Aliyah’s Bone


img_4057Aliyah found her mammoth bone up the Porcupine. Mammoth fossils are common on the Yukon Flats. Most are found along the rivers that erode so much of the land every spring. People are always showing me mammoth tusks, teeth and bones. Aliyah is very proud of hers.

I’ve mentioned before how grateful I am to get to work with the same students for five unbroken years. We have become a family, of sorts. But the truth is, that family includes every student in the school, even the youngsters in the elementary grades. They all know my name, and they grow up wanting to be in my science class someday. I know, because they tell me so. One or another always greets me in the morning with a “Hi, Dave!” or a “Happy birthday” on the day we older ones would as soon forget. They bring me their rocks and bugs and bones and moldy bread to see. Just like Aliyah, because we are family.


Ice Fishing Lessons


Alfred cuts a hole

When my neighbors get serious about ice fishing, they do it with a net, not with a line. We have a community service class at my school and they recently set a net at the mouth of the Sucker, right where it flows into the Porcupine. Salmon traveling upriver to their spawning grounds tire and turn in to the smaller side channels like the Sucker for a rest. They find a net instead. The students are catching eight to ten large fish a day, mostly salmon, but some whitefish, too. They give their catch to the elders and needy of the village.

Imagine depending entirely on the land for all your needs, a land given to short summers and severe winters. How does one solve the problems of making tools without tools, or sewing without thread and needle, or making nets without twine? The Athabascans are remarkable problem solvers – they did all this and more because their survival depended on it. I glimpsed a bit of that problem solving acumen as I watched Alfred teach the students how to ice fish with a net.

And how on earth would you figure out how to run a net under the ice for some serious fishing? If you are interested in how Athabascans do it, here is Alfred to teach you. Click on a picture to start a slideshow and read about it.

So what about those other problems that the Athabascans overcame? They made tanning tools and needles out of caribou bone, thread out of sinew, rope out of rawhide, and nets out of willow bark!

He Wasn’t Drunk

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This is Birch Creek. I’ve long wanted to get some good pictures of it, and I’m happy with these. Birch Creek is home to about 30 people, or maybe 20. Nobody moves here looking for work. In fact, nobody really moves here at all.

Well, that isn’t totally accurate – living in the interior of Alaska has a semi-nomadic quality to it and people, usually family relatives, do come and go.

Gwich’in Athabascans have long dwelt in Birch Creek, fishing and hunting the abundant wildlife. Lawrence does, and one cold, February day earlier this year he was having a drink or two, which may or may not have had something to do with the sudden urge that overcame him to go for a walk. Hum, Fort Yukon’s not too far away.

It’s worth noting that a February stroll across the Yukon Flats probably isn’t anything like a stroll down your neighborhood street. If you are a crow, then Fort Yukon is about 30 miles from Birch Creek, but if you are bipedal like Lawrence and me, then you are looking at a 50 mile hike.

It also bears mentioning to those who may not have followed this blog for long that there are no roads across the Yukon Flats; it is true wilderness. There are no mile markers, no signs that you would recognize. There may be snow-go tracks, if they haven’t been obscured by fresh snow. Sometimes there are stars visible. That’s about it. Except for wolves and the like.

Fortunately for Lawrence, he had plenty of time on his hands. He walked for 15 hours and almost made it. A search team found him 4 miles outside the Fort and brought him in. He felt great, except his legs were a little sore.

Lawrence, by the way, is 52 years old. It was -35˚F when he strolled out the door, and there were less than 6 hours of winter light per day.

His family said he wasn’t really drunk, but they also conceded that he may not have been completely sober. Either way, my hat’s off to Lawrence for accomplishing something I would never try.

inspired by Dorothy Chomicz’s story on