Confession: I knew about Barrow way before I ever knew about Nome.
A few years ago I grew interested in non-linear narratives, (every writer goes through this phase, as well as a DFW and maybe even a Bukowski one… most of us grow out of it. Please don’t hate us), and I ran across Jonathan Harris’ “The Whale Hunt,” a multi-media experimental form of storytelling about a man who goes to Barrow—the northernmost American settlement— to join a whaling crew for their spring whale hunt. Harris documents the entire journey with 3,214 photographs and a heart monitor recording high moments of adrenaline.
This is how I was first introduced to elements of Inupiaq culture and the subsistence lifestyle of western Alaska. I didn’t grasp the depth and cultural significance behind the whale hunt then. I mean, how could I? I was an outsider (still am), learning through the computer screen.
I was in awe of the photos Harris captured and never imagined I’d actually get to see any of it myself, but I did.
Two weeks ago, I made the trip north to Barrow to write a news profile about Nalukataq, a traditional whaling festival that celebrates a successful whale catch. It was a trip years in the making and I am grateful to KNOM for giving me the opportunity to go and experience it first hand.
Before the trip ever happened I was faced with a very basic dilemma: writing a profile meant taking off the producer hat and putting on the reporter hat. I am a DJ and talk show host for half my day. I spend the other half in my head thinking things, reading articles, writing scripts, mixing audio, and wondering whether searching for sound effects of a crying giraffe is worth it when I could just go to studio B and make my own.
I am not a newsie at heart. I compensated for it by giving myself more prep time and a few pep talks in front of the mirror that went something like, “you’re assertive! You ask questions! You can walk up to strangers and ask coherent, intelligent questions! You can go somewhere you’ve never been to all by yourself, figure out what the story is AND TELL IT! UP TOP GIRL, GIMMY FIVE!” A few fist pumps later and I felt like, yeah, I got this.
And I did. The trip was a success, there were no travel hiccups, and for one of the few times I could recall, I felt completely confident in my abilities as a reporter. I returned to Nome ready to edit countless hours of audio and pump out a profile before the holiday weekend began.
I was late in processing my own experiences dealing with the trip. The thing about work trips is that you don’t come back with one story: you come back with many. Some of them are yours and some of them are not. Some are to put on the air, some are to tell your friends, some are private. Sometimes, there’s bleeding from story to story. The longer you are gone, the more stories you are likely to gather.
I was gone for almost a week.
Maybe I could do like Harris did, I thought. Just pull out the camera card and line out all my photos on Lightroom. They could be arranged in chronological order, in order of climax, according to the weather, by the color palate, by different events. Or I could find my own unique way to tell the story. By my keepsakes. The shirt from the Heritage Center Museum. My ticket stub. Or maybe tell the story according to everything I ate. Muktuk. Oranges. Fish and chips. Froyo. Cake. Coffee. So much coffee.
Should I make a list? What were some memorable things I experienced? I saw palm trees. That was weird. And a blue football field. I got tossed on the sealskin blanket. I had an amazing conversation about Sherman Alexie with a stranger at the Anchorage airport. I ran into the guy from Pamyua. I had amazing hosts, all around. I finally met Florence Busch. She makes a mean tuna sandwich.
Or maybe a list is too easy. Maybe Harris was up to something with “The Whale Hunt” after all. I get that now. Sometimes you take unusual roads because there’s no other way. Maybe this is the kind of story or experience I can’t tell in one simple straight-forward way. Or maybe Harris and I are kindred spirits, the crazy kind that makes everything too complicated for our own good, the kind that treks across the country looking for… what?
The world actually ends, you know. Well, the land. This landmass that we inhabit stretches across forests and deserts and cities through countries for thousands and thousands of miles. Then it stops. It didn’t sink in until I saw it, driving out to the edge of town, the Arctic Ocean on both sides. The road ended. Nothing up ahead but the North Pole. So I turned around and came home, because, well, what else is there to do?