In 1943, Sigurd Wien, who went on to become CEO of one of Alaska’s most famous regional air carriers, Wien Air, landed at a frozen Chanlder Lake in the Brooks Range to refuel his plane. He noticed what he thought was a caribou in the fog on the ice, but later realized it was a person, covered in furs, coming toward him. That person turned out to be Simon Paneak, one of the Nunamiut people, the last nomadic band of indigenous people in North America. Inupiat Eskimos, the Nunamiut favored hunting caribou over the preferred diet of whale pursued by their coastal brothers. The Nunamiut were low on ammunition and supplies and offered to trade Wien some furs to obtain the needed supplies.
Eighteen years later, Simon Paneak’s family would be the last of the Nunamiut to settle in the new established, permanent community of Anaktuvuk Pass, the “place of caribou droppings” in Inupiaq. In 1980, Anaktuvuk Pass became the first village or community completely enclosed within a national park with the creation of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).
I first viewed Anaktuvuk Pass exclusively from the air in 2008. I was on assignment doing some aerial photography for the National Park Service, and my pilot, Peter Christian, decided to head up to Anaktuvuk to check and see if we could land there. As we approached Anaktuvuk, which lies at the headwaters of the John River, the cloud cover increasingly thickened. Then, it became apparent that there was a fog bank rolling in from the Arctic Ocean, obscuring our view of the landing strip at Anaktuvuk. I was able to catch some glimpses of the air strip through the fog, and snapped off some pictures.
Three years later, I visited the village for the first time, spending time with Simon Paneak’s son, Raymond, and his grandson, Mickey. I was first connected to the Paneak’s through Maggie Ahmaogak, an Inupiat from Barrow who works with my wife. This led to an encounter with Mickey on Facebook, where we kept in touch for about a year before my first visit. Little did I know how much Facebook was a part of the daily routine for Anaktuvuk Pass residents.
I have visited very few villages in Alaska: Naknek, Bettles, and Anaktuvuk Pass. Naknek is likely not a typical village because it has a paved highway and an extensive industrial infrastructure due to the dominance of commercial fishing. Bettles is more a logistical stop, featuring a sizable airport and float plane base, lodge, National Park Service facilities, as it is a major gateway to Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.
I get a sense that Anaktuvuk Pass is much more of a traditional Alaska village. The majority of the residents are Alaska Native, with the few non-Natives in the town living there as a result of some sort of government employment: teachers, administrators, park rangers. There are no paved roads, even the famous Hickel Highway, which runs along the edge of the airstrip. Due to the prevalence of permafrost in the area, most structures sit on short stilts rather than directly on the ground. There are far more ATVs and Argos on the road than there are typical motor vehicles. And pretty much wherever you go, there is a smiling face and a wave coming from everyone you encounter. The children were always friendly, outgoing, greeting strangers with “What’s your name?” When one small girl greeted me with, “Da?” I responded with, “No,” to which she reacted rather confusedly. But as I observed over the week, men of my generation were often greeted with “Da” and the next generation older with “Dada,” or grandpa.
Life in “bush” Alaska is expensive. Gasoline was $9.00 per gallon when I was there, and that was with the 20% seasonal discount offered by the fuel supplier, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, to help during the subsistence hunting season. A case of soda (which everyone calls “pop”) goes for $34.00. A look down the aisles at the village corporation grocery store reveals a lot of processed foods and no fresh produce. Consistent with Alaska values, the supply of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread outnumbered the supply of Nabisco Saltine Crackers by about three-to-one. When I asked Raymond Paneak about one of the things that concerned him about changes to his community, he expressed dismay over the abundance of junk food and soda with few nutritional alternatives. Most public health officials and even teachers seem to agree.
During the week I was there, the town was also a buzz with several public and leadership meetings regarding the proposed Road to Umiat, part of Governor Sean Parnell’s “Road to Resources” initiative. The Road to Resources follows the “Field of Dreams” approach to infrastructure planning: if you build it, they will come. The hope is that if the State of Alaska spends billions of its own money to build roads out into the Arctic tundra, then resource extraction companies, namely oil & gas and mining, will make the effort to go out, explore, develop and produce.
The residents of Anaktuvuk Pass seem to be overwhelmingly against the road. I attended a leadership meeting that included leadership from the city, village corporation, and Tribe sitting across the table from State personnel there to discuss the project and hear concerns. There were two leadership meetings and two public meetings during the week on the issue. Helicopters coming and going reflected visitors for these meetings and other meetings with development interests. During the meeting I attended, Mayor Esther Hugo spoke at length about the importance of the caribou and their connection to the land. A man I spoke to in the entryway to the city offices stressed his concerns, stating that the road was just the first step, that his worry was that the oil companies wanted to take away all of the resources from the Nunamiut and force their ultimate resettlement. I also heard a local who works as a subsistence advisor to oil and gas companies note that he observed hunting guides taking only the antlers of caribou, leaving behind the entire animal in favor of the trophy; an illegal act in Alaska.
The more I learned about the people and history of Anaktuvuk Pass, the more I came to understand these fears, especially the opposition to the Road to Umiat. Back in the 1960s, then Governor Wally Hickel had the great idea of building a road to the North Slope of Alaska. Except, Governor Hickel did not plan or engineer or construct a road; he simply had crews drive a bulldozer up to the Arctic. This turned out to be a disaster of a road for summer use, as the gouge in the land allowed for thawing of the permafrost beneath it, creating a sucking mud pit that was impassable. It remained a viable ice road in the winter, and allowed companies to haul large equipment up to the Prudhoe Bay region. Unfortunately, it also opened up vast tracts of land, including the Anaktuvuk Pass and John River valley regions, to large scale hunting.
It was opposition to this hunting that led the people of Anaktuvuk Pass to file a lawsuit to terminate the road, and ultimately to seek inclusion in the rumored national park that was going to be created in the Brooks Range. When I asked Raymond Paneak how he felt about the creation of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, he responded, “It got rid of the trophy hunters.” It seems to be that this concern over increased trophy hunter access, along with disruption of the caribou migration routes, lies at the heart of the opposition to the Road to Umiat.
But with the creation of the new park and the elimination of the trophy hunter access, a new problem arose: the use of ATVs to engage in traditional caribou hunting activities. Under ANILCA, according to the National Park Service, modes of transportation can only be used in the park for subsistence activities if they are “customary and traditional.” The first ATV came to the community of Anaktuvuk Pass in 1971, not long enough for the Park Service to consider “customary and traditional.” This contradicted the expectations of the Nunamiut that they would be able to use ATVs to hunt caribou in their traditional areas around Anaktuvuk Pass. The other problem was that, under the Wilderness Act, any motorized vehicle is expressly prohibited in designated wilderness areas. Eight million acres of the park, including the area immediately to the south of Anaktuvuk Pass, were designated as wilderness when the park was created. It took sixteen years and two acts of Congress, one to de-designate wilderness in the park (the first time this ever happened in the United States) and another to conduct a land-swap between the federal government and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, in order to establish the system that allows the residents of Anaktuvuk Pass to hunt using ATVs today.
From the Nunamiut people to how Anaktuvuk Pass came to exist, there is an amazing history behind the community. But as a result of these two things, the community has also been studied ad nauseam by anthropologists. Add to that the fact that the town also gets daily visits of small tour groups, wandering around town with a guide, taking pictures, and it can get a little challenging to explain what you are up to wandering around town by yourself for a whole week taking pictures. The primary purpose of my visit was simply to learn and to get to know some people in the community. And there is so much to learn.