In Kaltag, the Yukon River takes a sweeping turn away from the Iditarod trail and mushers enter a new phase of the race. From here they continue overland through the Kaltag Portage, an 82-mile corridor through the Whaleback mountains that leads to the Bering Sea Coast. As mushers approach Unalakleet, the dense mountains that line the portage suddenly open up like someone flinging open a door, and the Unalakleet River pours into an open plain. This transition is a famous game-changer in the race. After the last stand of spruce trees in the portage, there’s no natural shelter from coastal winds until Nome. Many people say, the musher who manages their team the best up until this point will win the race, but coastal storms have been known to stop even the strongest of Iditarod teams if they don’t have a leader who will pull in driving wind and whiteout conditions. But in clear conditions, the transition to the coast is a thing of unparalleled beauty––an arrival at the edge of Alaska.
Here, one immense landscape abruptly charges into another. From the air, the geographical contrast between them is so stark, it literally appears like two separate cultures should abut one another––one that lives in open land and draws food from the sea and one that subsists off the Yukon and forest game. While there is truth to that theory, the story is more complexly woven.
Unalakleet is a crossroads for many cultures and intersections in Alaskan history. Kaltag Portage was in fact used as a trading corridor between Athabaskan Indians in the interior and Eskimo cultures on the coast. For generations, these two groups mostly didn’t get along, but still managed civility for trade. Within the portage, two Athabaskan villages existed that have since been forgotten about––one at Old Woman, where a shelter cabin sits today, and one halfway between Old Woman and Unalakleet. This means that if you were a coastal people, the Athabaskans were right on the verge of your territory, not back 82 miles in Kaltag like the common telling of this history leads us to believe. This means that from the Coastal perspective, things like fish drying in the open were an easy target for sticky hands. But the culture mosaic seen today, goes beyond the simplicity of interior and coastal cultures.
Unalakleet is the second northernmost Yupik village, and the southernmost Inupiaq village––an overlapping point for two different Eskimo cultures. Many of the Inupiaq here are from the Kobuk River, located inland and just north of the Arctic Circle.
There was a Russian trading post built here in 1830, and an even bigger one at St. Michaels to the south where deeper waters close to shore allowed large ships to dock and a big city to develop. The influence was so strong, that today, many Unalakleet natives have some percentage of Russian blood and the Inupiaq language has trace amounts Russian built into it, such as the terms for “sugar” and “butter.” People still find Russian trade bead on the beaches.
In 1898, the government brought over Sámi reindeer herders from Lapland to build sustainable reindeer herds and teach locals to do the same. Willa Eckenweiler’s grandfather was a reindeer herder. “Back then,” she says. “People were tough.” They would walk all over the hills with their herds, tromping through tundra––spongy, tussocky ground that significantly slows down most people’s walking pace today.
Reindeer herding proved unsustainable in the long-term, but many other traditions remain. Fishing, hunting, and trapping are still very much a part of the Unalakleet way of life. Her brother, Clarence, grew up running traplines with her dad, earning money from pelts. They would go out and trap for three weeks, then come home and resupply, then head back out. Eventually, he ran the Iditarod in 1981 and placed eighth.
Willa and Gary raised their two daughters to hunt and fish. “They just did what we did. We taught them to be self-sufficient and not rely on someone else.” In Unalakleet, people hunt moose, black bear, and beaver. They used to hunt caribou nearby but they haven’t come to the valley since the early 90‘s. “Lately we’ve had to travel 130 miles to get caribou,” Willa reflects. The river provides trout, grayling, whitefish, tomcods and smelt year-round. The summer salmon runs begin with kings, followed by chum, humpies, and then silver.
Then there is the ocean––the game changing differential from life in the interior. From the ocean, Eskimos draw beluga whale, walrus, bearded seal, and crab. To an outsider, these food choices might seem hard to swallow. But this is the food coastal cultures were built on. The land provides nutrition that helps people thrive within the challenges of the Bering Sea Coast. Few foods warm a person from the inside out like whale blubber or seal oil. The composition of fatty acids that keep a bearded seal warm in a coastal storm will do the same for the hunter. Likewise, no hat made from synthetic materials keeps a head warm like one crafted from seal skin. This relationship is not something that is taken for granted or abused, but a synergy borne from the understanding that the natural world must be cared for because a healthy ecosystem is key to human survival.
Some traditions in Unalakleet, however, are in jeopardy or have all together disappeared. The root cause of these, is a story heard over and over again in Native American history. When missionaries came to the region, they opened schools that forbade Yupiks and Inupiaqs from speaking their native languages. “When the first teachers came, they said the kids could not speak their language. If you speak your language in school you’ll get punished,” Willa explains. The effect has been felt all over the state, and in Unalakleet, Inupiaqs simply don’t speak the language anymore. There is a statewide effort to try to preserve languages, and in fact University of Alaska Fairbanks is documenting the language to preserve it that way. “We don’t speak it fluently. We know words; phrases. We can say things together in our language but it’s not being passed down. That part of our culture is getting lost.”
During the time of westerinization, in Unalakleet Native dancing vanished completely. Willa says, “according to what I heard from the elders, the thought was that if you do your native dances, you’re dancing is like a cult. So they discourage the dancing. Any dancing performed here since has been learned from other villages.
But an interesting thing happened somewhere along the way. Before the dances were lost, people from Kaltag learned the dances, and still perform them today within their own Native dancing––an interesting twist on an old rivalry.
Unalakleet beams with local pride. For instance, many people wear their best parkies to the checkpoint during Iditarod. When Ray Redington, Jr.’s team come, a little boy walks up to me proudly and says, “Did you know his mom is from here?”
Back at the Eckeweilers, Willa and Gary are excited about Ray Redington’s performance, but are most enthused about how Richie Diehl and Pete Kaiser are doing, both of whom are good friends of their daughters. In the living room that looks out over the trail, Willa is sporting a “Diehl Racing” hoodie and Gary dons a hat with the same logo. Willa tells me that many people move to Unalakleet to try it out but in the end most grow lonely for the commercial world they left behind. A few people, however, do stay.
Thirty years ago, Gary was one of those people. I can see why. With the Iditarod trail outside the Eckeweilers’ window, and the Bering Sea Coast just one block away, I feel some of what makes locals prideful. The power of the ocean is as immense as the land is vast. There is no sunset like the ones over Norton Sound and few landscapes so rich. Even the coastal storms, for all their intensity, continue to shape the land at the people who call it home.
Unalakleet is an arrival at the edge of Alaska. From here the trail takes a sweeping turn, this time to head up the Bering Sea Coast. As we each hurry down our own trail in life, it’s valuable to stop in at a checkpoint and take stock of our resources. After all, sometimes nature takes a ninety-degree turn, and the landscape changes abruptly. Cultures blend, traditions change, and even caribou may leave. The only certainty then, is whatever comes next in our paths, we will need leaders capable of driving us through a whiteout storm.
Joar Leifseth Ulsom in good spirits prepping to depart Unalakleet