Subsistence living and Alaskan Natives

Alaska, People, Road Trip 1 Comment »

I thought I might offer a little diversion from my usual post format which generally only documents my activities, at least those that might be of some vague interest to anyone reading, and instead provide a few thoughts and observations on a single aspect of my Alaskan experience while I await my ferry back to Homer. Generally, I have tried to avoid giving opinion in this blog as I know those reading it have various views on certain topics and I don’t wish to get into extensive debate at this time! In fact, this post was considerably longer when I first wrote it – I think I got carried away! I tried to cut it down to the bare bones of the question on my mind at the time.

Sitting in Henry’s Restaurant in the center of Kodiak I noticed that many people were playing the lottery and other gambling games. It appeared to be traditional to drop the used tickets on the floor and in some places it was as if there had been a ticker tape parade. It was about 5.00PM (on a Wednesday) and the place had more people than you might expect for this time of day and they weren’t all tourists/visitors like myself waiting for the ferry. I don’t necessarily think it is strange here because Kodiak is a working fishing town and fishermen rise early in the morning so presumably go to bed early. However, it reminds me of an issue concerning the subsistence fishermen of remote Alaskan villages. I have heard from people I talked with and also read that alcohol and substance abuse is a problem in native communities across Alaska and Canada as people transition from subsistence living to what we might consider ‘conventional living’. Often associated with a transition to ‘our way of life’ it is worth mentioning that these excesses are in fact a component of ‘our way of life’ and the indulgences are not exclusive to a particular group. Even though statistics might suggest otherwise they often offer no direct or provable correlation to actual causality thereby distorting or even completely masking the most relevant information. Problems experienced in our inner cities and elsewhere don’t seem a whole lot different to me and although alcohol highlights or exacerbates many of the symptoms, it in and of itself is not the root cause of the problem as we might do well to remind ourselves.

Clearly the native groups stand out because many are in a difficult transition often forced upon them for various reasons some more unpleasant than others. It is one thing for a population to slowly transition to a new way of life over a number of generations but what if it happens almost overnight? For example, as recently as the 1960’s, under the guise of a government assimilation policy, families were torn apart in Canada and children forced to attend residential schools in an attempt to wipe out the culture, language and traditions of native populations. (something for which the Canadian government formerly apologized just recently) Imagine having to change the way you live, eat and work over a single generation. The health challenges alone caused by dietary shifts are apparently noted by the medical profession in Alaska as this change takes place. Interestingly Weston Price wrote extensively on the subject of dietary changes as people moved away from their ancestral homes as early as the 1930’s. Read his ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration‘ for more information. The trauma caused by a significant change in the way a person lives not to mention the extra time people sometimes gain as a result of shorter working hours and modern creature comforts understandably can lead to problems. I have to wonder if the underlying cause of the symptoms experienced by communities where such changes unfold is simply related to the sense of loss of what was once a clearly defined purpose in life? What could be clearer or more meaningful than being the provider of food directly to your community? It is said that a life of service is a happy one, something we generally associate with the caring professions. It seems to me that the work of those in subsistence roles such as the Alaskan Native fishermen is the ultimate definition of a ‘life of service’ to a community. And what do you replace that with when it is lost, particularly when forced by another people’s agenda? I assume that many Alaskan Natives today have no such direct responsibility as providers to their communities? Those able to remain in the fishing industry or even be involved with modern sustenance hunting might have some connection to a well understood role but fishing for a company that ships the catch to people you don’t know in a far off place is not quite the same as delivering the nights catch to your neighbors and I am certain that taking a tourist on a trophy hunt isn’t the same as hunting in order to ensure the survival of your family. The loss of control, responsibility and fulfillment presumably can have far reaching psychological implications. And what of those forced into the service jobs of modern communities such as working in fast food restaurants? I challenge anyone to explain to someone who has made such a transition how his/her life purpose is still as important. Logically it can be argued in the context of a wider community but I for the life of me couldn’t look an Alaskan Native who has lost his way of life in the eye and give him/her an acceptable answer. Is it no wonder some of those in such situations seek escape through various substances as they transition to ‘our way of life’?

After doing a google search, I found this comprehensive report that provides even more background and also recommendations for dealing with some of the questions I was pondering at Henry’s Restaurant if you are interested.

The Return Leg

Alaska, Dalton Highway, People, Photo, Road Trip, Route, Vehicle No Comments »
The Return Leg

Excuse the cliched image but I couldn’t resist the temptation to show that the car might as well have been black and white except the tail lights! Just to be clear I masked out the car from the black and white conversion so that is its color thanks to the calcium chloride on the road.

In case you are wondering about the difference between Deadhorse and Prudhoe, Deadhorse is the town at the end of the Dalton Highway and Prudhoe Bay is where the oil fields are located. To reach the Arctic Ocean which is a couple of miles beyond the end of the highway, you must go through Prudhoe which is private land and you can’t drive your own vehicle there. Therefore you have to fork out $40 for the tour.

The tour was OK, nothing remarkable. I suppose it is what you expect in a place which is essentially there to extract oil from the ground. I was glad to see the Arctic Ocean as you imagine a typical ocean and not frozen. Of course I could have taken a swim like a few people who have that experience as one of their ‘life goals’. However, given that you don’t need to drive here to take the swim, you can fly (as most do), I passed! Had the only way to swim in the Arctic Ocean been to drive here it might have been a different matter!

Around 10.30AM I stopped at the hotel where Jay was staying and we headed south on the Dalton the 70 or so miles to where he had left his bike. Once his wheel was on I followed him down the highway but 10 or so miles later and his tire was once again flat. Another repair that included wrapping the tube with duct tape and a few more miles on, another flat. It looked like he was going to have to either go back to Prudhoe assuming we could flag a north bound traveler or ride with me to Coldfoot and find someone there to take him to Prudhoe. Either way, he would need to have a new tube and possibly tire shipped to Prudhoe. After many minutes of contemplating this, it was already around 4.30PM by this time, three more bikers arrived who turned out to be his guardian angels. One of them was carrying an additional tube to his spare that fitted Jay’s tire. Another of the three was also a bike guide who I got the impression had seen it all before many times over and the sort of person other riders are probably glad to see when they get stuck.

The tire is finally being fixed!

An hour or so later and the bike was ready. We headed south once more with Jay riding a few minutes ahead just in case the damaged rim caused more problems and I was able to stop along the way to take a few pictures at various points. When I pulled into Coldfoot we ate some food and took a break before making the final leg down to Fairbanks.

In terms of the actual surface, the Dalton is really not a terribly bad road and certainly not a technically difficult road but that isn’t really the main issue. Though I wouldn’t recommend driving it in a saloon car or minivan as a number of people do, it is certainly possible though you will increase your chance of underside damage without sufficient protection. The real issue with this road is it’s remoteness and the heavy trucks that use it. As I said, I have a cracked windshield from a rock thrown up by one of the trucks. Although most slow down some do not and most use the downward sections to gain speed for upwards sections of road. I saw a number that were traveling at 70 or 80 miles an hour on such sections!

Sub-blog for McNeil

Alaska, Animals, Bears, McNeil, People, Photo, Wildlife No Comments »
Sub-blog for McNeil

I created a sub-blog of taxidialogue for my McNeil visit here.

More on the son of Alfred Atkey

Alaska, People, Road Trip No Comments »

Thanks to a resourceful aunt (amended!) for locating it, you can click right here for more information on Al Atkey, son of Alfred Atkey, who I met along the Alaska Highway. If you scroll down and read the second Web Reference from the Anchorage Daily News there is an article about him. The original link to the Anchorage Daily News article is unfortunately broken but the text is preserved by zoominfo at present. My original post is here.

Son of Alfred Atkey?

People, Photo, Road Trip 19 Comments »
Son of Alfred Atkey?

Today I met a homeless chap who was cycling the 400 or so miles from Anchorage to the Canadian border and claimed to be the son of World War 1 pilot Alfred Atkey… He told me he makes this trip on a regular basis and although he is Canadian he never crosses because he doesn’t carry ID. Anyway he had stopped to make some coffee but ran out of water so having supplied him with some and chatting about the exploits of his famous father I took this snap. I’ll let you decide if you agree his story to be true – click for a picture of Alfred Atkey.