Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The last days

Toa & I surveying the community
The last 2 weeks in Barrow were somewhat uneventful. After the walruses left on Monday, work at the clinic continued as usual. The health intern, Toa, and I continued our door to door rabies surveys on Tuesday and Wednesday and ended up with a total of 50 surveys. The data from the survey was entered and we found out a couple of interesting facts. For example, 63% of respondents knew that dogs should be vaccinated every year, but only 30% knew that puppies should be vaccinated at 3 months of age. Also, Only 50% of people knew that rabies is always or nearly fatal in humans. This information should help guide the veterinary clinic in their community educational efforts. 

On my last Saturday in Barrow, I was asked to give a one hour talk at the local research center. About 40 people attended my presentation which I titled "Veterinary Student Experiences in the Arctic." During my talk, I explained the village trips, the rabies survey and the walrus rescues. The people seemed very interested in all that I had to say. I'm glad that I was able to share my experiences with such an enthusiastic audience.

A couple weeks earlier I met Denver Holt, a research biologist from the Owl Research Institute based out of Montana. He has been doing research on Snowy Owls for the past 20 years. Basically he monitors the number of baby owls each year at each nest, then continues to monitor how soon they learn to fly and so on. They use this data to see the different trends that occur each year such as how the owl population reflects the available food, weather patterns, etc from each year. When I met Denver, he suggested that I go out out with his research assistant, Madi on a hike to one of the snow owl nests. I decided to take him up on the offer and contacted Madi. She was excited to have someone accompany her on the hike on the tundra to the nests and suggested that I join her on the evening of August 8th, which happened to be my last night in Barrow. 

Thus, on my last evening in Barrow, I met up with Madi at her apartment and hopped on the 4-wheeler with her. We headed out towards freshwater lake, just south of Barrow, and pulled off the road at one of the pull outs. We then walked about a 3/4 mile out onto the tundra before I spotted a snowy owl in the distance. Madi explained that the owl was most likely the father owl and that 3 baby owls were probably nearby. Sure enough, when we got closer to the owl, we spotted all 3 baby owls nearby. Madi wanted to see if they could fly. However, the owls were on the other side of a deep pond. Luckily Madi had hip waders on and she easily waded across the pond to get closer to the baby owls. When she got over there the 3 owlets ended up getting spooked and flew away while the father owl attempted to scare her was by diving at her multiple times. He didn't actually attack her but he flew close enough that she had to duck down to avoid being hit. After a while, the snowy owl decided that Madi was no longer a threat and flew away. Madi gathered a couple owl droppings to dissect later and returned to my spot on the other side of the pond. After laughing about the dive bombing snowy owl, we returned to the 4-wheelers and headed home. I can't think of a better way to have spent my last evening in Barrow. 

Attack of the Snowy Owl

Monday, July 30, 2012

Baby Walrus Rescue, 2 & 3!!!

Yesterday, as sipped on my morning cup of coffee, my roommate, Rose walked into the living room saying "Craig just called, there's another walrus pup." Of course, I thought she had to be joking. "You're kidding," I replied. "No, I'm serious. Get dressed," was her response. I still couldn't believe it. There was no way there could be another walrus pup. We just rescued one last weekend and before that, there hadn't been any walrus pup rescues since 2007. 
Walrus Pup wondering what happened to the seals next to him
Still in disbelief, I got dressed and hopped in the truck. We met Craig and the wildlife crew down at the boat launch where a boatful of local hunters were returning from a long night of seal hunting. Although, this time they returned with much more than a few seals. In their boat was a 170 pound walrus pup. They apparently had been out hunting by the ice and spotted the pup. There were no other walruses nearby and the lonely little guy approached the boat. If a walrus pup approaches a boat willingly, it is a sure sign that it has been separated from its mom for more than a couple days. They hunters pulled the pup into the boat and called wildlife to see what they should do. They were instructed to bring the pup back to shore so that we could once again care for it until it could be transported to the sea life center. Normally, stranded walrus pups off shore should be left alone to let nature take its course. However, this situation was unusual since the walrus approached the boat looking for help. 

By the time we got to the boat, the hunter's 14 year old daughter, Clara, had snuggled up right next to the little guy and had named him "Mitik."After some debate on the best method of transferring the walrus to the back of the animal control vehicle, the men settled on just picking it up by the flippers, with one man to each flipper/tail. This worked really well. The walrus seemed to be content and happy in Clara's arms, so we had her climb into the back of the vehicle with the pup to keep him calm while we drove to the clinic. 
Mitik loved the pillows
Once at the clinic, we discussed the game plan. Tim, veterinary technician from the Sealife Center, would be flying up on the evening flight with walrus care supplies and would take the walrus back with him the following morning. In the mean time, we would take on "walrus cuddling" shifts to keep the walrus calm. Walruses are very tactile creatures and stay with their moms for 2 years, so it was important to try and provide that contact stimulus for him. Rose and I took the walrus back to our house and Rose took the first shift (1-3pm). While cuddling next to the walrus with blankets and pillows, Rose noted some little bugs on the pillows and on the walrus. Ticks! We both freaked out and Rose quickly came in to shower and wash her clothes. Around 3pm, Dr. Coburn and the wildlife veterinarian, showed up and explained to us that the "ticks" we had seen were really "sea lice." As I've learned in my parasitiology class, lice are host specific. Thus, the walrus cuddling team had nothing to worry about. Dr. Coburn soon took over her cuddling shift (3-5pm). She snuggled right up next to him and even fell asleep for a couple minutes, but right as she was really resting, visitors started arriving. Barrow is a small town, and word gets around quickly. Soon enough people were showing up to get a look at the little fella. I spent most of Dr. Coburn's shift playing crowd control. I also was given a temperature gun, to monitor the walruses body temperature every 30 minutes. 

Rose meeting the second walrus pup
A little after 5pm, it was my turn to snuggle with the walrus. I climbed in and made myself comfy next to little Mitik. Around 6pm, Rose drove the vehicle over to the vet clinic and I remained in the back of the SUV next to Mitik. The wildlife people met up with us at the clinic and brought news that another baby walrus was reported to be stranded on the shore by the gravel pits just south of Barrow. They quickly headed out to the gravel pits to check it out. Sure enough, they returned with another male walrus pup. It was a little smaller than Mitik, but was probably only a week or 2 younger. We estimated that Mitik was probably 5-7 weeks and the new guy was about 4-5 weeks. Rose was soon asked to become the cuddler for the new baby walrus and I remained with Mitik for the rest of the evening. It is important with wildlife rescues to remain consistent. The same people should be handling the creatures so that they don't get overly stressed with each new person. 

Feeding electrolyte solution through the E-tube
Around 8pm, Tim from the Sealife Center arrived and was shocked to find not just one, but 2 walrus pups in need of attention. He quickly warmed up a bottle of electrolyte solution and unsuccessfully attempted to bottle feed Mitik. He also suggested that we run some bloodwork on the walrus and walked Dr. Coburn and I through the procedure to draw blood from a walrus. The bloodwork showed that he was somewhat dehydrated. Since he wouldn't take the bottle, Tim suggested that we use an esophageal feeding tube to give him his electrolytes. Dr. Coburn and Tim were able to get the tube in place, but Mitik kept spitting up everything that went down. In fact, during one attempt he spit it up all over one of the wildlife guy's faces!!!! I just about died laughing! 
Giving SQ fluids to Mitik
Since both the bottle and the E-tubes failed, we decided to proceed with subcutaneous fluids (NaCl & glucose). I actually got to place the needle for the fluids and sit with him while the fluids were administered! The fluids flowed very slowly and a little after midnight, the fluids were stopped and the walrus was tucked in for the night. Tim stayed with the two walruses overnight at the clinic while the rest of us went home for some sleep. 

 The wildlife crew was already at the clinic when Rose and I arrived there this morning. Apparently the walruses would not be able to fly out on Alaska Airline's morning flight because the flight was completely booked. Instead, the Coast Guard had been contacting and offered to fly a C130 all the way from Kodiak to Barrow to transport the two walrus pups down to Anchorage! In the meantime, I was asked to cuddle up next to Mitik to keep him calm. I stayed with him as we drove to the airport later that morning. When we got there, I helped load him into an extra large dog kennel and I stayed by his side as we drove over to meet the plane. The Coast Guard film crew met us with cameras, notepads and video cameras rolling.The footage will air on the TV show "Coast Guard Alaska" sometime this fall. Not long afterwards, BBC showed up with their media equipment as well. The Coasties loved the baby walruses and almost everyone tried to get a picture with them. After the media stuff had been dealt with, we said our goodbyes and the walruses were loaded into the aircraft and settled in for their flight home. Those little guys are probably just now arriving at their new home in the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Dr. Coburn & I accompanying the walrus pups to their private aircraft

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Midnight Marathon, Point Barrow, Icebergs

5K Participation Medal 
Top of the World Midnight Marathon/5K

Last weekend was overwhelmingly exciting. It began with a 5K on Friday night, then turned into a weekend of wildlife rescue as we helped capture and treat a stranded baby walrus, but you've already read about that....

So lets get back to Friday night when I participated in the first ever "Top of the World Midnight Marathon." There were 3 different races for this event, a marathon (26.2 miles), a half marathon (13.1 miles), and a 5K (3.1 miles). While it would have been really fun to say I ran a marathon or even a half-marathon, I really don't like running that much, so I decided to run the 5K. Originally, the 5K was supposed to start at midnight, and the marthon & half marathoners were supposed to be finishing up their race a little after midnight so that all runners would be on the course right at midnight. This is possible up here since there are still 24 hours of daylight. Unfortunately, they decided to change the time of the 5K to begin at 11pm. I was  definitely disappointed because I was looking forward to running part of the race at midnight, but I guess I didn't really have a choice. It was pretty chilly that evening, and foggy too. The 5K trail was basically a loop around town on the streets (you can check out the race maps at the website below). They didn't have the streets blocked off at all, so there was an occasional 4 wheeler or vehicle that would drive by and kick up a ton of dirt into the air. I ended up finishing with a time of 30 minutes and 3 seconds. Not a bad time for someone who doesn't even like running that much!

Top of the World, Midnight Marathon Website: http://runatthetop.com/index.html

Point Barrow

Saturday and Sunday were spent rescuing the baby walrus (read my previous blog for that). On Sunday after the walrus boarded his flight to Anchorage, everyone involved in the walrus rescue went out for a celebratory lunch at Brower's. It was a gorgeous day, so of course my roommate and I took the opportunity to get yet another picture in front of the famous whalebone arches.

While at dinner, I mentioned that I had not yet gone out to "the Point," aka "Point Barrow" or "Nuvuk". The point, is the northernmost point of all the territory of the USA. It is 1291 miles from the north pole and marks the limit between to of the Arctic Seas, the Chuckchi and the Beaufort. Since it is 9 miles north of Barrow and access to the point requires 4 wheel drive, I had not yet had the opportunity to visit the point. The wildlife people insisted that I join their interns the following day to visit the point and check the polar bear snares.

A sign and some Whale Bones close to the Ilisagvik College Campus
On Monday, I took them up on their offer. I took a taxi out to the Ilisagvik College campus, a couple miles north of Barrow and met them in the wildlife research wing of the college. They explained that there is a large pile of whale carcasses located at the point. This pile is used to basically keep polar bears at the point and away from town. After whaling hunts, the unwanted parts of the whales are often taken to the point to be discarded. A barbed wire fence is set up around the entire carcass pile about 3 feet off the ground. This wire pulls pieces of hair from the polar bears as they climb over it to reach the pile of rotting whale meat. The researches then do DNA testing on the hair samples to study trends of which polar bears are visiting the point, if they return each years, etc.

After learning all this, the two interns and I used each took a North Slope Borough 4 wheeler and a gun  and headed to the point to check the snares. We drove up the road a couple miles, then went onto the sandy trail to the point. We had to stop a good distance from the point and use binoculars to make sure no polar bears were nearby. I haven't seen a polar bear yet, so I was hoping one would be there, but I had no such luck. The coast was clear and we continued up the path until we reached the carcass pile. The pile was huge, consisted of whale/caribou/seal pieces and smelled wretched. There were lots of polar bear hair samples on the snares and the interns proceeded with collecting the samples and placing them in little containers to bring back to the lab. There must have been plenty of polar bears visiting the point during that week.
Carcass Pile & Polar Bear Hair Snare at Point Barrow
I'm not exactly sure what this is, but it is at the Point
Birthday & Icebergs

Monday also happened to be my roommates birthday. A group of us went out to Brower's Cafe for dinner to celebrate. It was a calm and relatively warm evening, so after dinner we decided to go to the beach and hop on some icebergs. Luckily, the icebergs were really close to shore and we were able to stay dry in our rain boots as we waded out to one of them.

Dinner at Browers

Iceberg Hopping :)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Baby Walrus Rescue

 Yesterday was a really boring day....until about 2pm when a call came through from dispatch through the Animal Control radio. The call was from the wildlife department letting us know that a baby walrus was stranded in a lagoon a little way north of town by the old airport. It had been reported a day or two earlier by local fishermen who said the baby walrus was swimming around by their fishing nets. By the time wildlife called us, they were in the process of contacting the Seward Sea Life Center to see if they should capture it or not.  Of course, my roommate, Rose (vet tech/animal control officer) and I headed straight out there to check it out.

The Baby Walrus 
When we got there, the baby walrus was hanging out near the edge of the water and a bearded seal was swimming nearby keeping an eye on it. We snapped a couple photos of the walrus then decided to leave it alone and not stress it out. It was not ten minutes after we got home when the phone rang. It was wildlife. They had decided to capture the walrus and needed a large dog kennel to transport the walrus in. Rose and I once hopped into the truck and headed to the veterinary clinic where we decided that the large dog kennels were too small for the large baby walrus. Instead, we decided that the animal control vehicle with built in kennels would work best.

The walrus in a circle net
Walrus riding in the back of the truck
Back at the lagoon, the walrus had been caught in a circle net. It was much bigger than anyone had expected and so we had to come up with a plan on getting it into the truck. The original plan was to use the net to lift the walrus into the truck, but the net had already scraped the baby walrus in a couple of places. Not wanting to injure the walrus any more, I suggested using a tarp to place under the walrus to lift it into the truck. We called others from wildlife and obtained a tarp and set my plan into motion. While the plan was quite straight forward, carrying it out was no easy task. The walrus weighed about 230 pounds and was very nervous with 7-8 people gathered around it. He kept flailing around and trying to climb off of the tarp. After a couple of minor mishaps, we finally successfully loaded him into the back of the animal control vehicle and headed over to the veterinary clinic.

getting his first health exam
Dr. Coburn, the veterinarian up here in Barrow, took the walrus’s heart rate and gave him a physical exam. She determined that he seemed healthy as far as she could tell. The sea life center was happy to hear that the walrus was healthy and planned to send two of their marine mammal technicians up to Barrow on the next morning’s flight, so we had the task of deciding what to do with the walrus. Our options were to either keep the walrus in a dog kennel inside the clinic and spray him down every few hours to keep him cool or to keep him in an outdoor kennel at the clinic where the temperature outside (~40) would keep him cool. Although those options sounded great, we worried about the logistics of getting him out of the vehicle, into a kennel, then back into a vehicle the next morning. Eventually it was decided that we should just keep the walrus in the back of the vehicle over night where it would stay cool and we wouldn’t have to worry about moving him and potentially dropping him or hurting him on accident.

loading him into the back of the truck
to go back to the clinic until the next flight
The next morning we met the sea life center people at the airport and helped maneuver the walrus into his new cage. We contacted Northern Air Cargo “NAC” who happily agreed to put the walrus on their next cargo flight to Anchorage at 1:15pm. In the mean time, we took the walrus back to the vet clinic. At the clinic we sprayed him down and mixed up an electrolyte formula to feed him. We put the formula into a giant bottle (the kind they use for calves) and then the sea life center guy, Tim, climbed into the cage with him and bottle-fed him. Apparently walruses are very tactile creatures and love human contact once you have gained their trust. After a little while, Tim asked if anyone else wanted to bottle feed him, of course Rose and I both wanted to. Rose climbed in first and the walrus cuddled up right next to her. After about 10 minutes, it was my turn and before I knew it, I had a 230 pound walrus baby in my lap falling asleep. Tim said he was probably only about 1 month old and definitely would not have survived in the wild without his mother. In fact, he would have to be bottle fed until about a year. Basically, the walrus will have someone with him 24/7 at the sea life center and will be bottle-fed every 3-4 hours.
Bottle Feeding

At 1pm it was finally time to take the little guy to the airport and get him loaded onto his flight. We accompanied the baby walrus back to the airport and said our goodbyes. Another sea life center technician would pick him up down in Anchorage and drive him back to Seward in the evening. From there he will spend a few weeks to a couple months at the sea life center until he is shipped to Sea World or one of the many other Zoos & Aquariums capable of housing and caring for the little guy.
Me, Baby Walrus, Rose
Getting unloaded and ready for the flight to Anchorage
I hope to keep track of where the baby walrus goes. They said that there should be information on the Seward Sea Life Center’s webpage in a few days and that they will keep it updated. I hope to get a chance to go back to Seward and visit him before a I leave Alaska in a couple of weeks. This whole experience has been unbelievable. It is definitely something I will never forget. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Southcentral AK and Back to Barrow

On Friday June 29th, I flew home to Tacoma for a friend's wedding and stayed in town for a couple of days. Then on the following Tuesday, I met up with my boyfriend at the airport and flew to Anchorage to visit his parents. While there, we went hiking on Baldy Mountain, clamming near Ninilchik, and fishing outside of Seward. We ended up getting 220 clams, 5 halibut, and 4 lingcod. During our little trip to the Kenai peninsula, I also saw tons of bald eagles, puffins, a bear and a moose. I had a great time exploring Southern Alaska, but that's not the focus of this blog so let's get back to what I've been doing in Barrow....

When I returned to Barrow on Sunday, July 8th I had no cell service. In fact, my phone didn't have service until that Friday. Something was wrong with the local cell tower. It was rough not having cell service, especially when I'm used to having full bars and 3G back home in WA. Also, all the sea ice had finally floated

On Monday morning, I returned to work at the clinic. Dr. Coburn was finally back in town so there were a lot of appointments and spays and neuters scheduled during the week. The sun finally decided to warm this part of the world and the temperature got up to the mid-50's almost every day during the week. In fact, on Tuesday the veterinary clinic staff decided to have a BBQ on the beach at 7:30 that evening. However, by the time our BBQ began, it got cold and windy and dropped to the low 40's. Although I would have liked warmer weather, I still had a great time and the BBQ ribs cooked on the beach were delish!

Vet Clinic Staff Beach BBQ

On Thursday my roommate flew down to Anchorage for eye surgery so I got the fun job of watching her two dogs, a corgi and a chihuahua, until she returned the following Wednesday. 

Beautiful calm afternoon 
Over the weekend, the weather got even better, It was really windy on Thursday and Friday, and the sea ice ended up blowing back to shore. Saturday morning was also pretty windy and rainy, but cleared up during the late afternoon and ended up becoming a warm evening. I decided to take advantage of the warm evening and went for a walk on the beach. 

While walking the beach, I met a dental student up here on a 2 week externship. He didn't know anyone in town, so we exchanged numbers and planned to do the polar bear dive the next day. Lucky for us, Sunday ended up being warm and 60 degrees! We met up in the afternoon and headed to the beach where we were greeted with a million nasty large mosquitos who willingly accompanied us on our search for the perfect iceburg and used us as snacks along the way. We walked the beach until we found an iceburg close enough to shore to wade out to. We waded out to the iceburg and climbed on top of it. Some people walking by took pictures for us while we stood on the ice shivering and fighting off mosquitos. The pictures turned out really good and actually look like we are enjoying a warm and insect free swim. After a couple of minutes on the iceburg we took turns jumping back into the freezing cold arctic ocean. Luckily the sun was still out and warmed us up quickly as we dried off and sipped on hot cocoa. 

Polar Bear Club

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mikaaq, birds, & Atiqluks

Nalukataq & Mikaaq

Prayer before the Mikaaq feast
There were a couple more Nalukataqs last week. On Thursday, I arrived at the festival right at noon, just in time for a warm bowl of goose soup and homemade bread. I even got an Eskimo Doughnut! (delicious fried dough made by a native). It was very windy and cold so I left around 2pm.

On Saturday I attended another Nalukataq. This time I showed up around 3pm. This part of the feasting consisted of more homemade bread,  fruit, cake and of course the main dish, Mikaaq (whale meat that has been fermented in whale blood). Yes, I tried it. Although the idea of eating miqaak (pronounced “Mik yuck”) made me sort of want to vomit, I decided I can’t spend all summer up here and not try it. Especially because when I looked around, little children were eating it like candy! Surprisingly, it actually tasted sort of good. It’s difficult to describe the flavor, but it was sweet and the taste lingered in my mouth for quite a while. I don’t think I’d eat it again, but it was definitely worth the experience.

I also had my first taste of Eskimo Ice Cream, whipped caribou fat that is mixed with berries, dried meats, etc. The kind I tried was dried meat/caribou jerky flavored. It was very creamy and pretty tasty. I’d really like to try the berry flavored kind sometime! 

About to eat mikaaq
Giant bucket of mikaaq


It’s baby bird season! We found a bird nest in one of the dog houses outside the vet clinic. The eggs have hatched and little baby birds were right inside. There’s also a little bird nest at my house. It has 4 eggs in it right now. I hope they hatch soon!

Bird nest outside my house

Baby birds outside the vet clinic

Native Dress Day

The North Slope Borough is celebrating its  40th anniversary. In celebration, we have a “spirit week” at work. Yesterday was wear red day and today was “native dress day.” Briana, a Inupiat coworker at the clinic, brought in an atiqluk  (ladies snowshirt) that was too big for her. She even said that I can keep it. Thank you so much Briana! 
Rose, Briana, & I in our atiqluks

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Living in Barrow

I returned from the village trips on June 1st and have been living in Barrow for the past 2 & 1/2 weeks. I realize now that I have yet to write about what it is like to live at the top of the world. 

What is Barrow like?

Just a view of the dirt roads and the grocery store
Cold. Windy. Those would be the first 2 words I would use to describe Barrow. The temperature has been in the 30's, until this week when the temperature spiked to mid-40's, even reaching 50 on Sunday. However, even if it reached 50, it sure didn't feel like it. The wind is a constant, with average speeds somewhere around 20 mph. Thus, the windchill makes even a sort of warm 47 degree day feel cold. The children don't seem to mind. They walk around in t-shirts on the 40 something degree days, sometimes wearing shorts and flip flops too....not me. I'm bundled up constantly. Wind blocking gloves are a must, and my winter jacket with a warm beanie hat are necessities.

Dirt. It's everywhere. There are no paved roads in Barrow because of the permafrost. Instead, dirt roads are maintained daily with tractors type machines to help prevent pot holes and watering trucks wet down the roads to keep dust from flying everywhere. I've learned to walk on the upwind side of the road to prevent dust from being blown into my face or mouth by a passing truck. 

Dust. The veterinary clinic is kept quite warm inside. We keep the windows open most of the time to cool it down. However, within 10 minutes of opening a window, one will notice a thin layer of dust forming on the countertops, computers, etc. 

Where do I live?

This is the house where I live
(this is from when I first arrived, the snow has now melted away)
I am currently renting a room from the veterinary technician/office manager, Rose. She is a couple years older than I am and has a ton of experience working as a vet tech.  She has two dogs, a very old corgi, McKenzie, and a little chihuahua, Boogie, who like to bark every time I open my bedroom door. The house is a 2 bedroom, 1 bath, with a decent sized kitchen and an arctic entrance (aka mudroom). It's in a great location, only a short 7 minute walk to the vet clinic and an even shorter walk to the library and the grocery store. However, it is almost a mile and a half to the church and the recreation center. 

What have I been doing?

My coworker, Dante, and I in the dugout
Well, I've kept myself busy during the work days by helping out at the veterinary clinic. Dr. Coburn is out of town working with bearded seals, so we are not seeing any appointments, except for routine vaccinations. I've also been working on my senior paper. In vet school, we are required to research a topic, write a paper (10-20 pages) and present it to our classmates & faculty during our senior year. I'm writing my paper on Arctic Rabies and I am currently working on researching and gathering infomation. The veterinary clinic internet is slow, so I've been doing most of my research at the local library, whose internet is just a tiny bit faster. Imagine the dial-up internet days.....

I have also been helping out with an activity camp for children, ages 1-5, on the weeknights from 6pm-7pm. We basically set up obstacle courses, sing songs, and eat snacks.  

Last weekend, there was a softball tournament. I was recruited to play on the health department's team, even though I can't remember the last time I swung a bat. Our team did not go far in the tournament, but we all had a great time. I even made it to home a couple of times! 

Friday, June 15, 2012


The Whaling Crew Flag flies high above the wind block wall.

Wednesday, June 13th, was the first Nalukataq or spring whaling festival of the year. After the whaling season is over, successful whaling crews choose the date for their Nalukataq celebration. This year there are 5 Nalukataq celebrations.

Basically the entire town gathers for the celebration which consists of a full day of feasting. It begins at noon, with a prayer of thanksgiving, followed by soups (caribou, goose and/or duck) and meats (whale, caribou, etc) that are distributed to everyone present. Deserts and more snacks are passed out periodically throughout the day. At the end of the day, muktuk (whale blubber and skin) and whale meat are distributed to the community so that they can take it home and stock their freezers.
Nalukataq is best known for the Eskimo blanket toss. At the end of the day a blanket made of seal skins is hoisted into the air with supports. Men and women circle the blanket and hold the edges, and pull out on the blanket to throw the blanket dancer in the air. After blanket tossing, everyone gathers around for Eskimo dancing. The men play a rythmic beat with the handheld drums and sing tunes, while both men and women dance together.

A server passing out scoops of the cooked fruit.
I arrived at Nalukataq at 1pm. I missed out on the soups and homemade rolls, but I did get some cooked fruit, which was basically like peach pie filling. YUM! I also tried some "Eskimo Candy" or Mamauk (I'm not sure how to spell it). It is the white stuff at the bottom of the baleen, comparable to gums between teeth. They cut it into strips and soak it in cheek oil from the whale. It tastes....interesting.
Later in the day there was a church service with lots of singing. We sang songs like "He's got the whole world in his Hands" with verses changed to "He's got the whaling captains in His hands" and other silly verses.

The support beams for the blanket can be seen in this photo

Around 9pm, the blanket tossing began. People were tossed high in the air. Some people did font flips in the air, while others brought bags of candy to throw out the crowd. After the candy was thrown out, the children would hurry to gather up as much as they could. Blanket tossing can be very dangerous. Usually people are caught by the blanket pullers, but some people aren't so lucky. While I was there, I saw one young boy fly off of the blanket and land on his head. I've been told that each year there is at least one broken leg and many sprained ankles. Rose, the vet technician and my roommate, decided to give it a try this year, but ended up spraining both her ankles... Later in the evening, when there were less people pulling the blanket and watching, I decided to give it a try. I was so nervous and scared that I would get hurt, but it was such a rush being tossed up into the air that my worries went away as soon as I climbed up.

Women & men wear their finest parkas for the evening festivities

This person tossed candy to the crowd

Me on the being tossed into the air

Eskimo dancing didn't begin until midnight. The dancing was amazing to watch, especially since it was an authentic event. They were not dancing for tourists or for any special performacne. They were dancing for themselves. The dancing was still going on when I left 1:30 am. I really enjoyed spending the day immersed in the Nalukataq festivities. I can't wait for the next one!

Eskimo Dancing

Monday, June 11, 2012


The last village I visited was called Nuiqsut. A new group of volunteers (2 coasties and a USPHS veterinarian) joined Dr. Coburn and I for this trip. We left early on Tuesday morning on an ERA Alaska flight. The pilot, Eric, held the door open for us as we walked out to the plane. I asked him, "Do you have a copilot?" He responded with, "No, do you want to be one?" Of course I said yes, and I joined him in the cockpit.
The small airplanes are not heated or pressurized because they fly so low to the ground (relatively speaking). So during the last few flights to the villages, I stayed bundled up in my winter jacket, hat & gloves. However, in the copilot seat, the sun was shining right through the windows, keeping me nice and warm. It felt like a summer day with the sun warming my face!

Nuiqsut is a medium sized village, with a population of about 400. Once again, we stayed at the local health clinic and set up surgery in the garage. However, the health clinic apartment was full so we got to sleep on random couches in offices and meeting rooms. We also showered in the emergency room shower.....kinda weird.

After settling in, we headed out to the village, going door to door vaccinating dogs for rabies. For dinner, we went to the local hotel, which has a restaurant/buffet that is open to the public for $20 all you can eat. The food was amazing (grilled salmon, homemade mushroom soup, steamed veggies, and peach cobbler). I think it was the best food joint in all of the Arctic, even better than the restaurants in Barrow.

On Wednesday, we had a few surgeries scheduled. It was a pretty exciting day, Dr. Renee did her first spay of the trip and the coasties, Josh and Nathan, learned how to properly wrap an IV catheter on a dog (its much different than people because of all their fur!). Later in the day, we split into two groups and  vaccinated the rest of the dogs in town. Thrusday consisted of spays and neuters and visiting any houses that we missed on the first 2 days since people were not home. On our way back, we stopped and chatted with a guy who was working on preparing a seal hide to dry. Once it was tanned, he was going to make his son a hunting pouch with it, to store all of his hunting supplies.

Our flight left on Friday afternoon, so we had the entire morning free. It was a gorgeous sunny day so we went for a walk down by the river. The ice was just begining to break up, leaving large chunks of ice stranded on shore or floating downstream. We had a blast jumping from iceburg to iceburg and taking rediculous pictures. While there, we even saw some beautiful tundra swans floating in a pool of water between the iceburgs.