Prior to take-off
On the morning of May 11, 1994, standing in the Anchorage International Air Terminal, surrounded by over 70 other passengers and many well-wishers, I was handed a cellular phone. Wally was on the line from Juneau.
The Legislature had not finished its business in time for adjournment the night before; so he had called an immediate special session. My heart was there with him. I wanted to return to Juneau. But on the phone he was optimistic and in good humor and urged me to continue on to be part of the first ever Circumpolar Expedition. I decided to go ahead and do my best representing him and the people of Alaska during this historic journey.
I stepped to the microphone and read part of the address the Governor had planned to give, helped cut a ribbon and headed for the aircraft. Our goal was to visit 14 Arctic cities in all eight Arctic nations in seven days. As the Reeve Aleutian 727 jet climbed into the clouds headed for our first stop at Kotzebue, we looked at each other and said, “Are we really doing this?”
Enroute to Kotzebue
In my carry-on, I carried a handful of copies of “The Day of the Arctic Has Come,” an article Wally had written for the Reader’s Digest 21 years ago. “We must take the first steps toward cooperative international development of the whole polar region,” he had written. This trip was to be the symbol of that dream.
“It is time,” he has been saying, “for the people of the Arctic to think around instead of up and down.” This would give us a first-hand look at what “around” really meant.
Wally wasn’t the only one who had dreamt about this day. The night before, at a community reception at the Hotel Captain Cook, I met Einar Pedersen, a Norwegian-born polar navigator. He reminded me of Charles Lindberg, my childhood hero. He had that same spirit of a gentleman who did the impossible. They both had a wonderful quiet way about them, very humble but strong and determined. You just knew that both these men were deep thinkers.
I met Lindbergh when he came to Juneau in 1967 to address a joint session of the Legislature. He stayed with us in the Governor’s House. I’ll never forget that visit. He arrived on a weekend, and he wanted to know if I could get the maid to press his pants before his speech the following Monday.
“Oh, yes,” I said. There was no maid, but I considered it an honor to press Charles Lindbergh’s pants. They were made of heavy wool serge, and as I leaned my weight on the iron, I said to myself, “Here I am pressing Charles Lindbergh’s pants.” In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d be the wife of a Governor, let alone live in the Governor’s House and press Charles Lindbergh’s pants!
Einar Pedersen showed up at the office of The Northern Forum in 1991, soon after Wally had brought together the governors of 14 Arctic regions to form this organization. Einar volunteered to study East-West air routes and the possibility of a Circumpolar Expedition.
Einar asked for no salary. Steve Shropshire, The Northern Forum executive director, readily found him a cubicle in which to work. Einar’s credentials were impressive. In the 1950s, he convinced Scandinavian Airways to fly charter flights over the pole from Europe to Alaska and on to Asia. It took him ten years, but he eventually sold SAS on the idea of regular scheduled passenger flights, and it worked! This put Alaska on the map as the air crossroads of the world.
Now, he was back in the pioneering business. With the support of the Governor, who chairs The Northern Forum, he had set out to link up with the Arctic by air.
Kotzebue, our first stop
We landed in the sunshine. Dick Reeve, President of Reeve Aleutian Airways was on board. What a crew he had assembled for this trip! The landing was as smooth as glass. The planeload of adventurers from eight nations broke into an enthusiastic round of applause.
Our guide on the bus looked like he might be an Inupiaq Eskimo, but he turned out to be from New York. So expedition member Willie Hensley took over. Willie is the Senior Vice President of NANA Corporation, the Native regional corporation based in Kotzebue. Born in the nearby village of Wales, Willie pointed out landmarks and described the commitment of his region to combine the economic benefits of the Red Dog Mine and other resource development with the traditional ways and subsistence lifestyle of the community.
The bus emptied at the beautiful Museum of the Arctic. It was the first time I had been in it, and I was very impressed. Inside, our hosts had covered buffet tables with delicacies of the North, including muktuk, and caribou stew.
Native singers and dancers presented skits, dances and a slide show. Nine thousand tourists came to Kotzebue last year. They expect 14,000 this year. But, perhaps more important, the young people of the region see this show too, and leave with a better understanding of their heritage.
After we were coaxed onto the dance floor by the Inupiaq dancers, I began to get the feeling that Steve Shropshire and the other trip organizers were getting anxious. We had to keep moving. We had to clear Russian customs in Anadyr in the Chukotka Region and then get on to a banquet at Tiksi, located on the far northern coast of Russia. The President of the Sakha Republic would be waiting for us. We couldn’t be late.
Anadyr, Chukotka Region
The bleakness of spring break-up in Anadyr mirrored the Kotzebue landscape, only an hour and a half flight time away. But the cold and desolate environment was lit up by the warmth of our friend Governor Alexander Nazarov. This dynamic young leader and his beautiful wife had visited us in Anchorage a year ago. In contrast to the discouraging news in the press about the economic situation in Russia, the new generation of leaders like Nazarov gives you hope.
The Governor gave us bear hugs on the windswept tarmac. After we had cleared customs, he put us in Aeroflot helicopters for a ride into town as the ice road was nearly impassable.
Helene Votiashova, an attractive blond teacher, served as our translator. When we met, she said, “I know you. I see you on TV.” I was taken aback. I didn’t realize that the rural Alaska television network (RATNET) is aired in Anadyr on a daily basis. Helene tunes in to practice her English.
Governor Nazarov spoke to us with a combination of optimism and urgency. His people need food and fuel and medical supplies. A large airplane on the tarmac, he told us, flies produce from Anchorage on a regular basis. And we surmised during the beautiful luncheon he served that the tomatoes and lettuce had reached Anadyr via Carr-Gottstein or some other Alaska supplier
At the press conference, the co-leader of our expedition, Governor Yvar Yterland, the former governor of South Trondelag in northern Norway and co-founder of The Northern Forum, spoke on our behalf. Then I explained why Governor Hickel wasn’t able to be with us, and Steve outlined the goals and purpose of this remarkable trip.
In the middle of the luncheon, our logistics team told us we had to board the bus and head for the helicopters. I felt terrible having to leave. The tables were set with such care. The main course hadn’t yet been served, and it smelled so good! Obviously they were sharing with us their very best.
We raced to the helicopter and flew back to our aircraft, but we were held on the ground for two frustrating hours. The customs officers questioned the visa-free passports carried by our delegation from Harbin, China. Finally, after much debate, led by Yuri Pavlov our Russian navigator, the top official let us carry on.
We headed wet and north to the Arctic Ocean community of Tiksi, located where the great Lena River flows north into the Arctic Ocean. I tried to ignore what time it was back home. The itinerary said that the banquet was scheduled to begin at 1 A.M. Alaska time!
The sun poured in my window. While in the air, it would blaze at us, day and night, through almost the entire trip.
The vast country below was bleak and vacant, not unlike our Arctic. It had the same look. The world is not running out of space, if we only knew how to better utilize what God has given us.
Tiksi, Sakha Republic
As we walked down the tail stairs to the tarmac in Tiksi, we experienced perhaps the most exotic sight of our trip. First, we were welcomed by a battery of local officials who presented me with a gorgeous bouquet of fresh flowers that must have come from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles away. Then we were greeted by a line of 20 young people in their late teens and early 20s wearing brilliantly-colored regalia—fur hats, and coats and pants and skirts—orange, red, yellow, bright green, bright purple, all lined with fur. We could see their strong ethnic pride and commitment to their culture much like we had seen in Kotzebue.
A tall young Yakuti man sang a welcome song in a powerful, high pitched, high volume voice. It was haunting music, with the same phrases repeated over and over. Then all 20 began to sing as they walked towards us. They presented me with a large, round loaf of bread, and I was instructed to tear off a piece, dip it in a thimble of salt, taste it, and then drink from a large wooden goblet.
“I guess we better try it,” I said to myself as I raised the goblet. It was quite nice, quite good. It tasted like milk. I learned later that it was fermented mare’s milk.
Sakha, the former Yakutia, is a sovereign nation within the Russian Republic. It is the largest region in Russia, twice the size of Alaska, and perhaps the richest. It is known for its oil and gas potential, vast forests, and boundless mineral resources, especially diamonds.
As we drove by jeep from the airport to the city along a bumpy road, Vice Mayor Nick Semenov described the weather in Tiksi as the most challenging in Northern Russia. “We have 365 heating days a year,” he said. The harbor, the center of their commercial activity doesn’t become ice free until July 15. He pointed out dozens of vessels, locked in the ice.
As we drove towards the administration building where President Mikhail Nikolayev was awaiting us, we saw the town had been laid out with a bold design, broad boulevards and large, block-like buildings. Unfortunately, the Arctic winds and a lack of maintenance had stripped off most of the paint.
The President joined us at a press conference. He spoke as both a head of state and as a Vice Chairman of The Northern Forum. “This Circumpolar Expedition is of the same importance as the opening of the Northern Sea Route 100 years ago,” he declared. “During this period, we have been separated artificially by national borders and differences of ideology.
“I am convinced that, united, the people of the Arctic will confront their problems and find ways to solve them. Let your silvery jet, like the dove of peace, be a symbol of our united work for peace, concord and cooperation in the Arctic.”
He announced that a decree had been issued to name a Sakha diamond in honor of this Circumpolar flight. Then he invited us to a banquet that was waiting.
Not only had the President flown in from the capital of Yakutia for this event, he had flown in several members of his cabinet, the chef to prepare the meal we would eat, the silverware, the china, and the entertainment.
It was a fabulous feast. The walls of the dining room were draped with beautiful red and gold fabric. The table for 80 was set in a U shape. The menu, printed in full color, featured three or four kinds of fish, some cooked, some raw, and young horse—it was said to be good for the health. The tables were laden with bottles of fruit juice, liqueurs and vodka. We ate and ate and ate.
The President made a toast. “Whoever is on this trip is always welcome in Yakutia,” he proclaimed.
Afterwards, most of us skipped a planned concert and a visit to an observatory. We found our rooms in the Morvak Hotel. Day One was over. The time was 4 A.M. in Alaska. Many of us had started that day 22 hours earlier.
A Tour of Tiksi and Naryan-Mar
At breakfast I mentioned that I would like to visit a school. Before I knew it, they had whisked us off by jeep to do just that. I was surprised and pleased. The children were well dressed and healthy and very bright.
One girl in a second grade class asked me in English, “What is your name?” Her’s was Lara. Before I left, I taught them all to say, “Happy day.”
As we drove to the Tiksi Museum of the Arctic, we passed many buildings in disrepair. One of our hosts quipped, “We build new old buildings here.” But everywhere we went, we saw people dressed in beautiful fox and mink hats, fur coats or coats trimmed in fur, and high boots. Most women carried shopping bags, and I’m sure were on their way to the market to pick up the daily meal.
“We don’t get many foreigners here,” said the director of the Tiksi Museum. Several of the displays could well have been part of any museum in Alaska. Pictures of explorer Vitus Bering, Lord Baranof, and the American explorer George Washington DeLong lined the walls. As we viewed an art exhibit of Tiksi painters, a young pianist performed. Culture flourishes here amidst the cold.
Members of our delegation were eager to meet with Sergey Anisimov, 33, the head of the Arctic Shipping Company. After touring the port, we discussed with him the use of Russian icebreakers to bring Alaskan products to the Sakha Repblic.
We raced on to the Academy of Arts where the young people who had met the plane performed two dozen songs and dances, both of classical and indigenous origin. I wondered where they had found the materials to make their costumes. I wish I had asked. They were first-class. The entertainment was, too.
I asked about religion. Our translator, Bella Bychkova, told us that when Lenin came to power, all questions of religion and nationality were put aside. Now the Yakuti people are returning to earlier beliefs.
In such a brief visit it was impossible to assess the situation in depth. But the combination of President Nikolayev, a strong individual who is obviously respected as a leader, abundant natural resources, and people filled with pride in their culture made me believe that this region of Russia has great promise.
When we reached the aircraft, one of our delegation, Kay Witt, an engineer from Alascom, had set up an earth station on the tarmac. The size of a briefcase, the transmitter was plugged into the power source in the airplane. As we stood there in the wind, with Kay’s foot under the tiny unit tipping it so that its signal reached an IMARSAT satellite low on the horizon, he dialed Juneau and I was able to talk with Wally. What a thrill! I felt I was on top of the world—really!
Naryan-Mar, Nenets Region
Lenin’s imposing statue still oversees the main square of Naryan-Mar, our next stop. This community, established in 1929 to help develop the Northern Sea Route, exports timber for Europe’s building and pulp industries. However, the dependency on forestry and reindeer herding will soon diminish. Some say a joint venture with U.S. oil firms has discovered an oil field larger than Prudhoe Bay. It is scheduled to come into production this summer.
Vice-Governor Veniamin Tungusev said that U.S. oil people had told them, “You are going to be very rich.” As we chatted in the city hall, he and his colleagues seemed uneasy about the oil era they are about to enter.
The parents of our translator, Ludmilla Istomina, came to Naryan-Mar after World War II. They wanted to leave their tiny village in southern Russia. Without papers, they could only move to the far North or Siberia. In those days, better pay was offered here, better housing and better opportunities. According to Ludmilla, those incentives no longer exist and people are leaving.
That evening at a banquet in the Pechora Hotel some of our delegation were beginning to feel the impact of the incredible pace of our trip, as well as the rapid change in time zones. During a presentation of Nenets Native costumes and song, videographer Brian Hart fell asleep four times standing up while filming. I imagine he got some rather strange video footage. To keep awake, photographer Randy Brandon shot himself in the face several times with his strobe light. Greg Galik, President of Aadland Marketing in Anchorage, sat down among the exhibits in the Naryan-Mar museum and fell asleep. We joked that we considered donating him to the collection.
That night, in my hotel room, I heard voices and footsteps in the all, jumped out of bed and checked my watch, which said 6 A.M. We had to be downstairs at 6:30! I dressed, put on my makeup (of course!) and opened my door and saw a man in uniform. He was keeping an eye on our floor. I looked again at my watch, and found it was really midnight. I went back to bed, glad to have some more rest. But it took me an hour to get back to sleep.
The Longest Day
We had been warned that the third day would be the toughest day. We were to leave Naryan-Mar, land in Murmansk to clear Russian customs, and then visit Rovaniemi, Finland; Kiruna, Sweden; and end up in Bodo, Norway. The great unknown was customs and immigration in Murmansk.
As we approached, we skimmed just above the taiga forest under a low ceiling. The fog was so thick we couldn’t see the city of Murmansk. This well-known ice-free port contains the largest military concentration in Europe. It is also home for Murmansk Shipping, the owner of the nuclear ice-breakers and much of the fleet that plies the Northern Sea Route.
In Naryan-Mar, we had been joined by one of the great women of Russia. Yevlokiya Gayer is lovingly known as the “Mother of All Minorities.” She is a deputy in the Upper Chamber of the Duma, the federal senate, representing Khabarovsk. Formerly she had been the director of the equivalent of our Bureau of Indian Affairs.
As we approached Murmansk, this lady of dynamic energy was asked by our logistics team to help us negotiate with the Russian federal customs and immigration officials. She enthusiastically joined in and within minutes had convinced them of the importance of our expedition. They agreed to check only our hand-carried items and our passports and visas for immigration purposes. We sailed through the process at a good pace, only to be detained in a waiting room as Mrs. Gayer’s own papers were debated. Apparently, her visas for Canada and the U.S. were in place, but she lacked the documents necessary to visit Finland.
Steve Shropshire and Tandy and Ken Wallack, our logistics team from Airline Management Services from Anchorage, argued long and hard. But to no avail. As a parting shot, Steve urged Mrs. Gayer to meet us in Canada. She said she would.
I could see the fire in her eye and was convinced she would catch up with us.
Oliver Walston, from Cambridge, England, covering the trip for the BBC, bet me a bag of popcorn she wouldn’t catch up with us. Oliver was a constant source of humor and good natured ribbing on the flight.
Our next stop was Roveniemi, capital of the Lapland region in northern Finland. Inhabited since the Stone Age, this area has 8,000 years of history. It claims to be the home of Santa Claus, and when we got off the airplane, he was there to greet us.
Roveniemi was 90 percent destroyed during World War II. Now, it is renowned for its architecture. I was particularly impressed by the Arktikum House, a fabulous building shaped like a long series of croquet wickets covered in glass. It is the home of the Finnish Arctic Center, and we toured a beautifully presented series of exhibits. Expedition members Joe Usibelli, Sr., his son Mitch, and daughter-in-law Suzanne, were surprised and delighted to see an entire display of photographs of their coal mine in Healy, Alaska, illustrating enlightened mining practices and reclamation in the North. They posed for snapshots in front of the exhibit.
In this same building, The Northern Forum will hold its September Board of Directors meeting in conjunction with a conference on Arctic opportunities.
I felt as we left Finland that we in Alaska can learn a lot from Northern Europe. The multi-generational history has created an advanced Arctic civilization, with creative architecture, cherished culture and immaculate streets and neighborhoods.
One hundred and fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle, we visited the largest underground mine in the world, the Kirunavaara Mine. This one facility exports fifteen million tons of iron ore every year, mainly to Germany, where it is used to build the Mercedes Benz, the BMW, and other products. The Usibellis were fascinated by the tremendous scale of this mine. I was impressed by the beautiful homes that had been built for the mine-workers and their families.
We found it humorous that the guide on our bus apologized for the snowy, cold weather. She didn’t realize she was speaking to a bus full of Arctic residents who hadn’t even noticed.
Kiruna also has a large population of scientific researchers, some studying the Ice Age, some the Space Age. We dropped by Kiruna’s geophysical institute. Among other projects, they track the aurora borealis, working closely with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The last stop of Day Three was in northern Norway at the community of Bodo that provided the airstrip for America’s U-2 spy planes that became a celebrated controversy at the height of the Cold War. It was from here that pilot Gary Powers took off on his fateful flight when he was shot down over the Soviet Union.
We were welcomed by Governor Sigbjorn Eriksen and a large citizens committee at the beautiful Bodo Airport. Wine and hors d’oeuvres were awaiting us on tables and a large press corps asked questions. The media had gathered in Bodo because the following day the Norway Aviation Museum was being inaugurated. Apparently, we were to be one of the prime exhibits as the members of this first-ever Circumpolar flight. King Harald, known to the world through the television coverage of last year’s Lillehammer Olympics, was scheduled to attend the ceremonies.
That evening, some of the younger and hardier travelers in our group, even after our long day, headed for a community celebration party. When they arrived at the large pavilion filled with thousands of party-goers, they found the audience in rapt attention. On the stage Einar Pedersen and his wife, Ingrid, herself an aviation pioneer, were speaking. Ingrid, on a dare from her husband became the first woman to fly a single-engine aircraft over the pole. They were telling the audience about the Circumpolar Expedition and it significance for the future of the Arctic.
The King pays a visit
At breakfast at the Inter-Nor Diplomat Hotel, Fuller Cowell, Publisher, and Howard Weaver, Executive Editor, of the Anchorage Daily News, distributed copies of what they called the “Circumpolar News.” The handout was a series of columns on our trip that Howard and Mike Doogan had already filed back home. A fan of the “Information Highway,” Howard had arranged to use the portable Alascom earth station to file their stories electronically. Using a modem, they sent a fax to themselves at our hotel, producing the hardcopy “Circumpolar News.”
Howard read the stories aloud to a group of us at breakfast, and we shared many laughs as he read Doogan’s irreverent reports on our adventures.
A morning bus tour presented us with a very different Arctic. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the community of Bodo at latitude 67, the same as Kotzebue, is filled with neighborhoods boasting green lawns that looked like they had been mowed a time or two. Windows had lacy curtains and pots of red geraniums. Tulips were in bloom. The sun was out – Bodo was beautiful, and looked like it had just been well scrubbed.
We stopped by a lovely state-financed church to witness a confirmation ceremony. The modified onion-shaped dome reminded us of home. In spite of the architecture, the liturgy is more protestant than Russian Orthodox.
By noon all 79 of us were in our places outside the Aviation Center awaiting the arrival of King Harald. It was a blue-sky day. The King arrived and took his place. The keynote speakers referred to us and our expedition. The U.S. Charge d’affaires spoke in strong Norwegian. He switched to English when he spoke to us.
“This expedition,” he said, “is led by Governor Hickel of Alaska, ably represented by is wife. They have come in the spirit of Norwegian explorers with one major difference. The Norwegians usually go to the North Pole alone. Americans take a plane load!”
After the King had given his address, we were escorted to a designated spot within the enormous air museum which is built in the shape of a great propeller. The King arrived, moving from exhibit to exhibit. Eventually, he was escorted directly to us. He came up and shook my hand. He had a quick smile and seemed to be enjoying himself.
I thanked him for inviting us to the ceremony and invited him to visit Alaska. He responded with a warm smile. I felt he would be fun to visit with.
Across from us was a dark, sleek U-2 aircraft. I was told later that Wally had been instrumental in getting the pentagon to find, assemble and donate that aircraft to the museum. He had made a personal call to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff.
Next to us a dance band played a series of Glenn Miller numbers. They were Norwegians dressed in US Army Air Corps uniforms from World War II. It was great music. I went over to chat with them – thanking them for the wonderful Glenn Miller renditions. Believe me, those songs took me way back. Steve Shropshire and Reeve crew member Janice Ogle, couldn’t resist kicking off their shoes and doing a jitterbug. A photo of them dancing made the daily newspaper the following day.
We had planned to leave Bodo that eveninbg, but a replacement for the tail skeg on our Reeve Aleutian jet, which had been damaged during our take-off from Tiksi, had not yet arrived from London. We decided to spend a second night in Bodo, a welcome respite from the pace.
Steve, who seems to organize trips at the drop of a hat, immediately put together two bus loads for a drive along the coast of Norway. Fredrik Bjorken, an aide to Governor Eriksen, gave us a running commentary as we traveled up the beautiful coastline. Bjorken convinced the owner of a restaurant, already closed for the day, to open up so we could get out of the wind and have a picnic in his facility. At this informal dinner, 30 or 40 of us talked about the trip and its significance for our areas.
Einar Pedersen was beaming. “We have managed to get the impossible dream up in the air,” he said. “The rest of the trip will be a piece of cake.”
Five cities and seven time zones
Due to our delay, our assignment this day included a total of five cities, in four countries, and to fly through seven time zones. In our hurry to leave, we almost left behind former Anchorage businessman Kelly Foss, 80. We had left the hotel lobby as scheduled at 6:30 A.M. Kelly work up at 7:20, caught a cab, and scrambled aboard just before take-off.
I had been impressed by what we learned in Norway about the culture. It has been held together and guided by Norway’s women. So many of the men go to sea – a tradition that continues today. In recent years, many of Norway’s farms have proved uneconomic, tying to compete with America, Australia and the other large areas. So the farmers have moved offshore, cultivating the sea, and making pen-raised salmon a world commodity and a real threat to wild salmon fisheries, such as Alaska’s.
The world’s oldest democracy
Our visit to Iceland was brief – a few hours on a bus; a tour of a geothermal power generating plant, and a delicious lunch at a vegetarian sanitarium for those recovering from illness or concerned about on-going good health.
Our hosts told us that the first settler established a farm in Iceland in 874 A.D. The capital, Reykjavik, was founded by the Vikings in 930 A.D. That year, they established a national assembly, proudly claimed today as the oldest democratic institution in the world.
Reykjavik means “Smoky Bay.” Early arrivals imagined that the steam rising from hot springs was smoke from volcanoes or brush fires. The natural hot water from the springs, geysers and wells is now used to heat 86 percent of the nation’s households and many of the public buildings.
Icelanders have one of the longest life expectancies in the world. The population of 265,000 credit their longevity to their fish-based diet, nearly pollution-free environment, and no barriers to an active working life.
Sondestrom and Iqaluit
Arriving in Sondestrom, Greenland, a community founded by the U.S. military as a World War II airbase in 1941, I felt like we were entering the part of the Arctic shared by Alaska. This is the frontier Arctic, that stretches from Greenland through northern Canada and across Alaska.
We were met by two lovely lady Greenlander guides in Inuit regalia with multi-colored beaded tops, colorful pants, and bleached white sealskin boots. Our hosts put on a lunch for us at the Row Club which featured muskox, razorbill duck, and salmon. Kay Witt set up the earth station behind the club, and I talked with Wally again. I reached him in Juneau at the house eating lunch.
On to Iqaluit, the former Frobisher Bay, in Canada, where we arrived in a snowstorm marked by huge flakes. This community hopes to become the capital of the new Canadian province of Nunavut, encompassing one-fifth of Canada. It will basically be a Native-owned and governed province.
Wally had visited this community in August 1970 on a tour of the Canadian and Alaskan Arctics with Jean Chretien who is now Canada’s Prime Minister. Wally was traveling as U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Cretien was Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
Polar bear capital of the world
It was the end of a long day, but I felt real excitement as we approached Churchill, Manitoba. It would be great to be back in the North American Arctic and compare it to what we had seen during the past five days. Churchill is the major outpost left by the pioneering Hudson Bay Company. The British built nearby Fort Prince of Wales out of stone over a 40-year period in the 1700s to protect their fur trade.
As we walked into the small air terminal, the community leaders stood back as we all received enormous hugs from Mrs. Geyer. This undaunted Russian senator had lived up to her vow and caught up to us via Paris, Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg – all without speaking a word of English. I knew she would make it. By the way, the BBC’s Oliver Walston never paid up the bag of popcorn he bet me.
We had arrived late in Churchill, and the planned banquet had to be cancelled. As we drove through the rough and tumble community, it made me think of Alaska’s far north. We ate at a cafeteria-style restaurant in a long, low community center designed for harsh weather. It’s a place where the young and old can go for exercise and entertainment. At the dinner were briefed by a member of the city council on polar bears and the history of the area.
No doubt about it, Churchill has a polar bear problem, but they’ve learned how to deal with it. They catch bears that prowl their town with a cage built out of a culvert mounted on wheels. Fermented walrus meat serves as bait. Once in the cage, the bears are transported to a large quonset hut where they are transferred to another cage and left until taken into the wilds. In the holding pen, they have almost no human contact and are given only water so they won’t get used to captivity. Eventually they are tranquilized and carried north by helicopter.
Ettajane Danner, an expedition member, representing Mayor George Ahmoagak of the North Slope Borough, compared that approach to what we do in Barrow. We could learn from Churchill. One year, we had to kill ten polar bears that were harassing the Barrow community.
At breakfast the next morning in the Tundra Café, I sat with Dick Reeve, owner and president of Reeve Aleutian Airways. I asked him about the outstanding crew he had assembled. The three pilots on board averaged over 20 years of service with the Reeve organization. I was especially impressed by Chris Flowers, the young mechanic on board. He wasn’t the most experienced member of the Reeve maintenance crew, but he had approached Dick with his resume, showing three semesters of Russian language. “I want to go,” he said. Dick liked his attitude and gave him the nod.
I think all of us Alaskans on the trip were reassured when we knew that Reeve would provide the aircraft and crew. They are probably the most experienced airlines in the world when it comes to flying in bad weather.
Someone said if Captain Chuck Nickerson isn’t landing in a 60-knot crosswind, he doesn’t consider it a day’s work.
Yellowknife diamonds and a beautiful parliament building
When the first explorers from Europe arrived in what is now the Northwest Territories, they saw that the Indians in this area had fashioned their knives and implements from pure copper. They dubbed them the Yellowknife Indians.
We were driven into town from the airport and taken to a brand new $28 million parliament building, designed with glass, steel, wood, ivory, and fur. As you enter, you immediately get the impression that these people are proud of their country, proud of their culture, proud of themselves.
In Alaska, some of us apologize for the fact that we still mine for minerals. Not in Yellowknife. They are proud of their mining industry especially their newly found diamonds. They understand the connection between resource production, an economic base, and a decent quality of life.
A warm reception in Whitehorse
As I walked down the tail stairs of our jet in Whitehorse, Wally was waiting to welcome us. Alaska’s special session had ended, and Wally flew over to join us for the last leg of our journey. The sun was bright and the coming together of Wally as chairman of The Northern Forum, and this planeload of 79 adventurers, was a special moment.
At dinner, the Canadians presented a slice of their culture with an energetic stage show called “The Frantic Follies” featuring vaudeville humor, can-can dancers and a magician.
Governor Yterland, the man who had so ably stepped in for Wally as spokesman throughout our trip, took the microphone and summed up the expedition, describing its importance. He thanked me for the role I had played as the unexpected and out-of-my-depth leader of the expedition, and he gave Wally much credit. “Einar Pedersen was the architect of this trip,” he said “But an architect only draws lines on paper. Someone has to build it. Governor Hickel was the one who built not just his trip but The Northern Forum. This is the beginning of a new era in the northern regions.”
Einar Pedersen said to all assembled, “You have opened one of the last interesting air routes in the world. You must consider yourselves polar pathfinders.”
Wally responded, “This trip is jut the beginning. Of all the people on earth, you 79 understand what the world Arctic is all about. I commend you on your achievement, and I charge you to make the most of it.”
The head of the Chinese delegation announced that he and the TV camera crew traveling with him would share “the joy of this expedition with hundreds of millions of Chinese” through national television broadcast.
The final morning we took a tour of Whitehorse, visiting a wildlife farm that raises muskoxen, bison and deer. Then we boarded our aircraft for the final leg home.
When we touched down in Anchorage, Captain Nickerson and First Officer Tom Hart, completed 16 out of 16 perfect landings, without a bounce or a bump. The crowd applauded again.
On the intercom, flight attendant Ester Jurasek, announced, “The media will deplane first, followed by Mrs. Hickel and her husband!” We all laughed, and I could sense Wally’s pride in the job we had done.
As I look back, I think of the seriousness of the challenges faced by the Russians, and yet the hopefulness I sensed from the people we met. I can still see the urgency in the eyes of the northern Russian leaders, the under-the-surface desperation in the people, wondering what the future will hold. They need help. They need investors. They need simple infrastructure such as water and heating systems, maintained roads and buildings.
The opportunity for Alaskans is immense. President Nikolayev of Sakha asked us to sell him refined oil products. They also need oil technology, environmental engineering, the expertise of our wildlife biologists, and all kinds of basic products.
I think of the wonderful crew who flew and manned our aircraft during those seven long days and six short nights. I can still feel the spirit on board amongst our adventurers. In spite of the incredible pace, some breakdowns, confusion and delay, I never once heard a complaint. We’ll be friends for life. We share that special bond that forms among those who know they are part of something that will always be remembered