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Alaska's North Slope
MAY 2006
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In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Rebecca Hale

Photo: Caribou in front of truck
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On Assignment
Alaska's North Slope



    One day in Kaktovik, photographer Joel Sartore and I decided to head out to an Inupiat youth camp some five miles (eight kilometers) west of town, where kids from all over the slope were learning traditional Inupiat skills. Fred Kaleak was taking supplies to the camp in a trailer behind his four-wheeler and gave us a ride, but the machine soon bogged down in the bone-jarring tundra. Camp director Edith Nageak drove by and offered to lighten Fred's load. I beat Sartore to the punch and hopped on her four-wheeler, looking forward to a much more comfortable ride, when the great-grandmother opened up the throttle and began tearing across the tundra. I grabbed her tighter than Evel Knievel's girlfriend, and over the whine of the machine screamed in her ear that my mother's name was also Edith, and I'd like to see her again someday. She squealed with delight. A name is a gift, she said. She was given her name right here on this sand spit, where she was born many years ago. She'd planted a stake in the ground at the very spot. So we went looking for it, flying down the shoreline, not finding it but having a booming good time anyway. You haven't really lived, I thought, until you've hung on the back of a 60-year-old Inupiat elder, screaming down the beach on a four-wheeler in search of the spot where she was born.
    I knew from my father, a missionary on the slope in the late 1940s, that the Inupiat were some of the best hunters on the planet. In his day—before oil money, TV, and frozen pizza came to the villages—every piece of game was precious, and to waste any animal was a sin. Not so today.
    I looked out of my hotel window in Barrow and watched two boys with an air rifle shooting tiny shorebirds that were flittering around the houses, leaving their  winged victims to rot where they fell.
    The same day I drove to the end of one of Barrow's roads where a group of teenagers were plinking with a .22 rifle. A wounded, old squaw duck was flapping in circles in a pond not 20 yards (60 feet) away, but they made no attempt to retrieve it or even put it out of its misery.
    I interviewed a young hunter who told me about killing seven moose in one day, but only finding one of them. Another hunter told me about watching one villager fire an entire box of bullets at a caribou herd five miles (eight kilometers) away. When I asked why, he shrugged. "Maybe he was drunk. Maybe his father just didn't teach him."
    Flying from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay on a clear summer day has to be one of the quirkiest flight-seeing trips in the nation. There are so few people in Alaska—one New York borough has more population—that flying in a 747 is like a ride in a bush plane. At one point Denali glides by the window at eye level, a massive fortress of a mountain glittering in white. The mountains mellow out past the Brooks Range, yielding to what appears to be an endless expanse of marsh pocked with watery potholes. The Alaska Airlines jet had to circle twice, the pilot said apologetically, so ground crews could run some caribou off the runway. I'm amazed how a few arctic deer, at a moment's notice, can bring man's greatest technological ambitions to a grinding halt.
    Deadhorse, where I landed, is a sprawling, dusty complex of gravel roads, steel buildings, and shipping containers, bustling with big four-by-fours and semitrucks. The tundra between the gravel roads and pads is ash gray and flat for miles, save for a glinting steel pipeline that serves as the economic umbilical cord for the state. Amid the industrial expanse, I walked in the terminal and heard John Mellencamp crooning over the speakers: "Ain't that America something to see, babe. Ain't that America…"

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