15 Oct

I just realized that I never actually blogged about our trip to Unalakleet, which we took in August.

Unalakleet is an Eskimo village located on the Western coast of Alaska, squeezed between the ocean and the Unalakleet River.  There are no roads to that part of the country, so the only way in or out is via plane.  The population is less than 800.

It’s the village where Jens spent the first 12 years of his life.

He has been back a few times but this was my first trip to UNK to see the place where he grew up and meet the people and environment that had such a profound impact on him.

I knew I was in for a bit of culture shock when we were picked up and driven home from the airport on an ATV.  UNK has one (dirt) road and no stoplights.  Transportation is mainly on ATVs (four-wheelers) in the summer or snowmobiles in the winter.  Even the 80 year old women truck around on these.  And they’re totally fun.


You'd be surprised how many people you can actually fit on one of these.

Because the only way to get supplies or anything else delivered in UNK is via plane or the (very) occasional barge, recycling is a big part of the culture.  Need a place to wipe the snow off your boots before entering your house?  Just lay down some old snowmobile treads!  Need a fence for your garden?  Bury one edge of an old ladder in the dirt, and voila!  Also…

Spool Table

Need a table? Find an old cable spool.

Boat Seating

Need seating in your boat? A couple of old school chairs should do it.

UNK is a subsistence culture, which means that a good portion of their food comes from living off the land.  For a few weeks out of every year, everyone takes advantage of the long summer hours to gather and store as much food as possible so they can get through the long winter months.  The main sources of their food storage are salmon from the river that borders the town, and blueberries from the hills that surround it.

Our first evening there, we took the opportunity to go upriver and try a little blueberry picking on the tundra.

Blueberry picking

Blueberry Picking

The mosquitoes were beyond insane.  Despite hoods, coats, and GENEROUS use of bug dope, I still came away with about 20 mosquito bites from the couple of hours we were out in the field.  Fortunately, I seem to be less allergic to Alaskan mosquitoes than Texan mosquitoes, so while they were a nuisance, at least they didn’t swell up as big or itch as unbearably as usual.

The biggest problem was that they kept flying into my eyes, probably because it was the only part of my body not coated in bug dope.  But it’s a little difficult to pick berries when you can’t SEE.

Unalakleet Blueberries

Jens with the town of Unalakleet in the background. Behind the town is the ocean.

2 hours of picking netted us about 2.5 quarts.

Blueberry picking is surprisingly demanding, physically.  Walking through tundra is actually quite difficult because the ground is full of little invisible pits so you’re constantly having to balance yourself on little tufts of moss and falling into little knee-deep holes that you can’t see because of the way the plants cover them.  In addition, you’re constantly bending over, which can do a number on your back after a few hours.

The women of the village go blueberry picking for weeks in the summer, for hours at a time.  Another day, we went out with some of them to pick up in the hills.


Our berry-picking Caravan. Olga (in front) had nearly reached her goal of 20 gallons of berries for the season.

We rode the ATVs about 45 minutes up into the hills to find a spot that hadn’t already been picked through.  They picked for 5 hours.  We gave up after 2.

Also, the berries are very soft, so if you set your bucket on the ATV for the ride back, you’ll just end up with a bunch of juice.  For the record, holding a gallon of berries suspended on your arm for 45 minutes on an ATV ride back to town is … challenging.

(to be continued…)

  1. Unalakleet: Fishing « Go Ask Your Dad

    October 24, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    […] Ok, back to our regularly scheduled programming.  I never finished posting about Unalakleet. […]