Christine Hedge, August 29, 2009

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Christine Hedge
Onboard USCGC Healy
August 7 – September 16, 2009 

Mission: U.S.-Canada 2009 Arctic Seafloor Continental Shelf Survey
Location: Beaufort Sea, north of the arctic circle
Date: August 29, 2009

Science Party Profile – George Neakok 

George Neakok (left) and Justin Pudenz watch for marine mammals from the bridge of the Healy.

George Neakok (left) and Justin Pudenz watch for marine mammals from the bridge of the Healy.

George Neakok is on board the Healy as our Community Observer from the North Slope Borough. A borough is like a county government.  Except, since Alaska is so huge, the North Slope Borough is roughly the size of the state of Minnesota.  George acts as the eyes of the Inupiat (native people of the North Slope) community while on board the Healy. The Inupiat people are subsistence hunters. They live off the animals and plants of the Arctic and have a real stake in how other people are using the same lands and waters they depend on for survival. George spends hours on the bridge each day looking for life outside the Healy and noting any encounters the ship has with wildlife in general and marine mammals in particular. He is a resident of Barrow, Alaska (one of the 7 villages in the Borough) and has acted as an observer for 2 years traveling on 5 different expeditions. George says he was selected for the Community Observer job because he is a good hunter and has good eyes.  He is too humble.  His life experience has endowed him with fascinating knowledge about the ice, animals, and the Arctic world in general.  George can see a polar bear a kilometer away and know how old it is, how healthy, and what sex.

I asked George to share a little about his life and the kinds of changes he has observed in the Arctic. He has always lived in Barrow except for 2 years when he went away to Kenai Peninsula College to study Petroleum Technology. His dad died while he was away and so he returned home to help his mother.  He has worked in the natural gas fields near Barrow and expects to work in the new field southwest of Barrow in the future.  George has 7 children ranging in age from 20 years to 9 months.  His youngest daughter is adopted, which he says is very common in his culture. There are no orphans.  If a child needs a home, another family will take that child in.  Although his children are being raised in a world with cell phones and snowmobiles – they are still learning to live the way their ancestors have always lived.

Erosion on the coast of Barrow, Alaska is an ever increasing problem.

Erosion on the coast of Barrow, Alaska is an ever increasing problem.

George and his community are a part of  both an ancient and a modern world.  With each season comes another type of food to hunt or collect. The Neakok family hunts caribou, bowhead whale, seals, walrus, beluga, and geese each in its’ own season.  They fish in fresh water and in the Chukchi Sea. They collect berries, roots, greens and eggs, storing them in seal oil to preserve them until they are needed.  Food is stored in ice cellars.  These are underground rooms that can keep food frozen all year round. The animals that are hunted are used for more than just food.  The Inupiat make boats from seal or walrus skin.  In Inupiat culture, the blubber, oil, tusks, baleen and meat are all useful in some way.  If one community has a very successful hunt, they share with their neighbors.  If a community has a bad hunt, they know that other villages will help them out.  Villages come together to meet, celebrate, trade and share what they have caught.  George says this is just the way it is.  People take care of their neighbors.

FOR MY STUDENTS: What can we learn from the people of the North Slope about community? 

A polar bear, spotted by George, travels over thin ice by spreading out his body weight.  (Photo courtesy of Pat Kelley USCG)

A polar bear travels over thin ice by spreading out his body weight. (Photo courtesy of Pat Kelley)

George has witnessed much change in his life.  He notes that the seasons are coming earlier and staying later. The shore ice used to start forming in late August but lately it has been forming in late September or early October. When there is less ice close to land, there are fewer animals to hunt.  Whaling off the ice is getting more and more dangerous. The ice is more “rotten” and camping on the ice during the hunt can be treacherous. In recent years, more and more hunters have lost their equipment when the ice gave way.

Erosion of the coastline is another recent problem.  Without ice to protect the shoreline the wave action eats away at the permafrost causing coastlines to collapse.  George has seen a coastal hillside where he used to sled – crumble into the ocean. Entire villages have been moved farther inland as the coastal erosion eats away at the land. George is hopeful that although the Arctic is changing fast, the Inupiat people and culture will handle these changes and continue to live and thrive on the North Slope of Alaska.