Tag Archives: tundra

Beauty in All Directions

First of all, I just want to say that this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I never thought that I would completely fall in love with a culture, photography, and a group of classmates as I have now. Even after I committed myself to going on this trip, I still didn’t imagine how wonderful it would turn out.

The open tundra
The open tundra

I came into this class with almost zero photojournalism experience. During the first day of video boot camp, I thought that I would never remember any of what we were learning. I was overwhelmed with information. About a week later though, I was out on the tundra, taking shots of the river, and setting up interviews. By the end of the week, filming almost seemed like second nature to me.

I’m pretty sure that I’ve told almost everyone about this, but the absolute highlight of the trip for me was our boat ride on the Kuskokwim. The overwhelming beauty of everything that was around me cannot be put into words. Overwhelming beauty was kind of a theme for me during this trip. A lot of my classmates probably got used to me getting overly enthusiastic about things, sometimes to the point where I couldn’t form coherent sentences. Everything from the sweeping tundra, to the clear Kuskokwim River, from the midnight sun, to the wisdom of the people is too exquisite to describe.

A heart in the tundra
A heart in the tundra. (Photo courtesy of Tony Homsy)

When we talk about the highs and lows of the trip, it is hard for me to think of an actual low. Yes, there were moments that were hard or difficult, but that doesn’t mean that they were not good moments. One of those instances was when Rose talked to us about historical trauma. Her raw emotions touched me deeply and made me extremely sad, but it was also beautiful in its own way. It was one of those rare times where a connection is made with another human on a level much deeper than sympathy. I feel so incredibly privileged that she shared her story with us.

Alaska is gorgeous and this trip was life-changing, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as amazing if I didn’t go with such a fantastic group of people. In a little over a month, we formed our own type of family. Every member contributes something unique and valuable to the group. I’ve learned just as much from them as I ever have in the classroom. I think I’ve had a smile on my face for the majority of the past five weeks. This group of people is truly special, and I could not be more grateful for each individual’s friendship.

Our wonderful family
Our wonderful family

Going forward from this trip, it seems like so much has changed. The way I look at the world, how I see our resources and my understanding of culture has greatly shifted. All of this change can be a lot to handle at times. However, I know that there is one thing I can change based on what I learned while in Alaska. Going forward, I am going to change the way I interact with the people around me. Through this experience, I’ve learned that everyone has a story to tell. I may not recognize the story right away, but I have to keep listening until I do. A person is so much more than they appear. Behind the outer shell, there is a soul that has memories and experiences you will never know about unless you ask and listen.

Bethel has taught me to see the intricacy in the dull and the beauty in the plain. Wonder and mystery can be found all around you. I won’t attempt to try and convey the depths of this wonder and beauty because, as I’ve said before, there are simply no words. Instead, I will leave with a Navajo saying that we heard while in Bethel:

“Everything in front of me will be beautiful,

Everything behind me will be beautiful,

Everything on my right will be beautiful,

Everything on my left will be beautiful,

Everything above me will be beautiful,

Everything below me will be beautiful,

Everything around me will be beautiful,

Everything that comes from my lips will be beautiful.”

-Quyana.

10 things that I will miss about Bethel

1. Having the ability to get things done in daylight at 11pm (although I am loving having night back)

2. Randomly getting delicious freshly caught salmon

3. The people there, who (for the most part) were kind and welcoming

4. Waking up early each day with kind of a job to go to, but having random things happen throughout my day

5.Subsistence

6. Getting strange looks from passing people as our large group walks down the street

7. BS and bananagrams

8. Team breakfasts and dinners

9. A limited use of technology

10. The tundra and boardwalks

The beautiful view during a walk in Bethel, Alaska

Bethel … House of God

Someone who may read my former blogs would said: “Poor Tony, he always find himself

Bethel, one day I will come again.
Bethel, one day I will come again.

obliged to make up new terms for his blog’s titles”. But believe me, this time I am not creating something new, Bethel literally means “House of God”! Its origin go back to the Ugaritic language – one of oldest alphabets in the world – which was discovered in Syria, my country… Continue reading Bethel … House of God

Oh I Was Born a Ramblin’ Man

Well, I’m hooked.

Fishing puns aside, ((Brad Dice, I hope you’re reading this) Actually they use nets up here, not hooks), my experience in the YK Delta of Alaska has further affirmed my choice to pursue journalism as my career choice.

Author’s note: I usually put a lot of thought into my blogs, thinking hard on structure and creativity. This one is more of rambling thoughts, quickly putting my thoughts into words for my own sake. Thus, the title. And as a music enthusiast I must pay my respects to those who rambled before me:

The Allman Brothers Band-Ramblin’ Man

Led Zeppelin-Ramble On

Additionally, it’s an excuse to use my SUPER AWESOME FISHING PUN. 

Anyway, I always liked the idea of working a job where I simply had conversations with people, thought about it for a while, and wrote a story. Up until now, my experience with this has largely been confined to what’s known as the “Creighton bubble”. I enjoyed working on stories about my own community, but I craved interaction with people and places different from me.

Well, this trip has more than satisfied that craving.

The people of the YK Delta more than welcomed us. They embraced us.

From visiting fish camps:

 

Chris, Donna, and Zohn's newly discovered and beautifully rustic fish camp
Chris, Donna, and Zohn’s newly discovered and beautifully rustic fish camp

to tasting an amalgam of native foods at the parish potluck:

Seal stew, Moose stew, corn bread, grilled salmon, and friend bread all in one meal
Seal stew, Moose stew, corn bread, grilled salmon, Moose stir fry, and fried bread all in one meal. Not Pictured: Life-changing salmon chowder.

I was afforded an opportunity to peak into peoples’ lives, and that’s a big deal. There is a fine line between observing respectfully and invading rudely. Yet another fine line sits between a story as a vessel of truth and as an objectifying window. The people we have met with, interviewed, and filmed ran the risk of invasion and objectification, yet they trusted us to observe and narrate truthfully.

I really think this team can fulfill that trust.

Our team has been stellar on this project. Each person has prioritized the documentary above all else, including personal comfort (lack of sleep, limited showers, zillions of mosquitos, dirty clothes, the list goes on…). No one complained. Rather, we embraced it. I honestly think that commitment will shine through in the final cut.

Alas, we leave Bethel tomorrow. I have been witness to so many cool/badass/transcendent people and experiences, I need some time to process it all. It’s all jumbled up at the moment. But two experiences in tandem provided a clear bookend for my Bethel experience.

Last night, our crew gathered in the church for a reflection. John encouraged us to sit in silence for a while, practicing the Ignatian spiritual practice called the Examine. Sitting there in communal silence, we each went into our memories to center ourselves and our thoughts. After a while, Carol spoke aloud, expressing her feelings and thoughts on the experience. Every person eventually shared something they were thinking about. Often there were several minutes of silence between speakers. I remember sitting there with my eyes closed, hoping that John wouldn’t call an end to the reflection, simply so that I might spend more time in communion with the people I had worked with, slept with, dined with, played with, and learned with. I went in with a heavy heart and lots on my mind. I came out with the weight off of my chest. At peace.

But the night wasn’t over.

We realized that the clouds had cleared, so Nico suggested that we go to the Tundra to get a time lapse of the sunset. A few of us piled into the truck and went out there. We set up the cameras and sat down to watch:

 

You have seen the river sunset, now here is one on the tundra
You have seen the river sunset, now here is one on the tundra

Nico, Hayley, Hannah, Tony, Catherine, and I sat until nearly two in the morning in a cloud of mosquitos, just talking, looking, and listening.

As they say:

Everything in front of me was beautiful

Everything behind me was beautiful

Everything above me was beautiful

Everything below me was beautiful

Everything around me was beautiful

Quyana, Bethel

Today was our last day in Bethel, and I think all of us are feeling a little sad. We’ve grown to love this small town. I know that for me personally, I will always feel a connection to this part of the world. At the beginning of the week, I said that Bethel seemed like a wise place. This continued to be true throughout my entire time here. Almost every day, this community taught me something important.

Bethel taught me to be patient. There is a different sense of time here. The only time to rush is when the weather is perfect for fishing. Actions are methodical and intentional. Responses to questions are proceeded by a short pause in which the person responding truly thinks about what they will say.

The natives taught me to be generous. We were given delicious food that people either caught or prepared themselves. The people of Bethel offered us boat trips and opened up their fish camps to us. They gave us their time to fully answer every question we had.

The tundra taught me to be present and look for beauty in everything. The tundra is constantly changing. You could miss the most amazing view if you aren’t paying attention. Not only do you have to pay attention, but you also must make a decision to see the beauty before you. Out in the tundra, it’s cold, there are mosquitoes everywhere, and the landscape appears barren. However, if you look closely, you will see how intricate the whole ecosystem is. Every foot of it is a sea of diverse life.

Finally, this part of the world has taught me to be fearless. Yes, I will gut that fish. Sure, I’ll try that piece of seal. Yeah, I’ll go on a river trip to a remote village. And of course I’ll trudge out to the tundra at midnight with water and mud up to my knees to watch the sunset.

The beginnings of a midnight sunset on the tundra.
The beginnings of a midnight sunset on the tundra.

I’m so thankful for everything I’ve learned here. When I first came to Bethel, I never imagined that so much wisdom would be shared with me. Now I can’t imagine my life without that knowledge. As we prepare to leave Bethel, the only thing I can think to say is thank you. Quyana, Bethel.

 

Blessed to be a witness

Nichole cutting fish.
Nichole Jelinek preparing our freshly caught salmon for lunch.

We’re nearing the end of our time in Bethel and already we are thinking of how we are going to miss the community here, the sunlight (I’m writing this at 11:30 p.m. and it’s bright daylight outside as the sun is just starting to set.) and the amazing opportunities we have to talk to the diverse people here and learn about their lives and culture. We’ve been able to see and hear first-hand about the impact of climate change.

The stories we are hearing are not just technical, science-type stories, but stories deeply rooted in these people’s connection with the land. We’ve heard the tundra — which seems vast and barren at first glance  — described as the “land’s plate” and the “people’s refrigerator” for the rich bounty of berries and greens that helps sustain people all year. Many of the people we have talked to learned about the land and respect for the land, sea and rivers and all that inhabit the environment from their elders. They talk of respect for the land and for the animals they catch, whether it’s salmon or moose or caribou.

Being from Nebraska, I know about sky and Plains stretching all around me. But here in rural southwestern Alaska, there’s more sky and more tundra. People have told us while on the tundra, they feel they can see the whole universe. It does feel that way. The respect for the land and for the elders is grounded in sharing  what you catch and harvest with the elders, widows and, we have found, with strangers. We are overwhelmed by the generosity in fish, cookies, produce and a wonderful pot luck.

It took a while to get back to this blog; now It’s time for lunch, which today is fresh salmon from the test fishery. People working to conserve and preserve the king salmon on the river do test catches to see how many fish are running, what kind and when. The goal is to get enough king salmon to escape to spawn upriver. Part of today’s catch — which is often distributed to elders and others — will end up on our lunch plates. Our story comes full circle.

Food for Thought

My day started at 6:45 this morning when a few of us got to go four miles down the river on a small boat and witness subsistence fishing firsthand.

Tad was the fisherman who showed us the ropes (literally). Besides a fisherman, he is a high school science teacher and a Pentecostal minister… talk about a variety of interests. Having multiple careers seems to be pretty common here, though. The mayor of Bethel is also a doctor, and Stan the subsistence fisherman who showed us his fish camp is also a barber.

Tad removing a fish from his net.
Tad removing a fish from his net.

Tad checked his nets, and patiently explained to us the different types of fish he caught. He even let me hook the line and I didn’t let go. So basically I am a professional fisher(wo)man now. Not really though, I would make a terrible fisherman… Fishing here requires early mornings that consist of freezing wind and water (I was freezing in like 20 layers and a hat and gloves). Also, upper body strength is also a requirement and I don’t have much of that.

He explained to us how the fishing restrictions put into place to save the King Salmon population require fishermen to lay down nets with four inch holes, rather than the usual six inch netting. The smaller netting makes it easy for King Salmon to avoid getting caught because they’re too big for the small net. That way fishermen can still catch smaller fish such as trout, silvers, reds, and whites.

A few of us were able to attend a forum in the Fish and Game building here in Bethel. The forum involved representatives from different fishing interest groups from all over Alaska. Commercial fishing and subsistence fishing representatives were present, in addition to tribal leaders from the upper, middle, and lower portions of the Kuskokwim River.

Many concerns were voiced by all regarding the unusually low number of fish being caught throughout the Kuskokwim River region. People were generally diplomatic and polite, but things did get heated. At one point a tribal leader said, “If things continue down this route, there will be bloodshed.”

Witnessing a fisherman check his nets, sitting in on the town meeting, and hearing the serious concerns of the locals made me realize the importance of fishing to this region. If the people, mainly those in remote villages, can’t catch enough fish in the warm months they have a hard time getting by in the winter months.

After all of that I got to shower today!! This is a huge deal because I was on day four of not being showered. I will never again take my shower in my apartment for granted… (I have showered a total of three times in two weeks, yikes).

The Catholic Church, where we’re staying, hosted a potluck today…or a “potlatch” as they call it here. I tried a variety of native food..including:

Yummy moose stew
My delicious moose stew

-herring eggs dipped in oil (basically just imagine eating small, tasteless, rubber bubbles)
-moose stew (which was probably the most amazing stew I’ve ever eaten)
-seal soup (…..tasted interesting…..basically fishy-tasting meat..)
-regular salmon (so good)
-salmon soup (yum)
-moose stir fry (interesting combination of flavors)
-fried bread (pretty much tasted like a funnel cake)
***Read this, Mom: I ate a veggie quinoa salad that wasn’t really a native recipe but Mom I had two helpings and it contained lima beans so I am proud of myself.

After cleaning up the potlatch dishes, us students went on a walk to the boardwalk. We’ve all been going on frequent walks every night after dinner in smaller groups, but tonight we all went together. This group is definitely something special. This adventure in Alaska would have been so much less incredible if we all didn’t get along so well. They make every day better, and getting to spend 15 days learning in such a beautiful place with such beautiful people is such a privilege.

This is why we love going on walks here.
This is why we love going on walks.

Expect another blog post on Thursday!

 

 

 

Keep Up

Over the weekend I felt incredibly homesick. A break in our schedule allowed for down time, and I used mine to think about home. I thought about the new off-campus house I just moved into, and found myself missing my pink duvet covered bed (not that I don’t LOVE sharing a queen size mattress with my friends, Catherine and Erin, here). I thought about my family and friends and starting having 6th grade crush thought like: “are they thinking about me?” “are they thinking about me thinking about them?” “are they thinking about me thinking about them thinking about me?”

Needless to say I felt ridiculous as sad as I coped with this homesick feeling that had been a stranger to me since the summer after my 7th grade year when I went to sleep-away math camp for a week- because what 12-year-old doesn’t want to create their own Caesar cipher? I used some of our precious internet bandwidth the text two of my favorite friends, Anna and Claire, and they helped me to feel connected to home but also re-excite me about the project I am doing here.

I wrestled with why I was missing home so much and decided that it was because home is easy for me. At home I know what I will be doing and when I will be doing it. I love that this trips unfolds itself before me but it is sometimes difficult being surrounded by so much newness. I feel like I am racing behind this culture, trying to keep up as I learn but not being able to see far ahead of me.

On Saturday we had a fairly open day and were able to go to a fish camp for a cook-out. It was so pleasant to be able to spend time with the team and eat some salmon caught minutes before we ate it, and of course s’mores! However, before we even got to the fish camp, the person driving our boat made a detour at his fish camp where we had to hop out and help clear brush with him, a detail our lovely Dr. Z forgot to share with us.

Our group eating at the fish camp around the fire pit. Photo by Tony Homsy
Our group eating at the fish camp around the fire pit. Photo by Tony Homsy

20 minutes later we were deep into the Alaskan woods, stepping through boot-deep mud, and being attacked by huge mosquitos due to the stagnant water near us. I could no longer see our guide ahead of me but could here the far off whir of his chain saw. As I was hacking at the dense brush with my scythe-like tool I had one of the biggest, “what am I doing here?” moments of the trip. I could not keep up.

On Sunday I had the opportunity to attend the Russian Orthodox Devine Liturgy. I donned a head scarf and knee length skirt and went to the church with 4 others. The service took two and a half hours and we stood the entire time. The whole, beatiful service is sung in English, Russian, and Yup’ik and the welcoming deacon gave us a song book so we could participate. However I found myself always pages behind where I was supposed to be in the song book and felt increasingly overwhelmed at this religion I had never participated in before. Once again I could not keep up.

The Russian Orthodox Church that sits at the edge of the tundra
The Russian Orthodox Church that sits at the edge of the tundra

Today Dr. O’Keefe’s daughter and son-in-law spoke to us briefly about their time spent here in Bethel, and Chris seemed to be speaking directly to my anxiety. He said that he really felt a part of the culture here when he became intentional about his living and tried to learn as much from everyone he encountered, but did not dwell on lessons that did not resonate. We only have a few days left here I hope that I am able to see every experience as a learning one, and remind myself that it is easier to keep up when I am unburdened of homesickness and longing. While my feet are in Bethel I’m trying to keep my mind and heart here too!

Tears are Teaching

Today I wrote the date, 06/15/14, and simply stared at it in amazement. I cannot believe that an entire week has already past since I first boarded the plane headed for Alaska. I have spent this time listening, learning, and experiencing all that the Yup’ik culture and Bethel community have been willing to share with me. Tears of sadness, tears of adventure, and tears of laughter have been shed as each day offers new insight to my Alaskan experience.

Tears of sadness were shed on Wednesday, the most emotionally heavy day of the trip. We spent a whopping eight hours getting a crash course on the way in which Native people were treated by religious and government institutions and learning of the cultural trauma this atrocious treatment has caused. Villages were destroyed, families were torn apart, and a great cultural divide was created between the generational gaps of the Yup’ik people. I shed tears for the Native Alaskan’s as I heard of their stories, but I also shed tears of shame for the actions of my country and my religion. This was such a recent trauma, occurring during my grandparents youth. My grandparents, in being citizens of the United States and parishioners of the Catholic Church, were directly associated with the parties responsible for the degradation of the Yup’ik people. I am fairly certain they did not know what was being done to the Yup’ik people, but the idea that they were living ordinary lives while people in Alaska were having their lives torn apart, makes me wonder what terrible things may currently be happening in the world, while I am simply living my ordinary life. Wednesdays events taught me of the wise healing powers of talking and forgiving, while also inspiring me to become a more informed and active citizen.

Tears of adventure came about every time the crisp Alaskan wind whipped past my face, causing my eyes to water. They watered as I trudged through the Alaskan tundra, sped across the Kuskokwim river, and ran about Bethel shooting B-roll in the rain (B-roll is the fancy term for the videos that play during a voice over). Throughout my various Bethel adventures, I have come to see that everything in Bethel is tied to nature. The fish of the river, the moose of the land, and the berries of the tundra are all essential to the subsistence lifestyle of the Yup’ik people. After eating a freshly caught salmon and smelling the relaxing aura of tundra tea, I now understand how the people of Bethel can survive completely isolated from the outside world. The beauty and peacefulness of the wilderness is captivating and the way in which the Yup’ik people live seems to be the way in which humans were originally intended to live.

Finally, my week has been filled with tears of laughter. Whether it be from Tim’s conniving banana gram tactics, “C-teams” kayaking adventures, or Tony’s unique input on every situation, there has never been a dull moment on this trip. As our time left in Bethel is slowly diminishing, I hope that a few more tears of laughter are shed and that I am able to soak in every last moment of this wonderful experience!

The "C Team" kayaking- one of the many adventures when tears of laughter were shed. Photo courtesy of Catherine Adams
The “C Team” kayaking- one of the many adventures when tears of laughter were shed. Photo courtesy of Catherine Adams

Claire Storey wrote a great blog highlighting some of the laughable moments of the trip- view it here!

Also, a quick shoutout to my dad on Father’s Day:)- Happy Fathers Day Daddyo! You da Bomb!

Paddling Upstream

The past few days have been a total blur. I have been taking notes at interviews, learning about the painted dumpsters of Bethel, and practicing shooting with the camera.

My pal Madeline and I were paired up to shoot B roll, (the footage of landscapes or action that will play over the interview in the film) and let’s just say we will be a bigger asset to the writing team as opposed to the filming one. Alongside our friends, Catherine and Erin, we tried to navigate the cameras enough to shoot a gas tank. Despite gaining confidence and experience the gas tank ended up being out of focus, so when a film team was assembled to go to a remote fishing village none of us were shocked when we weren’t chosen to go along.

Catherine, Erin, myself, and Madeline shooting B roll on the tundra.
Catherine, Erin, myself, and Madeline shooting B roll on the tundra.

Before you start feeling sorry for me, the 6 of us not able to go to the village had the opportunity to kayak through an Alaskan creek to the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. The way downstream was beautiful with the rare sun shining, a light breeze blowing, and picturesque marsh-land around us.

However, the way back was a little less than pleasant. The route downstream that was supposed to take us 40 minutes actually took us 90, and after a miscommunication with our chaperone we had to carry our kayaks up a beach only to have to put them back in the water to paddle back after being told we would be driven back to our base camp. The way back was hard. We were tried, against the current, against the wind, and paddling upstream. But, after 35 breathless minutes and a climb over a beaver dam later- we were welcomed back to shore by Dr. Zuegner and taken out for ice cream.

While I was blistering my thumbs due to paddling frantically back and trying not to think about the storm clouds that were rolling in, I started comparing the hardships of the Yup’ik (native Alaskan) people to paddling up stream. A few days ago we experienced a workshop on cultural trauma given by a woman named Rose, who shared her own families experience with historical trauma that included marriages being separated by outside forces, being forced into Catholic boarding school where they experienced corporal punishment for speaking their native language, and alcoholism.  We also interviewed a Yup’ik woman named Cecelia who taught Yup’ik spirituality at the local college. She spoke about how the native culture is disappearing because the Yup’ik language and culture was not accepted for such a long time. Now people are struggling to bridge the gap between pop culture and  the past due to their lost culture and history.

Paddling upstream is difficult. However, even though the current and the wind is working against you, your destination is no less noble. Every stroke because increasingly deliberate and time is not wasted when paddling upstream. My hope is that even though the struggle to reclaim the Yup’ik culture seems like an uphill (or upstream) battle, the people of Bethel see that there is hope. Even though there is work to be done, there are great leaders like Rose and Cecilia who are not only able to acknowledge the pain of their people but are also able to look towards the future. I think that an Alaska that incorporates both the Yup’ik and modern culture is not too far off even though it will require work and dialogue. In this incredibly muddy town there are evident signs of a stressed community, including poverty, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. But even in the hardships there are also signs of a welcoming community and proof that life is good.

Me in front of one of the many painter dumpsters in Bethel
Me in front of one of the many painter dumpsters in Bethel