Climate change diary

A glimpse into life in the Alaskan interior

Tonje Folkestad, climate change officer for the WWF International Arctic Programme visited Huslia, a small community in Alaska to talk to local people about how they are being affected by climate change, as part of the WWF Climate Witness Project. The following is an account of her experiences.

 



 / ©: Kathy Turco / Alaska Spirit Speaks
Tonje Folkestad in Huslia, Alaska.
© Kathy Turco / Alaska Spirit Speaks

Day One

Kathy Turco of Alaska Spirit Speaks picks me up early and we take off for Huslia. She’s a key person in this game – being the audio miracle-maker doing all the hard work to show the students how to make interesting radio programs.

All the way from Fairbanks to Huslia, one and a half hours by plane, we see nothing but vast plains, rivers and wetlands underneath us. Beautifully meandering patterns, and snow-covered mountains in the distance. And just as I spot the first human settlement since we took off, we take a dive and there we are, in Huslia!

The welcoming committee at the airport consists of Orville Huntington, co-chair of the Alaskan Native Science Committee, who had the idea for the Climate Witness project in the first place, and George Attla Jr., our host. George is a native from Huslia and a legendary dog musher.

"Mush, mush!"...the fine art of racing dog sleds
A “musher” is someone who drives a team of dogs over snow. For several decades he beat everyone in all kinds of dog mushing races around North America. Turns out he’s a perfect host too! There’s a village festival on, and his house seems to be open to everyone.

On a warm and sunny day like today – we see the first snow bunting of the year – it doesn’t take long to get into the issue of how winters have changed. For one thing, the Alaskans are blaming it on their dogs being built for much colder weather that it was a Norwegian of mine who won the world’s longest dog race, the Iditarod, last month. I’m thinking it just might also be that they’re ashamed of being beaten on home ground?? Hm…

The afternoon goes by fast between races, testing of foreign visitors’ ability to stay on a sled behind a snowmachine (YES I did, mostly… but my level of elegance probably didn’t impress anyone …) and coffee at George’s. His house seems to be the hub of activity this weekend, with friends and relatives dropping in for a bite to eat, and for those spontaneous quality discussions that make it difficult to leave the table even for a minute. I get to hear about growing up in a Native Indian community in the times of white men “discovering” Alaska, about the old subsistence ways of life and how knowledge about nature has been passed down through the generations.

As we’re doing the dishes, George wants to know more about the climate change project we’re doing with the school kids and the recordings that are being made. Kathy explains that it is all really an education project, and George’s conclusion is: - That’s all well and good, but you know, this all happens because of us humans, so really, we’ve got to tell the world what’s going on!



 / ©: Tonje Folkestad
George Attla jr, dog mushing legend from Huslia, Alaska.
© Tonje Folkestad

...you know, this all happens because of us humans, so really, we’ve got to tell the world what’s going on!

George Attla Jr.

 / ©: Tonje Folkestad
Visiting musher Earl from way up in Fort Yukon driving his dogs past at full speed.
© Tonje Folkestad

Day Two

The last day of the village festival and the weather is as fantastic as it was yesterday. But the temperature has dropped, my green hat isn’t good enough anymore, and I have to substitute it with a thicker one that Kathy has pushed on me.
George’s house is still the place to be. Old and young are stopping by. One of them is Sidney Huntington, ninety years of age and a wonderful storyteller. He has been living off hunting and fishing his whole life, and has seen quite some change in his lifetime. That goes for both the ways of life and nature itself. Sidney has actually written a book about life on the Koyukuk River, - it’s something I have to go look up in a Fairbanks bookstore, that’s for sure!

A changing environment
Coming into a village and getting a snapshot of life there, like I do, it is easy to forget that nature always changes, and it’s not just because of climate. “I shot my first moose back in 1929”, Sidney tells us. “Before that there weren’t any in this area; they came down from Canada”. Nowadays, the moose population in this area was recently the densest in the state. Along with it, wolves have also come in.

But we can’t be sitting here all day. Women and the “old timers” haven’t had their chance on the dog races yet. George is having fun; he gets to play in his old game, and probably for the first time in his life he gets the “last but not least” prize…

A community feast
In the afternoon there is a coverdish – everybody brings food to the table and gather in the city hall. Moose meat, salmon spread, soup and berry desserts are put in front of me. Delicious! Only - I’m being given a hard time for a) believing that I’m supposed to eat everything that’s being given to me, and b) not realizing I’m allowed to take food home with me. Hmmm. Well, sure didn’t have to eat again that day…


 / ©: Tonje Folkestad
Tonje with Angela and Sidney Huntington.
© Tonje Folkestad

Coming into a village and getting a snapshot of life there, it is easy to forget that nature always changes, and it’s not just because of climate.

Tonje Folkestad

Day Three

Monday morning, and even colder than the day before. There are lots of tired faces to be seen around school after the festival that has been going on all weekend. But the teachers are enthusiastic – one of the students won a dog sled at the raffle yesterday and it turns out the young woman was planning on starting up a dog team next year. Now she’ll have the sled to go with it.

We show up to meet teacher Sharon Strick and her journalism class. They’re the ones that are actually doing the hard work in our project, producing the radio programmes. Kathy can’t wait to see the progress made since the last time she was here. Next week, the students are going to Fairbanks to see a proper radio studio and meet some of the scientists working on climate change at the University there – Kathy is working really hard to let the students get the most out of this project. The more work they’ve done by next week, the more time they’ll have for other things – the flight is not cheap and the chance to go shopping or to the movies is much appreciated.

School children work on climate change projects
Ours is not the only climate change project going on at the school. Every week, junior high school students go out on a lake near the village to measure ice depth, snow depth “and what not”. The data are punched into a database to monitor climate in Alaska (1). This would be interesting to see, and teacher Sharon, Queen of Flexibility, turns around her schedule and decides it’s time to go check on the instruments. So right after school, off we go. “22.5’s” and “negative 9.1’s” fly through the air – the kids are experienced scientists already; the readings go by fast and efficiently.

The wilting spruce
On the way back, Orville shows us how spruces are wilted after the heat stress last summer. Huslia had around 90 degrees F (more than 30 degrees C) for three months, and the spruce isn’t adapted to such a heat. This winter has been relatively good, with lots of snow. But there haven’t been any really cold periods, and a snow-rich winter happens only one out of ten years now.

In the evening, we go to visit another one of the wonderful elders in Huslia, “Aunt Catherine” (Attla). She welcomes us in her house and we can admire both the beautiful traditional beadwork she’s busy with and the oh, so wonderful stories. She too touches upon climate change. “They shouldn’t be messing with the moon, you know. Our elders said that something was going to change when they put man on the moon. The moon is connected to the weather. And see what happened?”



 / ©: Tonje Folkestad
Loise Vent and Alex Vent taking readings for the climate change project.
© Tonje Folkestad

This winter has been relatively good, with lots of snow. But there haven’t been any really cold periods, and a snow-rich winter happens only one out of ten years now.

Tonje Folkestad

 / ©: Tonje Folkestad
Many of the spruce trees have been affected by heat stress.
© Tonje Folkestad

More information...

Read more about the ALISON project.

Day Four

This morning Matt, the Anchorage high school student, and I meet the class to talk about climate change. What’s their experience with the Climate Witness project?
Well, for one thing we learn that there has been a lot of tedious work, - transcribing every single word that’s being said on the recordings… but anyway, we talk about what climate change means in the Arctic, and I tell them about other Climate Witness projects in Fiji and Nepal. I want them to know that they’re part of something bigger.

Hope for change
Sheila Esmailka says: “You know, people out here in Huslia can’t do much about the problem. They’ve just got to get used to the changes”. When you’re in the middle of it, you might not see you can actually do something. These students’ story will hopefully inspire a lot more people to change their habits or demand green energy. Where WWF comes in is just in helping bring that out to the world.

After the session at the school, I have a good discussion with Orville about how the village and WWF might continue working together after this project. He also takes me to see Tribal Council members. Not all are in, though; people are out working and busy.

How to mush dogs
But now. I can’t leave Huslia without having felt what it’s like to be on a sled behind a dog team. George Attla has plans for me. Five dogs are being hooked up to the line as I watch, nervously, thinking – is this old man out of his mind?? Does he really want his dogs to be exposed to something like me? Poor animals. The line is straightened out, I let go of the brakes, and off we go. Or not. Off THEY go! I lose them at the first bump, and in a second they’re all tangled up and wagging their tails, probably wondering why on earth they’d ever need to listen to this stupid foreigner.

At the second try, though, we go. And what a go it is! Really, if it hadn’t been for the gloves and the four layers of jackets, I’d pinch my arm. I’m taking five of legend George Attla jr’s dogs for a run, whooshing through the woods in the Interior of Alaska. I can’t believe it! I really can’t!


 / ©: Tonje Folkestad
Traditional bead work from Huslia, Alaska.
© Tonje Folkestad

I’m taking five of legend George Attla jr’s dogs for a run, whooshing through the woods in the interior of Alaska. I can’t believe it!

Tonje Folkestad

Day Five

So, it is time to leave Huslia and “return to the real world”, as they say here. For me, this experience has been an incredibly inspiring encounter with a community that shows a lot of commitment, and with some beautiful individuals.
It’s time to reflect upon the work we are supporting. The most striking thing is that I had hardly realised how many layers of benefits there were to the students’ work.

The benefits for the world
To WWF, the radio programmes and the slide show they are producing are tools to motivate people to take action. By hearing the voices of people who are facing challenges they never had to deal with before, we hope that many more people around the world will be inspired to save on their energy use and start demanding a different energy system.

...for the students
But to the students, it might be equally important to have learnt the skills of actually producing a radio programme. That could soon come in handy when applying for a job or admission to a college. Kathy has found out that a radio station in Fairbanks actually offers internships to Native students. Who knows – maybe one of the Climate Witness students in Huslia ends up as an audio producer?

...and for the community
For the community, it is also of value that the elders have had yet another chance to share their knowledge with their young people. And some young individuals have hopefully learnt quite a bit about climate change along the way.

By being here and seeing people work, I learned to appreciate all of this. The hospitality and openness people have showed me only comes on top of it. How could I not be inspired?

So, I go away with a strong feeling of responsibility for showing the world what’s going on. Hey, do we want this uncontrolled change in our nature? It’s time to act, folks!


 / ©: Tonje Folkestad
Tonje "mushing" (dog sledding).
© Tonje Folkestad

By hearing the voices of people who are facing challenges they never had to deal with before, we hope that many more people around the world will be inspired to save on their energy use and start demanding a different energy system.

Tonje Folkestad

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