In July of 1966, on a Friday evening but with twenty-four hours of daylight ahead, I set out alone from Fairbanks with tanks full and a five gallon can of aviation fuel in the baggage hold behind me and another strapped into the seat next to me.
I had read Bob Marshall’s Arctic Wilderness, his account of a year living in the mining community of Wiseman and exploring Alaska’s Brooks Range in 1930-31. Crossing swollen rivers and slogging through sedge swamps did not appeal to me but his descriptions of Mts. Doonerak and Boreal did. I loved sightseeing the lazy way, had eighty hours total time in my logbook and use of my dad’s 1947 Aeronca Chief, so I was on my way. Two and a half hours brought me the 180 miles to Bettles—the Chief allowed generous time for sightseeing—where I poured some of that fuel into the tanks before continuing northward.
I had marked a map with locations of Marshall’s adventures—climbing Doonerak, stranded on a gravel bar in a raging river, and more—and explored them all before landing at Anaktuvuk, as far north as I dared go with the fuel I had. I had visited Indian but never Eskimo villages before, nor any so remote as this one. When I taxied to the side of the gravel strip I faced something I had never seen. The whole village it seemed—probably only 35 or so people—had come down and surrounded the forward half of the airplane, staring at me. They were friendly and I chatted with a few who spoke English. As the rest drifted away a tall dark haired girl about my age stepped forward and said hi.
She explained that she was just visiting from Norway, that her father had spent nine months with these people sixteen years earlier and had written a book about his experiences. I wandered the village, snapped some pictures, poured more fuel into my tanks and was gone within an hour. It wasn’t until the following winter at school, when I read the Norwegian’s book, that I understood what I had seen.
When Helge Ingstad left Anaktuvuk in 1950 these sixty-five were the sole remaining inland Eskimos in Alaska. Unlike their coastal cousins, who hunted seals and whales and lived in fixed villages, the Nunamiut hunted caribou and moved several times a year in pursuit of game and their fuel, willow. While coastal Eskimos long had contact with westerners from the sea, these had only recently seen a bush pilot a couple of times a year to trade furs for ammunition and a little tobacco and coffee. Their tools were of bone and their weapons were mostly bows and arrows and spears. They were hunter-gatherers whose occasional use of a rifle or an iron pot was the only thing separating them from truly stone age cultures of past millennia.
The two thousand foot gravel airstrip, built shortly after Ingstad’s departure, changed all that. By the time of my arrival their location had become fixed, their diet diversified, and their fuel poured from fifty-five gallon drums. Sod huts sported glass—instead of intestine—windows, and canvas—instead of hide—doors. Nor could they have returned to their nomadic lifestyle if they wanted unless the whole group did. Sixty-five was near the minimum population size to successfully live and raise families the old way.
More dramatic changes would soon come with the settlement of Alaska native claims, which brought unheard-of wealth to Anaktuvuk and all native villages. Another sixteen years would bring frame houses on a grid of streets, a larger school and a health clinic, water, sewer, a power plant, a cemetery, and a national park surrounding the village. One generation of time had snapped the isolated, stone age Nunamiut into the twentieth century.