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> May 14, 2006 – Gambell at a Glance, From Student Perspective
post May 22 2006, 05:36 PM
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Date: Sunday, May 14, 2006

Look out below! I’ve discerned that some of my readers are more into the social/emotional aspect of my new experiences and others are dieing to hear the science that my scientists are doing on the ship. Although this journal begins and ends with a new experience from a social/emotional point of view, there is a huge chunk of science right smack dab in the middle that is all related to one school science fair project. This one science fair project really connected the culture to the research for me and I hope that it will do the same for my readers. This one is kind of long, but the subject deserves it.

GPS Coordinates
Latitude: 62° 45.1’ N
Longitude: 173° 26.6’ W

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From our last station visited on this map, we were about 80 nautical miles from Gambell.

When Patty startled me awake this morning (thankfully) by knocking on my door, I never thought I would end up on St. Lawrence Island. To end up on St. Lawrence Island was furthest from my mind as we would have to go in a helicopter a long distance and the weather has already canceled several helo flights in the last few days. Well, Patty and I were actually able to see the Yupik village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island but only for one hour. If you were able to look at some place you’ve never been before through a window for only an hour, how would you look at it? On what kinds of things would you focus? What would you bring with you to the window to help you observe that place? During our short visit, we were shown a view of the village through the eyes of an 11th grade student who is also a village resident.

Patty and I went to the helo hangar to put on our mustang suits in order to prepare for our flight. We were slated to accompany a scientist that was going to do an aerial survey for walrus. About 5 minutes before we were to board the helicopter, the flight plan was changed. It turns out that another scientist (Jim) needed to be dropped off in Gambell while we needed to pick another one (Gay) up. Luckily, they told us that there was still enough room in the helo for us to fly, too, and away we went!

The flight was only about an hour long. Mixed feelings of respect, fear, and wonder came over me when we approached the island by helicopter and it first came into view. It looked like an enormous, snow covered mountain with steep cliffs leading down to the ocean.

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My first view of St. Lawrence Island by helicopter on May 14, 2006, was breath taking! Patty and I were flown in and had one hour to absorb everything while armed with only a camera and all of our senses.

As we flew westward, along the southwest part of the coast, the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell did not come into view until after we turned northward and cleared the flat-topped, snow covered peaks. It is nestled against the side of one of the cliffs on a sediment-accreting, rocky beach. (Accreting is another word for accumulating that scientists use to describe a deposit-type, or depositional, feature.) People from the villages on the island often refer to themselves as St. Lawrence Island Yupik and they speak a language called Siberian Yupik.

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This is an aerial view of the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. It is the smaller of two villages on the island. The school is the large, grey roofed building in the mid-ground. Behind it sit the homes, various businesses, and public buildings. A frozen lake is visible on the left side of the picture. The airstrip is faintly visible and runs horizontal to the shore. A strip of thick, broken ice is piled against the shore just before the dark blue-grey of the Bering Sea begins.

When we landed and exited the helicopter, it wasn’t but a moment after I took my helmet off that I was greeted with the smiling and friendly faces of Bob Woolf, a teacher at the school in Gambell, and one of his 11th grade students, Bobby Ungwiluk.

Shortly after Bob and Bobby greeted us, we learned we had about 45 minutes to visit while the helicopter refueled until we were ready to depart and return to the ship. When they asked Patty and I what we would like to do, we quickly inquired about a tour of the village. With only our bright orange and black mustang suits to wear, our cameras, and our senses, we hopped on the back of Bobby’s four-wheeler and started our tour. Bobby’s younger nephew, Wallace, drove his four-wheeler along side of us.

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Wallace is one of Bobby’s brother’s sons, so he is Bobby’s nephew. He came along for the ride as Bobby took us on a tour of Gambell, one of the two Siberian Yupik villages on St. Lawrence Island. It was fun to have him with us.

The village of Gambell that you see in the picture is actually the newest on this part of the island. There are sites of former villages nearby. When the village was rebuilt this last time, it was laid out much like other planned cities, in a grid. So the homes and buildings appear to be in straight rows. The airstrip is the only paved surface. In places where the snow had melted, I could see gravel below. As we passed different buildings, Bobby did a great job at pointing out their names and purposes. Our very first stop was at the school. Since it was Sunday, the school was closed; but we were able to take a peek through the windows.

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Bobby Ungwiluk is an 11th grader at this K-12 school. One wing houses the elementary classes and the other wing houses the junior high and high school classes. Can you read the name of the two schools on the sign?

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Patty and I take turns standing for pictures with our host, Bobby Ungwiluk, a St. Lawrence Island Yupik native, and science fair winner.

It seems that many people are very proud of Bobby Ungwiluk, including Bobby’s teacher, Bob Woolf. His class of 7th through 12th graders worked on a science project together and then Bobby continued the project even further and entered it in the science fair. He earned first place in the Bering Strait School District, which consists of about 15 villages according to the teacher, Bob Woolf. Then Bobby took the project to the Alaska state science fair where he won several special awards including NOAA’s “Pulse of the Planet” award. (NOAA stands for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.) He also won an award at the state science fair for his display. Not only do most state science fairs offer place awards for the different age levels and categories, they also offer many different special awards that are given independent of the place awards and are sponsored by companies, professional societies, and government organizations.

So, what was this award-winning project about?
Bob Woolf sent us a copy of Bobby’s science project report. (My students might be interested to know that it closely follows the same format that we use at our school for science fair projects.) Before I tell you about the project, I need to first provide a little bit of background information so that you might see how ‘close to home’ this project really is for Bobby and others in his village.

Many St. Lawrence Island Yupik people, as well as other native coastal groups, hunt whale and walrus for subsistence. I have heard this word, subsistence, many times while visiting Alaska. That means that they harvest wild animals to feed their families. It is not a commercial operation. The federal government manages the hunting of marine animals in Alaska. Having said that, I now need to incorporate the issue of climate warming. Sea ice is vital to the ecosystem in areas where these animals live. (I will talk more about the importance of the ice in my journals about the scientists.) The seasonal ice pack is melting more than ever before in modern times. This is a result of the climate changing. Without sea ice, many marine mammals will lose their habitat they need to haul out and rest, have their babies, and breed. Without the sea ice, the ecosystem will become less productive, and there will be fewer food sources for many marine animals, including the sea birds, walruses, seals, whales, and others. So when there is less sea ice, there will be fewer animals in this area. Can you guess what that means for hunters who harvest sea animals? It becomes difficult for them to feed their families. They have to travel further and further away from their homes to find the animals because there are fewer of those animals in the area. This imposes a great nutritional and economic strain on families, because if they are unable to bring home meat, then they need money to buy food to feed their families. In remote places like this, there are not many jobs available to earn some money to buy food. This also raises the question of adaptation. There are many other aspects and sides to these issues that I have not addressed and I am not in a position to represent them well because I have recently learned about all of this for the first time, but I think these are the basics that you might need to know to understand why this science fair project was incredibly meaningful to Bobby.

Bobby investigated the question of whether this trend of melting ice caused by climate warming is reversible or not. He constructed a model of the atmosphere using gravel, plastic bottles of water, cardboard, and a light. The model simulated the slowness with which water warms up compared to air and rock. It takes much longer for the water to reach a maximum temperature - Bobby refers to that as thermal equilibrium. Then, with the addition of carbon dioxide (represented by cardboard as insulation), the water takes even longer and the equilibrium temperature gets even higher. When the carbon dioxide was taken away – all at once – the air and the rock temperatures cooled quickly back to their normal, or equilibrium state, while the water took a long time to cool back down to its equilibrium state. According to Bobby’s results from this experiment performed as a model, he found that if all the extra carbon dioxide that has been recently added by industrialization to the atmosphere were to be taken out of the atmosphere at once, then the air and land temperatures might quickly return to equilibrium, however, it would take longer for the oceans to cool down and the ice to reform. The implications are that the ecosystem would be altered entirely too much to just bounce back in a feasible amount of time. A lot of time would need to pass for the ecosystem to return to “normal.” Bobby reasoned that even though he took away all of the cardboard insulation that represented the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for his model, the best that humans could do would be to stop adding it. That is an extraordinary feat since currently we do not have an economically feasible way to remove the excess carbon dioxide from our atmosphere.

Have I done an ok job at explaining the connection between Bobby’s culture and his science fair project? Have I done an ok job at explaining the science of it all? Take a trip to the question board!

Continuing with my tour of Gambell…I left off with our visit to the school. From a teacher’s perspective, the school was one of the most important places for me to see. I wondered what it must be like to teach or to be a student there. The school mascot is a very big, legendary polar bear called a qughsatkut. Qughsatkut is a Siberian Yupik word for king polar bear. There was even a sign in the entry way that I could see from the window, telling me that this school was “Home of the Qughsatkut.” There was also a large piece of baleen hung above the doorway for decoration. Baleen is the bristles used by filter-feeding whales, such as the bowhead, to obtain krill, or zooplankton, by straining their prey from the seawater.

We hopped back on the four-wheeler and went to the other side of the village where the boats are kept. Bobby kept pointing out the buildings along the way…the village public safety office, the IRA tribal government office, the Native store, the Head Start building, the post office (wish I had remembered a postcard =( , the Washeteria (local laundry mat and public showers), the Native Village Corporation, and many more that I wish I had written down. Truthfully, I was curious to see the inside of a Gambell home. I wonder how similar and different it might look from my home back in North Carolina. I have seashells and pictures from local beaches around my home, what local things would I see decorating these homes? That’s only one of a million questions that raced through my mind on this quick visit. Bobby was able to answer all of the questions that Patty and I could think of while we were there and I am very happy that I was able to see as much of Gambell as I did on such an impromptu visit.

On the rocky beach, there were two kinds of boats next to the ice that was piled up on the shore, a metal kind and a wooden frame kind. The metal boats had motors and Bobby told us that they were used for hunting walrus this time of year. The other boat, which is wooden-framed, is a very special kind of boat.

So what about this wooden-frame boat is special?
It is a skin-boat. It has a wooden frame with walrus hide stretched around and sewn onto it. These boats are special because of how they are made and how unique to Bering Sea coastal cultures they have been for a thousand years (maybe even longer than that – an excellent research topic, IMHO). They are so imbedded into the native culture that they are still used today with only a few modifications. I learned later that it takes the hides of two female walruses to cover an entire boat. Female walrus hides have just the right skin texture for this use. The hides are also so thick that they can be cut into 2 layers, so that you have double the hide surface area to use. The skin-boats are used for whaling and have to be re-covered every 4 or 5 years. Bobby even states in his science project report that being a part of a whaling crew, which uses these skin-boats, is a very important part of his life and culture of subsistence hunting.

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Bobby stands next to a skin boat that is used by a whaling crew for subsistence hunting. The boat is covered with the hides of two female walruses. The grey paint on the outside is a modern modification to help the boat stay water-resistant and to make the hide last longer.

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The boats are turned upside down and secured on stands while not in use. With Bobby’s permission, I poked my head underneath and snapped a picture of the inside of the boat. Can you see how the hide is sewn onto the wooden frame? The way the hide is sewn is a unique mark of Bobby’s culture. Hides from different villages are sewn using other patterns.

Bobby took us past the site of where a former village used to stand and told us that many people dig there for artifacts. Then, we were right back at the runway just in time for the pilot to say that we were leaving in 5 minutes. Patty and I quickly thanked our generous host with several handshakes, loaded ourselves into the helo and a few minutes later, we could once again see the bird’s eye view of the village that we had seen just an hour earlier.

In retrospect, the whole experience seems so dream-like. How often or how possible, in my life, is it to just take a helicopter and pop in to a far away place, just for a quick, one hour visit? It wasn’t, until today. So, this is what my first helicopter ride ever has brought to me. Amazing.

It is probably clear to see why it took me so long to get this journal on the web. I had to write it with great care and many edits due to sensitively convey this new and unique cultural experience. In true Mrs. Barlow fashion, I want you to check out the title of this journal again and integrate what you have learned in literature. You tell me. Who is the student I am referring to in the title?

One student, one science fair project, one hour to see this far away place and this journal represents only one small grain of sand compared to what I have learned.

Special thanks to Bobby Ungwiluk. I have referenced his science project report, “Are Alaskan Eskimos the canaries in the coalmine for global warming?” many times for factual information to write this journal. Thanks, also to Lee Cooper and Gay Sheffield for assisting in the editing process and to Bob Woolf, Bobby’s teacher, for factual information about St. Lawrence Island Yupik people and history.
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