On a blindingly bright, frigid April morning, the first whale hunt of the year gets underway in the village of Gambell, Alaska, on the westernmost edge of St. Lawrence Island. Between boulder-sized chunks of ice piled well over eight feet high along the shoreline, crews of three or four men, wearing boots, heavy jackets and insulated pants, launch small metal skiffs. A half-dozen snow machines and cargo sleds are parked above the frozen, snow-covered beach. Others arrive with boat crews and families, bringing supplies – fuel cans, rope, floats, cargo boxes and other gear. The small motorboats, loaded with harpoons and rifles, slip into the calm indigo water of the Bering Sea, their motors thudding softly, and thread their way through floating ice that has just begun its spring break-up. A few dogs scamper between the water and high ground, barking with excitement.
The 2014 hunting season is being anticipated with particular eagerness on St. Lawrence Island. The residents, almost all St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik, rely on the annual bowhead whale hunt and the walrus hunt that follows – along with fishing – for the mainstay of their food supply. But last year, unusual weather patterns brought powerful winds that pushed offshore ice into huge pressure ridges that reached all the way to the sea floor along the coast, blocking access to the water. By the time the ice receded enough for boats to launch, most of the walrus had moved on, and only about one-third of the typical number were captured. The hardship prompted Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell to declare the island's two villages, Gambell and Savoonga, each with a population of about 700, economic disaster areas.
Successful hunting and fishing in the Bering Sea have always depended on weather and ice conditions. Island hunters have honed their ability to manage these variables through generations of experience. But climate change is now disrupting the seasonal patterns and threatening the food sources – and cultural traditions – St. Lawrence Islanders and other Native Alaskans have relied on for millennia. Over the past 50 years, average air temperatures have increased by 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit. Sea ice has been shrinking, sometimes by as much as 30 percent by the end of summer, and only gets about half as thick as it used to. Permafrost is thawing, and conifers have spread north into what was once tundra. In the Arctic, where climate change is progressing faster and more dramatically than almost anywhere else on earth, the resulting uncertainties are playing out not only in coastal communities but in inland Native villages as well.
A short walk across the frozen snow from the beach is the Gambell school, a one-story building at the inland end of the village. It's one of the newer buildings in the village, whose modest wooden houses, some weathered gray with age, are arrayed in unnamed streets. A display case inside the school features both student projects and traditional Native art and crafts. Dolly Silook is one of the school's cooks. Dark-haired, smiling, wearing an apron over her jeans, she and her two colleagues welcome me into the kitchen. "Everyone relies on native food," she says. "Store food is so expensive."
Here, as in many small, remote villages across Arctic Alaska, any food not harvested locally must be flown or shipped in at great expense. But it's not just a question of cost. Wild foods are also the mainstay of Native Alaskan cultures, which celebrate their connections to the landscape and environment. Passing on these food traditions is key to maintaining these customs. Standing by the stove where she's putting the finishing touches on a pan of macaroni and cheese for the students' lunch, Silook and her two co-workers rattle off a list of their favorite foods: Whale, walrus, baby walrus, seal, seal oil, greens, berries, and, Silook says, "the seafood that washes up after a storm," which includes clams, kelp and "sea peaches," a type of tunicate.
A typical Gambell dinner would be walrus or seal, boiled with sea veggies, says Silook. Dried fish and seal meat are also staples. But last year's unusual weather not only ruined the walrus hunt, it also spoiled the summer drying season, when villagers air-dry fish – salmon, cod and halibut – and meat on outdoor racks. "It was wet and rained, so the fish couldn't dry," Silook says. "It's a good thing I had food left over from the last year, because last spring, I didn't put anything away," she says. "If you put us back a hundred years, we would have starved. Hopefully it will be a better summer this year."
Before the advent of freezers, St. Lawrence islanders, like others in rural Arctic Alaska, cached food – often balls of walrus meat and blubber – in small storage dens dug into the permafrost. Some still do so. But thawing tundra and storm surges are literally undermining this practice.
Other local food sources include reindeer, descended from animals introduced in the 1900s and hunted primarily near Savoonga. There are also spidery king crabs, caught this spring by young men who drop baited lines through the ice not far off shore.
Silook and other islanders prefer these traditional foods. Store food, which often fills a gap now, falls short both in taste and satisfaction. "Non-native food is not as heavy," Silook says, "and makes you hungry again in a matter of hours."
While modern technology is nearly omnipresent and many households no longer support themselves solely by living off the land, tribal language, customs, art and crafts continue to be rooted in landscape and wildlife. Local geography is described by the location of family fishing and hunting camps; the year is defined by wildlife harvest seasons. Traditional foods such as walrus, whale, seal, fish – and for inland communities, caribou and moose – supply at least a third of daily calories for most Native Alaskans, and remain important to residents' health and well-being. "We live off the Bering Sea," says islander Gloria James. "We don't have chickens."
"Food security" alone doesn't adequately explain everything that access to wild foods means for Native Alaskan communities, says Carolina Behe, Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska traditional knowledge and science advisor. "Food security is everything around your life."
Thirty-nine miles east of Gambell sits the village of Savoonga. On a Sunday afternoon in mid-April, ATVs and snow machines zip around the snowy village, many towing sleds piled with children bundled in bright parkas. Children are sledding onto the frozen sea. Savoonga's one-story wooden homes are more closely clustered than the ones in Gambell, but here, too, the community is too small for street names. Each village has just one commercial store. Near many houses, snow machines sit parked near frames of the traditional wooden boats known as umiak.
A visit to the Savoonga store illustrates why a failed walrus hunt matters so much. Two-pound packages of frozen stew beef or pork run about $15, and two pounds of hamburger patties cost more than $11. Roasts and hams are over $40. A pint jar of peanut butter is more than $6. A half-gallon of fresh milk or apple juice costs about $10. The best-stocked cases contain frozen foods like pizza, chicken nuggets and microwaveable burritos. Most of the groceries are highly processed, long-shelf-life foods. Produce, even canned or frozen, is scarce.
About 10 minutes' walk from the store is City Hall, a two-story wooden building in the middle of town. The hallway outside Mayor Myron Kingeekuk's office upstairs is lined with cartons of canned salmon. On some boxes, family names are written in red marker. The room next door is stacked with packages of instant noodle soups and the large round crackers known as pilot bread. All are donations for village households, sent by organizations on the Alaskan mainland to make up for the failed 2013 walrus hunt. Kingeekuk, slim and soft-spoken but with a sharp glint in his eye, explains that the poor hunt meant not only less meat but also reduced incomes. St. Lawrence Island's Yup'ik community is famous for its ivory carving – museum-quality renditions of wildlife and village life that command high prices from collectors. "If we don't hunt walrus, we don't get ivory, and that is a major source of income for the island," he says. There are few local businesses, and the island's unemployment rate is nearly 30 percent.
Climate change in the Arctic is especially hard on the travel required for hunting and fishing. On St. Lawrence Island, family fishing and hunting camps are located at some distance from the village. Melting permafrost, rain and storms undercut shorelines and threaten the integrity of the island's dirt roads. "Erosion is happening along the coastline, so you have to be careful where you ride the Hondas (ATVs) along the shore road," says Kingeekuk. "This has also made it hard to bring boats up on shore," he says.
Thinning ice also threatens the safety of offshore hunts. Hunters butcher seals and walrus out on the sea ice. If the ice is too thin, they have to take their catch to thicker, safer sections – running their motors longer and using up precious fuel. Prematurely softening ice also makes spring ice fishing hazardous and, in some cases, impossible.
"If we don't have winter, we lose who we are," says Seth Kantner, a writer and photographer who was raised in Alaska's interior. "Everything to do with life here used to do with being out on the land, which in winter means the ice."
Now that snowmobiles, ATVs and gas-powered boats have replaced sled dogs and sailboats, the cost of vehicle fuel has also become a great concern. In April, it was almost $7 a gallon. "It uses five gallons of fuel to get to camp and another five to get back. Close to $70, roundtrip," says Savoonga resident and Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission Chairman George Noongwook. A full whaling crew might need 10 or 11 times that for a single hunting trip – about $700 worth of fuel, he explains. "A lot of people think we get our food for free," Kingeekuk says. "It's not free."