South of Point Hope

©1998, by Dory Lynch


     I walk on fragil, shuga, a hundred kinds of sea ice. The light: gold and azure bounces off a sculpture garden composed entirely of ice. A loud crack makes me leap into the air. Gunfire? Another volley follows. Two more shots shatter the Arctic silence. Giant cracks, long and black, streak across the ice. Adrenaline pumps through me. Will nature strand me on a raft of ice? Send me adrift out to sea? But no, I can jump over these three cracks to the firm pack-ice beyond. Thank God, no one's shot at me. It's only the wild Chukchi Sea reclaiming her liquid self. Was she warning me back to my cabin? My tiny ramshackle cabin with its views of the frozen lagoon, the foothills of the De Long Mountains?

     Where was safe anymore? Even this village at the top of the world had not escaped murder. But a growling beside me startles me. What is it? Polar bear? Although it's the only animal I fear here, I fear it with a passion. Behind each fifteen foot ice-statue, I'm sure a hungry one waits, paws ready for ambush.

     The groaning grows louder. Can it be one of my Inuit friends moaning? Or one of the white teachers felled by some mysterious person's rifle? Did the Quissingkaat murderer strike again? As close to me as the last time? Finally, I recognize the sound. The mail plane is propelling its shadow across the tundra all the way from Kotzebue.

     Already, after only four months here, I'm beginning to view this plane with distrust. What outsiders will it ferry here now? How will they interfere with our lives? The fact that I'm one of those outsiders no longer seems obvious to me.

     My sorels squeak over the sea ice. The village school stands before me, impressive in its massiveness, in its vistas of brick and concrete. Behind it lay a few scattered houses, the aluminum-sided coop store, one of the village churches--no larger than a house here, only distinguished by its small cross in the window. If placed on the roof, the wind would shear it off in the next fierce arctic storm.

     I step onto land. The snow is textured differently here, less rippled and waved. Behind me the sea sings loudly, a sound similar to whales calling to each other in the great deep. I've arrived home. To my Inuit village at the edge of the world.

Chapter One: Of Stove Pipes and Snow Drifts

     Tuesday night, at the god-awful hour of 3:09 am, the wind woke me. Here in the Inuit village of Quissingkaat at the edge of the Chukchi Sea across from Siberia, I wear my watch to bed every night. Without it--because of the lack of daylight here--I can't guess when day begins, or night ends. Another gust of wind slammed against my house, twenty by twenty-four feet--more like a cabin--which I rent from the Walters, my Inuit neighbors. Outside, perhaps at the Walters' place--maybe at the Franks--something metal clanged. A sound like cymbals crashing. I hoped that whatever it was, it wouldn't slam into my house, slash through my windows, let the Arctic air pour in.

      Another tremendous blast shook everything: the walls, the ceiling, the front door. Twenty knots, thirty knots, forty knots, what did these measurements mean when this was the biggest, wildest wind I had ever experienced including the two hurricanes I had weathered in New Orleans? Please, I begged whatever Northern spirit there is: don't wrench the stove-pipe from my house. Because here, ninety miles north of the Arctic Circle, your oil stove is your lifeline to the world.

     For a moment I feared the worst, that my stovepipe had been sheared off by the latest gust. What would I do then, when black smoke poured into my cabin? Already, on the days when the flue didn't work properly and the smoke backed up, when I finally made it over to the village school, and glanced into the mirror there, I saw with embarrassment that my face was as black-streaked as a chimney sweep's, that a thick black matte coated my red hair.

     I sat up and wrapped the down comforter around me. Curled inside the big blue tent lay my dog, Runt Runt, a cross between a spaniel and a collie. Runtie snored like a seventy year old emphysemiac. I squeezed in beside him, and wondered for the the five-thousandth time why I had chosen to spend the winter in Northwest Alaska knowing nothing of the Arctic's terrors. That moment I noticed a rare stillness in the room. Oh sure, my dog still snored beside me, but a feeling of absence hung in the air. With dread, I realized what had changed. No flames danced behind the stove's iron gate. That snapping metallic sound, a sound like marbles rolling back and forth, which I had heard since I moved in here was ominously absent. My fire had gone dead. Nothing protected me from the frigid winds which seemed to sweep down from the very edges of interstellar space.

     "Christ!" I yelled as I threw off the covers. Runt Runt stirred but didn't open her eyes. "Jesus H. Christ, no fire at 20 below, with these hellish winds!"

     My name is Cass Monroe. I have hair the color of a red setter's fur. My eyes are a green-brown, but my best feature are my teeth: straight, evenly spaced, a sparkling white color, which nobody--and I mean nobody--but my Mom ever notices. You might call me an adventurer. My friends in New Orleans consider me one. Either that or an escapee from love. Why else would anyone drive 7,000 miles from Orleans Parish, Louisiana to Fairbanks, Alaska, then fly over the Arctic Circle to live in an Inuit village? I consider myself instead a woman of circumstances. The teachers' resource center which I had run in New Orleans suddenly lost its funding. Since I had a friend living in Anchorage, I wrote and asked if there were any teaching jobs available on the Last Frontier. Eric sent me a short but enigmatic reply. "Come, Cassio. For you the sky will dance. No problema." With amazing timing, I landed a job tutoring adult college students in Quissingkaat. Project Seed's goal is to encourage native people to get teacher-certified but not to create a brain drain by forcing them to leave their villages. That in a nutshell is how four months ago, this former resident of the Big Easy ended up with a honey bucket for a bathroom, and a fifty gallon trashcan full of melting ice for her entire plumbing system.

     Sylvia Ashton Warner compelled me to become a teacher. When my college roommates all chose pre-law majors, they said to me, "Education major in the nineties! Cass, how can you be so goddamn retrograde?" I didn't try to explain to them how a woman--long dead--from a tiny Maori school in the vast wilderness of New Zealand had shown me that it was possible to change the course of people's lives with creativity, attention, and caring. And even here in this starkly beautiful land, teaching was my vocation.

     I dressed in myriad layers of clothing. It would take a half hour to list everything I wore, but to give you some idea: I wore two pairs of long underwear, and three pairs of socks, to say nothing of the down parka that took half the geese population of Minnesota to produce. I reached under my bed and grabbed the emergency five-gallon fuel can. Runt Runt, who usually leaps out of bed whenever I approach the door, gave me a cowed look and lowered her head. Using her snout, she lifted the comforter, then shimmied underneath it.

     "Thanks Runtie," I said. "So much for loyalty, so much for woman's best friend." I didn't get far. In the kanichat (the storm-porch), I realized I'd forgotten my flash-light. After grabbing it, I tugged at the kanichat's outer door. The next thing I knew, I was falling. When I hit the concrete floor of the storm-porch, tiny shards of glass pelted my face, the only exposed part of my body. They weren't glass shards at all but miniature blasts of snow. A fierce gust of wind had jammed the door into my lip. It bled. I rubbed it with my tongue, then suddenly remembered. "Do this outside, Monroe," I warned myself, "and you'll freeze your tongue to the surface of your lip."

     Fear gripped me. A powerful adrenaline rush. Without heat, Runt Runt and I would die. This night errand was no longer a grand lark, something to write humorous letters home about: Cass hurries through an Arctic blizzard to find stove oil in the middle of the night. With a shudder I realized, it was survival, basic gut survival: get warm or die. For the first time, I felt vulnerable, and realized it took more than guts and courage to make it in the Arctic. It also took a heady dose of blind luck and a generous helping of experience.

     The glass-like shards still slashed at my face, as I hurried down the path which separated my cabin from the Walters house. Frigid air scraped my lungs. For a moment I was sheltered from the wind by the side of the Walters' house. As I walked past, I stared longingly inside. The Walters had two stoves; on either side of their house: a wood stove and an oil one, so that even in this blizzard wind, their house would remain warm. From every window a light burned. But this didn't mean anyone was awake. The Inuit never slept in the dark. In the old days before electricity, a seal oil lamp always burned, assuring both light and heat; so that even today, twenty years after electricity had come to the village, no one turns off their lights to sleep. My neighbors would rather pay outrageous electric bills than to sleep in the dark. I knew that I only had to knock on the Walters' door and that Tommy or one of the boys would help me. Laurie, my best friend in the village and the Walters' only daughter, would never wake up. One day she had slept through fifty caribou stampeding past, the twenty-five-minute long earthquake they had caused to erupt. Forgetting to fill the stove, was my own stupid fault. How often had Tommy warned me to check it before it ran out? Why should I disturb the entire Walters clan, make them suffer for my lack of forethought? Besides I needed to prove to myself that I could handle this climate, this harsh Arctic world. That I could take care of myself even here at the ends of the earth.

     I reached the third and last house in our section of the village. It belonged to the Franks: Lily and her son, Ik, and his twin sister, Evie, and Lily's assorted grand-nephews and -nieces, a few of whom seemed to live there permanently, while others came and visited, enjoying the extra attention that their Aunt Lily always provided. As I trudged past their house, the full-force of the wind slammed the oil can into my ribs. It made me bend over. I could only move by taking mincing, baby steps. When the wind gusted to its fullest, I had to stop completely.

     My flashlight illuminated only the six inches of snow in front of me. I knew how easy it was to get lost in a storm such as this. Even for the Inuit. Laurie's aunt had died on such a night. She had wandered out onto the sea ice, then couldn't find her way back, and had simply lain down and gone to sleep on top of the snow. In the morning, Tommy had found his sister's corpse, perfectly frozen. Next to her were dozens of intertwined tracks: a series of meandering prints which veered crazily on top of the ice, almost in the shape of figure eights. Laurie's Aunt Bea had wandered around and around on the sea ice, covering the same ground over and over in her confusion, desperately trying to find her way home.

     The next blast of wind nearly wrenched the gasoline can from my hand. But I had reached Mt. Puff, the halfway point of my journey. I called it Mt. Puff because it took my breath away to climb it. In reality it was only a snowdrift, but one which had grown thirty or forty feet high because of the wind currents of the village. In the few months since I had arrived, I watched it grow from nothing to this rounded, snow-packed peak. My neighbors told me that each year depending on the winds, a monster snow drift would form on this side of the village, that all winter this hill would be buffeted, carved, and shaped by the wind.

     My heart hammered furiously. Both from the exertion of fighting the wind and from my fear: could I make it to the village store in this wind, work the pump, make it home without getting lost on the ice? And what about polar bears? Enok Walters had seen one last week at 4 in the morning, returning home from a poker game. Was that same bear out now, sniffng me out? The thought of a huge massive white shape materializing out of the snow absolutely terrified me.

     I had always been in good physical shape, but the Arctic packed a double whammy: intensely low temperatures, and these brutish winds which sometime did not let up for days. At the top of Mt. Puff, the world became silent again. Who had turned the wind off? For a moment I steeled myself, fearing an even larger blast. I looked up. Above me, thousands of stars glittered in the sky. With a shock I realized that no snow came from the sky at all. All this swirling snow had been generated from the ground only, like those sand storms in the Sahara--caused entirely by wind. On the top of Mt. Puff, it felt like the lull during a tropical storm, when the eye of the hurricane passes overhead: a respite brief, tenuous, crackling with tension. Any minute now all hell would break loose. I tried to relax. The only sound I heard was the low thrum of the village's small diesel engine, a steady, reassuring hum. The next moment, I thought I heard a wail, a sound both other-worldly and almost human at the same time. My body instantly became alert. But before the sound was repeated, before I was certain I had heard anything at all, the wind returned. It shoved me down the hill and pelted me with snow.

     At the village store, I searched under the oil tanks for the pump. The store used the honor system: if you ran out of fuel and helped yourself to it at night, you paid for it in the morning. But the pump was nowhere to be found. The constant haranguing of the wind began to unnerve me. "Shit," I said, "Now I have to guess who got oil last. Twenty-six village families, that spells twenty-five chances for failure." Then I remembered that the school had its own pump, and lowering my face from the wind, I half crawled, half scurried the fifty remaining yards to the school. That moment, the second disaster of the evening occurred. I dropped my flashlight, and though I reached down and brailled for it with my hands, I couldn't find it anywhere. Since I was on a slight incline, it must have rolled down.

     My face burned. My lungs hurt. My sore lip had crusted over. The heavy weight on it had to be frozen, congealed blood. The intense physical and emotional work of merely staying upright in this gale for the past fifteen minutes had exhausted me. I grabbed the pump in both hands and walked back toward the store. Luckily, the storm had let up some. I could see the flickering light on the store's porch, swaying madly in the wind. When I reached the tank, I tried to open its lid, but with my polarguard gloves on, the lid would not budge. I yanked my scarf off, undid my gloves, then wrapped my scarf around my fingers. They burned from the cold. Three turns. Still nothing. "Shit, Double Shit! Stupid Naluagmiu!" I yelled at myself. Naluagmiu is a derogatory term for someone new to Alaska, someone who doesn't know what the Hell they are doing. At the moment it described me perfectly. Then remembering the pump, I banged it against the tank's lid; and luckily, it turned.

     The worst part of the journey was still to come. I had to find Mt. Puff again in the dark. Once I climbed it, I'd see the lights from the Walters' house, and be home free. I knew that the hill was a straight diagonal from the store, but walking with the snow swirling in front of me, the oil can bouncing against my legs, I was cautious and afraid. After five yards I turned around, hoping to use the store's lights to navigate me, but I saw that the store's lights were gone. In fact the whole village had disappeared into the storm. A typical Arctic white-out. Nothing behind you, nothing on either side of you, nothing in front of you but swirling snow. I decided to walk no further than a hundred steps in any direction. Quissingkaat lies on a narrow sandspit--the width of a soccer field--between the Chukchi Sea and an immense salt lagoon, so a few steps astray in either direction could mean wandering on the sea ice, which had not yet totally set, or onto the vastness of the frozen lagoon. Wind screamed in my ears. I tried not to think of polar bears again. How could they hunt on a night like this? I tried to reassure myself. When my feet encountered a slight rise, I nearly stumbled, before I realized I had found my hill and was practically home. That moment I tripped over something, then landed face-first in the snow. I screamed outloud; I was cold, angry, tired of battling the elements. "Goddamn log!" Frustrated I started to cry, then immediately saw the stupidity of that. Frozen tears would make my eyelids freeze. Then I'd have to pour oil in my stove, blind. "Up, Monroe! It's your own stupid fault." But I had dropped the oil can, the whole reason for this miserable outing. I guessed that it must have slid down the hill--its sound masked by the wind. I slid down the hill on my rump, and banged into the log again. Next to it I found my can, cold, metal, but reassuringly heavy. As I picked it up, I remembered that there were no logs in Quissingkaat. No logs and no trees. Except for willows, dwarfed by the incessant wind. Occasionally, the sea tossed driftwood onto the beach here, but never in winter--a frozen sea gathers no driftwood. I knew finally, what I had tripped over. I grabbed the can and raced over the hill to my house. Not bothering to pump the oil, I grabbed another flashlight, and ran back to the hill. When I saw a body, a woman's body, my stomach retched. I could tell it was a woman because of her decorated atigi, an outer dress-fabric worn over a parka. "Oh my God!" I screamed into the wind. I ran and banged on the Walters' door. "Somebody froze, somebody froze," I kept yelling. If I had known whose body lay on the wind-buffeted snow, I would have knocked on someone else's door. Anyone else's.

© 2008, Dory Lynch, all rights reserved