Our unexpected but wonderful stop on Point Hope stretched into a week. From July 23 to 29 the northeast wind blew constantly, increasing in strength all the time. It would have made for unpleasant upwind sailing and slow progress; furthermore, our Dutch friends aboard Necton had reported from further north (they’d left Nome ahead of us) that the north wind was pushing the sea ice down on shore and they’d had quite a bit of trouble, getting trapped several times. All that combined with the fact that Pt Hope was rapidly becoming our favorite place on the voyage so far made the decision easy: we would stay until the wind changed.
A chance meeting with two Tikiġaq (Pt Hope) residents – Pete and Pauline – cemented that decision. We’d rowed ashore again to verify our potential snowy owl sighting with the zoom lens and, while tramping around the tundra twitching at every white bird, two Inupiat on an ATV approached us and introduced themselves at Pete and Pauline. They were headed out to the ruins of the original village of Tikiġaq (on the end of the peninsula, about 2 or 3 miles from the modern village), to dig for artifacts. We were immediately interested and ended up spending the whole afternoon with them, poking into the sod and whalebone iglus there, opening up Pauline’s cold cellar and crawling on the permafrost within, and learning a lot about Point Hope’s history and their own lives and culture.
Point Hope/Tikiġaq is probably the oldest continuously inhabited place in North America. Some of the earliest archaeological finds include the beautiful ivory carvings and masks of the Ipiutuk culture. This culture did not hunt whales and, in fact, when archaeologists in the 1940s had asked the Inupiat living on Point Hope to help identify certain tools and artifacts, they were at a loss. The Inupiat culture arose later and centered around the spring bowhead whale hunt. For 1000 years the people of Tikiġaq lived in the sod and whalebone iglus that Pete and Pauline showed us. Pete had actually grown up in one in the 1950s, and the last woman to live in one had only moved out in 1975. Many Inupiat had moved out before that and their timber-frame houses nearby were probably the “ruins” marked on our chart. Those houses were abandoned in the 1970s due to erosion and storm-surge flooding, so the current village was built further inland. According to Pete, the modern site was problematic for a different reason: it was where traditional rack burials had taken place, and although the bodies had long ago been re-interred in a cemetery due to Christian missionaries, some people were troubled by ghosts at in the modern village.
Pauline’s cold cellar, and many others like it, are essentially small holes in the tundra covered by wood that access a much bigger crawl space on the permafrost. Despite the fact that many families have refrigerators now, the cold cellars are prized possessions, passed from one generation to another to store muktuk (whale blubber) and meat. Pete told us quite a bit about the bowhead whale hunt, stories of paddling out in a sealskin umiak to harpoon the great whales. Point Hope is one of the few places left that keep all the old traditions alive like that.
Over the next few days, we visited with Pete several times and met his cousin Steve. We learned about how the Tikiġaq people had stopped the 1958 Project Chariot, which would have detonated a string of nuclear bombs to create a deep water harbor near Point Hope. Fortunately a small group of scientists and the people of Point Hope managed to prevent an Alaskan Chernobyl from happening! We also learned about more pleasant things, such as a dance festival that happens every winter – Steve showed us his mask and drum – the many spearheads and other tools Pete had found on his beachcombing trips, and stories of dangling from cliffs to collect the eggs of murres and other seabirds. Pete told us of being drafted and fighting in Vietnam, when he’d been asked to drive a truck and couldn’t, having only ever driven a dog team before! He didn’t tell us much else but we learned later that he’d been awarded a medal for saving another soldier’s life.
Throughout our week on Point Hope, we also spent a ton of time hoofing around, checking out the birds, sea mammals, and scenery. But that’ll have to wait till the next post. 🙂