“What are you doing here?” was the question we were asked most often in a tone more deadpan than hostile or friendly. It’s a legitimate question. 200 miles north of the Arctic circle, 700 miles from Anchorage and a whopping 3,000 miles from our home near San Francisco, what were we doing in Point Hope, Alaska? “We’re just walking,” we’d say, an answer that was barely acceptable to most people.
Walking. I walked over 100 miles with 3 friends between Point Hope to Kivalina in the hope of gaining a little understanding. Forgotten whaling lookouts from winters past stood sentinel over parts of the coast we were told no longer support an icepack thick enough for hunting whale. One hundred years ago the world’s insatiable demand for whale oil devastated these arctic coastal communities with alcohol and disease. As North America’s longest continually inhabited community, Point Hope was on the brink of extinction, losing two-thirds of their population to the ill-effects of the whale oil industry. But they’ve bounced back—in fact, they’ve moved! In the 1970s Point Hope moved several miles inland because their village was already disappearing into the Chukchi Sea.
The coastline is changing – a glaring example of the early impacts of global climate change. Pt. Hope’s Mayor, Steve Oomittukk, patrols the miles of beaches every day just to see what pieces have been lost. I walked away from my time spent along this coastline both humbled and inspired. Humbled by the the intelligent restraint these communities have shown to their wild places. Inspired to raise awareness about what is happening in these arctic towns because it’s no different than what we are headed for in the Bay Area and other coastal communities. The changes go from subtle to extreme in a matter years. One abnormal storm after another turns anomaly into normal—and suddenly our landscape and entire way of being is changed. So what are we going to do about it?
“I’m going to cry and cry if I ever leave this place,” an Inupiat woman told me as I was waiting to step aboard our bush flight back from Kivalina to Kotzebue. “This beach is my home.”
– Lindsay Tamm
Photo courtesy of Nathan Wilder: http://nathanielwilder.com/
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