Have you ever been able to walk out your door and see the Northern Lights dancing in the sky? I have. Have you ever been able to walk out your front door, get on your snowmachine and go? Just go. Go anywhere you want. I have. I have been lucky enough to experience these things and much more than one person can imagine. Maybe a few of you would like to hear about a couple of the things I have been able to take part in.
I am an Eskimo girl raised in the Native village of Kotzebue, Alaska, where we do not have shopping malls, movies theaters or McDonald's. I am 11 years old and my full name is Fallon Lynne Panitchana (Pun-itch-ung-a) Fairbanks. I do many Eskimo activities with my mother; her Eskimo name is Tuvinagun (Tuv-in-u-goon).
Towards the end of June and into July when the sun never sets, my Uncle John and my cousins will start hunting ugruk (oog-rook). An ugruk is a bearded seal. My family hunts ugruk in a boat while the ice is going out. Now, when one family gets seal or ugruk, the whole village doesn't go out and cut it up. It is up to the family to take care of it. Let me explain the process.
The hunters take out guts before bringing the animal to shore. When it is laying on tarp or cardboard we clean out the rib cage. Using an ulu, an Eskimo knife that is basically a metal blade in the shape of an oval cut in half with a bone handle, we separate the meat from the bones. After all this we will take the fur, bladder and meat (which is all still connected) and separate the bladder from the meat. We cut the meat into big strips and hang it to dry for a few days. In the meantime we separate the blubber from the fur and cut it into small strips and put it into 5- or 10-gallon buckets. Depending on the weather it takes two to three weeks for the blubber to render into oil. We cut the big strips of meat into lots of smaller strips and hang it to dry, turning it every day and making sure no bugs get on it. By the time the oil has rendered, the meat has dried. When we have dried meat and seal oil, finally we are almost finished. We will combine the two in the buckets that the oil was in. We store all of this in a cold area, such as a freezer, and eat it all winter long. When we get hungry, we pull it out, let it thaw and chow down. Yummmy, it is delicious.
The middle of July is when my mother and I start to work on fish. We will dry it, smoke it, can it, salt it and pickle it. If we're lucky enough to get a king salmon in our net, we make caviar out of the eggs. When we dry the fish, basically all we do is cut the fish in two, leaving the tail on so it has something to hang from, gut it, make small cuts about an inch apart on the meat, and hang it outside to dry. We hang an old fish net around our "inisuk" to keep the seagulls and crows away from our fish. Boy, is it maddening when the birds steal our fish after all the work we have done. Of course we always use an ulu when we are working on fish. To smoke the fish we cut the meat into long strips and hang it in our smoke house. We use alder or cottonwood for smoke. To can fish, we take the skin off (some people leave the skin on) and put it into jars and pressure-cook the jars for 90 minutes. To salt fish all we do is cut each half of the cleaned fish into three pieces, put it all into a tub, cover it with rock salt and leave it alone for 40 days. We use some of the salted fish to make pickled salmon. This fish is real Alaska salmon, not the kind you can buy in a store that says it is fresh. This is the good stuff, the real Alaska salmon. My mom is famous for all her fish. She works in an office, but summer is the time for her and I to spend time together.
At the end of July, into August, we are just finishing our fish and starting to pick berries. There are various types of berries where I live. Some of them that we pick are blueberries, blackberries, cranberries and ugpichs (uk-picks), also known as salmonberries because they are orange with lots of seeds and look like salmon eggs. Whenever I pick blueberries, I eat more than I pick. My mom is a picking machine. We make jam with some of our berries, but mostly we just like to eat them with a little bit of sugar. We eat berries all winter. My favorite is blueberries with vanilla ice cream.
As we head in to September, my dad and brothers will start to hunt moose and caribou. When they catch something, we all work together to butcher the meat. My mom and I will can and dry some of it the same way we do the fish. Also in September and October my twin brothers go ptarmigan hunting, and sometimes I go with them. The ptarmigan are hard to see because they change color with the seasons and blend in with the color on the ground. I haven't caught any yet, but my brother Robert has caught about a million. During this time of year we love to go to our cabin in the ghost town of Candle, Alaska. I get to drive our four-wheeler and six-wheeler while we are there. At camp I have seen caribou, reindeer. moose, ptarmigan, fox, musk ox, lots of birds and even a few bears. My brother has gone egg picking with some friends there. They picked goose and seagull eggs, and boy, are they delicious. It is wonderfully quiet at camp.
This brings us to the beginning of school. During the school year my brothers are busy with school activities. They wrestle for a few months, then swing into basketball. My family is busy during this time attending school activities. This year I took an evening class to learn how to make utilooks (this is a kind of dress with a big front pocket, which you wear over all your clothes and is very comfortable).
Beginning at the end of January my family is busy getting ready for the Iditarod. My uncle John Baker runs the Iditarod. Everyone gets together and cuts up lots and lots of different kinds of dog food, then we put everything in small bags and vacuum-seal it all. We are also busy cooking different kinds of food for Uncle John to eat on the trail. It is usually my job to make him lots of different kinds of cookies and desserts. When the Iditarod starts in early March we all fly to Anchorage to see him off. Ten days or so later we all fly to Nome to see him finish. This is a really fun time for all of my family. I've used some of his dogs and run a few dog races myself over the last three years.
March is one of the my favorite times of the year. The sun is staying up longer, and it is getting warmer. I am out on a snowmachine a lot during this time of year. When we go out snowmachine riding we can go pretty much anywhere. As long as you have a driver's license, that is. Those of us that are too young to have a driver's license are not allowed to drive on the streets in town, but we can drive on ice (there is ice all around us in Kotzebue) and anywhere else out of town. Sledding is one of the Kotzebue kids' favorite pastimes. We slide on real Alaska hills, not the ones on the side of a street. The most popular hill to slide on in Kotzebue is called Cemetery Hill. There is a cemetery at the top of the hill. We think the spirits of the past enjoy seeing families out having fun together. If one of your family members is buried on Cemetery Hill you should always say one Eskimo prayer for them. This ensures a safe, fun outdoor activity. Although it is always smart to wear a helmet.
In April I go ice fishing for smelts, tomcod and shee-fish. Our smelt are about as big as my hand. Tomcod are bigger than smelt and very bony. Around Kotzebue we call tomcod "bottom feeders." Shee-fish are very big fish. If you have never done it, you cannot imagine how much fun it is to pull a huge fish out of a little hole in the ice. Shee-fish are also delicious; they taste kind of like halibut. Sometimes you have to be very patient when you are ice fishing. Sometimes you have to wait for the fish to come to you.
When May rolls around, we are all excited about school getting out. The sun is staying up a lot longer every day, and the snow is melting. We are still riding our snowmachine and ice fishing.
When the ice starts moving out, usually in June, we have millions of herring swimming by. We use a big snag hook and have fun for days snagging them one at a time. Some people use a net, but we have fun hooking them and usually get several buckets full. They are not fun to clean because they are so small, but they sure are fun to catch!
So you see, even without shopping malls, movie theaters or McDonald's, there is still lots of fun things to do in Bush Alaska. This is my Alaska, my home.