KOTZEBUE, Alaska — When President Obama flies north to this remote Inupiat Eskimo settlement on the Chukchi Sea on Wednesday, he should get a superb view of the sprawling Alaska Range along the way.
Amid ribs of glaciers snaking down from a spine of towering peaks stands Alaska’s crown jewel and North America’s highest peak, formerly known as Mount McKinley and which most Alaskans had long called “Denali” anyway — meaning “high” or “tall” in the Athabascan language. Obama made the name change official this week in Alaska.
As the president crosses the Arctic Circle, vast stretches of treeless tundra will dominate the coastal lowlands.
Then, as Air Force One descends toward Kotzebue, the president will be struck — as we still are every time we fly home after nearly three decades here — by how this little outpost beckons amid Alaska’s water-logged tundra and countless bodies of water.
Alaskans brag that if our state were split in two, Texas would be the third-largest in the country, not second. Yet with fewer than 750,000 residents, 300,000 of whom live in Anchorage, the rest of this state remains sparsely populated: more caribou than people, few roads, lots of trails.
From Kotzebue, for example, located just 175 miles east of Russia, the nearest road to the outside world is in Fairbanks, nearly 450 miles away. As in most of Alaska’s bush country, flying is the primary way to travel to the 38,000-square-mile Northwest Arctic Borough.
Some 7,600 people live in this region, which is about the size of Indiana: in Kotzebue, in 10 outlying Inupiat villages, and in numerous subsistence camps. Kotzebue, the regional hub, teeters on a narrow gravel spit stabbing into the Chukchi Sea. No surprise that Kotzebue’s Inupiaq name is Qikiqtagruk, meaning “almost an island.” Nearly 3,300 local inhabitants — about 82 percent Inupiat — live but a smidgen above sea level, surrounded by water.
Arctic residents rely on nature for food and spiritual sustenance. In addition to subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering, some residents also work at a small annual commercial salmon fishery in Kotzebue. Among the region’s largest employers are Maniilaq Association (health and human services) and the regional school district. Eighty miles north, NANA (Native) Regional Corp. and a Canadian firm operate the Red Dog Mine, one of the world’s largest lead and zinc deposits. One local radio station, NPR affiliate KOTZ-AM, serves the region.
Life here is extreme. Years ago, we walked to work without catching the weather report on KOTZ, only to find that work was canceled due to an off-the-chart, -108 wind chill. Meanwhile, school kids don’t have recess when ambient or wind chill temperatures dip under a mere 18 below. Kotzebue’s deep winter begins around Thanksgiving, when temperatures plunge well below zero. Sound gloomy? Not to us, or local folks. Even around the winter solstice, the moonlight reflects off the snow, extended twilight offers lunchtime sunsets and the northern lights shimmer across the sky.
Nevertheless, our daily 15-minute walk to the post office requires protecting every inch of skin with multiple layers of clothing, including face masks, goggles and fur hats. As the Inupiat learned centuries ago, animal fur insulates best from both the cold and the Arctic coast’s relentless wind.
In recent years, winter rain storms have been turning city streets and sidewalks into treacherous ice rinks, requiring cleats to get around town. Such stark examples of local climate change make the president’s unprecedented visit to the Alaska Arctic an imperative.
Warming trends are indeed changing Alaska. With ever-later fall freeze-ups, coastlines are getting battered. For example, serious fall erosion and spring ice damage along Kotzebue’s Front Street required the recent construction of a $38 million seawall. Local residents paid more than $6 a gallon for heating oil barged from Seattle last winter. Sustainable energy is getting a foothold. Kotzebue’s electric cooperative has erected wind turbines outside town. Solar panels in the Land of the Midnight Sun are also popping up, such as at the local college, at the City of Kotzebue public works yard and atop private homes.
Both summers and winters are warming here. Jim Dau, state wildlife biologist since 1988 in Kotzebue, has noticed a steady species migration into northern Alaska in recent decades. Osprey, once rare, have become common. The future of cold-weather species such as musk ox and caribou is in doubt.
The Western Arctic Caribou Herd peaked in 2003 at 490,000, Dau says, although 10 years later, it had declined to 235,000. “Caribou herds go up and down,” he says, pointing to a dramatic mid-1800s crash. Because this food source is so important, local hunting has not declined, according to Dau. Still, hunters have noticed that in recent years, caribou have been migrating off the North Slope two to six weeks later than usual. “The elders are right,” says Dau, that it takes snow and cold to push caribou south each fall.
Many northern Alaskans also rely on marine mammals to survive. Losing that food source as well would be like shuttering meat-packing plants in the Lower 48. But pumping revenue and jobs into Alaska’s oil-addicted economy through offshore drilling gets locals’ attention, especially as world oil prices crash and the oil industry promises safe resource extraction.
That’s a dubious venture at best, say many Alaskans who believe an oil spill amid unstable and unpredictable Arctic sea ice is inevitable. They point to Alaska’s 1989 Exxon Valdez ice-free spill and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the ice-free Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile, Obama has the world scratching its head for simultaneously advancing renewable energy and approving offshore Arctic drilling just prior to visiting Alaska to talk about climate change. With an oil-dependent state budget running multibillion-dollar annual deficits, however, to many Alaskans that seeming dichotomy makes perfect sense.
Nevertheless, when the president’s motorcade rolls down Fifth or Third Avenue, Kotzebue’s main drag (and one of its few paved streets), local folks will just want to see the president. And though the town has been abuzz for weeks, only 900 or fewer people can squeeze into the high school gym, leaving the rest trying to glimpse Obama around town. Local people were scrambling in recent days to secure tickets from local and White House officials swamped with requests, while at the college, University of Alaska employees used a random drawing as the only fair way to choose the campus’s limit of three open slots.
At the gym, school children will sing in Inupiaq, and the Qikiqtagruk Northern Lights Dancers will perform for the commander in chief, to the ancient and soul-stirring beat of traditional skin drums and songs. Unquestionably, the president will be invited to join the final dance.
“It feels like one big family around here,” says Elizabeth Niiqsik Ferguson, 21. “Everyone comes together to celebrate, and when people need help.”
A photographer and borough sustainable tourism coordinator, Ferguson was recently crowned Miss Arctic Circle and Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. From a family of first responders, Ferguson attended local schools and plans to become a paramedic. She wants the president to see Kotzebue’s positive side.
“Our customs and our values sustain us,” she says, adding that the region’s less visible but nonetheless serious mental health problems won’t be immediately apparent on a short presidential visit. While Alaska Natives have a suicide rate some four times above the national average, the Inupiat of Northwest Arctic have the highest suicide rate among Alaska Natives.
“But the Inupiat people are strong,” Ferguson says. “We have lived here for thousands of years.”
The future is hopeful. As professors at the University of Alaska’s Chukchi College, we have witnessed higher education transforming lives in the past quarter-century in Kotzebue and throughout rural Alaska, including a steady increase in Alaska Natives — Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts — earning degrees and certificates.
The president will experience Inupiat culture and hospitality at its finest in Kotzebue, our adopted home, and the home town of our four children, who feel compelled to give back to the culture in which they grew up.
So, welcome to Kotzebue, Mr. President. We hope you enjoy Alaska’s world-class beauty and rich cultures. We trust you will return to the nation’s capital determined to protect these treasures.