Textbook Igloos

From Fort Yukon, Alaska


The sun beat down mercilessly that sweltering August afternoon.

There were unkempt buildings everywhere – a school on stilts, a liquor store, a rundown post office. A couple of ugly concrete structures and a few snowmobiles in disrepair confirmed my greatest fears.

This was all too disappointing – where were those igloos and smiling Eskimos clad in sealskin boots, commandeering dog-sleds through blizzards impregnable? At least that’s what our school textbooks had us believe life was like above the Arctic Circle.

We had taken an hour-long flight from the Alaskan town of Fairbanks to the village of Fort Yukon above the Arctic Circle. Our twin-engine Piper Navajo chopped above the vast tundra – a stubbly yawn of green mountains, stunted spruce and sparkling streams. Just as in the last few months, the sun wouldn’t set today – it would just dip shyly to soon rise again heralding yet another morning.

Our guide who welcomed us at the airstrip, Richard Carroll, was an Athabascan Native American who spoke impeccable English. The Gwich’in tongue was all but forgotten. Contact with Christian missionaries started with the Russian occupation of Alaska before the land was sold to the United States. Joblessness here was a way of life, even with the exodus of the younger generation to promised lands beyond.

A typical Bush village surrounded by swaths of water and wilderness, Fort Yukon is inaUS - ALASKA - Skies Ablaze from Fairbanksccessible by road. Satellite TVs and that rare internet are their windows to the world outside. Groceries are too expensive to fly in, and subsistence living is probably a cheaper option. A hunting expedition rather than a trip to the grocery store may precede dinnertime. Bears come raiding your log cabin 180 miles up the Porcupine River to where a boat trip is the only option.

As our plane chugged the trip back to Fairbanks, I looked below at a humbled settlement of 500. Had modernization strangled a community that should have been best left alone steeped in its traditions?

The sun would soon sink into torpid slumber as winter buries this village in months of secret darkness.  The cheerful auroras would return dazzling the nights in their ancient dance of light and color. The graceful caribou herds would roam the plains again even as the winds howl along the tundra, clothing evergreens in white robes.

Ulus and igloos may sadly disappear from our textbooks soon. However Nature’s wondrous sway will last forever here in a very different world – in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

In my new book Rambles into Sacred Realms: Exploring Divinity through Pen and Paint, I invite readers to experience such adventure  illustrating my travels.