Readings — From the May 2012 issue
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From interviews with Yup’ik hunters and elders in the Alaskan villages of St. Mary’s and Pitka’s Point by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, conducted as part of a study of indigenous people’s experiences of climate change. A summary of the USGS findings was published last fall in the journal Human Organization.
I was born downriver in Aleknagik, at the mouth of the Yukon. When I first got here in the 1960s, I must have been about seven or eight years old. Seems like every year we used to have lots of snow and really cold winters. I remember guys ice-picking—now it’s only about three feet, but then it must have been a good five, six feet thick. We had a lot of snow too them years. Right outside our house we’d get a really big snowbank. Kids used to jump off out there. You don’t see that no more. I remember those days we had some really cold temperatures. Maybe because we didn’t have electricity. But we didn’t really notice it. We were just kids; we thought it would be like that forever.
But gradually, maybe in the Eighties, there was this change. Less snow I seen some winters, rain in December and January. On the river we used to get really high water when all the snow would melt in the summer. Some years it looks like a desert out there. Ice didn’t even break up and run off; it just melted. We used to have these wild breakups during the spring, especially downriver, it’s like thunder going down the river. Big chunks of ice piling up about ten, twelve stories high. Haven’t seen that for a long time.
The birds and animals are coming back a couple of weeks earlier. The timing is a little off. Them years we used to say, “Oh, it’s going to be berry-picking season coming up.” We go out there and they’re all gone, all dried up, got to go look elsewhere.
In the springtime, during breakup, there’d be big jams out on the Yukon. I don’t know how many times I hear these bombers, small bombers, coming, and they’d bomb the jams, they’d break ’em up. A good day like this, we could see those airplanes go by and hear a big blast. They don’t do that anymore, because there’s no more jams, ya know.
There’s no more ptarmigan, we don’t see even ducks and geese. And it seems like the little summer birds, some of them we don’t see anymore. Salmonberries getting fewer. The tundra is drying up, and they can’t grow. In the fall we don’t get big south winds like we used to. March is normally kind of a bad month, or it used to be, where the snow would blow and everything, but this year a couple days before March we had bad weather, March weather, ya know. It’d last only a day or two, and it’d get really cold and clear, and a couple more days, it’s bad weather again. Just no continuity. You couldn’t plan anything, just in and out, constantly three or four months of that, seems like. It’s really depressing, I tell you.
Dad used to tell us, Anything’s going to disappear always moves down from upriver. The beaver used to be up there and not here, but there’s lots here and there’s less up there. The beaver, they dam these little cricks so they change the flow of the water, fish don’t go where they normally used to spawn. My dad used to tell us everything moves from east to west. He says if they’re going to go extinct that’s what happens, they start moving like that, leave nothing behind.
Used to be able to tell the weather by the moon and now you can’t because any kind of weather comes by. This year was the worst—you never see the moon, just when it crests and one full moon. When I was growing up, my dad would set a net in the winter. It would go through maybe five, six feet of ice to set a net and now maybe you’re lucky if you have three, four feet. Rabbits are in a cycle, up and down. If there’s a lot of rabbits, there’s a lot of predatory game, and stuff like that. It all depends on rabbits.
The caribou herd that we harvest during the winter, it’s the northwest Arctic herd, and it comes to right at the end of the Andreafsky River here. They haven’t been down for, boy, maybe five, six years or so. A few years ago the herd had gone into the Seward Peninsula, and the reindeer herds in the peninsula had mixed in with the caribou. Got to thinking maybe the caribou usually have a leader they follow. And maybe now they have a reindeer leader. That’s what makes them go toward Seward Peninsula, where reindeer originally were. And the moose stayed. From what I remember you’d be lucky if you went out hunting and you see maybe eight. And today you can see eight in a bunch. So they’re moving from upriver, moving on this way. Everything comes from up inland and goes out to the sea.
All of us have to adapt to changes. When I was a kid, there was just the one small store with bare essentials and stuff. Western civilization really moved in, and people adapted to that. Hope they’ll be able to adapt back to their origin, ya know, if the time comes or something like that is ever needed, but I’m sure they’ll just adapt to the environment.