We were in the calm between the storms when I took this photo. It gives a good look at life on Alaska’s tundra. The airstrip for the village is in the background, with the hanger, housing the grader/snowplow, on the horizon. A plane had not been able to land for several days, and it would be several more before one came in. People were going about their business: walking or riding a four wheeler or snowmachine. Dogs roamed about, on their own personal business, as well. “Bear”, my seemingly constant canine companion, was sitting in the snow at my side, taking in all the action with me.
Some regular readers may remember that I was out in the village of Newtok in February. I truly enjoyed my time there, and have great memories of the area, but especially the people.
Newtok is currently in the middle of a move. The village is under siege from the very water that gives it life. Due to the warming of the Arctic, ground is giving way, and Newtok is getting it from every direction. On one hand, the river is laying claim to huge chunks of land, taking homes with the shoreline. On the other hand, the ground is giving way to the melting permafrost, and water is filling in the gaps. In February, approximately one third of the population had moved across the river to the new location of Mertarvik, but it is going to be a long and complicated process.
Newtok made the news again this past week, when word made it around Alaska, that the generator that powers the village broke down, leaving the residents without power for an entire month. A month. In an age when most of us think about power very briefly, when we flip a switch or pay the electric bill, it’s good to remember that not everyone lives in such a situation.
Looking at the village from the air in the summer, it’s an entirely different world than when I was there in February. The contrast is stunning, so I thought I’d share a few more “winter” pictures of my time in Newtok.
The lean in the post office building is quite visible here. This was the day after the storm, and when we first walked by, you could not see the building under the snowdrift. On our return, a couple of hours later, the front had mostly been shoveled, but the front steps and door were still encased in snow.
I don’t think I saw one power pole standing completely upright when I was in Newtok. Due to the melting permafrost, the poles were all leaning one way or the other. Some lines were so slack, I had to duck under them, some were so taught, I expected them to snap at any moment. Several poles had been propped up with lumber.
The dog “Bear” quickly captured the hearts of our little troupe. He came to us at full gallop whenever he saw us out and about in the village. At one point, I had been inside a home talking to the home owners, and when I came out, Bear was curled up in the arctic entry, right in front of the door. Bear was with me the rest of the day.
Bear was our mascot, guide, companion and ice breaker, all rolled up in one furry package. The locals all thought we were crazy: We either had a pack of dogs following us, or a pack of kids. Often we had a mixed following of each.
One of us even renamed him “Dimitri”, although he was obviously a “Bear”. There were some whispers of a dognapping, questions were asked about the dog’s owners. No one could tell us who owned the friendliest of village dogs. Finally, we asked one of the students at the school, who we saw every day, and who joined us for meals, whenever he could.
“Who owns this dog?”
“That’s Bear, he’s my dog.”
Of course he was! What a perfect match. Bear could have belonged to no one else.
We needed a ride across the Ninglick River to the new townsite of Mertarvik. So the word went out, and by morning we had a couple of offers of snow machine rides. I also had received an offer to guide us the nine miles across by foot. Of our little troupe, I was the only one who was intrigued by this, although I had one guy who said, “If you’re walking to Mertarvik, I sure as hell won’t let you be the only one!” In the end, lack of time overcame intense desire, and I hitched a ride on the back of a snow machine.
The snow machine trail back to Newtok
Thirty minutes later, I was dropped off at the Tundra View Lodge. Within fifteen minutes my partner in crime arrived, and we set off to explore the new location for Newtok.
The Tundra View Lodge
People started to move across to Mertarvik from Newtok in October of last year. First in line were the people who were displaced or very soon to be displaced, either by the melting permafrost or the river erosion. Approximately twenty-two homes have been completed in Mertarvik, along with an evacuation center that currently houses the school.
In the evacuation center, I talked with an elder on the move from her traditional home. She told me that she had cried for weeks leading up to the move, and the first few days in the new location. But after a week or so in Mertarvik, she no longer wanted to go back to Newtok. This was home now, and it was time to move forward. The upcoming weekend had an area wide basketball tournament at the Newtok gym, the elder confessed to me that her granddaughter was playing, but she didn’t even want to cross the river for that!
Toksook Bay traveling basketball team
Since the planes were not flying between the villages due to high winds, the basketball teams from around Nelson Island headed over to Newtok by snow machine. I believe this is the Toksook Bay team, as they took a break on the edge of Mertarvik, before taking on the final nine miles to Newtok. Toksook Bay is approximately 59 miles, as the caribou plods, from Newtok.
Mertarvik, looking back across the river towards Newtok
The move across the Ninglick River has been 20 years in the making for the villagers of Newtok. A lot of challenges remain, and the move for the remaining people of the village will still be a long and slow process, but the residents here are a hardy bunch.