Lisa Weissler is an attorney living in Juneau, Alaska. She recently retired from a long career with the Alaska state government and is now putting her experience in natural resource law to work advocating for more public input in resource development decisions that affect Alaska communities’ way of life. There’s still time for fun, with hiking, biking and fishing in the summer, and reading, writing and mahjong to pass the dark winter months.
Kotzebue, Alaska – a community of 3,200 people, mostly Alaska Natives of Inupiat Eskimo descent, perched at the edge of the Chukchi Sea, a few miles north of the Arctic Circle. A place where the sun barely rises during the long cold winter and doesn’t set during the short summer. Could this be the farthest north Karina has ever gone?
I traveled to Kotzebue in November, my first trip to rural northern Alaska. It was a work trip where I would be presenting to the local government assembly, including some community Elders. I was advised to dress nicely as a sign of respect – something I would do in any case. My first choice of course, was to bring a couple of Karina dresses. But with temperatures hovering at zero and below, I wondered whether they were practical in that environment.
Taking my chances, I brought a long-sleeve Josie and a ¾-sleeve Penelope along with fleece-lined tights, wool socks and a couple of turtleneck sweaters. And, no surprise to all you Karina fans, they worked out great.Unless they’re hunting or ice fishing, people in Kotzebue do not spend a lot of time outside in the winter. They keep their buildings nice and toasty and I was perfectly comfortable in a dress and sweater. Bundled up, I even walked several blocks in -13 degree weather to a cultural shop where local artists make and sell traditional art and crafts. At the shop, I bought my first kuspuk. A kuspuk is a traditional Inupiat hooded overshirt or jacket with a large pocket in the front and decorative trim or embroidery. For many women, they are everyday wear. Men wear them too, but not as often. Kuspuks might be considered the Karina of the north in that they fit all body shapes and come in a multitude of lovely patterns and colors – not quite as form flattering as Karina dresses though.
Kotzebue and many Arctic communities are facing even more challenges than those caused by their isolation and harsh northern environment. Climate change is affecting the Arctic faster than almost anywhere else in the world. A week before I arrived in Kotzebue, they were battered by a severe storm packing hurricane force winds. Normally, at this time of year, the Chukchi Sea would be frozen solid and smooth. But unseasonably warm water temperatures kept the ocean from freezing up completely, and sea ice pushed up against the beach frontage road, almost breaking through the sea wall.
Kotzebue was spared severe damage, but other coastal communities in the storm’s path were not so fortunate, suffering damaged sewage systems and buildings, and losing access to running water. Long-term, the village of Newtok will even have to move because increasingly intense storms are speeding erosion at an exponential rate – it’s estimated that the highest point of the village could be underwater by 2017. Melting permafrost is causing buildings in Kotzebue and other communities to buckle, and warming temperatures are affecting the abundance, distribution and behavior of fish and animals many people in the region depend on for food. From the people I met while in Kotzebue, and knowing my fellow Alaskans, they’re up to the challenge of climate change, and I look forward to my next visit north.