The Warmest Reception in the Coldest of Places

by Guest Blogger

March 9, 2012

byGeorge Pletnikoff

Conversation with Phil Kline, my DC-based peer and Oceans campaign director, typically raise many questions.

Why,” I ask, half-seriously, “do you get to go to the Caribbean Islands for conferences and meetings on whales, whileI am always sent up to the villages in the very cold parts of Alaska?

Its just the way it is, he replies with a smile. Its just the way it is.

So be it. He packs swimsuits. I pack parkas.

Such was the case during my recent travels to Stebbins, a small village of about 700 Yupik Eskimo. We were discussing the need toprotect Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons, some 315 air miles from thispeaceful community.To get there from Anchorage, one flies to Unalakleet and then viasingle-engine Cessna 207 to Stebbins. The flight takes about25 minutes, arcing over the frozen Bering Sea.

Upon landing, one of our fellow travelersshouted I have a guy from Fish and Game and a guy from Greenpeace! tothose who met the airplane at the makeshift terminal, whichdoubles as a smallhanger.

Everyone there scrambled to gather us up, get our gear andsleeping bags, and offer us rides to the school just a half a mile fromthe airport. But instead of a warm, comfortable ride, Art Ivanoff (my friend and companion from Unalakleet) and I chose to walk. The temperature was a balmy minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind chill factor surely a lot colder. But itwas a good to stretch our legs and breath the frigid air.

The next day we met with members of theSouthern Norton Sound Fish and Game AdvisoryCommittee (NSFGAC) representing the villages ofUnalakleet, Stebbins, St. Michael, Shaktoolik and Koyuk. Ihave been to many many meetings but thiswas one of the more informative and enjoyable. We discussed chinook salmon bycatch, moose and muskox subsistence hunting, and commercial and subsistence salmon fishing limits.The moose population hasbeen so low that the entire village of Unalakleet has been on avoluntary five-year moratorium to try to rebuild the herd. One moose canfeed an entire family for a year. Sadly, the sport hunters from the Lower 48 are nowtrying to move in to get their share.

The NSFGAC also supports wholeheartedly our work to protect both Canyons. They aredrafting a resolution to submit it to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Two members of the Committee have volunteered to testify before theCouncil to that affect. Passion around this concern is so strong that one member of the committee even told me he would pay his owntravel expenses to Anchorage totestify in support of the need to protect theCanyons.

And while Alaska is wallowing in billions of dollars from oil revenues,many villages struggle with getting essentials forday-to-day living that most of us take for granted and a right.Here in Stebbins, for example, people lack fresh running water in their homes. Thismeans that they have to still haul fresh water from a central location, usually called thewashateria, in buckets and large plastic garbagebins home for use everyday.

They also must goto the washateria to do their laundry and takeshowers. Even more unthinkable, there are no flushing toilets. Residents use Honey buckets”, five-gallon pails meet the need, and are emptiedwhen full inthe community garbage dump site.

Following the meeting we were invited to participate in the Potlatch taking place thatevening. About 300 people showed up in nearby Yupik for a long night of dancing, singing and drumming.I was givenpermission to dance with them, an incredible experience of traditional music and movement perhaps thousands of years old. It was truly an unexpected honor.I felt one with thepeople and their ancestors.

I found out later that even though we all tried to dance and movemimicking each other, there was no right or wrong way to do it. Wewere all doing the same thing at the same time that their peoplehave done for millennia, and it was amazing.

So, travel to the sunny Caribbean or head north to chilly Alaska? Call me crazy (and Phil probably will) but I choose that cold destination where I have never been so warmly received.

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