Traditional Knowledge and 150 Miles of Alaskan Tundra and Ice


In the late winter of 2013, my wife and I undertook a journey on foot, by ski, and by pack raft around Alaska’s Lake Iliamna, across 150 miles of wind-scoured tundra, rock, and ice, linking rural villages with footprints where no roads exist.

In each community that we visited, we met with Alaska Native elders and other culture-bearers in order to document local and traditional knowledge of earthquakes and volcanic activity, and to record their observations of climate change. Our goal was to learn from those most knowledgeable about the social, cultural, and natural histories of the lake, and to signify our respect and gratitude by taking the time to walk, ski, and paddle the 40 to 60 miles separating each village.

Conditions on the lake were difficult at times; Kate skis against a stiff east wind on the north shore of Lake Iliamna.

Alaska is home to hundreds of remote villages disconnected from the road system, operating as islands of human activity amidst vast expanses of untethered country. In place of asphalt and concrete, there are roads of water and ice: navigable rivers, lakes, oceans, and seas. These waterways commonly freeze during the winter months, connecting people on snow machines or skis through a natural system of winding, ephemeral roadways that persist until the spring brings warmer temperatures and the ice breaks up; in Alaska this is referred to, naturally, as “breakup.” For residents of five perennial villages on the shores of Alaska’s Lake Iliamna, the winter is a time to travel on the ice to neighboring villages to connect with family and friends for celebratory meals, competitions, performances, and — an Alaskan staple — ­bingo.

Connections are partly what makes rural Alaska so special; connections to one’s family, history, culture, the food on the table, and perhaps most significantly, to a sense of place. Some villages are able to trace ancestral use of their lands extending many thousands of years into the past. As residents of Lake Iliamna fish for pike through the ice in the winter, or perch themselves on a rocky overlook to scan the horizon for caribou, they are doing so on the very same ice and rocks as countless prior generations, separated only by time.

In our hometown of Seldovia, Alaska, my wife and I work with Ground Truth Trekking, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2007 that seeks to educate and engage the public on Alaska’s natural resource issues through a combination of wilderness adventure, scientific analysis, and the creation of Web resources. Human-powered expeditions across Alaska — those using no motorized transport — give us the “ground truth,” through observation and conversation with local people. We combine this “ground truth” with “researched truth,” using our scientific backgrounds to create comprehensive and accurate articles on key issues across the state. Some of the topics we explore are metals mining, oil and gas development, fisheries, climate change, and infrastructure projects in Alaska. Our mission is to provide people with the knowledge they need to make smart decisions about these issues, now and into the future.

Much of rural Alaska is serviced by bush planes. Sometimes they need a hand in turning the plane around.

In rural Alaska, futures can change quickly, as large-scale development projects often abut small communities surrounded by undeveloped lands, and these projects hold the power to transform rural life from top to bottom, for better or worse. In the Bristol Bay region, the villages around Lake Iliamna are at a crossroads, having to consider such a project. Just north of the lake lies the proposed Pebble Mine site, a massive, low-grade copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit that currently represents the largest undeveloped deposit of gold in the world. The mine site happens to be located where water flows in several directions, ultimately connecting two main freshwater arteries — the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers — to Bristol Bay, the most productive wild sockeye salmon fishery on the planet. Considering the specter of development at these headwaters and the gravity of such a decision, Ground Truth Trekking has continued to engage in seismic hazard investigations at areas around the lake to assess potential evidence of past seismic activity and the likelihood that it could reoccur in the future.

Our route followed the lake shore, a total of approximately 150 miles.

What Kate and I sought to do was to take the thousands of pages of hard science data that has been generated through the earliest stages of mine development and superimpose the voices of people who live on the lake and maintain deep roots and profound knowledge of their local environment. We are social scientists, with a particular interest in collaborative ethnographies and traditional knowledge research. Traditional knowledge, a body of knowledge and beliefs that is passed down through oral tradition and firsthand observation, includes a system of classification, observations about the local environment, and protocols that dictate resource use. This knowledge base is intrinsically linked to the past, but is both cumulative and dynamic — building on the experiences of preceding generations to react to the realities of the present.

As local hunters, trappers, and travelers alike journey away from their villages on Lake Iliamna, sometimes covering hundreds of miles by snow machine, they are equipped with winter survival gear, but perhaps more importantly with this specific knowledge of their natural environment, which has been passed down through each successive generation: travel routes by season, how the wind direction will affect the lake ice, where the lake ice is likely to be weakest, where the landscape is most actively changing, what bear activity to expect relative to the season, how to set traps for beaver or snowshoe hare, or in what areas your favorite berry or wild plant is likely to grow. As scientists we place value in this type of knowing, not merely as a supplement to what we learn from “Western science,” but as a knowledge set that is intrinsically scientific in itself, with generations and generations of empirical observation tied to a single locale.

Elders from Igiugig

With this in mind, we sought to devise a method to acquaint ourselves with the lake and its most knowledgeable residents in the best way we could think of — on foot and in person. Over the course of one month we walked, skied, and paddled our way to the villages of Kokhanok, Igiugig, Newhalen, and Pedro Bay. The stories people shared were sprawling and intricate, blunt, reflective, and evocative: tales of cascading caribou herds, seasonal fishing and hunting camps, wind storms, defunct White Alice installations, reindeer herding, volcanic eruptions, and periods of starvation. The stories we heard often drifted toward nostalgia, of a time before airplanes and snow machines when silence was conspicuous. Elders in Newhalen described growing up quickly and confidently, sometimes having to prove themselves at very young ages:

“[We spent our time] fishing, trapping; I didn’t go to school. I travel all over the place; from Kaskanak I was seven years old and my mom tell me to go to the mouth of the Kaskanak [River]. I went down; I had my own [dog] team [when] I was seven years old. I had five [dogs]; [when] my dogs got tired, I stop in a big tree. I sleep with the dogs, and they warm me up.”
(Newhalen Elder, March 2013)

A man from Igiugig described how his grandparents told stories of volcanic eruptions — mountains “blowing up” — saying,

“That’s our heritage — mountain war. Any time a mountain blow up, another mountain blow up; that’s what they call a mountain war. They fight.”
(Igiugig Elder, March 2013)
Examining potential evidence of seismic activity on the north shore of Lake Iliamna.

Other elders were able to point to specific areas around the lake that might offer geologic clues to past seismic activity. Several elders described some of these areas in detail, and a man from Kokhanok told a story from long ago about an island of people who had been out of contact for a long period of time. When others went to check on them, as the story goes, it was discovered that a large fish had attempted to jump over the island only to fall short, “wiping the island clean.” As we sat in his home sipping coffee, he mused that perhaps it was a landslide or large wave generated from one that had scraped the island bare all those years ago.

As we made our way around the lake, Kate and I found that the stories shared with us painted pictures of an environment that seemed less harsh and more like an old book, one that had been passed down, read and re-read thousands of times over, each time with new meaning. Indeed, traveling under human power during winter in Alaska can be unforgiving, and involves significant preparation. The gear you bring with you can be the difference between comfort and agony, and we found ourselves agonizing over every item in our packs before departure.

Kate skis above Big Mountain. “Russell” the dog followed us for several days between Kokhanok and Igiugig — we put him on a plane home.

For our purposes, we chose to bring a lightweight shelter and cook all of our meals over a wood fire to eliminate the need for heavy stove fuel. We utilized lightweight pack rafts to pull as gear sleds. These also doubled as sleeping pads to get our bodies off of the cold ground at night. The possibility of open water on the lake, as well as several significant river crossings, made these boats indispensable. Because carrying a month’s supply of heavy food sounded daunting, we mailed provisions ahead of time to each village we visited. Not only were we undertaking a backcountry winter expedition in Alaska, but we were also conducting a study; our packs contained audio recorders, digital cameras, an iPad, chargers, and batteries. We also carried a DeLorme inReach satellite tracking device that allowed others to track our movements in real time.

While gear was important and occupied most of our time leading up to departure, knowledge of the environment with which you are confronted supersedes gear choices almost universally. I have been taught this lesson many times over through interactions with elders in rural Alaska, namely, that knowledge in context is the most formidable tool one can possess.

Setting up camp in the late day sunlight

Knowledge of the environment helps a traveler deal with a dizzying number of variables. With longer trips of 100+ miles, variability unavoidably becomes your best friend and worst enemy. The winter had been volatile and erratic around Lake Iliamna, with short, intense windstorms alternating with warm stretches of rain. When leaving Kokhanok, we encountered 25 miles of bare ground paired with jagged, unskiable lake ice; we were delighted to move past Big Mountain and find ice four feet thick, featureless, with two inches of dry snow — like a highway all the way to Igiugig. As we made our way across the north shore of the lake, we enjoyed calm and sunny weather, with little to occupy our minds other than the stories that had been shared with us. Several days later we would be skirting a steep, rocky shoreline in Knutson Bay against a stiff wind on thin ice interspersed with patches of open water. I have found that variability is the joy of backcountry travel, and hunger is the best spice.

During this 2013 journey, Kate and I traveled with maps and we traveled with stories. As we skied across the mouth of Lower Talarik Creek on the north shore of the lake, brittle hoar frost scratched at our skis like sandpaper, and a piercing breeze raked frigid air across our exposed faces. In my mind I replayed a story told to us by an Igiugig elder, in which he explained how the fox got its colors:

“A long time ago in the 1800s, the fox…. There used to be no black in the tip of the hair and the tail. What happened is it came to a dry lake, and someone walking around had the fire. They used the black from the fire and paint his arm, his hair, and his tail. They said, ‘Oh boy, the young fox isn’t gonna like me.’”
(Igiugig Elder, March 2013)

Later, as we approached a lonely patch of tattered spruce to set up camp for the night, a young fox pranced out from the willows at the base of the bluff and into the fading daylight, creeping gingerly to the stern of Kate’s raft as if to say hello. We stood there in the conspicuous silence, us and the fox, before we all retreated from the wind to settle in for a warm night of sleep.

The interviews we conducted were audio-recorded and transcribed, totaling nearly 100 pages; copies of these transcripts were sent to all the participating villages. By overlaying the knowledge of culture-bearers in the region with the insights gained from ongoing earth sciences investigations, we strove for an inclusive approach to research that promoted the sharing of knowledge across boundaries of discipline, culture, and geography.

This project was funded in part by the Western Mining Action Network/Indigenous Environmental Network (WMAN/IEN) and the Alaska Conservation Foundation (ACF), as well as by Ground Truth Trekking and in-kind contributions from the scientists involved in the study.

The end of our trip; sore feet and big smiles.
To access transcripts and see more photos of our trip, go here.