By Robin Mayo
Ask any Rural Alaskan what they are up to, or how they are doing, and the odds are very good this time of year that their answer will include the word “busy.” Especially as the endless sunlight starts to fade into autumn, we wear our busy-ness as a badge of honor, proof that we are keeping up with the pack in the nonstop race that is summer.
And really, how could we not be busy? For many of us, this is full-throttle season at work. Resource managers and –ologists are cramming in as much fieldwork as possible, and anyone with a seasonal or tourism-related job is making every minute count. Hikers, paddlers, climbers, bikers, and backpackers are doing their thing. We are also wedging in building projects and visits from friends and relatives.
And on top of all this, we are filling our freezers, pantries, and woodsheds with food and fuel for the winter. I don’t know of a household in the Copper River Valley that doesn’t harvest fish, meat, berries, vegetables, or firewood for the winter ahead. Many of us do all five, which is a tall order.
On WISE’s Copper Country Discovery Tour, we visit with Princess Tours guests from around the world, and share our lifestyle with them. One of the things that amazes 100% of these people is how much Alaskans are able to subsist from the land. In most developed parts of the world it is uncommon, and we’ve had many people exclaim, as they nibble on a berry or fresh willow leaf, that this is the first time they have eaten something straight out of the wild.
How does it feel? Exhilarating, empowering, and even a little dangerous. I had one guest ask me to please stop encouraging her husband to eat things, she was terrified he would inadvertently ingest an insect, apparently a fate worse than death! For others it triggers fond childhood memories of picking berries or canning preserves with an older relative.
For me, subsistence is a fierce pleasure, a love song to the land. I run my fingers along the jars of amber smoked salmon and golden sauerkraut in the pantry, feeling like that ambitious ant in Aesop’s fable. Recently I posted a picture of freshly caught Sockeye on Facebook, which not surprisingly touched off a small debate amongst friends, some of whom were feeling deprived of their yearly fish with the early-season closures.
One facebooker stated the opinion that subsistence fish should only be shared with family, and that these special seasons should only be available to those who only live in “real” subsistence villages, which she defined as off the road system. As you can imagine, there was a small tsunami of Copper Basin and other Alaskan residents defending our tradition of sharing with all, and our legacy as a place where subsistence is a truly traditional way of life. It was a wonderful affirmation of how these activities not only fill our bellies, but fill our hearts as well.
Busy? Overwhelmed, even? Don’t worry, soon enough the long dark will be here, and there will be time to read that book, clean that house, or knit that sock. For now, I’m thoroughly enjoying the headlong rush of summer into fall, and the feeling of urgency to pick those berries, cut that wood, fill that freezer.
Robin Mayo, August 31, 2018
WISE staff and volunteers spent last Saturday up at the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facility in Gakona, helping out with their open house. About 300 guests from near and far attended, and it was a fun chance to learn about some of the cutting-edge science that University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) is facilitating there.
Several locals asked me why WISE was there, and how we are connected with HAARP. The answer goes a long way back, right to the origins of WISE. In 2001, a group of local educators who had been talking about the need for environmental education in the area decided to get together for a meeting and make a plan of action. One of these people was Dr. Daniel Solie, a physics professor at UAF who had worked on Mt. Wrangell as part of a UAF Geophysical Institute research team.
At the time HAARP was operated by the US Air Force. Dr. Solie worked as an outreach educator for the facility, going to local schools with hands-on physics experiments. When the meetings led to the formation of a nonprofit to help coordinate and expedite science and environmental education, Dr. Solie volunteered to serve on the Board of Directors. Although he lives in Fairbanks, he served on the WISE board until 2014, helping guide the organization from an idea at a kitchen table to a busy organization with full-time staff. He still serves on the advisory board and is a generous donor.
Meanwhile, HAARP was going through some changes as well. The Air Force left the facility, turning over the keys to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. UAF was faced with the task of transitioning the facility to a University-run project, and one of the first priorities was making it more available for the public to visit and understand. If you have an instrument called the “Advanced Modular Incoherent Scatter Radar” there is a pretty good chance most of us don’t understand it, and would like to take a closer look.
Under the Air Force, HAARP had become the subject of a wide range of conspiracy theories. Armed with open minds, an eagerness to share the truth, and a sense of humor, UAF has held an open house every year, giving a chance to see the generators, control room, antennae array, and other facilities first hand. They have even designed a fun logo giving the facility the nickname “area 49,” which they print on t-shirts and shotglasses.
Adding a nice dash of serendipity, the Public Information Officer at the Geophysical Institute just happens to be an old friend of mine from Fairbanks, Sue Mitchell. In the 1970s we were riding our ponies in the Boreal Arboretum just behind the Geophysical Institute. So when they were looking for help in connecting with local resources for the first UAF HAARP Open House in 2016, Sue called WISE. We help with publicity and scheduling, suggest local resources to help with event logistics, and generally be there to help our partner with this big event.
Do I understand all the science that is going on at the facility just northeast of Gakona? No, not even close. My brain is not nearly big enough or stretchy enough to wrap itself around those cool feats of atmospheric physics and advanced electrical engineering. But I relish visiting the array and attending lectures by HAARP scientists, because their passion and commitment to a science which cannot even be seen is an inspiration.
When asked about the conspiracy theories, I like to repeat the answer given by Dr. Christopher Fallen at a talk on HAARP several years ago. He said that he couldn’t prove that they were NOT doing something, science just doesn’t work that way. What we can do is show and tell everything they are doing, and help people understand the real science that happens at this unique facility. For more information on HAARP, I recommend the Geophysical Institute’s website:
Welcome to the WISE Blog! For many years, WISE has enjoyed generous column space in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record. The original intent was to share news of WISE programs, but given plenty of space and the very open-minded editorial style of the publication, we have not stayed on topic very well. The late Bruce James, WISE Executive Director from 2009 to 2012, started off sharing his love of wildlife and his wilderness adventures, such as morel hunting and blueberry picking. WISE founder and then board president Janelle Eklund took the column in 2013, sharing her knowledge of plants, journals of diverse travels, and many other topics.
I started chiming in with columns somewhere in there, starting with an armchair hiking series with descriptions of local trails. From there I've branched in a whole lot of directions, enjoying the chance to stretch my writing muscles a little, and the discipline that is encouraged by a weekly deadline. That is not to say I've met every weekly deadline! Matt is a tolerant and generous editor, who always seems to find space when we need it, and fill the blanks with something else when we are too busy or distracted to write.
Janelle wants to make her columns into a book someday, so this is the start. Readers complete our circle, and I'm always delighted by the positive feedback that comes from the community. Please let us know what you'd like to hear about, and we will try to oblige!
Robin Mayo, Executive Director September 13, 2018
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.