A Woman’s Winter Wonderland in Alaska

By Ujvala Stathis, Womens Feature Service

Alaska is very wild, very beautiful, very different. The land surrounded by magnificent mountains, glaciers and, literally, millions of lakes, offers so many climatic variations that it can make life trying – even for those who have lived here forever. Due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle, Alaska ‘enjoys’ extreme weather – temperatures dip to a crippling minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, as winter drags on for months in darkness. Summer (May to mid-September), by contrast, sees the mercury rising to 90 degrees Fahrenheit) with the sun beating down for almost 21 hours a day!

The largest cities in the state are Anchorage (South-central Alaska), Juneau (state capital located in Southeast Alaska) and Fairbanks (central Alaska). They are easily accessible by air, rail, road or ferry and have great hotels, shopping malls and fine restaurants – everything, in fact, that makes them into perfect tourist havens.

The urban milieu has an interesting mix of various ethnic communities – white Americans, Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese.

But what is life really like in a region made famous when Sarah Palin was made the Republican vice-presidential nominee? For the real Alaskan experience one has to head to the rural part of the state – to the remote villages that dot the landscape. Here the predominant population comprises native Americans and Eskimos, who are very proud of their land, language and culture. Some of the Eskimo and native villages are extremely difficult to access. One can only reach them by flying down in small planes. Some can be reached by boats, too, but only in the summers. Earlier, communication networks in these parts were almost non-existent, since they were serviced neither by telephone nor telegraph services. But now, thanks to modern technology, every village, no matter how small or remote, has telephones, and even access to the Internet and satellite.

In a typical village, the food supply primarily comes from fishing – the abundant salmon in the waterways is a staple. Villagers also hunt moose, deer, and small game. The Eskimos, who live further north, fish but they are also dependent on other game, and hunt seal, walrus and caribou. Hunting and fishing is a way of life here and it is a major task to shore up food supplies so that they can last until the end of the long winter months, which stretch from October to April/May.

The experience of staying in an Alaskan village is very unique. I was dumbfounded when the tiny airplane I was in had landed in the small Alaskan bush village of Shageluk. Having lived in bustling Delhi for years, my new home, with a population of a mere 100 came as a culture shock. It was the first week of March in 2006, and everywhere I looked, it was uniformly white, a bright white. I felt as if I had just stepped on to the sets of a science fiction movie. It took me a while to snap out of my daze and realise that the white carpet was actually snow.

Now, after having spent a few winters in this wild setting, I have become more acclimatised to it. In deep winter, it’s so cold that if one ventures outside, one’s breath turns to ice and settles on the eyebrows. Try hurling a cup of coffee here. By the time the hot beverage falls on the floor it would have turned into – what else? – coloured ice.

How do the people of the largest state in America cope with the pressures of living in such demanding conditions? Don’t the women, teenagers and the elderly – who are most likely to suffer from these extreme conditions – ever consider relocating themselves to mainland America? I decided to speak to some long-time residents for answers.

Flossie E. Semone, 35, a mother of five, who till last year used to work as a cook at Shegeluk Iditarod School District, is emphatic. “I can’t imagine any other place I would want to raise my children in. This is our heritage and we are born with as natural a tendency to bundle up in winter as we are to liberally applying suntan lotion and insect repellant during the summer.”

Okay, but what about teenagers? How do they tide over the weather designed to kill the good times? Jacinda Haward, 17, a high school student of Yukon Flats School District in Venetie, reveals, “We generally enjoy outdoor things like cross-country skiing, riding on snow machines, driving our own team of sled dogs… It snows like the blazes but we have a great time.” City gal Melissa, 22, from Fairbanks, agrees, observing that she enjoys the winters because she loves snowboarding, skating and ice hockey.

Nature and wildlife, too, is a big draw among the young. Alisa Wulf, an artist, exclaims, “Look at the magnificent display of the Northern Lights! You won’t see that anywhere else!”

And what about the women, who are usually confined within their homes doing household chores? What do they like doing during their leisure hours? “You just have to find things to do,” says Marline Benjamin, a housewife from Venetie. As her family cannot afford gas or electricity for heating, Marline’s main task at home is to keep the wood stove going so that the house remains warm. “It takes constant effort to load the wood, especially when it is minus 20 Fahrenheit outside.” But leisure certainly does not take a back seat. In her spare time, Marline likes to indulge in some native dancing or traditional music. She also makes craft objects and weaves nets for fishing! Senior citizens, like 75-year-old Lucy Hamilton from Shageluk, usually take to activities like knitting and fashioning moccasins, hats, and gloves from animal skins.

Then, of course, there are the winter carnivals where handicrafts made by the local women are put on display and sale. Conventional American festivals like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, too, are celebrated with great fervour. In fact, Christmas kicks off a season of festivity that lasts till the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Typical celebrations include caroling and gift-giving followed by a sumptuous feast of maple-frosted doughnuts, cookies, candies, ‘piruk’ (or fish pie), with smoked salmon sometimes on the menu.

But for many, adjusting to Alaskan winters can be very difficult. Newcomers, particularly, have a hard time coping with the interminable darkness, especially in February when daylight is less than four hours in duration. Most also gain a lot of weight as a result of not changing their eating habits while being holed up at home. In fact, at the time of writing this piece, I myself had not moved out of my house for a month! The lack of sunshine is also known to lead to depression and drug problems for some.

But Alaskans are a hardy lot and have a remedy to every problem. Jennie Grammer, 58, a special education teacher at Yukon Flats School District, Venetie, suggests dietary changes and lots of sleep and exercise to combat the blues. In addition, she has a secret formula: Jennie occasionally spends some quality time under a “magical light”, which can alleviate the consequences of the lack of vitamin D caused by spending too much time in the dark. A friend of hers offers this popular light therapy. Finally, it seems that it is all about spreading some cheer and light for that top of the world feeling!

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.