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Healing Journey 2013: Tribes and Schools Cleaning Up Alaska

On each “Healing Journey” Expedition, Jon Waterhouse uses travel along rivers, recording traditional knowledge from local people, and detailed scientific readings of water conditions and quality using cutting-edge technology. In March and April Jon and team are traveling from St. Mary’s, Alaska along the Yukon River by aircraft and snowmachine. Meanwhile his long-time collaborator John Francis is leading university students on Planetwalk around St. Mary’s… Ohio.

 

Last Thursday, Mary and I journeyed to Emmonak, Alaska (62.7772N, 164.5450W), a western coastal village of about 700 people, mostly Yup’ik, located near the mouth of the Yukon in a massive river delta that covers hundreds of square miles.

The flight from St. Mary’s to Emmonak was sunny and beautiful. Subzero temperatures seemed to enhance the early morning beauty of the flat and frozen windswept land which stretched out below us in pink, yellow and blue hues as far as the eye could see.

The early spring sun in Alaska. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
The early spring sun in Alaska. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

 

The western coast of Alaska is known for its intense winters and horizontal snow storms. Immense dune-like snowdrifts can develop in just a few hours. I’ve seen houses throughout my travels here over the years out here all but buried by drifting snow. Often the path to a doorway is dug out of a snow wall that is well above the roofline of the house. As evidenced by the many boats and other vehicles we see almost entirely concealed by the drifts here, the Yup’ik people take the them in stride. “Spring comes and snow melts. It’s just water”, they say…

Our mile-long ride from the Emmonak airstrip to the school was on the back of a 4-wheeler with a wooden cart in tow. Most remote Alaskan villages use 4-wheelers as the primary mode of transportation year round but in winter, they share the roads with snow machines. Airstrips here in Alaska are usually a good distance from the communities and knowing that it’s unlikely a toasty warm car will be awaiting our arrival, it pays to have our arctic gear handy when flying into any town. More than once I’ve walked several miles from a landing strip into a rural Alaskan village experiencing subzero temps. On this day, Mary and pilot, David, climbed onto the back of the 4-wheeler with village guy-about-town, Scotty, and I jumped into the cart with our gear.

At the School

The Emmonak School is K-12 with around 150 students. We were fortunate to be invited to visit and speak with the kids about global environmental stewardship. Young people seem to grasp quickly the concept of caring for the Earth so I feel fortunate that my duty is simply to encourage what I believe already comes naturally to them. I try to incorporate ways for kids to find adventure in learning, not only because it seems so effective at sparking their interest, but because its more fun!

As we arrived at the school steps, two grinning eleven year-old students flew out the door and raced by us, proudly on their way to the airstrip for a flight to Anchorage to participate in the big Science Fair there – Mary literally snagged them for a photo! Upon entering the school, we were met with a pile of gear and learned that the basketball team was headed to Hooper Bay directly after school. The weekend in Hooper Bay would be all about basketball, which is huge in rural Alaska. Winters here are long, dark and extremely cold so basketball keeps these kids busy, entertained and physically fit, while they could be floundering their days away or getting into trouble elsewhere. Most outlying communities have well equipped gymnasiums and, as I see it, their benefits are immeasurable.

Once in the classroom, we were inspired to see the knowledge and passion the Emmonak kids possess with regard to modern science, especially given that funding is limited to the point that the school has only one microscope (something I find to be completely absurd! Anyone out there care to pitch in?) Kudos to the teachers here who excel at igniting passion in these students with so few tools at their disposal. I was thrilled that the students listened closely to my talk, they were engaged and attentive – and after our presentation they pummeled me with excellent questions! It was awesome!

We were invited to have lunch with the students so we joined kindergartners Khia, Kera and Margaret, 3 little girls with long dark hair and big dark eyes – eyes that all but disappear in their grinning cheeks when they laugh. This trio of little girly charm was thrilled to have a big, burly, bearded stranger sit at their table and eat lunch with them. We talked about names. They explained to me that there IS another Margaret in the school but there is not a single other Khia or Kera. Not anywhere in the Whole Wide World! Oh yes, and they pointed out that everybody has my name, “Jon”… and I pretended to be surprised to hear…

In the Tribal Center

When we left the school, we headed over to the tribal center. This old building houses the tribal offices and also serves as meeting hall, bingo hall, dance hall and periodically – sleeping quarters. The rough wood walls are covered with drums and dance fans. There is a large digital bingo monitor and an area dedicated to Elders who have passed on. The floor is worn and the ceilings are low. Tables and chairs are stacked around the room perimeters and you get the feeling that generations of Emmonak residents have been raised in this welcoming old space. There we met with the tribal representatives of Emmonak, Chuloonawik (62.9461N, 164.1722W) and Alakanuk (62.6889N, 164.6153W) about specific environmental concerns in this remote region. As we talked, I heard that the primary concern in this area along the Yukon, as in most, is water quality.

Mary pals around with new friends from Emmonak. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Mary pals around with new friends from Emmonak. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

 

People want to know what is in their water, how it got there, and what they can do to get it out. They want to drink from their river again. They want to know their fish are healthy and safe to consume. This is a place that the culture, the people… existence itself is defined by their relationship with the salmon. This bond has existed since time immemorial. As they look toward the future, they have great concerns regarding the health of the salmon and their way of life. For many years, science has recorded the decrease in annual salmon runs. As documented via modern science, this decline continues year after year. This is fact.

So the suspected cause(s) of this decline in salmon may be numerous, and there may be no blanket solution. This is an area that needs attention far beyond the commercial fishing interests, beyond the sports enthusiasts, beyond the state and federal regulations we must get to the very heart of the matter – and that’s preserving the salmon. We have reached this place in time where it’s clear a rest is in order. There needs to be time to study and figure this out. Because as history has taught us – repeatedly I hate to say – ignoring a problem CAN make it go away. The end of salmon for the Native People would be the end of an ancient culture and a sad commentary on modern society. And it would speak volumes about the direction we are all headed. But this sad state of affairs is avoidable. By setting aside our greed, differences and preconceived notions, coming together as one, we can do better than this. I think it’s time we do.

The topmost part of a boat betrays the river hidden under snow and ice. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
The topmost part of a boat betrays the river hidden under snow and ice. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

 

As far as the good news, there is a concerted environmental stewardship effort by the people who live here and it’s clearly visible in the litter-free appearances of the communities these days. In the past, plastic bags, plastic soda bottles and other consumer debris littered the land here. The communities of the Yukon River inspired our YRITWC Backhaul Program and today it is rare to see garbage and rubbish strewn about here like before. Environmental Stewardship is alive and pride is evident and that is something that’s fantastic!

There is still much work to be done but we know that we’re making great progress. The journey continues so stay tuned!

Thanks for reading ~
Jon

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