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Alaska memories: Nome

Posted Sunday, January 27, 2008, at 5:15 PM

I took this photo of a dead walrus on the beach at Nome, Alaska back in the early 70's. That's my cousin Barbie standing beside him, in order to give a perspective of his size. The tide had gone out for the first time in 20 years, so Barbie and I were collecting beach glass that day. The Eskimo children had been using the walrus as a trampoline earlier in the week.
Cold weather always makes me reminisce about our Northern Exposure episodes in the past. I've written about quite a few of these memories in the pages of the North Stoddard Countian over the years. However, I may not have written about Nome, Alaska. Even if I have, I know I haven't used the photo I'm posting on here, because I just FOUND it again, after all these years.

I'm bad about taking a photo out of an album and carrying it off to show it to someone. Obviously, I did that with the dead walrus picture, because that spot in the album has been empty for years. I found the photo while I was looking for something else (as usual).

The photo shows my cousin Barbie Toombs standing beside the carcass of the dead walrus. I don't know how he died; in fact, I don't know if anybody knew why he died, but someone had cut out his tusks (quite valuable, even back in the early 70's), and they had also taken that long bone called (if I remember right) an oosik. I don't intend to tell you what part of the walrus that is, since I'm sure I'd get in trouble with the boss for that racey piece of information.

Alaskans - particularly the Eskimos and the Indians - are an "earthy" bunch, who aren't easily embarrassed by anything in nature. I remember watching Johnny Carson ask one of them about the oosik he was holding on his show one night. Johnny was quite serious, when he asked if the bone was a "tusk." His expression was priceless, when he heard the answer - I do believe he turned several shades of red (which were most becoming on Johnny, as was everything else. Sweet man!)

Anyway - on to my story.

My husband and I were in that Bering Sea town so he could inspect the new high school that Toombs & Co. was building for the State. (This was the beginning of a push to use the oil money to build new schools in the bush villages.) My cousins Bob and Barb spent the summer in Nome, supervising the construction of the school, which (by the way) was a million dollar building, built for 8 high school students. Needless to say, the whole community was going to use it for a multitude of purposes.

While we were there, the big news was the fact that the tide had gone out for the first time in 20 years. Barb and I went down to the beach to look for whatever treasures hadn't already been gleaned by the locals. In addition to the beach glass - shards of colored glass polished by the sand - we found old doorknobs and mysterious items which we speculated had fallen from the ships that dared passage in those cold northern waters.

Then there was the dead walrus, significantly bloated into balloon form. Barbie said that the local newspaper had a photo of the school children using the walrus as a trampoline! See what I mean? "Earthy!"

In fact, it was perfectly legal for one of the locals to take the tusks and oosik, as long as they were Native Alaskans. If a white man took them, that would be illegal, though I have no idea what the punishment was for this offense. Only natives were allowed to own raw ivory and other such natural items. Non-natives could buy the items, only after native artisans had done the delicate scrimshaw etchings on them - or carved them into little polar bears, seals, and other such touristy designs.

The buildings in Nome were a mad collection of multi-colored bits and pieces, mostly old, with no care taken as to how anything looked. It was all strictly utilitarian. The grocery store sold the usual items, with the addition of a most interesting meat section. I'm pretty sure I took a photo of that, if I can find it. The most uniquely Alaskan item was muktuk, pieces of whale skin and blubber, a delicacy which was eaten raw and chopped up in a number of recipes, in addition to being eaten like candy. Muktuk was very high in vitamin C, so it was an important part of a wintertime diet.

I had a student who once gave a speech on how to make Eskimo Ice Cream, which consisted of muktuk and native blueberries. Not sure if it had sugar in it, but if it did, that had to be a later addition.

Other interesting items of local color: We watched some natives working with a reindeer herd on the wide, sweeping slopes outside Nome. We were surprised to learn that the "fences" were nothing but some sort of lightweight material, suspended from very tall poles. The fences were incredibly tall but completely insubstantial: The whole point was to keep the reindeer from jumping over the fence. They obviously would not test it to see if they could break through it.

As I sit here at my computer, looking out at the white fog of a Southeast Missouri Sunday morning, these Alaskan memories seem no more than a distant dream...

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My goodness. I had to get out my Atlas to look up Nome. My Jack London memories had it on the western coast, but it's further north than I thought. Brrrrrr.

It still amazes me that there are so many places in Alaska that can't be reached by roads. What adventures you had. One of my dear friend's husband was the chief of police in Barrow, Alaska for a while. He loved it, she hated it. (Must be a man thing - see your earlier blog.)

I'll have to enjoy Alaska from the pages of a book, or via DVD. Someday, I do hope to take a cruise of the inside passage. That would hardly be very earthy, however.

-- Posted by Ducky on Mon, Jan 28, 2008, at 12:56 PM

I just did a little internet research on oosiks and it turns out that it's a Southern tradition for women to carry a raccoon oosik in their purse! One website says, "It makes a great toothpick." Yuck!! Double Yuck!! I think I'll stick with wooden toothpicks, thanks, and let the raccoon keep his... ahem... oosik.

-- Posted by Youngest Child on Mon, Jan 28, 2008, at 4:09 PM

I saw that episode of Johnny Carson! After he regained his composure, and the audience stopped laughing, he rapped the oosik on the desk once, and said, "Is it always that hard? ...Lucky devil!"

-- Posted by goat lady on Mon, Jan 28, 2008, at 5:15 PM

Ducky, there are a number of interesting towns/cities in Alaska that are not accessible to the outside world by by a year-around road. About 50 miles directly south of Nome on the Bering Sea is Hooper Bay. The closest inland city to Hooper Bay (and Nome) is Bethel, about 150 miles away, and which is only accessible by air. In spite of its isolation, Hooper Bay has been described as the most civilized city in the United States. Why? Because it is the only city in the US that by law prohibits its police force from carrying firearms. The firearm prohibition necessitates the police to diffuse domestic arguments, bar fights, etc., by using non-violent dispute resolution techniques -- instead of having the option of threatening to shoot a person. There is of course, no prohibition on citizens from having firearms, which many people use to hunt for food. In England and other countries many police officers don't carry firearms, so Hooper Bay's gun prohibition isn't as radical as it seems. It works for them, and it has for decades.

-- Posted by FJGuy on Tue, Jan 29, 2008, at 6:55 PM

FJGuy, I think most everything about Alaska is interesting. Even their weather - I just don't want to experience it.

I have relatives in Fairbanks, Sitka and a charming sounding town called Clam Gulch, which is on the Kenai Penninsula. One cousin's wife had to shoot a nuisance bear (it was REALLY being a persistent nuisance and she had small children). Another cousin's wife has trouble keeping the moose spit off one of their downstairs windows that apparently holds some fascination for a neighboring moose. Another relative had an old native gent try to take her by the arm and lead her away from her husband. Still another's snow mobile left a strip of clear water the width of the tracks in the ice when he was crossing a frozen river just a little bit too late in the spring - he had to drive over 200 miles out of his way to avoid having to cross back on his way home.

The stories I've read and heard are totally fascinating. That must be the draw that lures people from the lower 48 to make that leap of faith to move there. More power to them. They're much stronger spirits than I. As one of my Aussie friends would say "Good on ya," Ms Madeline.

-- Posted by Ducky on Wed, Jan 30, 2008, at 12:28 PM

That no firearm thing wouldn't work very well in most major cities in the continental United States.

When I retire, someday I am going to take my snow shovel on my back head South. When someone asks me what it is; that is where I am going to retire.

-- Posted by I.B. Le Truth on Wed, Jan 30, 2008, at 6:30 PM

Oops, I.B., you may end up in Mexico!! Haha! I can't see that happening!!

However, my family used to live in Abilene, Texas, and we rarely ever saw the mud puddles freeze, much less see snow!

-- Posted by goat lady on Thu, Jan 31, 2008, at 8:32 AM

I love Abilene, Brownsville even more.

-- Posted by I.B. Le Truth on Thu, Jan 31, 2008, at 10:37 AM

I was just a kid when we lived there, and I liked it very much. Even back then, they seemed to have had good schools (or at least good teachers). My early years in education left me with good reading skills, especially.

I didn't even mind the sand storms, but Mom didn't feel the same about it. She hated trying to keep the floors clean, as I recall...

I also didn't mind the sticker burr yard we had, except that it ruined the tires of my bicycle!

My favorite part was the horned toads that ran everywhere. My brothers, cousins and I used to catch them and have races. My cousins even took a shoebox full of the little critters back to Missouri on the train with them. My Aunt Nell reported finding one the next year!! How it lived through a Missouri winter is beyond me!

-- Posted by goat lady on Thu, Jan 31, 2008, at 1:25 PM

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Madeline DeJournett
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at advancensc@sbcglobal.net.
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