Above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, a half-day's journey by snowmobile from the nearest paved road or tree, a village called Kivalina sits on a slip of permanently frozen earth bracketed by water — a lagoon on one side and the Chukchi Sea on the other. Every spring, when daylight returns to the village after months of darkness, people stand in the snow outside their storm-battered cabins and look out at the sea, hoping this will be the year.
Some Alaskan villages catch a whale every year. Kivalina was never that lucky, partly because it occupies a spot on the coast that's farther from the migratory path of the bowhead whale. Still, there was a time when villagers could reasonably expect to land a whale every three or four years. Those days are gone.
Last March, as the bowheads were beginning to head north on their spring migration, I flew to the village to accompany a group of villagers on a quest to catch a whale. It had been 21 years since the last successful whale hunt, 21 years of futility and disappointment, and yet, for reasons I didn't fully understand, the villagers hadn't given up. When I asked Reppi Swan why they still did it — why they still risked their lives and spent so much of their time and money pursuing a goal that always eluded them — he was succinct. "It's who we are," he said.
Reppi is one of the village's nine whaling captains. He's 42. He has a copper tan shaded black on the cheekbones from frostbite, and the kind of ropy physique you get from chopping wood and shoveling snow. His jaw starts just below his ears and narrows sharply, giving him a wolfishly handsome look despite the fact that he has lost all his teeth. If you're a whaling captain in an Eskimo whaling village, you're a big deal, something like the coach of a small-town Texas football team. But Reppi doesn't carry himself like anything special. He never brags. He doesn't say much more than he has to. When I first spoke to him on the phone from New York, I nervously pressed him for advice on what to wear. What kind of boots? How many layers? "Bring your warm stuff," he said.
A different sort of man might have a hard time coping with life in Kivalina. Outsiders who spend time in the village sometimes feel as though they've traveled in time to some not-too-distant future in which the government has finally imploded after years of dysfunction, leaving the people to fend for themselves, like Mad Max but with snowmobiles. In most of the houses, the toilet is a bucket. Kivalina's 468 residents have no running water, so Reppi drives his Polaris 550 snowmobile to the town pump twice a week to fill a pair of 55-gallon garbage bins for the family. The people of Kivalina have become as reliant as the rest of us on certain perks of modernity — smartphones, stupid TV — even as they lack many of the things we take for granted. There are no restaurants or coffee shops in the village, no libraries or fitness centers, no police officers. The homes are as crowded as the tenement apartments of the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century. In the village store, the Pepsi boxes are stacked halfway to the ceiling, but there is no dentist or doctor within a hundred miles. There are no roads connecting Kivalina to anywhere else.
If you don't have a snowmobile or an ATV, the only way to get to and from Kivalina is by boat or on one of the nine-seat planes that touch down on the airstrip most days. The closest neighboring village, Noatak, lies 50 miles inland. To travel there for basketball tournaments, young people from Kivalina ride their snowmobiles or ATVs over the tundra and through the mountains. The island once served only as a staging area for the whale hunt that took place, as it still does today, each spring. In the early 1900s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs came and built a school and told people they would get thrown in jail unless they sent their kids there year-round to learn En¬glish. So the people gave up the nomadic ways that had sustained them for generations and moved into a permanent settlement on the island. Punished, sometimes physically, for speaking their native Inupiat in school, children who grew up in that era became parents who hesitated to speak Inupiat to their children. But one Inupiat word everyone still uses is tammaq, to lose or to get lost. People in Kivalina have lost many things, big and small — boats, gloves, much of the Inupiat language itself.
Someday soon the villagers may lose their homes. Over the last decade, as the oceans have grown warmer, storms have been hurling powerful waves onto the island, causing the land to gradually wash away. The villagers have been trying to relocate for years, but none of the relevant government agencies have agreed to foot the estimated $400 million it would require. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts that Kivalina has about 10 years before it disappears.
Many of the villagers seem to think it's too late to save Kivalina, or for that matter, the world. Spend enough time on the island and you'll hear about the inugaqalligauraq, a primitive race of superstrong little people said to be hiding in the Alaskan bush, armed with bows and arrows, their bodies and minds uncorrupted by exposure to gasoline, Pepsi, and reality TV. "The elders say when the world ends, when Jesus comes, these little people will come back," one middle-aged woman told me. "And people have been seeing them around, here and there."
Whatever's coming to Kivalina — whatever's coming to all of us — the villagers may be better equipped to deal with it than most. The values Eskimo culture advocates and teaches — cooperation, vigilance, an ability to improvise under duress — have allowed its people to withstand some of the harshest conditions on Earth. In the old days, a stranded hunter could build a makeshift sled out of only caribou skins, fish, and water, rolling the fish tight in wet skins so that the rolls would freeze solid and could then be used as sled runners. Reppi, for one, seems to long for those days. "I think I would have loved to live back then," he told me one evening, "but we're too used to modern conveniences." As if to illustrate his point, three of his kids were huddled over a phone, ignoring the reality show playing on the TV. "They discovered the movies on my phone," he said, shaking his head. "Now I never see it."
Kivalina, population 468, a town with no roads, police or doctors.
Photograph by Corey Arnold
To catch a whale, Eskimo hunters hitch their sleds and a small boat to their snowmobiles. Then they travel over the ice that stretches across the sea for miles. They head out in the spring, when the plates of ice begin to break apart, and drive until they come to a crack or a channel — an uiniq. There they set up a big canvas tent and wait —for days, sometimes weeks — ready to jump into the boat, harpoon gun loaded, at the first glimpse of a whale coming up for air.
There are countless ways to get killed doing this. You could drive over thin ice and fall in. Your harpoon gun could jam and explode in your face. You could get too close to a walrus, a whale, a polar bear. One teenager told me a story about ambushing a sleeping walrus from a boat. As the gun went off, the boat's motor died, leaving him and his uncles to watch helplessly as the wounded walrus streaked toward them through the water and rammed a hole in the bow, snapping off a tusk. They managed to restart the engine in the nick of time and quickly piled into the stern, driving home with the damaged bow raised just above the waves.
A whaling captain is responsible for the safety of the men and women in his crew. This calls for the equivalent of an advanced degree in the ancient Eskimo art of survival. Reppi began whaling with his father, a captain, when he was five and inherited the position only five years ago. Before he could prove himself worthy of the job, he had to learn all about the seven types of ice and how the combinations of wind and current affect them. He had to learn that if the crew got stranded on the ice pack, they should always walk east, using the stars as their guide, and that if they encountered a sleeping walrus, they could talk as loud as they wanted but never whisper because it would wake it up. He had to learn how to draw on his knowledge as danger closed in, weighing the pros and cons of each possible course of action before making a last-second decision that could save people's lives.
Judging when it's safe to be on the ice is one of the most difficult decisions a captain has to make. Over the last two decades, the same forces that have been eating away at the island have been causing the sea ice to melt away earlier and earlier in the season, shrinking the window of opportunity for whaling from about two months to a couple of weeks. Last year, Reppi's crew stayed out too long and had to race back to land at full speed as a powerful wind began to tear the sheet of ice where they'd been camping from the shore. If they hadn't made it off in time, they might have ended up in Siberia.
This year, at the start of the season, climate change seemed to be working in Reppi's favor for once. When I called him in early March, he said a channel had opened in the ice right outside of town, something he couldn't remember happening so early before. His voice rose with excitement as he told me that someone flying overhead had actually seen a whale. His crew just had to get the gear ready, and then they'd head out on the hunt.
I made plans to arrive in Kivalina in late March and stay for a little less than a month. I assumed I would spend most of that time out on the ice with the hunters as they tried to land their first whale in more than 20 years. But in Kivalina, as I would soon learn, it is pointless, perhaps even foolish, to make many assumptions about the future. As Reppi put it, "Something always comes up."
The first delay came up before I even arrived. Days before my departure, Reppi told me that there had been a death in the village. We'd have to stick around at least until the funeral, he said. Reppi, the whaling captain, is also the village gravedigger.
Five days after, I watched mourners stream into the church, past the young man lying in an open casket. Friends and family stood before the congregation and spoke of the boy's passion for traditional Eskimo dancing, his caring nature. No one said anything of how he died until one of his uncles, staring out at the crowd, confessed that he too once tried to take his own life. "And for what?" he shouted hoarsely, his raw voice ricocheting against the bare walls of the church. There was a heavy silence as the mourners waited for him to go on. When he spoke again, all he said was, "You have to live."
When Eskimos talk about "the whale," they mean only one kind: the bowhead. Every spring the bowhead's northward migration heralds the return of life to the Arctic after months of some of the most inhospitable weather on Earth. When hunters kill one, the whole village drags it onto the ice and butchers it. Then everyone feasts and parties for three days straight. The meat, skin, and blubber of a single whale, divided among the hunters and friends and family in accordance with a set of age-old guidelines, can feed a village for more than two months. Almost every part of the 60-ton animal is used. (The head is returned to the sea so that the animal's spirit can live on.)
According to the traditions of some Eskimo groups (Inupiat is a more historically accurate term, but people in Kivalina usually refer to themselves as Eskimo), the whale operates on a higher plane of intelligence and spirituality than most human beings. When you see pictures of the powerful animal, with its deep frown and small, sad-looking eyes, it's hard not to feel that this is true on some level. Not long ago, biologists examining a dead bowhead found old harpoon fragments buried in its flesh. Research revealed that the harpoon was of a kind last manufactured in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 19th century. The scientists conjectured that bowheads can live for up to 200 years. In other words, some of the whales still undulating through the icy waters off Alaska may have already been fully grown by the time Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick. Today, international law allows Eskimo whaling crews to catch a limited number of bowheads each year.
One night, three days after the funeral, Reppi and the other captains lugged their harpoon guns to the church so the preacher, Enoch Adams Jr., could bless them for the hunt. Adams surveyed the pews, many of them empty, and told the captains what they all already knew. "A lot of people out there are saying, 'What's the point?' " God had given the captains a choice, Adams said. If they surrendered to apathy and stayed home this year, no one would starve. At the village store, you could use cash or food stamps to stock up on Top Ramen and frozen burritos. But cash or food stamps wouldn't keep the community together, wouldn't give the people pride or joy or a reason to keep struggling through the long, dark winters to come. "Choose life!" Adams shouted, his voice booming through the chapel. "Choose life!"
Rising sea levels will overtake the village in the next 10 years.
Photograph by Corey Arnold
One of the most successful captains in Reppi's father's day was a man named Oran Knox. I kept hearing stories about him while we waited to go whaling. People said he had been a postal worker for a time, delivering the mail by dogsled, and had raced in the first Iditarod, the thousand-mile dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome, in 1973. One day someone invited me to his home. I half expected to find some intimidating figure, an Eskimo Ahab, flames of vitality dancing in his eyes. But a recent bout of pneumonia had taken a toll on him. Now in his late seventies, he was slumped back on an overstuffed couch, struggling to breathe as he watched North Carolina pummel Syracuse in the Final Four.
As he watched the game, he launched into an unprompted reminiscence about the leader of his old dog team."Tough, smart," he recalled between heavy breaths. "Find his way home in a storm." Later I asked one of his eight children, Oran Knox Jr., what happened to the dogs. A sad smile came over his face. "I killed them," he said. It was the late '70s, and his father had found work on a construction site farther north and moved his family there. No one could take care of the team, so the father asked his son to do the deed. "The dogs knew," the son said. "They looked at me, then down at the ground."
By that point in Alaskan history, some enterprising salesman had introduced Eskimos to snowmobiles, or snow machines, as they're called in Alaska. They could cruise three or four times as fast as a dog team, shortening a hunter's journey over the ice or tundra by hours and days. "Snowgos" had other advantages, too. They didn't fight over food. You didn't have to train them or feed them sacks of trout. But there was also a new class of disadvantages. The machines ran on fuel and oil, which is to say they ran on money, something much harder to find in Kivalina than trout. And they were always breaking down. In a way, the machine was like Western civilization: People came to rely on it but could never depend on it.
It was two days after the funeral when I realized Reppi's snow machine would be an issue. We were sitting at Reppi's kitchen table, drinking coffee. Earlier that morning, he had gone out in search of a polar bear that someone had seen on the ice outside of town. Instead of the bear, he'd encountered a problem with his snow machine. He didn't think it would be able to pull a boat very far. But when I asked how he planned to get out on the ice, he just shrugged. "Gotta take it day by day," he said. Then he spread some shredded caribou and mayo on a Nabisco cracker and leaned back in his chair to eat it, like a man who had never known a moment's anxiety.
There had been several setbacks already, and I was beginning to worry that he would miss his chance to go whaling, never mind catch a whale. I asked if there was any way he could fix the engine. Or if he could borrow someone else's snow machine. For every question he had an answer, and the answer was always "No," and the "No" was always followed by a persuasive explanation. Tiring of my questions, he eventually said he could see only one solution: buying a whole new engine for $800. I wondered how he would afford that.
People in Kivalina who earn any income at all tend to work in one of two places: the store or a sprawling zinc mine about 50 miles northeast of town. Reppi works at both, but not very often. The store employs him on an as-needed basis, paying him just enough to keep him from qualifying for food stamps and cash assistance, and the mine, which pays better, typically needs him for only a few weeks in the warmer months, during shipping season. Like other native people in northwest Alaska, Reppi and his wife, Dolly, receive an annual check from something called NANA, one of the 13 economic development corporations entrusted with managing the money and lands "given" to native people as part of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the federal law that saw native Alaskans relinquish their claims to vast swaths of Alaskan territory coveted by the oil and mining industries. In good years, Reppi got a check worth about $1,000. But in the last few years, NANA has struggled and people throughout the region were feeling the effects.
It takes a lot of money to fund a whaling expedition. Last year Reppi and the crew spent $10,000 on food and fuel, with some of the crew members chipping in what they could and Reppi and several relatives covering the rest. This year Reppi and Dolly were having a tough time paying for things like diapers for their three-year-old. At one point I overheard Dolly quietly telling Reppi that they didn't have enough on hand to buy a cake for their daughter's birthday. Reppi cheerfully replied, "We'll make one out of snow."
Reppi at home with his wife, Dolly, who joins on whale hunts. They have six ids together.
Photograph by Corey Arnold
If you haven't seen what the ocean looks like when it freezes, imagine a sparkling, ridged, lunar surface stretching as far as you can see. Off in the distance, near the horizon, you may spy a band of bluish gray — an uiniq. That's where the bowheads are, and the seals and belugas. If you're a hunter, that's where you want to be. The question is how to get there. The answer is very carefully or not at all.
The real hazard is the sikuliaq — the thin ice. Up until about 20 years ago, the ice was as thick as six feet in some places, and hunters could travel across it without falling in. This year the sea ice in the Arctic has been melting at an unprecedented rate, and by Kivalina it was just inches thick, if that. Camping on it would be risky, even for someone as experienced as Reppi.
Reppi eventually figured out a way to repair the snow machine himself. But it took a few days — enough time for the ice to get even thinner. So he decided to try driving about 10 miles north, around a bend in the coast, to look for thicker ice and open water. This plan had some drawbacks. The section of the coast where he wanted to camp lay in the direct path of the fierce north wind, which could blow a plate of ice and whoever happened to be camping on it out to sea. Also, getting there would require more time on the snow machines, which would mean more fuel, more money, more problems.
I started worrying out loud that we'd never make it out on the ice to hunt. What if the trip didn't pan out? "Now's not the time to start thinking negative," Reppi said. I stopped asking questions, and we went to the store.
About half the food Reppi and his family eat comes from animals Reppi shoots. He keeps the caribou in the snow in front of his house, frozen with their hooves sticking up in the air. Whenever he and Dolly feel like eating one, Dolly flattens a cardboard box on the living room floor and butchers the animal on top of it. Then it's caribou all week — roast caribou with carrots and onions one night, boiled caribou with broth the next, shredded caribou on Nabisco crackers for lunch.
The family eats seal, too, and maktak, a delicacy of navy-blue whale skin and pale-pink blubber sent to them by relatives in other villages. I tried it with Tabasco. The fat melts in your mouth, and the skin is tough and chewy. You need only a few small pieces to feel full. The rest of the food comes from the "Native Store," the only store in Kivalina apart from a candy shop that a family runs out of the front room of their house. I don't know why it's called the Native Store. It's owned by a company based in Seattle, and nearly all the products come from Kraft and PepsiCo. The prices are amazingly high. A tourist trap in Midtown Manhattan would seem reasonable by comparison. We loaded a cart with OvenJoy white bread, Foster Farms Variety Pack sandwich meats, and a $10.45 box of Entenmann's glazed doughnuts. At the last minute, Reppi threw in two cases of Pepsi. Reppi drinks about one six-pack of Pepsi a day. He says he wants to quit, but his hands start shaking when he goes too long without one.
We set out from the village the next afternoon, driving four miles north along the coast before veering west onto the ice. A distant sliver of open water came into view, an encouraging sight. Reppi's 12-year-old son, Sakkan, sat proudly on the back of his father's snow machine, a rifle strapped across his back. I rode in a sled behind him. Riding a sled across the frozen ocean is like bouncing down a rutted dirt road in a junker with no shocks. It wasn't comfortable, but I was thrilled to get out of the village, to see the water gleaming like the blade of a knife. I was staying positive, like Reppi had told me to. Suddenly the sled rattled to a stop. Reppi climbed off his snow machine. "The crack," he said, pointing to something behind us.
At first I didn't understand. Then I saw it: a narrow depression snaking through the ice just behind the sled. To me, it didn't look much different than the ice we'd been driving on, but it wasn't ice at all. It was a strip of water concealed under a treacherously thin layer of snow.
Reppi unhitched the sled from the snow machine, turned the vehicle around, opened the throttle all the way, and practically flew back over the channel. Then he repurposed the sled as a little footbridge, which I wobbled over to safety. We drove back toward shore until Reppi deemed the ice thick enough to sit and have lunch. He opened a Pepsi. From where we sat, we could still see the shining band of water way out beyond the snow-covered crack. "Wa-ter," he said, like someone dying of thirst in the desert. A smile creased his face, but I could tell he was disappointed. If we had tried to camp beside the open water, on the other side of the crack, the crack might have opened wider and stranded us at sea. I asked what he would have done if we had fallen in. "Sakkan and I would have got pinned down by the sled," he said. "Maybe you would have survived."
Reppi looks for an open passage in the shifting ice from the roof of a cabin north of town.
Photograph by Corey Arnold
Back in the village, the waiting continued. Reppi seemed to think that if the wind started blowing in the right direction, it would clear away the thin, weak ice, leaving only the quality stuff. But the wind refused to cooperate, as wind does, I guess, and soon the last of the food was gone.
We went back to the store. More cold cuts, more Pepsi. To save money, I moved from the floor of a guidance counselor's office at the villageschool, where there was internet and a shower, to a one-room shack that used to serve as the jail.
About a week before I was scheduled to go home, I was picking up a few things at the store when the cashier told me that Reppi and the crew had been trying to find me, but they'd left town. They were headed north with the boat and sleds. They'd gone hunting, finally. And there I was at the store.
I had been in the village for about three weeks by that point. As I marched back to the jailhouse, muttering to myself, my thinking, I have to admit, was not at all positive. It seemed likely that I would soon return to New York without having seen anyone even look for a whale. As I approached the cabin, I ran into one of Reppi's crew members, JoeJoe, a friendly, soft-spoken guy who, at 24, had taken up hunting only recently and was still basking in the glow of his nascent romance with the lifestyle. JoeJoe and two of his friends, Jake and Kenneth, were standing around JoeJoe's snow machine and staring down at the exposed engine.
I asked JoeJoe if he could drive me north to join the rest of the crew. "If I can get this working," he said. Fifteen minutes later, JoeJoe knocked on the door of the jailhouse: We were good to go.
People in Kivalina have come to depend on snow machines over dogs, even though they are more expensive and less reliable.
Photograph by Corey Arnold
I climbed onto the back of the vehicle, and we headed north, past the cabins, past the airstrip, past the ravens drifting over the dump. We were about a mile outside of town when the machine puttered out. JoeJoe opened the hood and performed some mysterious procedure on the engine, and it rumbled back to life. We drove maybe another 50 yards before it died again. "Motherfuck," he said.
He fiddled with the engine again. Nothing happened. "Motherfuck!" he repeated, more emphatically this time. He looked back at the town, a smudge of black in a world of white. "At least we're not as far as I was the last time," he said.
"The last time?"
In the casual, plainspoken tone of someone recounting, say, the ordeal of getting off at the wrong exit of the New Jersey Turnpike, he related the story of a recent misadventure that, from the sound of it, had nearly cost him his life. A few weeks ago, the same snow machine had broken down 20 miles outside of town. Unable to fix it, and lacking any means of contacting anyone back home, he had been forced to trek back to town through a windstorm, the snow gusting up from the ground in such thick swirls that he could barely see more than a few feet ahead. Eleven hours after abandoning his vehicle, he reached the edge of the lagoon that abuts the village. By then, however, he was so exhausted that he could not keep going without resting after every 15 steps. He would collapse in the snow, count to 15, then stagger back to his feet and take another 15 steps.
Somehow, while relating this story, JoeJoe had managed to restore the engine to a fragile state of functionality, and so we got back on and returned to the village. His two pals were standing exactly where we had left them. They didn't seem surprised to see us. For days one of them had been telling me about the virtues of Alaskan weed. He said it grew in greenhouses on the Kenai Peninsula. He said Snoop Dogg was a fan. "Wanna take out your depression on a toke?" he asked now. I told him I admired his persistence. "Never give up," he said, grinning.
They got the engine working again, and then JoeJoe and I got back on and headed north, past the houses, past the airstrip, past the dump, past the spot where the engine died. I tried to think positive. I said a prayer under my breath. I told the snow machine I believed in it. Maybe, just maybe, we would get out on the ice. Maybe I would even get to see them catch a whale.
We spotted a group of riders heading our way. No, I thought, it couldn't be. But it was. Reppi and his crew pulled up alongside us. "It's too windy up there," he said. "Too dangerous." We followed him back to town.
Reppi, 42, has been hunting whales since he was five.
Photograph by Corey Arnold
Over the next few days, the weather got warmer and the snow began to melt in the village. Soon the ice would melt, too, and then whaling season would be over. Scrolling through Facebook on his phone one night, Reppi learned that a village to the north had seen a whale. I think the idea of another village catching a whale while he stayed home was more than he could take. "Soon I'm gonna start taking chances," he said.
We drove north again the next day. This time we spent three nights on the ice, the cold wind pummeling the walls of the tent. We were just a short walk from the water, but we barely spent any time outside. The weather was just too harsh, even for Reppi, who has hunted wolves at 60 below.
People came and went throughout the week. There were between five and 10 of us on any given night. We spent most of our time just sitting in the tent, waiting for the wind to subside. We drank Pepsi. We ate bowls of caribou stew that Dolly heated up on the rusty camp stove. We joked around. A lot of the joking was about me. Probably most of it. One of the jokes was that I was always forgetting where I'd put things — my sunglasses, my socks, the coffee thermos, the Tabasco. Dolly, laughing affectionately, gave me an Eskimo name: Tammaq, "Lost." I certainly felt out of place. Once we were walking across a sketchy stretch of ice when I stepped in a crack, submerging my leg nearly to the knee before yanking it out in a panic. "Always carry a knife on your belt," Reppi's brother Dennis called out. "You fall in, you can stick it in the ice and pull yourself out."
A wood-burning stove in the tent was pretty much the only thing that kept us from freezing at night, so keeping it hot was a critical task. Normally this would have been a job for the youngest boys on the crew (the "boyers"), but since I was basically an infant in Eskimo terms, it fell to me. One night as the others slept, I pulled on my boots and parka and went out into the night to replenish the dwindling woodpile. I must have hacked away at a single log for more than an hour, sweating and freezing in turns. I swung the ax until my back screamed at me to stop, then swung some more. Now and then I looked around for polar bears. The men had left a rifle by the door, not that I would have known what to do with it. After what felt like an eternity, I found myself staring down at the last hunk of log. I brought the ax down until the wood surrendered with a satisfying snap. I threw back my head and let out a triumphant roar. A ghostly green mist was swirling through the sky — the aurora borealis.
JoeJoe, 24, is part of Reppi's crew.
Photograph by Corey Arnold
Reppi and his crew did not get a whale. Neither did anyone else in Kivalina. Still, Reppi had not lost faith in the tradition. Next year, he said, he would try to get out on the ice at the very beginning of the season. With luck, the crew would not run into too many "situations." After three weeks in Kivalina, I did not have to ask what he meant by that.
By the time I left the Arctic, after nearly a month, I had seen only one animal get killed. Oddly enough, I was the one who'd killed it. It was the day after JoeJoe's snowmobile broke down outside of town, a Saturday. He knocked on the door of my cabin to see if I wanted to go fishing with him and some friends. We spent an hour crouching on a frozen river, holding rods made of willow-bush branches over holes that JoeJoe had hacked in the ice with a metal pole. The fish weren't biting, so we got on our snow machines and rode off through the tundra in search of larger prey.
We drove around for hours without seeing any animals apart from ptarmigans and the occasional fox. (Foxes, too small and foul-tasting to excite the passions of the local hunters, might be the luckiest animals in this part of the Arctic.) JoeJoe's friends took off, but he wasn't done trying. He smashed two more holes into the ice and we sat and dangled our rods over them. Still nothing. Around nine, the light began to fade, and it got very cold.
We headed downriver, our eyes on the banks, watching for flickers of movement in the willow bushes, until we came to the place where the river empties out into the lagoon. On the opposite shore, the lights of the village were glittering invitingly. The time had come to accept that the day — like all the days I'd been in Kivalina — had been a failure, in hunting terms anyway. Just then, JoeJoe shouted something unintelligible and the snow machine lurched forward and then we were tearing across the tundra, the snow machine bucking over every bump, so that I had to squeeze the seat between my thighs and wrap my arms around JoeJoe to keep from falling off. And then I saw them, in what was left of the light: three small caribou racing away from us across the lagoon. JoeJoe handed me his rifle. There was no scope, and the back half of the sight had broken off. The stock and barrel were held together with electrical tape. I had fired a rifle only once in my life, and that was almost 10 years ago, at a can. I pulled off a glove and squeezed the trigger. The wind grabbed the glove from under my arm and tossed it away. Soon my hand was so cold that I couldn't feel my fingers. I was firing wildly, and the shots were missing. Then a splotch of blood appeared on the left hindquarter of the caribou, and I shot again, and some fur came flying off. And then I shot again, and she fell.
Whale bones from the last successful hunt, in1994, glint under the aurora borealis.
Photograph by Corey Arnold
JoeJoe made a whooping sound and we ran over to where the doe collapsed in the snow. She was struggling to get up on her forelegs, looking me right in the eyes. JoeJoe told me to shoot her in the back of the head, so I did. Then he slit her belly with his knife, and her steaming guts spilled out onto the snow. We strapped the carcass to the back of the snow machine and headed back for the village in the dark. My heart was beating hard and fast. My knees trembled. I was stunned and exhilarated and, if I'm being honest, a little proud of having done something that just about everyone there regarded as a basic requirement of manhood.
As the glittery blur of Kivalina resolved into a jumble of individual homes, JoeJoe shouted over the roar of the engine that we were passing the spot where he had begun to collapse on his epic walk across the tundra through a windstorm. A few days earlier, when he'd first told me that story, I hadn't managed much more than a dumbfounded "wow." Now, as I rode with him back to the village, I asked if he thought he would die that night. "I thought about ending it myself," he said. "But I never gave up."