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On The Plane Back to Kotzebue

As I type, I’m in a plane above the Chukchi coast, heading south to Kotzebue from the original Project Chariot test site, near Point Hope.

There are five of us in small plane: a pilot, a writer for the Alaska Dispatch News, her photographer, Bob, and the Homer-based editor of The Arctic Sounder. And me. We constitute the press group rounded up by the Department of Energy for a trip to show off the clean-up work that’s nearly complete on an area that was once almost blown up with nuclear bombs to make a harbor during the Cold War. The detonations never happened, but some stuff did, even if there’s contention over what exactly.

It was hot at the site, which is—remarkably, given the logistics—constituted by many connex trailers, electrified perimeter fences for bears, heavy equipment, some abstract modular tents, and a satellite propped up on driftwood for telecommunications. All of it was brought off a barge a few weeks ago. The mosquitoes were a force to be contended with, and almost all of us, along with our guides from DOE, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and a firm contracted to handle media, wore headnets, looking like nervous beekeepers under persistent bug swarms.

Check-in for my next flight is technically in about 15 minutes, and we’ve only just passed Kivalina, a good chunk of time away. But I’m not too worried. The plane could leave early, but otherwise I’m likely to make it, apologizing as usual for not being on time. If anything, I’m worried about my back and my boredom, flying up to Point Hope proper—same route, slightly roomier plane. It felt important that if I got to travel all the way to Chariot I should try and get to Point Hope, too, to talk to the community members who lobbied so fervently against nuclear detonations a few dozen miles from where the caribou and bowhead whales pass. And after some scrambled plans were hastily re-assembled it looks like I’ll be staying the night at the Whaler’s Inn (the municipal accommodations were all full), then interviewing Point Hope’s mayor early tomorrow morning, before flying back to Kotzebue, working on my news story all afternoon, then on to Nome.

The reason all this seems important and worth saying is that even as things in KNOM-Volunteer-Land are rapidly changing—housemates coming and going, relationships and lives reformulating—things are still quite good, and certainly interesting. News and the events beneath do not stop, even as the faces in the newsroom (and their creative pronunciations) are about to cycle through. I feel as though it’s taken me a year to begin toddling towards technical proficiency in my reporting work: managing equipment, editing quickly and well, juggling a camera, sounding natural. And that’s been easy compared to learning all I don’t know. Grasping enough of a foreign epistemology to operate effectively, generate meaning—the work I feel I’m still on the cusp of being able to do in Alaska. After all, I only just learned how to fish.

It feels stupid and premature to leave. I avoid dwelling on it, and have not yet realized it. It’s quite literally easier to jump on a small plane heading towards mosquito infested nuclear test site than it is to anticipate the heavy sigh of my first week back home at my dad’s house, in a pseudo-vacation limbo, finally confronting the looming “what’s next” question, or at least an approaching it. The last couple months I could abstractly tell myself, “Well what’s next is the radio reporting job I’ll manage to get,” but that hasn’t progressed as smoothly as I’d planned (does it, ever? Not rhetorical. I need to know).

I am doing, and have done, way more than I’d hoped during my time in Alaska. Which is not yet over. In few other places, and with few employers like KNOM, would a 25-year-old with a year of work experience be allowed to hop around on planes for cool stories. I feel lucky and like I’ve done well. And amid all that, as the plane gets ready to land in Kotzebue, the larger uncertainties stretch out like the Noatak River over my left shoulder, tributaries blurring in the middle distance.