Newtok and “Newertok”

Last week I visited a small Alaskan community called Newtok on behalf of my research center. Newtok is nestled at the confluence of the Newtok River and the Ninglick River on the western coast of Alaska (Figure 1).  I was nervous to go there. Sure, I had been to small communities before. Eustis, North New Portland, and Seboomook (all in Maine), each having populations under 750, come to mind. Oh, and my recent trip to Fort Yukon, AK. Beside the fact that the population is only 350, Newtok was going to be vastly different. For a week leading up to my trip, I had been trying to get a hold of gentleman named Grant at the Newtok School. You see, there is no lodging in Newtok. Sort of. People who visit the community have to stay at the school. They charge a flat rate of $50 a night which guarantees you a spot on the floor in one of the classrooms. It used to also give you access to drinking water since the school is the only place with running water in the village. Well, the water still runs, but the rising ocean water levels, melting permafrost, and sinking ground have compromised the village well and the water isn’t safe for consumption without boiling it for at least two minutes (according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Figure 1. Location of Newtok, AK (~500 miles west of Anchorage).

My flight was at 7:30am on Wednesday morning. I had been up until 1:00am tending to the aphids that had taken over the beet patch in one of my community garden plots on campus and then still had to go home and pack. I had no idea how to pack for this trip. I was promised fishing. Silvers, Humpies, and Dollies galore, they said. Rods were a must but I wouldn’t have room for waders or boots. Two bags of fresh fruit, one with nectarines the other with apples. Fresh fruit is always a nice peace offering when traveling to villages in Alaska. They don’t ship well and don’t have a great shelf life so the small general stores (if they exist) won’t carry them. I also packed my Fujifilm instant camera and four cartridges of Instax film. I thought this might be fun to share with some of the village children if the opportunity presented itself. A loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of homemade jam, three bags of jerky, and two loaves of fresh zucchini bread. I was informed that the selection at the general store was a mix of Ramen and canned food so I ought to bring my own. The zucchini bread would double as another peace offering. I went to bed and got up at 4:30am to take a shower and finish packing.

I would first fly to Anchorage. Then Anchorage to Bethel, the hub for many locations in the Southwest region of Alaska. There I met up with the lead design engineer for the Newtok relocation project, the accountants for the Newtok Village Council, and a news anchor from KTUU, the NBC affiliate out of Anchorage who was flying in to cover the ribbon cutting ceremony for their new village location; same reason we were all going there. At this point, I still hadn’t been able to get in touch with Grant. Mark assured me he would have room for me out at their camp at the new village site. We had plenty of time to talk logistics since our flight was delayed about an hour and a half. After several inquiries we got word from one of the baggage attendants that they were waiting on the pilot. Waiting on the pilot? Apparently, our pilot was fresh out of training and had been delayed for reasons we will never be privy to. When starting up the plane he jokingly muttered to the co-pilot, a seasoned veteran we presumed (and hoped), “This should be just like the simulator, right?” There were six of us on the flight, eight if you include the pilots, and that’s all this “little” Cessna had room for. Only a short 40 minutes later, we were on our descent into Newtok. At Blake’s (the KTUU anchor) request, the pilot circled the village twice so we could take pictures (Figure 2) and video from the air.

Figure 2. Aerial view of Newtok looking Northeast.

We touched down on a narrow gravel runway. At the end of the runway, there was no turn around. I thought to myself: How the hell is this plane going to turn around? I was surprised to learn as we approached a set of four orange cones at the end of the strip that a Cessna Grand Caravan can turn on a dime. We pulled up the to the small airport terminal (i.e., garage) minutes later and had three ATVs, one sporting a trailer, waiting to shuttle us into town only a mere 200 yds away via boardwalk (Figure 3). There wasn’t room for everyone on the ATV’s so Dave (one of the accountants) and I sat atop the luggage on the trailer. Allison took a seat on the rear rack of the ATV while Dalen and Michael (both locals) drove and took the front rack, respectively (Figure 4). Ramman, who commandeered another of the ATV’s introduced himself as we took off, yelling so that we could hear him over the engines of the ATV’s. “My name’s Ramman. But you can call me Mr. Noodles. Everyone call’s me Mr. Noodles.” Without skipping a beat, “What flavor?” I asked. “Beef,” he responded while trying to hold back smile.

Figure 3. Newtok airport.
Figure 4. Newtok Airport shuttle service.

Oh yeah, I should have mentioned that Newtok doesn’t have roads. They are a boardwalk community which means their “streets” are constructed entirely out of wooden planks (Figure 5) which sit atop the wet and unstable tundra underlain by melting permafrost a.k.a. a sopping wet mess. The planks used to protect the permafrost laden ground from damage but now serve as a semi-buoyant surface to keep ATV’s (and people) from sinking out of sight. Also, the only way to get things (and people) into (and out of) Newtok is either by plane or barge. Because of that, there are no cars since it is ridiculously cheaper to barge an ATV than it is to barge a car (cost is typically a function of weight). The boardwalks are narrow. Only wide enough to fit an ATV and a pedestrian side by side. They certainly are not wide enough to let two ATV’s pass each other (as I was lead to believe was the only design standard for rural boardwalks in Alaska) but they seemed to have develop their own rules and right-of-way as two ATV’s scurried off the planks to let Dalen pass as we made our way to the school with the trailer and luggage in tow. He was surgical driving this thing, too. Each turn I thought for sure the trailer wheels would drop off the edge, sending me, Dave, and all of our luggage into the muddy thickets. At every corner the tire would skate the edge, hanging over but always hanging on.

(Figure 5). Traffic in Newtok.

We made a quick stop to drop mail off at the school. Two young females emerged from the school wielding video cameras and microphones. They would be one of five documentary crews that have pounced on the opportunity to cover the first of Alaska’s “climate refugees” to be relocating. So first, there were these two ladies from NBC covering Isaiah, a high school student and basketball player. This is part of a larger project that highlights teens dealing with larger social issues (i.e., climate change in this case). Second, there was Tom, an independent film maker from Ireland that started covering the story three years ago and was more interested in sharing the divide in the community, those that wanted to move and those that did not. Now it seems that all but a few are ready to relocate to Nelson Island. Then there was Michael and Andrew, two guys from New York with storied histories as journalist. Bronwynn and Micheal from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and rumor of some guy from the BBC. And then you can count Blake from KTUU, so actually six in total. We continued on our way down to the water. As we loaded up the boats, the eroding shoreline stood over us as if in careful watch of our every move. The vegetative covering sloughing over like a drawn blanket, just waiting for a mix of tide, wind and rain to shear off and lay waste on the banks of the river. Even at high tide on a calm day you could easily imagine what the fit and fury of a coastal storm would do to the fragile ground. Since 2007, the Ninglick river has eroded over 500 feet toward the village of Newtok. Now, only 80 feet separate the nearest home from the water and hence the anxiousness of residents to move to their new location on Nelson Island.

Figure 6. Erosion threatens the homes of Newtok.

On our 30-minute boat ride to Mertarvik (a.k.a. Newertok) nine miles across the river from Newtok, Dalen and Ramman point out the eroded banks where Newtok residents will find a tusk almost daily (Figure 7). You see,  The only benefit of the eroding landscape is the promise of woolly mammoth tusks which they can sell for $5,000 minimum. If it’s intact with both tusks and the skull, it could go for as much as $40,000, they say.  My question was, who the hell is buying all these mammoth tusks? Surely every museum in the nation has one already. So what kind of idiot in his right mind would pay $40,000 for some bone? Collectors, I guess. We quickly moved on to other subjects. Ramman points out a local hot spot for fishing and a channel where they will often harvest a seal or two. It was getting close to that time of season. Successively drawing his cupped hand to his face in a rapid manner, he swore he was catching a waft of seal oil in the air. “Do you smell that?” he said. “There’s one here or someone killed one [a seal] recently.” “Are you fucking with me, Ramman?” I replied, knowing that I had just as much of a sick sense of humor and would be just as likely to take advantage of a gullible visitor. Oh, here’s this white guy that probably doesn’t know much about subsistence lifestyles so let’s fill him full of a bunch of bullshit for a quick laugh. Suddenly, I catch a hint of air that seemed dense and oil-like. The smell was rugged and not salty like moments before. I quickly turned back toward Ramman who just smiled and said “Yep. That’s a seal alright.” He also pointed out the mouth of the creek where I was promised there would be fish. “Pinks are in. Silvers should be soon if not already,” he said. “Oh, and sea-run Dollies the size of my children.” My eyes lit up. “Trout??!” I said. “Uh huh! I love trout. Trout and seal oil, better than salmon.” I’m not sure everyone in Newtok would agree with Ramman.

Figure 7. Captain and skipper of the “Mertarvik Express.”

As we approached the island, three finished buildings were clearly separated from the hub of construction (Figure 8). These were apparently the remnants of the second attempt to move in 2014. For now, they lie there abandoned. As does a $400,000 dollar house (so I was told) designed and constructed by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center only a few hundred feet away (Figure 9). Much of the cost was related to the shipment of materials to the site. From the outside, this “model home” looks modern. It stands on a frame of metal trusses and skis serving as a thermal break from the ground to guard against damage to any underlying permafrost even though it’s situated on top of a series of interlocking geomats. The ski-like footings make the building easy to move in the event it needs to be relocated. Unfortunately, the guts of this fancy shell are anything but. The construction seemed rushed; joints didn’t match up, there were gaps between wall boards,  the counter tops and cabinets were well out of level, and crooked outlets one of which had a two inch wide gap between it and the coaxial cable jack next to it which seemed counter to the goal of having a highly insulated home. Walking out, I also noticed that the stairs were wider than the opening in the porch, so the railings weren’t connected and separated by about six inches on each side.

Figure 8. The three original Mertarvik homes (circa 2014).
Figure 9. Home on Mertarvik constructed by the Cold Climate Housing Research Center.

I ended spending the first night at the contractors camp on the island. My accommodations were a 12′ x 14′ room outfitted with dorm-like furniture which I shared with one of the guys on the drilling crew. My stay also included meals and Wendy and Becky, the two camp chefs, were fixing up a roast when I arrived. They were complaining that a shipment of food hadn’t come in on our flight, but had plenty of food to make due with for now. Mail is unreliable in Newtok, but they have all learned to deal with it. I had some time before dinner, so I decided to take walk up the hill through the tundra to where the proposed airport runway will be.  From the top of the hill, there is only 286 feet in elevation difference (if memory serves) from the camp and the four houses that are currently under construction. Compared to Newtok, it feels like you are on top of a mountain. You could see for miles in every direction which was impossible in Newtok because of how low it sits. The ground was covered in a blanket of berries; a hearty Alaskan mix of blueberries, lingonberries, and cloudberries which the locals refer to as salmonberries because of their resemblance to salmon eggs both in shape and color. I took a moment to enjoy the quiet since I had walked far enough from camp that I could no longer hear the hum of the diesel generator and filled my gut with a mixed berry salad (Figure 10).

Figure 10. A wild Alaskan mixed-berry salad.

Promptly at 6pm, a flood of workers poured into the camp eager for dinner. I was introduced to most of them, a mix of locals and seasonal labor hired by the contractor. They each shared their nicknames and a little bit about themselves. Aaron John, who claimed with a giggle that he was “100% Eskimo, no reservation” told me about his father who had recently disappeared while seal hunting. They only found his rifle, snowmachine, and dead seal but nothing to indicate how or why he might have gone missing. Michael, who they called “Pumba” because of his infatuation with the Lion King, told me that the trick to shooting a seal is to always do it in salt water, never fresh water because the water is less dense and they will sink. All this talk of hunting and fishing had my mind wandering back to the creek that Ramman had pointed out earlier. Mark and I had made plans to go fishing after dinner so I was getting anxious. Problem was, it was two-miles away by land (only a mile if I could catch a ride on an ATV up to the quarry) or we had to go by boat and wait a little longer for low-tide so we could find the mouth. Time passed, my thumbs twiddling, only to have my “guide” back out on me around 9:45pm because it had started to rain and he had to get up early in the morning. Mark cautioned against going alone since it was clear I was prepared to do so, and promised he would find someone to take me the next day after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. I went to bed deflated but the lingering promise of children-sized Dollies kept my spirits alive.

The next morning at low tide, I took a walk along the beach and then made my way up to through the tundra and intercepted the trail to the quarry thinking I would be able to meet up with Mark and Joe, the project manager, who went up there earlier that morning. When I reached the quarry, the bulldozer operator informed me that they had already left about a half an hour ago so that they could catch a boat back to Newtok for the opening celebration prior to the ribbon cutting. How did I miss them?? I was supposed to be on that boat! I made a mad dash down the muddy trail as fast as I could in Xtratufs, some steps sinking in far enough that I was dangerously close to leaving the boot in place and falling face first into a saturated mess. Somehow I made it back to camp unscathed but drenched in sweat, only to find that they had canceled our boat. Apparently three boat rides in a day was going to be too much for some of them, so they opted to wait on the island for the ribbon cutting. Problem was, the sole reason I came to Newtok was for the celebration and the ribbon cutting and now I was going to miss half of it. Helpless with nothing else to do and limited time before the people would arrive for the ribbon cutting, I got a tour of the grounds by Joe. We were joined by a gentleman from the DOD Innovative Readiness Training program that had flown in for the day to check out their operations with the intent of sending out personnel to help. We drove back up the sloppy and rutted trail to the quarry (Figure 11) which I had just run down. The trail was there because the material site was located nearly a mile away from the proposed town site, and they first had to cut a trail up to the quarry before they could acquire suitable material with which to build the road. In places it was stable, in others it swallowed up geomats no matter how many they put down. It was clear that the orange flagging and markers for the road layout didn’t follow the trail we had just come up. I asked Joe what they were going to do with this trail after the road is constructed since clearly it would be next to useless by the time they were done with it. “Whatever they [the Newtok Village Council] wants us to do with it, I guess.”

Figure 11. The muddy trail up to the quarry.

As we approached the quarry, I could make out a road in its infancy. About 150 yards of geotextile and suitable fill had already started making its way down the hillside from when I was just up there a few hours before. Like clockwork, the two dump trucks circled from pit to dump while the bulldozer made quick work of the pile in three passes (Figure 12). We stood and watched for a while until we could see a fleet of nine boats carrying 60 or so people over from Newtok for the ribbon cutting. We headed back down the hill to greet them as they arrived.

Figure 12. A new road is born.

A mix of locals and various partners from the Denali Commission, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and the Alaska Department of Transportation (among others) were shuttled up from the boat landing by ATV’s and side-by-sides. Two white wooden stakes were pounded into place and a red ribbon stretched between them. The words they shared were short and sweet: the promise of more stable land and prayers that their new momentum and weather will cooperate to get them all to Mertavik before their current homes are consumed. Six hands cut through the ribbon (Figure 13) which had only just arrived on the flight that had brought me to Newtok the day before. Those holding iPhones or cameras whistled and yelled in excitement while the rest of the crowed clapped. Almost as quickly as everyone had arrived, they were ushered back to the boats to head back to Newtok. Some of them had flights to catch, but those that were locals were headed back for the first night of their Salmonberry Festival. After a quick inquiry, I learned that there was going to be live country and bluegrass music that night as they kicked off the annual event that serves to raise money for their local search and rescue crew. I quickly packed my bags and found a boat with enough room to catch a ride back for the festivities. As Mark (who was on an adjacent boat) saw me throwing my bags on-board, he yelled out “I though you were going fishing?!” “Sometimes you have to pick your battles, Mark. And today, I suppose country music wins.” At that moment, and almost too perfectly, Harry (the captain of the boat I was on) fires up the engine and starts backing out from shore. I smiled at Mark, shrugged my shoulders and just waved. I was disappointed that I had just flown two fly rods over 800 miles with the promise of  gargantuan  trout, but I was also equally excited to be present for the 2nd Annual Salmonberry Festival.

Figure 13. Mertarvik ribbon cutting ceremony.

On the boat ride back, I became acquainted with Harry, Maira and their four children. When I saw their two daughters taking an endless amount of selfies, I figured this would be as good of a time as any to pull out my Instax camera. They were immediately curious and when the first picture popped out (Figure 14a) they asked if they could have a picture to keep. I obliged and as we hit some rougher water did my best to stabilize myself against the gunnel of the boat to steady my hands to keep the pictures from coming out blurry. I took four and gave each of the kids one of their own. One of the sons saw my fishing rods and asked me if I had caught anything. I explained the situation which seemed to confuse him a little bit. He shared a few of his fishing stories and then showed me the spear he had made in school for seal hunting. After making it back to land, we walked to the school where I checked in with Grant and found a vacant room in which set up my sleeping quarters for the night. Since it was August, the teachers were back so I was asked to just keep my things either under or on a table during the day so that they wouldn’t be in the way.

Shortly after settling in, a barrage of kids tracked me down and asked if I could take their pictures. It seemed that the two young ladies from the boat had spilled the beans about my instant camera. It wasn’t long before I had burned through almost half of the film I had brought with me. One of the boys tugged at my shirt and said “Hey mister, what are these things called.” Having grown up in the 90’s, I responded by saying “Well, it’s instant film. Kinda like a Polaroid.” With his head slightly tilted to the side, staring at the white piece of film in his hand as it had yet to develop, “A Polaroid?” I nodded my head and he went running off down the boardwalk. I returned to the gymnasium. At this point, the live music had started. It would continue until 1:00am. At least a third of the community had packed the gym. About every other song, at least 30 of them would swarm the floor and start two-stepping. Apparently they really like their two step. I joked to one of the locals sitting next to me “So this is what you guys do after all the gussucks leave town?” Gussucks is a term they use for “us,” any non-indigenous person. There were six of us all sitting together in the bleachers enjoying the music. We were the only non-locals left in town after the ribbon cutting ceremony had ended. He chuckled. “Yeah, we really like to two-step,” he said. There was a break in the music and Albertina, who was about to become a local celebrity because of starring role in the news story that KTUU had just run of that days events, walked up with the bucket of 50/50 tickets. I had purchased 12 tickets earlier and had them in my hand as her assistant, the lead guitarist of the band, picked one and read the numbers off. He read them aloud in Yupik while she held her fingers up in unison signaling the number he was reading. I had won. I didn’t stand up at first. Dave, who was sitting next to me, said “You don’t have a clue what number he just called do you?” “No,” I replied. “But I watched Albertina’s fingers.” I wasn’t sure if I should claim it. I felt weird being a white person in a native village winning the first 50/50 pot of the evening. Dave convinced me it was OK so I ran to the floor and did a little shimmy as I accepted the wad of cash from her hands. I immediately walked over to the raffle table and purchased as many tickets as I could with my winnings. I split them between a pot for two airline tickets and another for a handmade wooden boat and spear. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping to become the proud owner of a boat and spear in Newtok, Alaska.

I returned to my seat in the gussocks section of the bleachers. A few minutes later, a group of kids came barging through the gymnasium door. They made eye contact with me rushed up the bleachers in my direction. I recognized one of them. He was the boy from before who had asked me what to call the photograph. “Excuse me, Mr. Polaroid. Would you mind taking pictures for some of my friends?” Apparently they had given me my nickname. I followed them outside where we soon gathered 12 or so more kids. It wasn’t long before I had used up the rest of my film. Each one of them saying “Thank you, Mr Polaroid!” as I handed them the film and showed them how to palm it between their hands to help it develop faster. One young lady handed me her photo and insisted I keep it as a memento (Figure 14b). “I can just share with my sister,” she said. I smiled and tucked the photo in my shirt pocket along with the others I had taken for myself. It broke my heart to have to start turning new requests away but promised I would come back with more film. “When??” they asked. “Well, I’m not sure, but probably before winter.” They all seemed particularly confused. “Wait, you’re not staying?” Apparently the timing was right and they had mistaken me for one of their new teachers who were set to arrive over the course of the next week. I explained that I was just visiting but planned on coming back again soon. “Oh. OK. My birthday is in November. You should come then!” one of them exclaimed. I told him I would do my best but that we would have to wait and see what the weather was going to be like. Back in the gymnasium, Albertina started handing out cooked salmon fillets. Mind you, it was 11:00pm at this point and I had already had dinner but I’m not one to pass up fresh fish.

Figure 14. Mementos from my (a) boat ride back to Newtok and (b) some of the kids who call me Mr. Polaroid.

I went to bed that night with a full stomach and happy with my decision to give up the promise of what would likely have been the largest trout caught on a fly rod in the history of man kind. I walked around Newtok the next morning, killing time until my 11:00am flight, just doing loops around the boardwalks. One gentlemen popped out of his house, “Hey, you lost? Can I help you find something?” “Nah, I’m just out for a walk,” I replied. “Oh, OK. Have a good walk!” he said with his hand waving while he disappeared back into the house. I went back to the school and handed out the rest of the fruit I had. I offered Albertina one of the loaves of zucchini bread. “Albertina, do you like zucchini bread?” “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never had zucchini bread before.” I handed her the Tupperware container and upon peaking under the lid she exclaimed, “Oh, yes. I am going to like zucchini bread!” I entrusted her with both loaves with explicit instructions to share the second, the first she could have all to herself if she wanted. She chuckled.

When we heard the buzz of the incoming airplane in the distance, Paul (the local agent for Ravn Airlines) loaded me up on his ATV and drove me out to the runway. My heart felt full and my soul topped off with a few ounces of good karma. This must have paid dividends because, unbeknownst to me at the time (since I didn’t have cell reception but would read the email when I landed in Anchorage), my flight from Bethel to Anchorage had been canceled. Since I was the only one on the flight out of Newtok, they held an earlier flight on the tarmac in Bethel that was due to fly out right after my plane had landed. After we touched down, the pilot quickly unloaded my bags, ran them into the ticket counter where they checked my ID and then ran me back out to the plane that was sitting next to the one I had just come in on. Six hours later (four and a half of which were my layover in Anchorage) I was back home in Fairbanks. Even though I had only been gone three days, it felt overwhelming and almost foreign to see cars, street lights, strip malls and grocery stores. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to someone who has lived their entire life in a village like Newtok, though some of them said they have never traveled further than Bethel.

As I undressed for bed that evening, I found the “Polaroids” I had stashed in shirt my pocket (Figure 14 and Figure 15). I stared at them for a while, trying to recount all the events and all the people I had just met over the last three days. From an outsiders perspective, life in Newtok seems harsh but not complicated. Though the weather, moose, and mail may not always cooperate, things are what you make them. They hunt. They share. They dance. They smile. If it takes one to make it, they are a village through and through. The residents of Newtok could choose to move anywhere. Yet, they chose to move only nine miles away to Mertarvik, the closest stable ground to the place they call home.

Figure 15. Parting shots of (a) the boardwalk behind the Newtok school and (b) the eroding shoreline along the Ninglick River.