Preserving Subsistence: A Land Use Battle in an Alaskan Wilderness

Preserving Subsistence was originally published on May 6, 2012 in These Fifty States, a Yale College publication devoted to capturing different aspects of place across America. Find them at

Ricky Ashby is not an easy man to track down. He has no phone, no office door, no email address. He lives alone in a cabin on the Noatak River in northwest Alaska, the lone full-time inhabitant of a 6.5 million acre national park unit, 20% larger than New Jersey. I began my effort to reach him in mid-July, when my mom, on a fortuitously timed rafting trip past his cabin, asked if he would talk with me if I visited. Ricky said he would be happy to have another visitor. My next communication was via a letter left at his empty cabin by a visiting park employee, telling him I would try to visit August 8 or 9. It was all I could do, but it left me uncertain of whether he would be there. It was going to be expensive, and I questioned if it was worth the chance. I vacillated, but decided I had to go.

The previous January I had heard of Ricky’s long and as-of-yet-unresolved struggle to get a permit from the National Park Service to build a small subsistence fishing cabin on Park Service land 2.6 miles downstream from the cabin I would visit in August (which stands on an inholding). Ricky needed the second cabin because he fished at the downstream site and could neither safely protect his harvest from bears while living in a soft-sided structure nor easily take his catch to his existing cabin every day since he lacks a motorboat and cannot safely carry fish across the slippery rocks at his fishing site. But his chosen site was within federally designated wilderness, forcing the Park Service to consider whether the cabin would significantly distract from the wilderness character of the area. For many years, Ricky’s cabin had lost.

Ricky’s case mattered to me because northwest Alaska is a special place, and Ricky special within it. Besides being my home, northwest Alaska is one of the last places in the United States where an indigenous people never subject to European-induced war or disease—the Iñupiat—continue to practice their traditional way of life in their traditional homeland. The term given to this way of life is subsistence, which encompasses physical sustenance taken from the land through hunting, fishing, and gathering, but also much more: subsistence forms the basis of Iñupiat identity, provides spiritual renewal, and is the means by which children learn cultural values. The myriad tasks associated with it define gender roles and give social structure to Iñupiaq communities. But the subsistence way of life is under threat due to younger generations increasingly more adept at video games than cutting salmon, more interested in basketball than boating, and more tempted by jobs in Anchorage than caribou hunting at home. The loss of subsistence would both rob rural Alaska of a rare resource and rob the Iñupiat of their culture, identity, and society, likely resulting in rural villages becoming more dysfunctional and ridden with alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

I arranged my trip Bush Alaska style, calling a friend of a friend in Noatak village to inquire about a boat ride fifty miles upriver to Ricky’s. Within two days, he had found someone happy to make the trip in exchange for my offer of the necessary gas. That same day, I bought my ticket on Bering Air, and two days later boarded a 9-seat Cessna Grand Caravan in my hometown, Kotzebue, bound for Noatak with my notepads, camera, and two boxes of food bought at Kotzebue’s Alaska Commercial store.

Stan Van Amburg, my contact in Noatak, met me on the gravel tarmac, standing among the swarm of Hondas (ATVs) and trucks that descended on the single-engine plane, eager to greet the roadless village’s lifeline to the outside world. Stan and I slowly bumped along Noatak’s potholed gravel roads and through a few beds of loose pebbles to his house, a modern two story structure that would be modest in suburbia but stood out among the multitude of boxy “HUD” houses, cookie-cutter designs constructed by government-affiliated housing authorities. Stan’s wife was smoking salmon, and I traded a few delicious bites for the box of food I had brought from Kotzebue: grapes, cherries, cinnamon-raisin bread, cream cheese, and other luxuries not regularly available in the village store.

The Alaska Bush usually moves slowly, so I was surprised that Jimmy Mills was ready to take me upriver as soon as I arrived. He was a recent graduate of the University of Alaska and, along with 95% of Noatak, Iñupiaq. As we drove his truck to the boat, we picked up an elderly woman walking to the store, as is done in the community of 500. “I sure want patik!” she said to Jimmy as she climbed into the back seat with me, using the Iñupiaq word for bone marrow. He assured her he would look for caribou.

Noatak illustrates well the juxtaposition of the traditional and modern, the Iñupiaq and the Western. The Cessna Caravan I arrived on had been recently retrofitted with a four-bladed prop to improve fuel efficiency. The plane landed on a wide, well-groomed gravel runway, the recently constructed school glistening to the left, disconcertingly large in a land of short trees and tundra. My cellphone worked. But just a little digging revealed that the airport, the school, and the new clinic—equipped with the latest in telemedicine technology—only tell part of Noatak’s story.

Halfway through a meal of caribou soup and black meat, or seal, at the house of a family friend, the VHF radio each family tunes to a common frequency crackled as someone announced they were selling blueberries, $10 a quart. Our after-dinner conversation was interrupted when my host excitedly read a text message announcing that tuttu – caribou – were crossing not far upriver. Other families I visited were cleaning berries, smoking salmon, making jam, or filling gas cans in preparation for a hunting trip. In northwest Alaska, there is no separation between a “cash economy” and “subsistence economy” —money and traditional harvesting are interdependent and both crucial to the well-being of village residents.

At the store, I paid $180 for the 20 gallons of gas we would need for the trip. The price is a major hardship to village residents dependent on that gas to fuel boat motors and snowmobiles for subsistence hunting and fishing. We loaded Jimmy’s boat with a .22 rifle for caribou, homemade bread and salmon from Stan’s wife, our personal gear, and the second box of food from Kotzebue—for Ricky, filled with camp staples such as instant rice, Bisquick, cabbage, and hot cocoa.

The overcast sky spat occasional rain as we drove upriver, making me thankful for the boat’s cloth canopy. On the way, Carl Luther, who had joined us on the trip, pointed out a brown bear, akłaq, running away on a sandbar. As is the way with the Iñupiat, words were few: we talked about points of interest, but did not fill periods of silence with unnecessary conversation. The lack of conversation can be disconcerting to outsiders, but it is a legacy of an era when talking at the wrong time could doom a hunt. Jimmy told me when we passed significant places: a stand of trees with an Iñupiaq name, the four or five camps of villagers, the bend where the Point Hope people fell through thin ice and drowned while chasing the Noatak people. We saw two groups of “floaters,” recreational rafters and kayakers from far away, here for an Arctic adventure. At some point near the Kelly River—Kuugruuraq, as Jimmy corrected me—we passed into the Noatak National Preserve, its unmarked boundary seeming to hold little meaning amid the tundra, spruce trees, sandbars, and opaque turquoise water of the river.

The Preserve, along with nine other Alaska park units, was established in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Unique in size, these units are also unique in purpose: recognizing that the Iñupiat and other rural Alaskans relied on them for their subsistence way of life, ANILCA explicitly and forcefully protected the right of rural Alaskans to practice subsistence. This meant that national parks and even wilderness areas—closed to all motorized equipment, including bicycles, in the Lower 48—were open to motorboats, guns, snowmobiles, and, when necessary, new cabins. The history of the Park Service in rural Alaska is regularly fraught with conflict, and Ricky’s cabin permit was one that had local residents scratching their heads, wondering why the Park Service was so hesitant to act in a way they felt was clearly compatible with ANILCA’s goal of protecting subsistence.

Soon after passing the Kugururok River—Kuugruaq, “big river” —we were at Ricky’s. His cabin was partially visible through the line of spruce trees and willow bushes lining the bank. A handmade canoe lay upside down on the rocky beach, but no one came to meet us as we idled to shore. I feared Ricky was gone, off on one of his multi-day walks in the country—he often took one at this time of year.

We walked up wide stone steps he had laid into the low bank and through the line of vegetation, bringing the cabin into full view. Its bottom half was constructed of peeled logs, the top half walled with bare plywood. The path led to a roofed porch partially enclosed by three-foot walls of plywood and corrugated sheet metal. To the left, beyond the cabin, was his woodshed, sided and roofed with the same metal panels. To the right, more flat stones laid in the ground led to a log sauna and an outhouse.

We swung open a plywood gate and stepped onto the porch. A white lawn chair sat on it, while a rolled-up caribou skin and large metal washtub hung from the cabin’s outer wall. A thin plywood door in front of us stood open, and passing through we entered his qanisaq, a small room intended to serve as an airlock in the winter.

The cabin didn’t appear closed up. Still, as Jimmy raised his arm to knock, I had one more moment of worry. Please be here, I thought. A few seconds later my wish was granted as the door swung in, revealing an older Iñupiaq man, dressed in sweat pants and an undershirt, book in hand, a dark beard streaked with gray running along his jawline, growing longer at his chin. A large bush of dark gray hair protruded from the sides and top of his head. “I never even hear you!” Ricky said. “Come in!”

I only spent twenty-four hours with Ricky Ashby, but it was enough for me to begin to understand what this stretch of the Noatak meant to him. I said I had never seen the Noatak canyons, just upstream, so he insisted we get back into the boat and ride through them. As we drove between the high gray rock walls, Ricky told us various place-names in Iñupiaq: the warped rock that resembled the shape of an intestine and carried that name, the bluff whose name referenced the woman who had once jumped off it in order to escape an abusive husband. At the top of the canyons—they are only a few miles long—Ricky led us a few hundred yards across the tundra and, kneeling beside a water-filled depression, pulled at the moss to reveal the wooden frame of an attempted mine shaft, dating from the turn of the 20th century, and told us of two miners who had frozen to death in the area after starting to build their cabin too late in the year.

Back at his cabin, Ricky pulled out a roll of USGS topographic maps, showing rivers, mountains, and forests, small black type putting the full authority of the United States Geological Survey behind the names of natural features. But Ricky saw the land in a way not expressed on the maps. Tracing his finger across the blue lines of rivers and the brown lines of contours, he told us what didn’t appear on them: where the Iñupiaq villages once were, where old stories placed precious metal deposits, and which passes his ancestors used to walk through to follow caribou north onto the Arctic Slope or south into the Kobuk River valley. Ignoring the small black type, he told us the Iñupiaq names, names that weren’t bastardized for English, names that had meaning: Nimiuktuk River became Niŋŋuqtuuq, referring to the cottonwood trees growing there. He could have provided the names of hundreds of other locations the map would never know, as he had in the canyons. Ricky’s knowledge holds in it the history of a people, the record of the Iñupiaq relationship with the land, but it is a history fast fading from the minds of northwest Alaska Iñupiat. Ricky was just beginning to draw the old walking routes onto the maps, trying to preserve that fading history by translating the knowledge he carries in his head into a form coming generations will be able to use.

He told us stories. About his days before he lived at his cabin, when he traveled the world. He’s been to South America, Europe, all over the United States. He spent fourteen hours walking a circle around Houston for the sake of exploring, did the same in Washington, D.C. only to then spend hours crisscrossing the city in a cab, attempting to find the hotel he hadn’t bothered to collect the name of. He met Colin Powell at a function for Native Americans, telling us only that he was a “nice man” before moving onto his next story. He wandered through the “slums” of New York City, unafraid of people who reminded him of home: “They just wanted to have a good time.”

Ricky showed us his handicrafts: the winter boots he made by sewing fur and then inserting a commercial felt liner—that was the warmest, he said. He showed us his bone-handled knife, with an inlaid piece of bright blue plastic he proudly said came from a toothbrush. He displayed his hand-made chairs, dyed a deep red-orange from soils he had collected in the canyons.

We ate like kings, our meals too mixing worlds: trout eggs on the homemade bread we had brought from Noatak, aqpik, or cloudberry, pie, the berries suspended in commercial Jell-O. Fresh fish, caught from the river, rolled in Progresso bread crumbs and fried on a propane stove, with a side of instant rice. For breakfast in the morning we whipped up Bisquick pancakes on the woodstove, then smothered them in aqpik jam and placed three slices of Spam and another pancake on top to make a sandwich. It was the best food I had had in a long time.

Jimmy, Carl, and I left the next morning to catch the afternoon Bering Air flight. I left my rubber boots for Ricky, as his leaked. As we boated downriver, I turned back to watch Ricky walk to his beach, alone yet again. Jimmy pushed the throttle forward, and I tried to think of the river in the old days, when entire communities, not just single people, lined its banks. A lot has arrived since those times: Jimmy’s outboard engine, the .22, sheet metal, commercial food, rubber boots. But a lot has stayed the same: the caribou hunting every fall, berry picking, fishing, trips south to summer subsistence camps on the coast. Ricky, more than most, embodies what has stayed the same. In my estimation, ANILCA was written in order to preserve Ricky, to preserve anyone who still wanted to live the lifestyle he does. In a region where the new is rapidly overtaking the old—with schools tethering families to villages and televisions and the Internet absorbing many of the area’s youth—the subsistence way of life and knowledge of the land are under more threat than the land itself. And in a world where TVs and computers have already won in most places, rural Alaska offers a last chance to save the ancient relationship between people and land.

I thought of other national parks I had visited throughout the American southwest, where displays and interpretive shows demonstrated how the local Indian tribes once lived. Watching Ricky recede into the distance, I marveled at the magic of a place where indigenous lives do not play out on museum theater screens, but on the land itself. It is hard to find a wilderness like the Noatak elsewhere, but find another Ricky? That task may be even harder. Alaska’s parks should protect Ricky and other people who want to use the land, people who desire a relationship beyond that of subject and observer. It saddens me deeply to think of a day when a college student waits at the Park Service ranger station on the Noatak River, ready to show floaters how the Iñupiat used to cut and dry salmon. I, for one, hope there is always a Ricky Ashby waiting to share food, tales, and knowledge with visitors as they pass through one of America’s last great wildernesses.

Postscript: Ricky got his cabin permit in the spring of 2011, the culmination of a 5-year process that included an environmental assessment conducted by the National Park Service. He negotiated with the Park Service through the summer and into the fall over whether he would be allowed to build a raised cache, and in the late fall of 2011 received permission for that as well. Provided he follows certain stipulations regarding construction, bear protection, and waste disposal, he is free to build and use a new cabin. Many of those involved believe this is the first time a new cabin in a new location has been authorized on Alaska parklands.

Author’s Note: This story grew out of academic work, but it reflects only my personal opinion and should not be read as more.

Reid Magdanz, Iñupiaq name Paałuk, grew up in Kotzebue, Alaska, hunting, fishing and camping with his family. He is non-Native, but learned much from his Iñupiat friends and mentors.

Featured image by Flickr user blmiers2.


One Comment

  1. Tim Brinker says:

    Hi Reid,

    My wife and I live up in Kotzebue on/off for past year. Really enjoyed your description of life up there. Keep up the sharing of stories….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *