About this blog

Eaten Earth will be a location for occasional photos, thoughts about the state of the world, and updates on my roaming through Arctic regions.

The title: I feel as though our species is consuming the Earth. As a way of thinking about how to change that, I'll focus on one of the strongest, most culturally important, and most malleable ways we interact with our planet- the actual eating of its bounty. How people eat, what it means for them, and what it means for the Earth, will be an undercurrent to my entire travels. - Alex

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kugluktuk, and quana to all!

Well, I again have been so involved that I have hardly had time to use the Internet! I had an unexpected layover in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, due to fog farther north in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, which meant I met an elder named Roger who was on his way home from a shift at an NWT diamond mine. I also met a new Dene friend and caught 20 northern pike in less than an hour in a small spawning stream! Ahh the north!

When I reached Kugluktuk on Friday May 25, I learned that it was the last day of school, so nearly the entire town was going camping for the weekend via snowmobiles across the 3-foot thick sea ice! (Many people work during the week so must return Sunday evening, although many also subsist on social assistance payments and hunt as they please or are able). So I ran around like a mad Qablunaq (white person, the term may be derogatory) trying to join on a trip. Roger had earlier said I could join him hunting, but he snowmobiled away on the ice just as I was going to his house to say yes! I ran down to another place people go onto the ice, and, thanks to the kind help of other Kugluktukmiut (people of Kugluktuk), met a man named Kanok, who was waiting with his snowmobile on the shore while his wife Wendy and 4 kids prepared in town. A quick ride via ATV back to the house where I was staying to get dressed, and then off across the ice in a wooden box tied to a sled behind the snowmobile! It turns out Kanok is Roger and wife Lena’s son in law and was going to a small cabin on the same island as Roger! I ended up spending most of the next two weeks with the four of them and their children! They let me tag along goose hunting on the mainland by the Rae River to the west, where Kanok and I and his brothers spent many hours chatting, playing cards, and doing magic tricks while crouched in a stone blind hoping geese would fly over head. Once I went with Roger to harvest caribou above Bloody Falls on the Coppermine River (where Chipewyan and Dene men massacred Copper Inuit during Samuel Hearne’s expedition in 1771). The caribou were not afraid of the snowmobile in the least! In addition to shooting, skinning and gutting two caribou, we had a bit of excitement pulling the snowmobile out of two feet of slush and water into which we inadvertently drove a number of times (it being the time of spring melt).

A few days later, we all drove east along a chain of islands set into sky blue water that sat up to a foot deep on top of the sea ice. Snowmelt! Terrifying to snowmobile on what seemed to me like the empty ocean, where a hole could be anywhere! We camped in protected bays in islands where low ponds attracted traveling waterfowl, running out of the tents to call and shoot the birds as soon as we heard their cries. One day Kanok and I drove snowmobiles 15 km or so farther to the northeast to look for goose eggs on ponds in the middle of snowless, rocky islands. This entailed learning how to drive in slush, cross cracks in the sea ice with only water below, waterskip across deep areas, and bomb up 10 meter high snowdrifts onto the island tops, where we circled the ponds on bare ground, rocking the snowmobiles back and forth on the bumpy tundra vegetation. I tried my best to avoid boulders, streams, and bedrock, until we finished our survey without eggs (an unusually late spring this year!) and I had to follow Kanok off across 500 m of pure bedrock, rife with angles, stair steps, melt water streams, erratics, and steep ledges. All of this with a kid also on the snowmobile! If you can snowmobile on rocks, you can snowmobile on snow! So, it seemed incredibly easy once we returned to the ice and I took the sled and all the children in tow! Such trust! Fortunately, despite a low fog that had dropped, we made it back safely, thanks to a GPS and Kanok’s knowledge of the area, in which he has traveled since he was young.

Back at the island cabins, I helped hang caribou meat sliced thinly by Lena and Wendy onto open-air racks to dry. A few days later we skinned and separated the leg bones, broke them open with a hammer or rock, and scooped out the marrow with the back of a spoon. Eaten raw with the meat that was now dry like jerky (but fresh and nutritious with no added salt or smoke), this was one of the most delicious foods I’ve eaten all year. Rich like butter, yet incredibly light, the marrow was filling and nutritious, if a bit fatty for today’s lower calorie expenditures.

In the past few days the river has broken through the dam of ice at its mouth, washing over the sea ice and wearing it away. For 300 or 400 meters away from shore the sea ice is gone, with a muddy churning river flowing out into its delta instead. Now people will put in their small boats and drift down with the current to catch arctic char in nets. Spring and 5 degree C weather have arrived rapidly, breaking the ice MUCH quicker than is normal!

As usual, I have been incredibly fortunate to meet kind people who adopted me temporarily as a son, allowed me to go out with them and their family onto the land, and shared their homes and stories. As in all the places I have visited, the people rise to beauty and meaning in spite of hardship. Here, the most commonly mentioned issue is the aftermath of residential schools in which children were stripped of their language and heritage (taken far away from their family igloos and skin tents for many years, abused in the process, etc.). Today, people live in subsidized southern homes, which seems to disincentivize work, for rent rises to match salary. Snow machines and other equipment are expensive so many cannot go to the land to harvest country food and must rely on food from others or store-bought, unhealthy, and also expensive southern food. Alcohol and drugs are abused. Suicides affect nearly every family, and continue to increase. I do not pretend to be able to understand or accurately describe any of the current issues, so I will not try. The scant time I have spent in each community, or visiting each indigenous group, is by no means sufficient to gain that sort of insight. But what I can say is that most of the peoples I have visited this year share some aspects of a suite of challenges, most of which are shared with the southern regions, with the non-indigenous peoples in these countries, but perhaps to a lesser intensity. These include alcohol and drug abuse, loss of language, dietary shortcomings/insecurity, loss of traditional knowledge about key species and environmental patterns (in large part due to climate change), suicides, sexual and physical abuse, land rights claims that are being slowly addressed, encroachment from extractive industries (which brings pluses as well as minuses), and on and on. All of these are connected and appear overwhelming, yet somehow, from the great difficulty, people draw forth moments of beauty, lifetimes of determination, and hope for the future of their peoples.

The men and women who have shared with me their sleds, sleighs, snowmobiles, tents, chums, lavvus, huts, cabins, homes, clothes, animals, meals, stories, knowledge, land, and lives as I ephemerally joined them this year, all share a collective memory of their homelands that draws from a much deeper history than that of us southerners, whether explorers, exploiters, or do-gooders. In my short year, I have only felt a minute portion of this current of knowledge, spirit, and energy, and I cannot succinctly express how I have changed as a result. But I can say that we have much to learn from, and much to redress with our northern neighbors, and the way to begin will be to slow down and to listen.

This will be my final blog post. Thank you for your support and occasional viewership, which have made it worthwhile for me to share my solitary experience with you as best as I could. If you would like to speak with me about anything, please do, as I have no concrete plans for the future. For now, I will slow down and listen.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Autumn in Qaarsut- a bit late

Only eight months after my first wonderful immersion in the settlement of qaarsut, I have finally reviewed and relived the photographs. Here they are to share. The end of summer.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spring Migration

Somehow it worked out. The timing was perfect, and the herders unbelievably welcoming. It was refreshing to speak with encouraging people, in English, about their lives today, how things have changed since scooters and cell phones arrived (life is easier and better for herders because they can connect with other people, but they understand the deer less), and what they think of the future ("there is no future for reindeer herding" due to encroachment by infrastructure, summer cabins, etc. Indeed, here, more often than anywhere else I have been this year, I have seen the physical footprint of man on the land.) In the week I was in Norway, I spent about 8 hours NOT on the tundra/mountain/land.

The plane from Copenhagen was late, so I sprinted through the Oslo airport, slipping through the door to the next plane just as it closed. When we reached Alta, I hopped onto the day's bus, arriving to Hemmogieddi (a group of houses north of Kautokeino) around 10 p.m. The father of the family, Anders Isak, came outside to hush the dogs and waved me in. Welcome. Eat. Pack. We are going. We have been waiting for you. And thus we began their spring migration, in which they bring the male and non-pregnant female reindeer to their summer pasture in the mountains of the coast, where it will be cooler than inland. They had already brought the yearlings to the coast by truck, as they are too weak to make the trek through the snowy mountains on their own. The pregnant females will give birth in the highlands near Hemmogieddi, and in snowless June the herders will bring the calves and mothers to the coast using ATVs.

In Russia I was able to see the very start of the spring migration, in which herders slowly move their homes 300 km north over many months. Here, with scooters and a portable tent, it took only one week, in which I was lucky to participate. I believe it was around 150 km, although I could be wrong. We had little sense of time, moving for 3-24 hours when the reindeer could best do so themselves, which was mostly at night, when the temperatures dipped below freezing and hardened the snow. When the herd was tired or the weather foul, we waited and slept for 1-18 hours, either lying directly on the wet ground in patches blown bare of snow, in the lavvu (Saami tent, equivalent of a Russian chum or a teepee), or in two huts along the way. The sun was not up all the time, but it was always light. In fact, sometimes night was lighter than day, as it was misty and wet for much of the week. Since my clothing was inappropriate for the local conditions (as usual) and I am not as hardened as the locals, it was very cold. Colder than anytime this winter, when the temperatures were MUCH lower. I mostly rode on a sled behind a scooter, hiding below a tarp to avoid the spray of slush and ice kicked back by the tread, which did not help me stay warm!

At a few lakes we fished, catching small but delicious land-locked Arctic char. John Ante's scooter was broken, so he joined us partway with more firewood and gasoline. And his uncle Nils skijored up from the coast to meet us also for the last day, when we descended from the mountains to the coast. This was the most spectacular of them all, and the most tense, as they had to bring the reindeer down the mountain and through the town of Langfjordbotn, around 70 deg. N. The snow was too soft for the alternate route up and along the top of "Little Russian Mountain," so named because locals claim it is the site of the final events in the legend that inspired Pathfinder, the most terrifying movie I saw as a child.

What took 8 or 9 men in Nenets AO required only two, driving around on their scooters and throwing lassos at a reindeer with a bell, which they tied to the scooter to lead the other reindeer, with two scooters following behind to keep the deer moving forward. In this way, at 4 in the morning, we descended slowly to and through the sparse birch forest, down a clearing under a power line, and across a road. The reindeer rushed to the sea to drink its sweet sweet salt, their winter diet of lichen providing little of this essential mineral. By foot, car, and scooter (on the road), we then shooed them along the road and beach for a few kilometers past rivers, shorefront houses, and farms. Around 8 am, Uncle Nils took me to the airport so I could go to Germany! The others finished the last 20 km of the migration (to a valley in the inner part of the summer peninsula) the evening I spent in Frankfurt. On 5/21 I returned to North America for the first time since last May. To moist, green, and very tree-filled Vancouver for a day. Now I'm in oil city Edmonton, Alberta, which feels a bit like the US/Midwest. Trucks, suburban sprawl, etc. Tomorrow I will head north for the last section of this incredible year. To Kugluktuk, Nunavut. I plan to return south to America's north- my lovely home in Minnesota, in mid-June. I'd love to see you then!

Out of Greenland

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Narwhal/walrus hunting (none seen, unfortunately!)

Ice breakup in Qaarsut

I had a really wonderful time in Qaarsut, just going along with the flow of what locals did every day. Instead of leaving on May 1, I sweet-talked Air Greenland into changing my non-flexible ticket to May 10, so I could go narwhal/walrus hunting with some of the men from town, who said they would leave around May 1! Of course, we left later than expected (May 5), so I spent more time in the settlement. It happened to be Greenland's "Week 18" of the year, which is a week focusing on community activities and not using alcohol. That meant lots of kickball, soccer, and races in the mushy snow, dogsled races in front of town on the ice, and a lot of visiting, along with a jigging competition and the regular hunting and fishing.

The winds kept the ice in the fiord, so we were not able to go hunting until some big ships arrived to empty halibut from the fish factories around the region. On May 5, we dragged the small speedboats out onto the ice, tied them behind a medium sized fishing boat bound for open water, and tried to follow one of the icebreakers on its way back out of the fiord. Unfortunately, the broken ice filled the path behind it, so we could not make it through. We slept overnight in the boat, waited for fog to clear, and followed in the channel, which had now widened due to winds and currents. As we progressed northwest, we reached a puzzle of water interspersed with kilometer-long broken sea ice bits, so we wound our own way through as best we could, acting as an icebreaker at times, and hunting for kittiwakes/seals as we saw them. In the evening, we reached open water, when we immediately heard on the radio that other hunters had seen narwhal. ZOOM off in the small boats, to no avail.

For the next few days, we searched around, which meant standing in the small boat watching the water, hunting seals if we saw them, boiling meat and eating it while moored to a small chunk of floating sea ice, sleeping overnight in a hut (instead of the boat, which was packed with 4 of us), and, for me, worrying that I would not be able to return to towns/airports due to ice. However, on the morning of April 8, we climbed a hill to get mobile phone reception and check on the helicopter schedule, quickly wound our way through packed up sea ice and icebergs to the settlement of Niaqornat, leaped across the watery gap where the ice had piled and melted at the shore, and said goodbye to the kind men who had let me join in their work/pastime/passion/tradition/lifestyle. The chopper (which brought fresh fruit to the settlement of around 60) traveled on a loop to the communities of Illorsuit and Nugaatsiaq, through a mountain pass, and to Uummannaq, still embedded in the sea ice. There, I met a friend who happened to be in town and caught a ride back with him on scooter to Qaarsut, where I washed clothes, said thanks, and caught another chopper for an hour long ride south across Nuussuaq Peninsula to Ilulissat, as the normal airplane had been delayed due to fog. An overnight in Ilulissat with a wonderful family I'd met before, and now I'm in Copenhagen! Tomorrow I should fly/bus to Kautokeino, Norway, where the Sami reindeer migration has conveniently been pushed back due to a late spring. I hope to spend a week traveling by scooter along with a herd from the high plateau down to the coast, from which I will again fly south on the 20th, and then back across the Atlantic! To Vancouver, from which (if everything goes as planned) I will start the last leg of my incredibly lucky trip- Arctic Canada! I plan to visit the community of Kugluktuk. We will see what happens!

For now, I am VERY thankful to the kind people of Greenland (Qaarsut especially) for welcoming me, a young foreigner who knew nothing about anything and had forgotten most of the little Kalallisut he had learned last year, into their homes, boats, sledges, and community.