succeeding. It’s late winter. Point Hope is 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, near the top western corner of Alaska. I should be looking at white pack ice. Instead I’m looking at the thinnest of pressure ridges, skims of floating slush, and dark open water.

Behind me the land is brown and white, gravel and snow. No mountains, no hills, no trees—not a single shrub. There is only a flat grid of gravel streets, power lines, satellite dishes, metal hangers, plywood houses, and a sprawling school, a gymnasium, and a new, bigger gymnasium under construction. Pickup trucks and huge yellow loaders appear and disappear between buildings. Red and green Honda four-wheelers roam the streets like rolling beetles.

Tikigaq (the Inupiaq name for Point Hope) is a high-tech, modern Native community that might well have been dropped on this spit by aliens. Which it basically was: Nearly everything was floated here on a barge of oil-royalty money. Without an unceasing supply of oil dollars this village of 700 would quickly darken into a cold, windblown ghost town.

In the distance, on a pole cache, a traditional umiak (skin boat) used for whaling is lashed tightly against the wind. Farther down the spit are the remains of sod igloos from the old village. For more than 2,000 years the Inupiat have continuously inhabited this featureless protuberance into the Chukchi, in the past living off caribou from the land, and fish, seals, walrus, and of course the mighty whale, from the sea.

The Bering Strait and this coastline are where the ancestors of the first Native Americans arrived from Siberia, some traveling onward and some settling down, and where initial contact later took place between the Inupiat and Outsiders. Russian explorers and then American whalers sailed through, carrying home a mixture of truth and distortions about a land of ice and snow, of dog teams, and Eskimos dressed in furs—hunters surviving an environment harsh beyond comprehension. The Alaska of myth was born right here. This flat gravel point is the imperceptible beginning, or the far end—depending on perspective—of Alaska, a land as tall, wide, and wild as legend.

Distances in this state are so large they lose proportion, and nowadays the distance between past and present, myth and reality, might be the greatest of them all. Sadly, I’m a perfect example. I’m from this land, born in a sod igloo 200 miles east and a little south, raised wearing skins, mushing a dog team, and eating food from the land—akutuq (Eskimo ice cream), seal blubber, boiled grizzly bear, beaver, salmon, muskrat, moose, and anything else that moved. And now? Now I still gather from the land, but I also hold an iPhone in my hand more often than ax, knife, and rifle combined. Nearly everybody here does. Even now, I snap a photo and breathe on my fingertips long enough to reread an email. It’s from an editor, asking for, of all things... The Meaning of Alaska. How ironic. I’ve been trying to fathom that my entire life.

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I picture the other end of our state, and what it might be like for a newcomer arriving for the first time by ship from the south. Southeast Alaska is as different from here as day from night—literally. (Night will cease in Point Hope soon.) There the land has almost too much elevation; your neck hurts from staring up at mountains too steep and disorienting not to stare up. They tower straight out of the sea, draped with trees, frosted with crystalline blue-and-white glaciers—so much rock and ice it blocks out half the sky. Alongside your boat, gulls and other seabirds cry and float over the swells, whales blow mist into damp gray evenings, and seals, sea lions, and sea otters dot the surface of the water. Alaska is astounding. It is real—and everything you dreamed it to be.

For hundreds of miles your ship passes the seemingly endless green timbered islands and fjords that line the Inside Passage, a protected route up from Washington and British Columbia. The men and women of the gold rush came through here, too, on their way to the Klondike and Nome and other strikes in 1898, and at first glance this land may seem to have hardly changed in the intervening years. Likely you have never imagined so much green, so many billions of big tall trees carpeting an uneven world. How can there be this much wilderness? you wonder. How can this place even be possible in the 21st century?

And you have hardly arrived at the toe of this giant state! You’ve never eaten muktuk (whale skin and blubber), never gotten frostbite, never been treed by a moose, never been mailed a $1,000 check—for having a pulse. You haven’t even stepped ashore yet.

When you do walk across the wooden dock of Ketchikan, Alaska—1,400 miles in the straightest line you could ever draw from this heap of ice where I stand (not that anyone could walk straight through that much wilderness, crossing some of the largest rivers, mountains, and ice fields on Earth)—the tourist shops and jewelry stores await you. A salesman from South Asia or somewhere equally far away welcomes you in out of the drizzle. He or she begins pressuring you to buy a diamond bracelet—today! A wire rack beside you is plugged with postcards of THE LAST FRONTIER. Every photo is painfully sharpened, and oversaturated with color. Memories of yesterday afternoon, of humpback whales breaching in the dim distance, and bald eagles soaring overhead—the ones you photographed on your iPad—play in your mind.

With one hand on the glass counter, you glance at the door, out at a steady stream of brightly clad tourists passing. And finally, you feel the first faint twinge of our modern Alaskan dichotomy: 30,000 brown bears share this state with us still, but Jack London left a long, long time ago. And if he were still here—in addition to heating his house with stove oil and hoarding Alaska Airlines frequent-flier miles, receiving the State of Alaska monthly Senior Benefits checks, the annual Permanent Fund Dividend, and untold other state and federal subsidies—Jack, old, gray, bearded, alcoholic, and with bad teeth, would probably be wearing a grubby Patagonia jacket and staring down into his Samsung Galaxy.

Of course, there are ways to reach this far place other than by cruise ship. Flying north by jet, the journey is almost too fast to absorb—not much longer than a good movie—and your seat is so soft and padded. No wind is freezing your face or even blowing back your hair. You can sleep the whole way, or maybe you’re playing with your phone and just happen to look down—on a clear day, on the right side of the plane—above Juneau or Glacier Bay, Cordova, or even on approach to Anchorage. What you see catches your breath. It is unearthly. Your eyes blink. Your mind has to reset. The ice and mountains down there—it’s another planet! Didn’t the news say all the glaciers were receding? But it’s all so unbelievably vast. You check your watch, and order another vodka and tonic to help comprehend the sheer wildness below your pressurized perch.

Driving by car, up the Alcan—the Alaska Highway—the trip is different yet again. When will this wilderness ever end? you might think. It does end, right? It takes you a day or possibly several days behind the wheel just to get to the beginning of the highway at Dawson Creek, and then ahead is 1,500 miles more of spruce forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, and muskegs—until you arrive at Fairbanks, in the middle of the state—surrounded by more of the same.

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Just two days ago I was flown to Point Hope from Kotzebue, a hub town of 3,000, to teach writing for a week to Inupiaq middle and high school students. It is not easy, but rewarding. In the morning, in a classroom with the sun leaking in, I have the students free-write for four minutes. The prompt is “I remember when...” While pencils scribble, I pace, wandering my own memories, searching for stories to tell.

After the second prompt, when the kids start to fidget and talk, I show them photos on a large screen: of animals, dog teams, and my life growing up in a sod igloo. There’s not one dog team in this village anymore. The kids ask questions. They can’t quite believe a white man grew up in such a way. Boys tell me of hunting seals and caribou. Every student except one has a smartphone. A boy named Dmitri flips through his, shows me a photo of a grizzly bear lying dead. Another boy brags, “He shoot it with .22. When he was 12.”     

People shoot animals here. This is a hunting culture. And down in the “States,” what do they shoot? We mostly know from TV shows. Each other? Deer? “Bad Guys”?

Between classes I have a break and accompany the art teacher, a young woman from Colorado named Carrie Imel, to the million-dollar gym where her theater class is meeting. I know nothing about theater and wish to learn. In the gym, chaos threatens as the boys shoot baskets, until Imel herds them together for a warmup—a game I’ve never heard of called Zip, Zap, Zop. We stand in a circle. A person points suddenly at someone, anyone, and shouts “Zip.” That person points at a random person and shouts “Zap.” The next, “Zop.” And so forth. It’s fast, and gets faster, with all eyes darting. I’m dyslexic, and haven’t had enough coffee for this. Quickly I’m boggled, and out. I lean against a wall reflecting on this Far North, white-teaching-Native experience. It feels surreal and nonsensical, as if all of us are moving nowhere, at warp speed; like we humans are playing Zip, Zap, Zop while our planet plunges toward darkness.

I step outside to clear my head. The snow is bright, the sun warm, and the day reminiscent of May, not March. Dogs bark and snowmobiles growl past. It’s beautiful out, and silently I joke to myself: How did we survive before climate change? This weather, though, everyone knows is wrong. The Arctic is melting. Everything is changing too fast. This spit is eroding due to lengthening ice-free seasons and storm surges, and this town could be washed away in the coming few decades. A nearby village down the coast, Kivalina, is already succumbing to the sea. The government has poured millions into seawalls, only to have the next storms take them away.

Travel to these villages and you might think you see poverty. Actually, more state and federal money per capita is spent here than in nearly any other place in America. You might see trash heaped and strewn around our homes, yet at the edge of our towns is the near-pristine wild. You might see communities that you swear are behind the times—they need water and sewers, jobs and education, right? They need to catch up!

But what if in one crucial way our small far-flung communities are not behind, but ahead? What if they are the bellwethers of what happens when too much change comes too quickly to a society? Inupiaq culture, after all, has traveled from fur-clad hunters with stone-tipped harpoons to kids carrying iPhones—in just 200 years.

Alaska’s official motto, “North to the Future,” is as true as it’s ever been, here, and across this state. In the past few decades, glaciers have been melting at a dramatically accelerated rate, with the state losing more than 20 cubic miles of glacial ice each year. Thawing permafrost is releasing millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Spruce are sprouting on the tundra, seals are losing their day care (ice sheets), and an unidentified 12-mile-long brown blob of algae termed “Arctic goo” has formed in the ocean off Barrow, the northern tip of the United States.

Yet our Western myth lives on: Big bears still roam this land, wolves are as common as they ever were, and caribou pass by in the thousands. Uninhabited coastlines go on forever. Millions of acres of wilderness wait, with countless ways to freeze your feet, get a billion mosquito bites, or die absolutely alone from a foolish mistake. America, if you want to glimpse your past, present, and future all at once—all mixed together—this land is your land.

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