Even though I haven’t thrown caution to the wind and trekked deep, deep into the wild tundra like Kim is prone to do, I have been out a couple times, and I like the adventure of it and getting to see some real rural Alaska.
I remember thinking when I first got to Newtok that I might break my ankle or trip in a hole on the boardwalk, but that’s before I had experienced the other option: walking in water. My first day in the village I naively asked Kim after seeing the tall grass in the yards and off the boardwalks, “Do y’all ever mow?” I look back and laugh, now, seeing how uninformed I was about this place and this environment. But those first weeks were a time of transition and education, with lots of questions and curiosities. To my question about mowing, Kim smiled, “I doubt they’ve ever even seen a lawn mower,” and not only have they never seen a mower, but the ground is too wet and lumpy for it to work right, and even if it worked right, it would really be quite pointless. I looked out at the grassy “fields” those first couple days, and I imagined myself walking out on the beautiful meadow-like tundra, hair flowing in the wind like in a movie.
So Kim and I decided to go berry picking and fishing, and we walked out onto the tundra. I use the term “walked” lightly because it’s more like trudged, or sunk with each step on the marshy land. It was so painfully far from frolicking in a meadow that I was in a state of shock when my socks got wet (despite my sturdy rain boots) in the first five minutes. I guess I didn’t realize that when Kim talked about there being boardwalks here that it was absolutely necessary for survival and sanity that they have them. Every inch of the ground is spongy and sopping, and even the grassy areas are like mud pits because the permafrost is melting so the entire ground is supersaturated with water. This windy day, the suction of our rain boots against the ground was the only soundtrack to our adventure.
We stopped along the way to pick some of the berries that grow naturally out there, and we collected some in a container to take home, but we were on a specific mission: to catch fish the Eskimo way for dinner that night. We marched confidently into the unknown, searching for the right spot to set up camp. We plodded along the river’s edge, where Kim jumped from eroded land chunk to eroded land chunk like an energetic Luigi on Super Mario Brothers. I just struggled to keep my feet above ground. Little did I know that by the end of our trip we’d both be soaking wet up to our waists.
We found a good spot and threw down a tarp to lay our backpacks down. We climbed into the dirt bank right by the river’s edge, baited our hooks with some rotten pike fish out of the freezer (it’s all we had), and threw in our lines. Before we’d left home, we’d found a nice stick to use as a pole, carved a line around the circumference of the stick and tied fishing line to it, just like the Yupiks do sometimes. We tossed in our lines and waited patiently, watching the tide roll closer and closer every few minutes. After we saw we were having no luck, Kim waded into the freezing water with high hopes of catching a salmon with her bare hands. My frozen fingers clutched my stick, but my mind was elsewhere—dreaming of baked salmon or halibut for dinner.
But we didn’t catch any fish. We climbed out of the river bank, grabbing a few berries straight off of the ground with our teeth to feed our disappointed appetites before the journey home, where we would NOT be having fish for supper.
On the way home, we tried to take a short cut but ended up running into an unavoidable swamp, where we had no choice but to wade through the cold water. Falling, sinking, losing our boots, and laughing the whole way at our massive mistake, we finally made it near the boardwalk, where we laid exhausted on the ground like dead fish and laughed until we couldn’t breathe anymore.
I had never been happier to see the boardwalk. As I lay there on the ground recuperating from the exertion of walking on the tundra, I imagined myself on those shaky and broken boards—hair flowing in the wind, soft background music playing as I frolicked down the glorious boardwalk on my way home.