Beach Bears

We look like lazy baseball players in our tan long underwear, lounging around our apartment and stretching into yoga poses mid conversation.

Today began with all the ladies going over to the rehabilitation clinic, and loading up airplane pallets into the back of a truck.

The kids living in the area had made tents out of the pallets, hanging blankets across the wood and creating elaborate homes.

I felt a little bad taking it down, but it looked like it had been out there for quite awhile. There were also old books, games, coats and trash scattered all around. Frozen into the mud, snow and ice. We made a pile of all of the scraps in a corner, so that someone could come pick them up if they wanted.

As we were leaving, a little man, quiet with big red sunglasses and a humbleness to his step, walked by. Laura knew him, and introduced him to us. He had been the “bear guard” at her wedding, up at Point Barrow years ago. He’s been a polar bear guard for the past twenty years, at various events.

On the way back to her house with our truckload of wood,  Laura told us that part of the reason that we are here specifically is because of our experience with organic local farming and the food revolution in Willits.

She also talked about how she had requested us for two weeks in the beginning, but was then told we would only be able to come for ten days. And then we end up showing up for six weeks, with eleven people.

Needless to say, she’s sharing us with the village now.

So much more help than she could have hoped for, she is still figuring out to best utilize all of our power. The woodpile that was estimated to take half a day was finished in twenty minutes, with just a third of our team.

We told her we were fine with relaxing a bit, she shouldn’t feel like we need to have work set up daily. We can begin to create our own work in the village as we get to know it better.

Laura mentioned a pro bono lawyer in the city who was a part of our program in the past. A big part of his job here entails navigating the waters of domestic violence and sexual assault cases, as that is a huge problem in the area.

I asked her what other resources the survivors of violence and assault here had, there probably wasn’t a shelter in a village of 4,000 people, right? And she said actually, there is.

I asked her if there was anyway I could volunteer and help out, and she told me she was going to look into that for me. I’m going to look into it as well.

Could potentially be a part of my contribution to the city? Especially on those days when we are running low on work to do.

Also talked to Laura about the tribal court– how the village of Barrow basically functions like a reservation does in the lower 48. How tribal court is the ruling authority, and mainly deals with child adoption cases, and domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Apparently adoption is a big issue here as well, there are a lot of kids that people just don’t want. And lots of non-native people want to adopt them, but the tribe wants native kids to be raised by native families.

After unloading all of the wood at Laura’s house, we moved a few ridiculously heavy chunks of wood into place to make a barrier around the garden. Real estate is really complicated up here, so the Barrow Test Garden is in Laura’s own yard. A painted bedpost frame against the garden introduces the project, and invites the community to engage in the “grocery garden.”

Laura’s yard is just like all of the yards in the village. Fifteen foot long whalebones just hanging out by her stairs. Odds and ends bones from other large animals that I am not able to identify at this point and time.

Never, never put two whalebones up together in an arch in your yard. This is culturally specific for the graves of distinguished people in the Arctic.

So the approval for the tundra garden is still being processed at the elder’s center, but before lunch we went and took a look around at the site. We will hopefully begin archaeological digging next week if the approval goes through, and dig the dirt plotted out layer by layer, making sure there is nothing of archaeological significance there. If there is, the whole tundra garden project goes out the window for the summer, and we will be helping with excavation process instead. If the tundra garden project can jump through all of these impending hurdles though, we’ll set up a big tent outside for the elders to come sit in while we garden. And we can learn about one another as we slowly break up the frozen ground.

Lunch was provided by the hospital today. We get $25 each, and are expected to use up our entire budget or else the money is wasted. So I’ve figured out that I can get two large garden salads, coffee and a parfait for $24. And also that I can eat it all with gusto.

During lunch we sat in a back room in the hospital and talked with Laura. This woman is intensely interesting, as well as humble, and has an unimaginable amount of stories to tell. She has not lived her life the traditional way, as evidenced that she has found herself living up at the top of the world and pushing for a grassroots tundra garden project.

She told us all about how whales are harvested here, her personal polar bear encounters in Barrow while living in a quonsat hut, and her grizzly bear rendezvous on other solo archaeological digs around Alaska.

“Did I commune with the spirit of the animal? No. I was scared shitless.”

After lunch Carinne, Ricky and I went dumpster diving with Laura. This is the life we are leading right now. It is overwhelmingly stimulating and unpredictable. Laura had been eyeing a life size Spiderman in the dumpster that morning. But when we came out a few hours later, the trash had already been picked up.

“You’ve got to move fast in Barrow.

Then we took a walk around the lagoon, to observe the boardwalks that we are going to be fixing up and building.

“The city of Barrow ran out of money this year already, so nothing will be done about the boardwalk. Or all of this trash around it. Whatever you guys want to do, you have approval from the city to go for it.“

I was walking and talking with Alyssa, and she told me how she had been writing so much since she’s been here. And she refers to Barrow as “her little sanctuary.”

During our walk Laura pointed out various plants, and pulled off leaves for us to try. I have not been brave enough to stick anything in my mouth yet, as I have the soundtrack from “Into the Wild” playing in the back of my mind. I want to learn more about the plants before consuming them.

I’m pretty sure not many poisonous plants can even grow up here, though.

Later in the day, we went to the community center to plot out our tundra garden agenda, and Laura laid out our main objectives, which I will recount later. But I jumped at the chance to take on the composting project, and am now in charge of figuring out if it’s possible to get a compost pile going in her yard in the Arctic Circle.

I’ve got to find a container of a certain size, because if it’s not deep enough, it will not get hot enough inside to function. We’re thinking about doing it in the trunk of a broken down car sitting to the side of her yard.

I’m also going to be in charge of the imported worms, and figuring out if they will be able to survive outside in the Arctic in the summer.

Laura also told us about another project that we’ll be participating in: creating a walking map of Barrow. We will wear a pedometer, and then just go on walks around the village and report how many steps we took.

Also, every Tuesday is a cooking day. Laura is just going to give us cooking lessons for the full workday every week. She thinks that it is an injustice that we are given a food stamp budget, but then not taught how to efficiently and healthily use a food stamp budget. She’s going to help fix that. Lentils and rice all the way.

Last night the boys met some locals as they were walking back from our place. Four kids our age asked them if they wanted to jump in the car and go for a ride. They did, and then were taken around town to get messed up and shoot some things.

Not my idea of a night out. Something that I dislike about Midwestern culture that is here in Alaska as well– all the guns. I will put that one aside on my cultural integration list- I do not need to shoot a gun to understand the people here. There are many other ways to connect with the locals besides holding violent weapons in my hand.

My teammates were talking about places in Barrow being haunted today. And Laura was just like, yeah, most places in Barrow could be considered haunted if you want to run with that train of thought. Someone has died in most houses here. There is a really high rate of suicide here. And lots of guns.

Not something I want to take lightly. I will never take guns lightly.

At the end of the day Laura grabbed a few of us girls, and drove us out to the beach on our side of town. Which was a little disconcerting for me, as I had assumed we were further inland, and further away from the beach than the boys.

Turns out not to be true, there is a beautiful Arctic beach just half mile, or mile behind our house.

As we’re leaving, I told Laura thanks for showing this beach to us, we’re definitely going to come back. And she said, yeah, that’s fine. You just know that if someone says there is a bear, you’ve got to run, right? You can’t just be like, “Oh, I don’t see it.” You need to get out of there. Immediately.

And I said, maybe we won’t go back to the beach.

She said we should just be aware. And it’s safe in town. And what are the probabilities of us seeing a polar bear? She doesn’t really know. You don’t see a bear until you do. There’s definitely a probability.

At the beach we’re hauling buckets of sand up the cliff and back to her truck. We’re mixing the soil bought on with the local Arctic beach soil to make the soil go further.

Back at her house, which is where the test garden is, her kids are yelling out the window at us. They are on the top floor, which means they are in the kitchen. Houses in Barrow are built upside down, with the bedrooms being on the bottom floor, and the kitchens and living rooms on the top floor. It has something to do with the light, and the way it shines in.


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