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. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend

Most of the snow had melted by the time we returned to Barrow. I spent the 3 day weekend relaxing and getting myself better acquainted with the various things that Barrow offers. For example, I checked out the local gym, called "Piuraagvik," which offers Zumba and other workout classes, has a rock wall, basketball court, sauna, etc. I went to the library and got myself a library card and signed up for the summer book reading program. (I get a prize if I read 8 books during the summer, I'm already halfway there!) I also attended church on Sunday at the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church where they read the bible passages in both English and Inupiaq.

On Saturday morning, there was a polar bear spotted out on the sea ice, just outside of town. I am sad to say that I did not hear about it until it was gone and that might have been my only chance to see a polar bear in the wild. Oh well....

However, I did end up  meeting my grandma's brother, "Uncle George" who was in town that weekend. He lives in Anchorage, but also has a home in Barrow. I also met up with my dad's cousin, Richard, who was also in town. I really enjoyed meeting up with them and getting to know more about my family history and about my other relatives living in Alaska.

On Monday, I went to a circus performance. Yes...they had a circus in Barrow. There was a 2 week circus camp in Barrow that local children could participate in. At the end of the camp, the instructors put on a show for the community. Most of it was juggling and other circus tricks. However, the girl performer did some amazing stunts on a trapeze. Apparently she will be joining cirque de soliel in the fall! I never expected to see such an amazing performance in the middle of nowhere, AK.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Point Lay

We left Point Hope on Tuesday and headed to Point Lay, a village with an estimated population of 200 or less. The town was only about 5 blocks long. Our lodging this time, was at the health clinic. Each village has health aids that work on a 2 week on 2 week off type of schedule. During their 2 weeks on they can stay in the apartment at the clinic. The two Coast Guard corpsmen (Betsy and Polo), Dr. Coburn (the Barrow vet), and I stayed in the little apartment inside the clinic that is used by health aids. Dr. Q (USPHS Vet) and Scott (Coast Guard Lieutenant) slept in the dental room, I think Scott actually slept on the dental exam chair!

It was a beautiful sunny day when we showed up, and the ice on the little inlet right next to town was breaking up. What a breathtaking site! As we took in the sites, we were greeted by little children, most of which ended up following us from house to house as we vaccinated the dogs. It was like our own little parade!

We performed 4 or 5 spays/neuters in Point Lay, where we set up our "surgery suite" in the garage of the health clinic. I'm learning so much about surgery and becoming more confident in my knowledge by getting to work with Dr. Coburn and Dr. Q. It's been so great getting to ask them questions about the drugs used, the different surgical techniques, etc.

On the last evening, Dr. Coburn (who prefers to be called Sarah) and I went for a walk down by the beach and then up into the tundra. Two girls, Amy and Khaleah (I love that name!) came with us on our walk. We walked on the beach to the seal skin boat that was used to successfully hunt the bowhead whale. Point Lay is allowed one bowhead whale during the spring whaling season. The boat of the successful whaling team is then placed on shore with the whaling teams flag flying from it to indicate which team was successful. In Barrow, they can have somewhere between 10-20 whales each season and the beach is lined with about 15 boats!

Walking on the tundra was amazing. There were tons of little birds flying around. The Ptarmigans were my favorite. They make a funny sound, which sounds like they are super annoyed. We also found a couple caribou skeletons.