We live in a time when we humans consider ourselves to be “intelligent”.
We have seen the marvels of science and technology and yet somehow with all of our intelligence and advancements in technology we have triggered the sixth mass extinction of species, we see our oceans becoming acidic, and our weather more damaging, more deadly. We watch in silence as our Poles continue to melt and our sea levels rise.
As a mother, as an artist, and as a citizen of this planet, I write this story to accompany the images I made in both the Arctic and Antarctic — in a series I call Melting Away.
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
When I was twenty-nine years old, I was doing traditional beadwork almost ten hours a day, six days a week. I was making a good name for myself, and I had a steady stream of orders from galleries and individuals across the country.
One day I woke with my left hand feeling as if it were on fire. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with De Quervain’s tendonitis. My options for treatment were surgery, cortizone shots, or let it rest. I chose rest. I was devastated. I loved beadwork, making beautiful and useful objects, using traditional smoked deerskin hides. I could not understand why this was being taken away from me.
With not much to do, my boyfriend invited me to join him on short business trip to Los Angeles. While we sat waiting to board the plane, the airline announced that they had oversold the flight. “We are looking for passengers who can wait one hour for the next flight. In exchange for your seat on this flight, we are offering a free round trip ticket anywhere we fly in North America.” A free ticket, just for waiting an additional hour?
I could do that.
So my boyfriend went on without me, and I met up with him a little later.
We were traveling on Alaska Airlines, and before that moment I had no ambition, dream or desire to see Alaska. Yet here was a free ticket inviting me to do just that.
Many children dream of being a polar explorer, visiting Santa Claus at the North Pole, and seeing where the polar bears live. Not me. Part of the joy of living in the Bay Area was its stable moderate Californian climate. Never too cold, nor too hot. No real seasons in fact; rather a perpetual spring and summer.
The idea of going somewhere cold had never excited me, but nonetheless, I decided I would go to Kotzebue. I chose this place because of its location on the Bering Strait well above the Arctic Circle, the home of the supposed Bering Land Bridge.
As school children, we had been taught that during the last ice age the aboriginal peoples of the Americas had made their way from Siberia into the New World across this bridge. I was curious about this and decided I would like to walk across the frozen sea back towards Russia in a sort of reverse commute of my ancestors.
I did a minimal amount of research. I knew only that, when I arrived, it would still be quite cold, though technically Spring. I purchased some serious cold weather gear, packed it along with the rest of my stuff in a duffle back, and off I went.
When I landed in Kotzebue, I was presented with a shocking reality of a very unfamiliar landscape, absolutely white and still. I checked my luggage, and I was only wearing a polar fleece jacket and slip-on shoes. My SLR film camera was in my carry-on messenger bag. I was completely unprepared for the freezing air that met me when I stepped off the plane (there was no enclosed jetway). My nose hairs and lungs instantly froze with the cold -30°Fahrenheit air. “Brrr!” I thought, “better go get that North Face jacket!”
Half of the plane was dedicated to cargo. Fewer than twenty passengers were in the back of the plane with me, most of whom were native Inupiat. Inside the Quonset hut that served as the airport was a tiny luggage carousel.
One by one, passengers gathered their belongings and went off into the bitter cold until I was left alone, watching the miniature carousel go round and round without my bag ever appearing.
Two women, both Inupiat, who worked for the airline took pity on me when I told them my situation. “Don’t worry,” they told me, “We will get you taken care of until your bag arrives.” Within a matter of minutes, they had me suited up in sealskin parka, boots, gloves, hat, and even some goggles!
One of them called her sister who drove the local taxi, and after giving me an hour-long private tour of the small town (taking me with her as she picked up and dropped off fares), she delivered me to my hotel.
ACROSS THE FROZEN SEA
Then one morning, I decided this was the day! Today, I would walk across the Bering Strait. I suited up and headed out. It was—30ºFahrenheit with the wind chill. I walked down the snow-covered bank and stepped onto the frozen sea and just started walking. Every part of my body was covered. I wore ski goggles and a scarf wrapped across all exposed parts of my face.
I was so well bundled that I could hear my breathing, I imagined I was like an astronaut walking on the moon or maybe Darth Vader exploring the Arctic. Surprised at how squeaky the ice was beneath my feet, like Styrofoam, I walked slowly at first, unsure of how far I could trust this unfamiliar surface.
I quickly gained confidence and felt reassured when I noticed that someone had placed small twigs in the ice spaced every twenty feet apart. I was walking a primitive path, leading away from the town and towards the Strait and the sea.
I was walking on the frozen sea, but I may as well have been on some distant planet. My extraterrestrial moment, only I was right here on Earth!
I was so thrilled that I almost didn’t notice the young man pull up beside me on his snow mobile.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” I said, “I am just going for a walk.”
“Okay.” he said, he cocked his head in confusion and rode away.
Several other people pulled alongside me as I walked, always asking the same question, always replying to my response in the same way. After I had walked for over an hour with no traffic, the twigs were no longer visible. Two people rode up on either side of me. On one snowmobile was an Inupiat man. On my right was a Russian woman. The man asked me a different question than all the others who had stopped previously.
“Where are you going?” he asked, and I replied, “I’m trying to get to where the ice ends and the sea begins.”
I really thought there would be a clean edge of ice and suddenly there would be the dark water of the sea. I was so naive and misguided in my thinking. The man told me that was twenty-two miles away. They said they were headed out there to ice fish and I was welcome to ride with them, but they also let me know they would not be coming back. They were planning on camping out on the ice.
I thought about it for a moment. I had no supplies on me. No water, no shelter, no food, no extra clothing. Nothing. Just my camera tucked snuggly in the warmth of my parka.
I had no realistic expectations of actually reach Russia, and certainly, they would not permit me entrance even if I did make it that far. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I have never been on a snowmobile before.” Here was an interesting opportunity. I told them I would ride with them for a short while and climbed on the back of the man’s machine.
And off we went. I quickly realized that these machines go fast! We were going 80km/h. As we were zipping along the ice, I began to realize that this speed meant distance. I did some quick math in my head, 80km/h times five minutes.
I tapped the man on the shoulder, “Stop! Stop!” I said. “I have to walk this back.” They stopped, let me off, and I thanked them. Watching them ride toward the horizon, I took a photograph of their backs as they drove away. I watched until I could see them no more.
At this time of the year, the sun hangs low just above the horizon. It never climbs high in the sky and so it seems to move sideways. Around 1AM it dips below the horizon and then climbs back up two hours later. Though it is never very bright, it is a beautiful thing to watch the sun go sideways.
After the snowmobilers were out of sight, I turned to look for the town. I scanned the horizon and could not find it. The town was gone. All around me, 360 degrees of just white, just white, with hardly any difference between the sky and the ice.
I freaked out.
I realized that no one in the entire world knew where I was.
All of the realities of my situation became clear in my mind. I was on the frozen sea. I could fall through the ice. There were polar bears out there. There could be a whiteout and I would never find my way back. If it got much colder, I could freeze to death. I had no food or water. What was I thinking?! I tried to calm myself and decided to follow the tracks of the snowmobiles back before the wind wiped them away.
During the five-hour walk back, I had an awakening. Everything that my grandfather had been trying to show me when I was a child was confirmed.
In this extreme part of our planet, I clearly understood that I was a creature of this planet. I am literally made of the material of this planet. We all are. As I walked the many squeaky steps across those white miles, I realized the absurdity of religion, of border, of culture, and language.
At the bottom of it all, we are all made of the same material. We are all Earthlings.
There is no separation. There is no distinction. None of us were born in outer space—we will all return to the material of this Earth.
I understood that I was standing on my rock in space. I understood the immensity and the minuscule nature of that. I understood that I meant nothing in the scale of time and space and history of this planet.
If I were to die, snow and ice would blow over my cold dead body without a thought, but the fact that I was still alive, standing on the ice and actually pondering such things was a miracle.
Then I began to think…if my sweat becomes the rain, whose sweat is this ice? How many ancestors ago? Which creatures created this? They are all my relations, all my relatives, and in that I understood the integral nature of this planet.
We truly are a web of life, each connected to the other.
I began to see how absurd we as humans are presently acting and thinking, behaving as if we are somehow separate or above all other life forms on this planet, thinking we can do whatever we want. How silly we are to be surprised at the consequences of such practices.
I was a different person when I finally climbed up the bank and walked back towards the Nullagvik Hotel.
If you enjoyed this story, you can buy a copy of ‘Melting Away: A Ten Year Journey through Our Endangered Polar Regions’ which contains 75 more captivating and life-affirming images that reveal not only what we have already lost, but more importantly what we still have left that is worth fighting to save.