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

Jimmy was back and Captain K (Kiyukuk), the reindeer herder, was
scheduled to leave. For days the Captain sat on the living room
varnished plywood floor scraping reindeer leggings. Leggings are,
naturally, fur skinned from the legs of reindeer. Kiyukuk placed the
14″-ish X 8″-ish piece of hide fur side down on the floor. With the hide
between his outstretched legs he thumped and stroked his handmade
scraper — rounded steel blade and bone handle — against the raw side
of the leggings removing dried membrane and tissue. Maggie was happy to
finally have her stash of leggings clean, white , soft and supple for
making mukluks. I was the happy recipient of a pair reindeer mukluks
with seal hide sole and land otter trim.

Kiyukuk was an expert at scraping reindeer hide. He worked for hours
happy to have work to do in a warm living area keeping an eye on the
comings and goings. He didn’t say much but would occasionally converse
with Maggie in Eskimo. He spoke English but when I said a word or two,
he pretended not to hear me.

Maggie and Martin brought him to the house nearly starved to death
with pneumonia. Maggie had taken good care of him and after a few weeks
of recuperation in Golovin, he was to be taken to live with his sister
in the midst of civilization (Anchorage?). Most of his adult life he had
lived alone surviving in the arctic wilderness. I wondered how he would
survive his last years in the city. It didn’t seem right or fair to me.
But it was inevitable. My suburban mind believed if we worked hard
through to retirement and old age, we would be and should be awarded
approaching death with dignity and peace. It didn’t appear to be a
dignified end for Captain K. I imagined him feeling displaced and caged.
I can’t know, but I am now aware, having watched my elderly parents and
others, that if I live to be an old woman, those last years may offer
the biggest of life’s challenges.

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

Dancing Eskimo Boys

Learning to dance, Nome Elementary School

The Iditarod recently finished in Nome. My first experience with Iditarod, I took this picture of the last sled to
arrive in Nome some seven days after the winner. A ptarmigan is attached
to the stick.

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

Jimmy was back. He entered the store as his old positive self. The
last I’d seen him, months ago, he was strapped in a strait jacket while
state troopers loaded him into a plane for Nome or Anchorage. He was
back again and stood before me without apologies, explanations,
embarrassment or shame; as if the wild blip months before never
happened.

I told him that while he was away I’d finally met his elusive
brothers, Unksy and Gooksy (see MY ESKIMO FAMILY 66). He didn’t respond in a familial way — as if I’d
met an extension of himself. I didn’t recognize a trace in his demeanor
as to connectedness one might expect or exude when talking about family.
Maybe because he was the polar opposite of his brothers. While he was
gregarious and always out and about the village, his brothers were
hermit like and seemingly introverted. I suspect, in hindsight, the ALL
the people of Golovin, because of their isolation and dependence,
were one big family.

As for me, I wanted nothing more than to feel and believe I was
intimately unquestioningly a part of a familial group. My immediate
family and I were not close or very much involved with each other’s
lives. One of my two brothers died when we were all teenagers. My
remaining brother and two sisters did not cry together or console one
another. The event steeled our emotional disconnectedness into
adulthood. I wrote letters home over the many months in Golovin
but had yet to receive a letter from the family. My mother sent a large
gift box for my birthday to the astonishment of Maggie. “What does she
do for Christmas?” she asked.

Where mother made extraordinary efforts to send me gift boxes for
birthday and Christmas, news and information from home barely existed. I
received two or three letters consisting of newspaper articles on
menstrual cramps or frostbite with a short sentence written in the
margin. I hated those “letters”. Perhaps my time in Golovin
symbolized the conflict within between belonging — not belonging —
the longing to belong — and emotional isolation. The months I was in Golovin, my inner thoughts of why I was there were not entertained by me.
The adventure remained an adventure. I wished my sibling could share it
with me. Soon, however, the moment would come when I realized I was
outstaying my welcome and my child-like needs were intruding on family
that was, ultimately, a group of strangers.

In the meantime, my devoted admirer, Jimmy, was back.

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

Snow Drift in Nome

Snow Drift in Nome

Dry Dock in Nome

Dry Dock in Nome

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

Martin and Maggie would regularly fly a ways up the coast and inland
to bring groceries and government check to an old retired reindeer
herder. This day they buzzed over his cabin but things didn’t look
normal. There was no swirling smoke coming from the chimney even though
the temperature was below 0°F. When they landed, they found old Kiyukuk
nearly starving with his feet inside a stone cold wood stove.
Apparently he had gashed himself in the side with an ax and was unable
to do the hard work necessary to survive such frigid temperatures.
Martin and Maggie packed him up then hauled him back to Golovin to
recuperate.

With the extreme cold, frost built up on the door
jam. One had to give the door a good yank to un-stick the bottom of the
door from the threshold. It opened with a screech not unlike nails on a
chalk board. Upon arriving Maggie shoved the door open and Martin helped
the stooped old man, protecting his side, into the house. He seemed
visibly relieved to be in the warmth with promised food and care. I was
shocked to see him. He looked so much like the holocaust victims I saw
in pictures that my stomach literally turned over. The base of his jaw
line protruded like a ship’s deck while his neck disappeared somewhere
under the inverted bowl under his jaw.

It was hard to imagine this old frail man running across the tundra tending, herding and butchering reindeer. I could imagine, however, after living with him
a short while, why he remained a bachelor. He had some pretty quirky
ways. He was given my old room — a small room filled with grocery
inventory and a cot. At night he listened to his radio tuned to a
Russian station. Lying in his long underwear he probably hadn’t taken
off in years, he would mimic the radio voices speaking Russian. “Does he
speak Russian,” I asked Maggie. “No,” she answered. He did speak only
in Inupiaq with Martin and Maggie. He wouldn’t respond to my English
though Maggie assured me he could understand.

Because he had been in near starvation condition, Maggie felt it best he be given food rationally. Most nights the family had ice cream. When the freezer door
at the bottom of the stairway opened, he was down the stairs from his
room and at the kitchen table in seconds. But when the toilet seat over
the honey bucket displayed evidence of his distressed digestive system,
the ice cream for Kiyukuk (Donny called him “Captain K”) was off limits.
Some evenings we would wait for him to retire then the rest of us would
open the freezer door as quietly as possible to retrieve ice cream.
Most of the time we got away with it, which was difficult as he had
excellent hearing, especially for the particular squeak of the freezer door.

Blue berries picked in the late summer and fall then
frozen were also a regular winter dessert. The first evening Captain K
had berries with the family he would take a bite then spit little bits
of berry debris onto the floor. Finally he said (in English) “Maggie,
who picked these berries?” I first wondered if it was me but then
assured myself that I picked a pretty clean bucket of berries and was
proud of it. I’m sure he chose to speak English that one and only moment
for my benefit.

He hadn’t and probably couldn’t wash his hair for a really long time but he didn’t hesitate to take Maggie’s pink comb from a kitchen drawer and use it.

One morning, standing atop of the stairs, I witnessed the top of Captain K’s wispy haired head bending over trying to look through the cracks in the stairs. Beneath
the stairs was the honey bucket (toilet) where Maggie happened to be
taking care of business. Captain K apparently was trying to peek a look
through a narrow opening. He swayed back and forth trying to find the
clearest view.  “What’ou doing?” I asked (I had begun to pick up
village speak). Surprised I had caught him, he scurried on up the stairs
saying his usual mantra, “Yah, yah,”  passing me and into his
room. I heard Maggie laughing and I had to join her. I should have been
more aware a couple nights later of just how female lonely this ‘ol guy was.

One night when I passed his room I saw he was still clothed
and reading a Bible but seemed to be having trouble. I offered to sit on
the end of his bed and read to him. I had read a passage or two when he
grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth. Ewwwwwwwwww! I was surprised at
how strong he was as he had trouble opening the front door for the frost
on the threshold. But, I should have known better.

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

With the winter snow machines came out making land travel less
constricting. A trip to White Mountain across the frozen bay or over the hilly snow covered tundra to Koyuk was now possible. A couple of brothers, grown men, who I had only heard about and hadn’t seen all summer and fall, holed up in their homes, were now out and about. These two Golovin residents, born and raised, whom I had never seen in my up to then 5-6 month residency, came into the store to buy gas for their snow machines. Their names were, strangely enough, Unsky and Gooksy and were the elusive brothers of outgoing flamboyant Jimmy. As small framed Jimmy’s personality could be pesky, his brother’s larger stature and shy and indifferent personalities could be somewhat frightening. Like Jimmy, they drank a lot. So I heard.

When they came into the store for the first time, I figured these two
had to be the brothers I’d only heard about. Their non-conversational
demeanor made me nervous and when they did finally speak I could barely
hear what they were wanting. They asked for their jerry jugs to be
filled with gas and a can of oil mixed in. I had to ask the one talking
to please repeat a couple of times. He would barely look at me and I
didn’t want to upset him by asking him to repeat several times. I
eventually understood what he needed but succomed to my nervousness and
blurted out, “You’re Jimmy’s brothers? Unsky and Gunksky? Oonsky and
Gooksy?” Fortunately they laughed at my slaughtering of their names and
the tension between us broke. I would see the brothers only one other
time during my stay in Golovin.

Snow cover and more freedom of movement also meant a realigning of
one’s bearings. The snow cover and frozen bay gave the landscape an
all-over evenness. Rising and falling hills, sharp dark rock formations,
coastlines and water were now blended into a white softening of the
landscape and the occasional disappearance of a horizon. One winter
visit from M.O., home from school, he suddenly told me to follow him. It
was night. He straddled the driver’s seat of a snow machine and told me
to get on. From home he drove far out onto the frozen bay then stopped.
We got off the machine and looking back from where we had come I was
surprised to see that the few small lights I expected to see from
Golovin had disappeared. We had only the full moon illuminating the blue
night snow and a sky with more stars than I’d ever seen before.

He explained that the ice/sea sat above the village which is why we
could not see it’s lights. He showed me the stars and pointed out the Orion constellation and the three stars that make up
his belt. In the belt was a star that appeared to twinkle red and
green. In the arctic night it was easy to see.  He explained that
if ever I was lost “out here” that I need to head in the direction of
that star. I couldn’t imagine my ever being “out there” by myself but I
was grateful for his taking the time to teach me an important survival
skill. He seemed quite serious and this trip was not a joy ride. We went
back home.

As it turned out, I would, weeks later, find myself in a situation
where I needed to know how to get back to Golovin from the middle of the
frozen bay one night in zero degree temps.

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

The sea beginning its freeze

Frozen Bering Sea

Frozen Bering Sea


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