Visiting the native villages in Arctic Alaska is like entering into another world. When we went to Point Hope and were hit by a hurricane, we were evacuated together with the citizens and became a part of this world too.
When the small twin-propeller airplane descended into the village of Point Hope, on the north western coast of Arctic Alaska, you could see small houses huddled together on a peninsula surrounded by the grey ocean. The tundra laid flat and brown in the fading November light, no trees, barely any snow.
We checked into the only hotel, The Whaler’s Inn. A building made of old sea containers hooked together, yet warm and welcoming even if one of the windows is covered by cardboard. The other houses in town are made of plywood built on stilts, floating on the tundra. Many houses are surrounded by a jungle of crates, wrecked snow machines, dog houses and even an old freight plane converted to a home!
Already when we arrived, we got news that the weather would change shortly; an arctic hurricane category three was expected to hit the village. Mayor Oomituk came personally to the hotel and informed us about the village evacuation plan and said:
-If we have a power outage or flooding, the people in the village will be evacuated to the school, which has a generator. Please be prepared, have your bags packed and be ready to leave on short notice!
During that night I woke up quite often, checking if there was light shining from the corridor through the gap under my door. Occasionally I could also see strong lights sweeping through my small window, draped by a worn and torn yellow piece of a flannel bed sheet. They were the headlights of pickup trucks, with drivers on flood watch taking turns watching if the ocean would rise. The wind took up and I heard it wailing in the dark, trying to tear the containers apart, while we were waiting in the night…
At 5 am the lights were out and you could feel the cold creeping in. Thanks to a Harry Potter toy torch, we could light our way through the corridors to the combined café and reception. Cars were already there to pick us up. Stepping outside, the wind took hold of us and you could hardly stand on your feet. I grabbed my daughter Andrea as she was being swept away on the icy ground and pushed her into the snowy old, green pickup truck. The back window had been replaced by cardboard pieces chattering like castanets in the beating wind.
A welcoming world
The Natives welcomed us to the school, which combined elementary, middle and high school; a great building, even with a swimming pool! Together with 400 others, we camped in class rooms. Inside you could hardly hear the howling wind, thanks to cheerful children running around.
This was actually the first time they had evacuated their citizens ever. Talk about right timing for our visit! They gave us three hot meals per day, fruit and even freshly baked sponge cakes in the evenings. Who would know that the head of the cafeteria had only been employed for a month! All their main supplies are delivered by ships in the summer. Everything else has to be flown in by bush pilots.
We joined the locals in one of the gymnasiums, both watching and learning how to dance Eskimo dances. We danced dances dedicated to the Weather Gods asking for the hurricane to pass, and I can still hear the steady beats from the drums! We took turns holding Native babies in our arms, so their moms could join the dance. We got to know a lot about the people and their way of life – an amazing experience!
We watched basketball, the Harpooners (boys) playing against the Harponerettes (girls). These two high school teams have won a lot of prices and have beaten rival schools from districts with far higher population than Point Hope, with only 670 people. It’s important for the youngsters in the native villages to play and compete; feel the team spirit, work towards a common goal and experience success. These teenagers are caught between the way they used to live and the way of modern life, which sneaks through their back door.
Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in North America. For thousands of years its very existence — food, heat, building materials — has depended on the entire community’s effort to catch whales that migrate past the point each spring and fall. And they’re all about sharing, whatever they might have. They even shared food and shelter with strangers like us as the most natural thing to do. Today, they still whale and hunt, in addition to working for the city and the state of Alaska.
Lost my heart
On the fourth day the storm had passed and we heard that they were trying to fly in linemen from Barrow to repair the power lines. Since it was a very dark November morning above the Arctic Circle, all the men with pickup trucks had to line up along the runway with the headlights on for the pilot to see where to land.
The job took almost all day, but finally they succeeded, even though the wind had been so strong that the street signs were folded around the poles. We heard that our plane was in the air and got ready to leave for the air strip. When we came out, most of the cars in the city were waiting to take us to the airport. What an honor! We had to split up and go in different cars. They mayor took my husband to the airport even though his house was flooded from frozen pipes thawing out.
These days in this remote village nestled north of the Bering Strait made a great impression – the people and their spirit. It was hard to leave and I can truly say that I left a piece of my heart in Point Hope.
Text and photos by Heidi Nesttun-Sunde, November 2013