Archive for the ‘Unalakleet’ Category

Unalakleet: Random Pictures

24 Oct
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Posted in Photos, Unalakleet


Unalakleet: Fishing

24 Oct

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

Jens busted his elbow at the beginning of summer, so he missed the entire King Salmon fishing season because his arm was in a splint.  After his arm healed, he tried fishing for reds a couple of times, but came back empty handed.

So when he had the opportunity to go fishing for silvers in UNK, he jumped on it.  I went too, more for moral support than a desire to do any fishing myself.

We took a motor boat upriver and stopped in a little place where two streams converge.  At first, the fish were just teasing us.  The guys would throw out their lures and a fish would jump 10 feet away from the spot where the lure hit the water.

Eventually, persistence paid off and they started biting.  At least, they started biting for Jens.

Joey, Our Fishing Guide

Joey beating the fish into submission. With a bone.

Caught another one!

I fished a little. Didn't catch anything.

Jens caught 4 of the 5 fish we came back with.

Cleaning and slicing. Joey is using an Ulu, a curved traditional Eskimo knife.

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Posted in Friends, Jens, Photos, Travel, Unalakleet


Unalakleet: People

15 Oct

One of the noticeable pieces of Eskimo culture is that there’s a strong history of storytelling.  When folks get together, they tell stories of funny things that happened last year, 10 years ago, or when their parents were young.  And no matter how many times a story has been told and retold, it gets the same uproarious laughter when the punchline is reached.

When Jens’ family gets together, approximately 50% of the conversation consists of stories or updates about people from Unalakleet.  Having no visual or experiential point of reference whatsoever, when the conversation veers that way my eyes typically glaze over and I start thinking about whatever project I’m currently trying to muddle my way through, while half-listening with one ear.

So I was really pumped about finally MEETING some of these people and being able to put faces and places to the names.  Here are just a few…

Joel and Olga

Joel and Olga, our hosts while we were in UNK.

Joel is the pastor of the Unalakleet Covenant Church.

Inside the Covenant Church. The recess behind the pulpit used to be curtained off, and when Jens was 1 he would run back there during the sermon to poop behind the curtain. I hope he doesn't mind me announcing that to the world.


This is Joel Jr. and his family - wife Sarah and two boys, Jonas and Lucas. Joel Jr. has been Jens' friend since they were 2. We call him Joey to avoid confusion, even though he doesn't really like it.


This is Sarah, Joey's wife. She grew up in the lower 48 and moved to rural Alaska after college to teach. She picks berries and fishes and combs qiviut out of musk ox pelts and smokes salmon and helps with the children's ministry at church. She raises two boys in a 400 square foot house and keeps them from killing each other while her husband works long hours as a pilot. She's sweet, classy and totally awesome.


Joey and Sarah's boys, Jonas and Lucas. They're good kids.

Eva and Family

This is Joey's sister Eva and her family. They have been living in Anchorage but have just moved back home to Unalakleet.


This is Eva and Jason's little 1-year-old, Emma. She's very quiet (all kids are quiet compared to mine, but still...) but she can wrap you around her finger pretty quickly.

Sarah and the cousins, who play really well together. The boys just can't give Emma enough love and she's a trooper and doesn't complain when the occasional toy bops her on the head.


This is Kris, who knew Jens when he lived there as a kid. It really surprised me how many people still recognized Jens, since I personally think he looks totally different than he did as a kid. Kris teaches at the high school now.

Like most small villages, there are a few prevalent family lines, and everybody seems to be related in one way or another.  Also, everybody knows everything about each other.  A person’s last name says as much about them as a resume.  And people seem to have very long memories.  Many of them even remembered Jens’ grandparents, who were teachers in the village for a few years back when Jens’ dad was kid.

(to be continued … )



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…)