By mid May, there is no refreezing of melt water in the villages far north of the Brooks Range. Yet on one spring visit to Kaktovik, an Inupiat village on Barter Island, snowdrifts cling to weathered plywood houses like a parasitic disease that won’t die. It is evening, half past ten and the sun is at my back. Polar bear hides hang from drying racks, and a cold lather of sea foam pounds the expansive shoreline.
The landscape, hardly resembling an earth shaped round, yawns before me, flat and desolate. A burning wind scours the tundra pulling me to the outer edges of town where I walk in search of the village cemetery. Is it gruesome to enjoy the exploration of unfamiliar places where the dead are housed; those who occupy a plot of ground that rubs shoulders with the living? I’ve always been a curious apprentice to death, stalking crosses and stones, fascinated with the dates and ages of fellow travelers in the long and unbroken human line. People die away like cotton grass, and over space and time are forgotten. I had lost my father two years prior, and wondered how many years would pass before I'd forget the lines in his face. In this patch of frozen ground lies the mourner's simple effort at remembering.
The tundra stretches out infinitely, so flat and white it is hard to detect the line at which the sky meets earth. Earlier, a public safety worker, cruising the ice roads in his heated pick-up, warned me to stay within the village boundaries because polar bears often wander the periphery, searching for food. He joked about the luny kass’aqs (like me), who, on their visits to the village, walk the ice slicked roads at thirty below (what in heavens, for?), or worse, the athletic types who go jogging in latex running suits. Crazy white people who will get their asses in trouble.
Ablaze with curiosity, I keep walking. The wind blows hard, a relentless pounding. The ruff of my parka, made of thick polar bear hide insulates my face and is akin to being deep inside a cocoon. Only I can hear myself speak. Finally I see the cemetery, erected on a barren patch of drifted tundra. Weathered drift wood crosses, with names and dates come into view. Bleached white whale bones stick up out of the snow, marking an old whaling captain's grave.
The ground around me seems to be swirling, as if covered in the smoke of breath on ice. Snow, as fine and light as silt fills the creases of my parka. I realize this landscape is oblivious to anyone who walks it, just as it is to the Eskimos who have inhabited this harsh place for so many centuries, who have struggled and thrived, carving out meaningful lives.
At breakfast the next morning, an old man tells me a story about a hunter who had died on a late summer day many years prior, in that short window of time when the ice had finally melted. They had nowhere to keep the body fresh for the scheduled viewing and service a few days later. Out of necessity, the body was placed in a walk-in freezer at the village school. A new teacher, starting her assignment in August, opened the freezer door and nearly passed out from fright.
"Typical bureaucrats, the health board flew in from Anchorage with their clipboards and worried faces," he said. "They performed their evaluation, and decided not to cite the village for a bad meat violation." He said this with a straight face.
Sometimes death is funny.
Then he added. “Now we have a vaulted locker out in front of the health clinic. It’s our new mini-morgue. Holds bodies til’ the ground thaws.”
If it ever truly does in the high arctic.
The evening before my departure, I walk to the cemetery again to smell the brisk air...and to practice death in advance, perhaps? To say a small prayer for long forgotten souls? To unlearn and unravel deep-seated fears? To embrace and be at peace with the inevitable?
The cold wind catches my breath. I hear a crunching sound behind me like slow, heavy footfalls. I slowly scan from side to side. The crunching sound gets louder and for an instant, I freeze. Bravely, I throw down my hood and spin around on my heels to face the imminent danger.
There is none. No polar bear.
Nothing but the wind, and a wide vessel of sky urging me home.