Written by Colleen Krausmann, from aboard the May 16, 2002 Grand Alaska Escorted Land Tour.
They live in the shadow of the Alaskan pipeline and yet have no need for great quantities of fuel. They mine for gold in the surrounding hills and yet they have no use for gold jewelry or the luxuries that gold could purchase. Who are these people and why do they choose to live like this?
Arctic Village by Robert Marshall, a 1930's bestseller, describes subsistence living in Wiseman. It is a detailed, descriptive account of the people, the way of life, and the attitudes and feeling of these individuals. The community is much smaller now. Divided into East and West Wiseman with perhaps 22 citizens. The Alaskan government built a road into the village, a bridge over the river, a school and a community center. Yet they choose to live without running water, indoor plumbing, electricity and all that this implies.
My opportunity to experience this village firsthand was on a small plane from Fairbanks, Alaska. We were on a Grand Alaska tour with Premier Alaska Tours and our guides offered the option of a flight above the Arctic Circle and a trip to Wiseman with a guide. It was mid May and the clear skies and warm temperatures made the adventure impossible to resist.
Kathy of Northern Alaska Tours-picked us up at our hotel at 6 p.m. and drove six of us to the airport for an overview of the sightseeing flight and information about our trip to Wiseman. She turned us over to our pilot and we took off in short order. The skies were clear, calm, bright blue with wispy clouds and the terrain included the Brooks Range. We flew so close to the mountaintops we could see the imprints of the caribou tracks in the snow. In some places just a few and in other spots hundreds of trails. Our pilot explained that the caribou had migrated north to bear their young near the sea where the winds would keep the insects from attacking the newborns. We viewed the pipeline, rivers and streams, lakes and forest.
We landed in Coleman and Brett met our plane. He explained where we were going, asked that we be respectful of the privacy of the residents, and that someone would be around to talk to and that we could question. It was Jack and Anna that were outside working. It was 11 p.m. and as light out as if it were 3 p.m. Jack was gardening and Anna was cleaning out the cabin that had been the post office many years ago and preparing for spring. The river had just broken through and there was still a little snow on the ground. We asked about what they were able to grow and how they stored their food. (They are able to dig beneath their homes and store food there because the permafrost keeps it cool.) We wanted to know what they were able to trap and hunt and were they able to fish for food? What was gold mining like and were they able to find big claims? We spoke of clothing and cooking and tin roofs. Jack and Anna were clean, intelligent, thoughtful and interesting. We left after several hour with more questions than answers. Our flight back at 2 a.m. was more direct but the sun had not set and therefore the view was spectacular.
In preparing for our trip we had watched videos, bought guidebooks and researched on the Internet about touring Alaska. I knew I wanted to walk on a glacier and take a helicopter ride. We were eager to eat fresh salmon, ride the train and view Mt McKinley. Meeting our guides, who live in Alaska, was part of the excitement about our trip. I was thinking that I would like to have read Arctic Village before I arrived, but upon reflection there is something special about not having preconceived notions and expectations. We traveled to a place where the people live vastly different and yet apparently not unhappily. We usually end each trip with the thought that we will come back again. Next time I go Ill look at the trip differently and yet but both Wiseman and I may change and therefore the experience will be different.