Above: By chance, I happened to have some tempera paint in the truck and Sarah got to work.
Above: Geoff and Ben take a break with some dried salmon and hot chocolate after bagging 150+ white fish from Geoff’s nets.
My time in Barrow is up. I’m not sure where to begin processing the past seven months in the Arctic. I leave with several large canvases in progress. I have given the smaller paintings to several of the friends I made since arriving on April 4th. A few of the larger studies are hanging in the Polar Bear Theater where they will remain until I return with the final body of work. A triptych hangs in the new Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital administration office. I will spend the next year or two working on the final series. People in Barrow have shared many incredible experiences with me and I have seen so many things worthy of a large canvas. The next part of this project, the difficult part, will be doing justice to these experiences, to Barrow, to the whale hunt and to the people who live there.
When I first arrived in Barrow the sun still went down. Nighttime was growing shorter and shorter and I was quickly running out of chances to see the northern lights for the first time in my life. I didn’t sleep much then. My alarm was set to go off every couple of hours at which time I would throw on my jacket and step out into -20 degrees to look for the green strands and swirls of the aurora borealis above Barrow- but I saw nothing. Soon, it was too bright to see the lights and before long, the sun would stop setting altogether.
However, nighttime is back and I have had the opportunity to witness the lights more than once. A couple of weeks ago, Austin was walking his dog, Sisuaq (a retired sled dog from Geoff’s dog team), at night. He took Sisuaq out onto the tundra and, despite a heavy fog, the lights could be seen overhead. From where I was, the town lights were too strong and bounced off of the fog. I met Austin at his place and we drove out, down Cake Eater Road, past the gas field. The below pictures are Austin’s photos and are from that night.
Above: Northern Lights photos by Austin Parkhill.
At a dinner party a few nights ago, the northern lights again came out, brighter than before. Most everyone stepped out onto the tundra. Again, these are Austin’s photos
Above: Northern Lights by Austin Parkhill.
On the 12th of October, on their 10 year anniversary, Austin Parkhill and his fiancee, Caitlin Walls, got married. Caitlin is a writer and currently teaches English at Ilisagvik. She keeps a wonderful blog at http://thaumatropemoon.blogspot.com. A few days prior, I received a text from Austin informing me of their plans in the most nonchalant manner imaginable. They chose to be married by their good friend, Sarah Martinsen, on the beach looking out towards Point Barrow. Sarah also works for the college as a Graphic Designer for the marketing department. She is a longtime friend of Austin and is also an incredibly talented painter. Her husband, Marty Martinsen, is the only year-round staff at the NOAA station out towards Point Barrow. The day of the wedding, we crammed into a few cars and drove out past shooting station. We stopped along the road. The spot was not predetermined. We climbed the berm and walked down to the water. The day was overcast and the wind was strong.
As the couple were reading their vows, the sun broke through just long enough for the pronouncement of marriage by Sarah and a few good photos.
Above: The newlyweds, Caitlin and Austin Parkhill, with their recently adopted sled dog, Sisuaq.
Above: The wedding guests
Not long after, I joined Ben Toth with Geoff and his dog team out on a dog sled ride to the frozen lake where Geoff keeps several nets set. Ben is also a painter (Who would have guessed that Barrow would be such a magnet for painters?) He received a degree in painting, but soon after, went to Greenland where he worked for a contractor providing logistics for NSF funded research. There he met his wife, Shannon Coykendall, who was working for the same contractor. For the past ten years, Ben has worked in Greenland, Iceland and Antarctica doing similar work. Currently, he and Shannon spend the summers near Denali National Park building their dry cabin and winters in Barrow where Shannon works for NOAA with Marty.
Once the dogs were harnessed, I stood out on the road to hold up any oncoming traffic so the sled team could pass. The dogs, eager to run, took off quickly up and over the road and past me. Geoff slowed the team down to a standstill. He motioned me to jump on the front of the sled. I carefully approached, assuming that if I ran up, the dogs would sense me running and start off again. Before I got on the sled, the dogs took off and I was forced to run alongside before I could jump on. Ben took Geoff’s snow machine and met us at the lake.
Part way to the lake, Geoff stopped the team to give me a chance to stand at the back of the sled and guide the dogs on my own. He strapped on skis, tied himself to the sled and skied most of the rest of the way there.
Back on the sled, Geoff guided the dogs out onto the frozen lake alongside the nets where Ben was waiting for us. Geoff tethered the sled and dogs to the ice and we got to work pulling the nets out and sorting the fish into piles of ten. Working for Alaska Fish and Game, Geoff made sure the fish were counted, sorted and bagged properly and all data recorded. The holes in each net had a different gauge and the sacks of fish coincided with the specific nets. The sacks would later be weighed at Geoff’s house before spreading the fish out onto a tarp to freeze overnight.
The fish Geoff catches will be dog food for the winter. The dogs live on a diet of frozen white fish, frozen maktak and some kibble. Once the nets were back under the ice and all fish had been bagged, Geoff fed his team with the new catch. After, we settled down to dried salmon and hot chocolate as the sun dipped below the horizon. The way back, across the tundra, was under a dark sky. Yet, with little guidance from Ben (Geoff took the snow machine back and Ben took the sled.) the dogs kept to the snowy trail and found their way back home.
Above: Geoff feeds the puppies maktak after we return.
I was invited to teach painting workshops in Kaktovik and Anaktuvuk Pass by Diana Solenberger, Community and Administrative Training Facilitator at Ilisagvik College. Diana has been incredibly helpful throughout the project. She helped find funding towards workshop supplies through both the Rotary Club of Barrow-Nuvuk and Ilisagvik and she organized my trip out to the villages. The workshops were through Ilisagvik’s Cooperative Extension Program. Austin joined me in Anaktuvuk Pass where we were scheduled to teach art classes for all grades, K-12, at the local school in addition to workshops.
My first stop, however, was Kaktovik. The population of Kaktovik is currently around 300. This number increases during whaling season with tourists who come from across the world to witness the tiny village being overrun by an onslaught of polar bears. Kaktovik is allotted 3 whale strikes for the year. If all three strikes occur without landing a whale, the village is without a major source of subsistence food unless another village transfers to Kaktovik one of its own allotted strikes. Keep in mind, Barrow, with a population of around 4,200, is allotted 22 strikes a year.
Kaktovik is nestled on the edge of Barter Island. To the south of the village rests the Brooks Range. To the north- the Arctic Ocean.
Above: Brooks Range- first time I have seen any significant elevation in nearly seven months.
Whaling in Kaktovik occurs only in the fall (September) when the whales return towards the Bering Strait. This season, over the course of three weeks, three whales were harvested. During this time, the polar bears converge onto this town, more than any other village in the North Slope, looking for a free meal. No one is quite sure why Kaktovik gets such an influx of bears. Whaling near Kaktovik has occurred for centuries, arguably, longer than in Barrow. Geoff believes that the village and the bears have evolved together and this relationship between the two has become something of a natural phenomenon.
By the time I arrived, whaling had been over for nearly a month. The bears had moved out onto the surrounding islands. I taught two workshops during my brief stay. A few teachers were kind enough to give me tours around town. Tracy Burns, a teacher at the local school, and her mother, Nora Jane, took me out one evening after a workshop to look for bears. We drove down to the whalebone pile past the airstrip. Here, Nora Jane took out a flashlight from behind her seat to reveal six polar bears resting and feeding on the scraps from the pile.
The following day, I got a ride back out past the airport near the bone pile where we spotted four bears resting on the ice offshore.
Above: Kaktovik whale bone pile .
Above: Looking back towards the mainland, a boat remains frozen in the ice with the Brooks range in the background.
A muskox skull perched on the edge of a shack in Kaktovik.
Heading towards Kaktovik, the small plane first stopped in the village of Nuiqsut. We then stayed under the clouds, cruising over the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and, finally, on to my destination. After spending three nights in Kaktovik teaching two painting workshops, I caught a plane directly to Fairbanks where I met up with Austin and Ben Glover before we headed to Anaktuvuk Pass. Ben is Dean of Community and Workforce Development for Ilisagvik and was teaching classes in Anaktuvuk at the same time. The pilot of the plane to Fairbanks was in his 20’s. He lives in Chelsea in New York City. Each month he spends two weeks in the city and two weeks flying through bush Alaska.
On the 29th of October, Austin, Ben and I flew to Anaktuvuk Pass from Fairbanks. Our morning flight was cancelled due to ice fog in the mountains. In the afternoon, we had the tiny plane to ourselves. Most of the flight was above heavy cloud cover over the Brooks Range which separates the North Slope from the rest of Alaska.
Eventually, we dipped into the clouds. Once we broke out we were inside a valley with peaks all around us and the village of Anaktuvuk Pass below.
Anaktuvuk Pass is the only remaining settlement of the Nunamiut Inupiat people. Nunamiut means people of the land. Anaktuvuk Pass is nestled deep into the northern side of the Brooks Range. For centuries, while most of the Inupiat population remained along the coast hunting marine mammals and fish, the Nunamiut stayed inland and lived mostly off of caribou. Often the inland and coastal people would trade with each other. The relationship between these two communities has always been a fluid one. When disease struck the Nunamiut communities, many moved to the coast. And it has been documented that there was a time when many of the villages along the coast were abandoned also due to disease and a significant population of the inland Inupiat people moved to the coast to take up the harpoon and fill the void in order to continue to hunt from the ocean and provide for the Inupiat communities- both coastal and those remaining inland.
Above: Austin strolls through town.
The latest census puts the population at around 325. At one time, the post office was considered to be the most isolated in the United States- currently, the post office is inoperable and mail is flown in through the private air traffic. The mountains are inhabited by grizzlies instead of polar bears and wolves are sometimes found strolling the streets.
By the 31st, we had taught all but one grade. Many of the students came to class in their Halloween costumes and the school held a costume contest towards the end of the day. We flew out that afternoon, back to Fairbanks for a night and then back to Barrow early the following morning for my three remaining days in the Arctic.
Above: The last class- 3rd grade. Photo by Austin Parkhill.
Above: From the landing strip, waiting for the plane.
Above: Flying out of the Brooks Range- photo by Austin Parkhill.
Above: Flying out of the Brooks Range- photo by Austin Parkhill.
Above: Early sunset from the Polar Bear Theater. One of my final sunsets in Barrow.
Above: New York’s Finest enjoying pickled maktak.
I sent some jars of the pickled maktak that my friend Abra and I made down to family and friends in San Francisco, Arizona and New York. In the above photo, a friend in New York shares with his coworkers.
Though my initial seven months in Barrow is over, the Whale Hunt painting project is just beginning. Over the next year or two in New York, I will continue to paint works for the series from the many memories, references and props I have collected. With any luck, I plan to return in the spring in time for the spring hunt. I will certainly return to Barrow to exhibit the final series when the work is finished. Though by no means will that be my final visit.
I want to thank all of those that have helped me with the project so far:
A huge thank you to the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium for providing much of the logistics and specifically to Glenn Sheehan for taking interest in my project from the beginning and helping to jump start the seven month stay in Barrow. Also, thank you to Anne Jensen, Nokinba Acker and Richard Glenn (and his entire family). Thank you to the Barrow Whaling Captains Association and to the Savik Crew and its captain, Roy Ahmaogak, also to the NSB Department of Wildlife including Craig George, Cyd Hanns and Raphaela Stimmelmayr. Thank you to Angela Cox, VP of Administration for ASNA and to Ilisagvik’s Cooperative Extension program. Thanks, also, to the Rotary Club of Barrow-Nuvuk, to City Mayor, Bob Harcharek, and to Mike Mason. Thanks to all of my friends in Barrow including: Abra and Jaime Patkotak, Austin (www.austinparkhill.com), Caitlin http://thaumatropemoon.blogspot.com, Sarah and Marty (Matt), Diana, Ben and Shannon, Geoff, John, Jimmy, Laura and Bryan Thomas (and family) and so many others. Thank you, also, to the paint companies Guerra Paint and Pigment (http://www.guerrapaint.com), Kremer Pigments (http://kremerpigments.com) and Golden Paints (http://www.goldenpaints.com) for their generous donations towards the workshops and the series. And thank you to the communities of the North Slope of Alaska and the town of Barrow, Alaska.
Above: Summer Whale, in progress. Photo by Nokinba Acker. http://www.youtube.com/user/nokinba123