Discussion of life in Kaktovik probably won’t get very far without discussing what started last year as “Socialization Saturday”, and has since had a few unnecessary alliterative adjectives added (but most of us are elementary teachers, so there you are). When you spend your working hours socializing with children, adult interactions and conversations are a welcome change, and as a group of mostly teachers (with a librarian thrown in) we started meeting up on Saturdays for game or movie nights. It has evolved since then, and now we even have a regular schedule, if just to keep the same people from getting saddled with hosting duties over and over.
Our recent activities have been mostly about taking advantage of the (relatively) good weather before winter rolls in. Last week, we were showing a visitor from the school district around, including a trip by SUV out to the bone pile, where the unusable remains of whale carcasses go, and polar bears gather to scavenge. By August, it’s all at least a year old, but they’re not picky. A mother and her two mostly-grown cubs were out there looking for scraps. We pulled in close to let our guest take some pictures, but our driver misjudged the depth of a puddle on the gravel beach and we clunked to a stop at a slight downward angle. The polar bears, used as they are to tourists, all looked up in our direction. There was that sudden realization that we were six people in a metal box and there were three large apex predators out there who were probably pretty hungry.
The gravel wasn’t anything a spirited use of the four-wheel-drive couldn’t handle, though one of the cubs continued to approach us curiously, despite the protestations of his mother. We continued to back away slowly, and he just kept coming. Not quickly or threateningly, but gradually and consistently. Finally, we turned around to get a little more speed and gained some distance on our lackadaisical pursuer, and I couldn’t help myself. From the back of the vehicle, in my black leather jacket and black-rimmed glasses, I did my best Goldblum: “Think they’ll have that on the tour?” About half the car got it, and Katrina punched me for it, but I was unreasonably proud of myself.
This week we went on a beachcombing foray on the far side of the island, which kind of turned into a beach party (minus the adult beverages, of course), complete with driftwood-fire-roasted hot dogs. Of course, going anywhere that has rocks with Katrina is a sure fire way to end up with a bagful of “cool rocks” at home. But, this is why she’s the one who was able to finish her geology degree. I’m more of a “landscape” kind of person, trying in vain to get good pictures of the dissipating fog.
Among the “cool rocks” we picked up were several pieces we have tentatively identified as jade, though some of them have clearly turned out to be “greenish rocks”. Beachcombed rocks have the unfortunate habit of turning out to be less interesting than you thought when they dry. At any rate, we have a pile of semi-precious to worthless stones in our house, so there’s that.
We also got to take a good look at some melting permafrost. We are, after all, as one of us said, “on the front lines of climate change”. I don’t care what your particular political motivations are, you can’t deny that this is actually happening.
Speaking of climate change, President Obama is visiting our state this week, attending an arctic nations climate change conference, and announced just prior to his arrival that the continent’s highest peak would be officially recognized as Denali, no longer Mt. McKinley. I’ve only been an Alaskan for a few years, but I can tell you this is not a big deal, despite what the Republican leadership seems to think. This is not the President “dictating” a name change to please a minority, this was requested by the state of Alaska years ago, and has finally made its way through the political gauntlet of the Department of the Interior, and the President just signed off on it. That’s his job; to okay stuff done by the various departments.
It’s never made a great deal of sense to have a mountain in Alaska named after a president who never saw it, expressed any interest in it, and (let’s face it) whose most significant historical fact is that he was assassinated, allowing Teddy Roosevelt to take office. Denali is the traditional name given by the local Athabaskans, and you would be hard-pressed to find an Alaskan who didn’t call it that. It’s been officially “Denali” at the state level for a long time, this is just federal recognition of that fact. It doesn’t really change anything, but it’s good to know that the rest of the country is now on the same page.
But certain politicians in Ohio (McKinley’s home state) are taking umbrage, because McKinley was a Republican, so this must be a politically motivated slam, right? Probably not. Is it a token gesture to gain some favor in the notoriously anti-government state of Alaska? You bet. But it’s not some case of “political correctness” gone awry, it’s about officially changing the name of a significant peak back to its original; which just happens to be what everybody in the area called it unofficially anyway. The real losers here are all the various businesses with names like “Mt. McKinley Lodge” who now look kind of anachronistic.