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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

The first time I heard about the Iditarod was one night at the dinner table. Martin
explained it was a sled dog race that began in Anchorage
and ended in Nome. The mushers came right through Golovin on
their last (dog) leg to White Mountain, then Saftey and finally to the finish line in downtown Nome. They traveled an unbelievable 1000 miles. The leaders made it in about 10 — 12 days. Others took up to three weeks.  Martin said the dogs were excited and lively in Anchorage, but by the time they reached Golovin the dogs were exhausted, tongues hanging and “dogged”. This was something I really wanted to see — a real dog musher.

Dog mushing is a part of my heritage. My grandfather and grandmother (Mini) traveled by dog team in the old days. Mini’s father and brother
(my great grandfather and great uncle) had the mail contract from Nome to Unalakleet delivering the mail by dog sled. A round trip took them about two weeks. My great grandfather, Pete, was quite a sly dog himself. His home base was Solomon where he ran a grocery with his Eskimo wife and three children (a boy and two girls). He would load his sled (drive to Nome for the mail?) then trek back again east and south to Unalakleet.

It must get pretty cold and lonely traveling such a distance in the arctic cold and long nights for ‘ol great grandfather, Pete, had a second Eskimo wife and children (two girls) in Unalakleet. When his first family was raised and married with children of their own, Pete’s first wife in Solomon died. Pete then brought his second wife and two girls from Unalakleet back home to Solomon. Needless to say, the first set of siblings never got along with the second set of siblings.

It took nearly my entire stay in Golovin (about 9 months) to sort out the family lineage and who’s who. With duplicate names (my great aunt
and aunt share the same name) and with family members having been switched around (my Aunt Maggie was raised by Pete and his second wife, my great Aunt Maggie raised my father who’s natural mother was Mini so my great Aunt Maggie is my adoptive grandmother) It was confusing.

I left Golovin before the kick off of the Iditarod but some 17 years later I would meet and become friends with the 1989 Iditarod champion and his champion musher wife, Joe and Sherri Runyan. We had both recently moved to the small New Mexico ranch town of Magdalena.

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Pete Curran and Pauline

1898. From Klondike, Pete went down the Yukon to St. Michael and on to Spruce Creek to try his hand at gold mining. At Spruce Creek (east of Nome) Minnie (my birth grandmother), Maggie (my adoptive grandmother) and Pete Jr. were born. From Spruce Creek, Pete moved to Golovin where he became a mail carrier contractor (by dog team). From Golovin, he moved to Solomon in 1925 where he continued his mail contract and bought into a trading post and roadhouse. My great uncle Pete Junior took over the mail contract and also operated the ferry at the Bonanza river crossing for years.

Solomon Roadhouse

Pete Curran's Solomon Roadhouse as I saw it in the late 70's

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Weeks before arriving at the camp in Omalik, Uncle
Martin and Aunt Maggie talked at the dinner table about squirrel
hunting. I immediately assumed they spoke of guns — maybe BB guns. “You
pick them up by the scruff of the neck and reach in and pull their
hearts out,” he said while raising both hands in the air, one hand
holding the neck of an imaginary squirrel, the other pinching and
pulling. I thought he was kidding me, trying to gross out the “white
girl” until I realized he spoke not in jest. “Why don’t you just shoot
them,” I asked thinking shooting would be less cruel to the helpless. He
explained shooting would leave a hole in the pelt and the pelts are
used for making parkas.

The appalled reaction I had that evening
over discussion of pulling hearts out of squirrels was presently not in
my consciousness when, on the first day at Omalik, Maggie and I set some
25 traps at the entrance of ground squirrel burrows. Today, at writing
this, I would be reluctant to pry open and set a small (size 00) trap (I
refuse to even set a mouse trap), but I was a trooper back then and set
them as per Maggie’s instructions. “Don’t you need bait or something?” I
asked. “No, this is the entrance to their den and they will just run
over it.”

Each morning we traversed up a large hill setting traps
while Maggie commented on each one: the bush, the rock, anything to
mentally mark their placements. At the top of the hill we would stop and
have tea from a thermos and dried fish and pilot bread. Maggie would
point out the hills where Belinda and Kathy were hunting. “I wonder how
they’re doing.” she would say. One day a fox sauntered up our hill but
noticing us skirted around a safe distance away. We wondered if he
hadn’t raided our traps but saw no evidence of it in his mouth.

After
lunch we worked our way back down the mountain. The first day I stayed
with Maggie to watch her expertly kill and remove the trap from the
first couple of squirrels. As per the Eskimo way, her explanation as to
how one reaches into the squirrel cavity, feels for the heart and
quickly pulls it was brief and without elaboration. She then told me to
check other traps on my own. I secretly hoped mine would be empty.

The
first trap on my own and there it was, a trapped squirrel running in
circles as I approached. I put on my gloves. The traps were anchored by a
rope to a branch so the squirrel couldn’t run away with it down his
hole. I grabbed the panicked creature by the back of the neck.
Surprisingly it went lifeless — I suppose like a cat or dog carrying
it’s young. But when I began feeling, groping, pressing, pinching its
chest cavity it began scratching wildly at my right wrist. I let go of
him in my own panic. My heart began to race and the sweat began pouring
around my brow. The squirrel ran in circles crying. I felt sick. I
picked it up again and tried to reach for the heart. My own heart was
pounding in my ears. Even though the squirrel struggled I stayed firm. I
couldn’t let it suffer more.

Finally under the rib cage I found
the wild rapid beat then slid my finger tips up to the top of the heart
and quickly pinched and pulled. I would like to say I finally ended his
suffering, but it “died” for just a moment before coming back to life. I
put it down, trying to gain some composure, courage and will power. One
last time I managed to make a quick end to it. Poor thing. I felt even
sicker over what I had done to that squirrel.

The next trap with a
squirrel, I gave it an expert end to its life — I had to be an expert,
no more learning curve, as I refused to torture another one. When I met
up again with Maggie, she laughed and laughed having heard the cries of
the first squirrel breaking the wilderness’ absolute silence. Her
squirrels and my consequent squirrels made nary a peep. I realized,
after I had acquired a deft touch, it was a rather humane way to kill
them — minus the trap.

By week’s end we had trapped 140
squirrels. The meat would be used for food and the fur for clothing.
Trapping and packing them back to camp, however, was not the end of the
day. At day’s end every squirrel needed to be cleaned. In the morning
they would be skinned.

(To be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Omalik

Top of the hill back towards camp. It's steeper than it looks.

Omalik

Top of the hill where we had lunch.

squirrel hunting

A day's catch for Maggie and I

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Martin flew the four of us women and Belinda’s dog
in two trips. We had sleeping bags, food, cook stuff, traps, skinning
supplies, fuel (wood and kerosene) and a spare change of clothes and
gear for possible cold. September brought sudden heat or chill. The camp
at Omalik consisted of one room with a heat/cook stove, a bench like
dining table and four cots.

Once unpacked, I was sent to the stream for water. “Watch out for bears,” I was told. Damned bears again.
Like most people, I love the romance of bears, but these are not
Yellowstone bears scouting campsites for scraps and giving city and
suburban folk vaca photo ops. These were wild take no prisoners type
bears roaming the tundra. They had to work harder for food than those
fluff park bears. These were the bears that stalked my dreams most of my
childhood into adulthood bears. I grabbed a  metal dipping cup to
accompany my water pail before leaving the cabin.

It seemed I walked a good 1/2 mile before I found the stream. With Belinda watching
my every move, ready to criticize, I feared I went the wrong direction
from where I was told. I was beginning to doubt my ability to simply go
in the direction of Maggie’s point. An Eskimo point, however, is not
with outstretched arm and index finger — a gesture hard to misinterpret
— an Eskimo point involved the raising of the chin pointed toward the
intended target with puckered lips and raised eyebrows. Maybe I had
missed a subtle motion of the eyebrows . . . or a tilt of the chin . . .
I forgot about bears and focused on what “excuse” I might come up with
to prove to Belinda I went that way (the wrong way) on purpose as I was,
perhaps, also gathering wood . . . She wanted nothing better than for
me to prove my incompetence and unworthiness at being there instead of
precious Koke. Her Kokey. But I did stumble upon the stream and filled
the bucket as high as I could without dredging up rock and sand along
with water. I was glad I had brought the dipper cup.

When I got back, I filled a kettle with water for tea and placed it on the already
sizzling hot cast iron stove. Meanwhile Belinda spoke enthusiastically
about Koke — in Inupiaq — telling old stories of past squirrel hunting
trips.  Standing near to me, watching my every move in between
reminiscences, she proceeded to move the kettle some 6″ to the right and
gave me a sideways “I dare you”. I have an ability to blank out my face
erasing it of emotion. With that face I moved the kettle back where I
originally placed it. Actually, anywhere on that stove would have
produced a boiling kettle of water.

In my family a fight was a fight among sisters, drug out way longer than necessary, but someone was
determined to win. I was prepared to move that kettle back and forth
into the night if necessary. In a moment of heightened preparation for
battle, I imagined Maggie and Kathy behind our backs holding Belinda’s
and my elbows back into our waist, trying to keep us from knocking each
other down with a hot tea kettle . . . but, just like that, the conflict
was over. Belinda backed down and sauntered over to the table next to
Maggie as if nothing had been instigated. That’s it? That’s all she
had?

For the rest of the week, we simply stayed out of each
other’s way. By week’s end she would respect me for my squirrel
trapping and skinning skills though we would never have a conversation
even though she spoke fluent English.

(To be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Omalik mountain

Outside the cabin at Omalik. I did a painting from this picture for Maggie. Wish I had a slide of the painting.

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

By fall, everything was changing. Cranes high
overhead were flying south — flying so high they would not have been
noticed were it not for their chorus of guttural calls. “Eee-shi-gi”,
declared one of the girls looking up at the seemingly thousands of
cranes. My Golovin family was also moving south and East–Donny back to
Fairbanks, MO back to Duluth, alone, to finish school and Sister to
Anchorage to try her hand at nursing school. I was alone in the store
big house with my aunt and uncle where there would be, finally, no
shortage of work for me. It was a lonely feeling but my curiosity and
determination to live the winter months in Arctic Alaska tempered my
sense of solitary displacement.

Blueberries, seal oil, salmon, reindeer and moose were some of the foods my relatives stocked
for winter sustenance. Another food and material was ground squirrel.
Every September Maggie, a friend, Kathy, from Koyuk and a long-time
friend named Belinda packed into an interior camp at Omalik to hunt
squirrel for the food and fur. Cloth parkys (parkas) were lined with
tanned squirrel hides while fancy parkys were made of a large number of
squirrel hides both inside and out. Each year Maggie made this trip with
Koke who flew the women in and helped set traps for unsuspecting ground
squirrels. Koke was a good, contented happy fellow who, I’m sure, made a
pleasant companion for his mother and the ladies each year. Belinda was
especially fond of him.

Belinda was the most Eskimo Eskimo I would ever meet. She was the real-deal-100%-raised, my
ancestor-in-the-flesh Eskimo. She looked National Geographic Eskimo,
spoke almost exclusively Eskimo (Inupiaq), had long gray braids tied to
the back of her head, dressed in kuspaq and calf skin mukluks and
carried a traditional Eskimo made box housing a small collection of
Eskimo handicrafts. She carried traditional ivory carved “sun glasses”
and other bits and pieces she treasured as talismans. Maggie was not so
appreciative as she had been raised Covenant Christian and taught not to
believe in traditional Eskimo “folk” tales. I, on the other hand, was
fascinated.

The day before leaving for Omalik Belinda was delivered to Maggie’s front door. She and Maggie greeted each other like
the old friends they were with laughter and Eskimo kisses (a gentle hug
with sniffs on the cheek). Maggie introduced her to me saying something
in Inupiaq. Belinda snorted a hello obviously not entirely pleased with
what she was told about me.

One of the first orders of business was tea and dried fish in seal oil. I had become very fond of this dish.
Paper plates where laid out in front of us with a shaker of salt
nearby. Chunks of fish (salmon) were spooned out of the jar of seal oil
and placed on the plates then salted liberally. Anyone who has eaten or
smelled, for that matter, seal oil, knew that any surface doused with
seal oil would remain doused with seal oil — and thereby forever smell
like seal oil. The rule to eating dried fish in seal oil is to eat
exclusively with one hand and keep the other clean for grabbing salt,
tea cups and such. Belinda watched me like a prison guard ready to voice
her disgust if I were to contaminate both hands, this after I
apparently disgruntled her sensibilities when I actually ate the fish in
seal oil with obvious pleasure. While she chattered on with Maggie,
catching up on all the news, in Inupiaq, I pretended not to mind being
excluded. Actually I didn’t mind as it was as if I were seeing and
observing in real time and space the people most people only see and
read about in books. Belinda, to me, was a national treasure. I would be
spending the week with her in the arctic interior. I looked forward to
the experience but she would not make it easy for me. What I thought
would be a short warming up period would quickly turn into a moment of
unwelcome hostility on her part.

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

belinda

Belinda telling one of her many authentic Eskimo stories to a classroom of children.

Great Aunt Maggie and Dad

My father with his mother, also named Maggie, wearing a fancy parky made with squirrel skins, wolf ruff, weasel tails and calf skin for decorative inserts.

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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

A phone was fastened to a post near the aviation
gas pump. There must be a “call me anytime” understanding between bush
pilots, for the 6:00 am time did not give Donny a moment of hesitation
to call the number posted. Someone like Donny–half Eskimo, from an
Alaskan village, charismatic bush pilot–gives one the confidence to
manage the world and people. He was guaranteed an interested audience of
one or many. His unique race, background and occupation gave him a
ready interest and fascination from most people.

By the time we gathered some of our things, a man was there to meet us.
After gassing up the plane he invited us to his home where his wife cooked us a well
received breakfast. In exchange they received a bush pilot’s story or
two from Donny. Our hosts soon had to leave for town for work but
invited us to stay on sofas in the den where we could catch a couple
hours of sleep. Our rescuer shook Donny’s hand as if Donny had done the
man the favor for running out of gas at his pump, rather than he and his
wife being inconvenienced so early that morning. His wife gave us a
couple of pillows and they both ran out the door for work leaving their
home in our care. We weren’t in Chicago anymore.

When the wife handed me a pillow, my first concern was the possibility of infecting
the pillow case with the highly contagious impetigo. I imagined her
cursing my visit some days later when small blisters appeared on her own
face. I slathered my cheek with medicine, laid a couple of layers of
paper towel across the surface, placed my head softly on the paper towel
and went right to sleep in somewhere North Dakota.

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

The Al Can From air

Some of the beautiful terrain to come.


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To start reading from the beginning, go to May 11, 2008.

Finally, between three and four a.m. we decided to
pack up our sleeping bags and fly out of there. The gas pumps were
closed but Donny figured we would stop later that morning. A Cessna 170
is not equipped with sophisticated instruments. Navigation is done with a
literal typographic map, compass and a watchful eye. Our eyes were
blurred from lack of sleep, but we had the moon. My pilot radioed our
flight path and we were on our way out of the cloud of pesticides.

Donny woke me from a sleepy stupor to help him navigate. We had been
riding high above a highway, but he wasn’t sure anymore if the highway
we followed was the right one. Looking out over the landscape, it
appeared we were the only souls awake and the only souls lost. Donny
dropped altitude enough to where I could supposedly read interstate
signs. Of course I complied without hesitation, but at, what?, 90+ miles
an hour?, my head had to whip from front to back in order to attempt to
catch a letter-a number-a symbol . . . Between the odorous pesticide
lingering in my nostrils and the ever threatening nausea from plane
induced vertigo, I wasn’t much help. Actually, I was barely conscious of
our situation from fatigue and fighting back air sickness.

With the rising sun, Donny was able to determine our geographic
position. Another more dire problem arose. We had a mere estimated 20
minutes of fuel remaining. The typographical flight map was thrown into
my lap for me to study. I sorted the landscape around us with the lines
and symbols on the map. The map was a wonder to me: every airport no
matter how small, every hill, no matter the size was mapped. I wondered
who had the patience to determine then draw out such detail?

There it was, an airplane symbol off the side of the highway not too far from
our location. Not too many minutes later, we soared over a line of
trees then onto a grass airstrip cut from the edge of a farmer’s field.
The plane halted just in front of a gas pump that had to be 50 years
old. I asked Donny how many minutes of gas he felt we had left. “About 10.”

On the ground with a mere 10 minutes of fuel remaining was a minor close
call. We could have landed just about anywhere I figured. A major
inconvenience, for sure. How do you get a plane out of a field miles
from anywhere? We were safe. No problems. Just tired. Next time,
however, our close call would be a serious one with potentially grave
results.

(to be continued) copyright Tamara Ann Burgh, all rights reserved

Al Can

Some of the terrain we would eventually be flying over

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