As Nunapitchuk’s tundra gives way to mud and grass, outdoor life isn’t what it used to be
Locals describe the ground in Nunapitchuk these days as wet, spongy, squishy, and mushy.
“Mud, soft mud all around,” resident Morris Alexie said. He’s lived in Nunapitchuk all his life, and now he’s trying to build a case to relocate the village. He says that it isn’t safe to stay on anymore.
“We are in the marshlands. As the bigger maps will show, our area is like a polka dot. Polka dots; those black spots are land,” Alexie said, pointing at the shrinking bogland on a map inside his office. “Now the rest is water.”
Outside the tribal building, Alexie pushed a spare two by four into the grass off the slanted boardwalk to prove a point.
“It's so soft all the way through. See? There's nothing. I haven't hit bottom yet,” Alexie said as water splashed below. “Look at it move. Look at it move!”
The tall grass beside the plywood jiggled. The characteristic moss, small shrubs, and herbs are few and far between.
“These are water plants, constant water plants. They're not regular grass,” Alexie said. “This is becoming a norm everywhere.”
Residents stick to the boardwalks, but the pathways quickly become frayed, wet, twist at strange angles, and frequently need replacing. At one point I took a step on what looked like a muddy patch on the boardwalk and was thigh deep in mud. Alexie pulled me out. A neighbor poked his head out to see if he could help. “I never walk that way, never!” He shouted from his porch.
Alexie, meanwhile, was sort of delighted. “I'm very happy that you experienced it firsthand," he said. “I thought you wouldn’t really understand what I meant. There’s becoming quicksand everywhere.”
But others have taken deeper falls into the mud. Residents pointed at different routes that they used to take, but don’t anymore. Places where the old, thinner boardwalks got sucked into the soil, and routes through the tundra they wouldn’t brave these days. There’s places on the boardwalk that routinely get flooded or always having sitting water, that people find new routes around or walk through in muck boots.
Alexie sees how quickly the pathways are getting sucked into the soil.
“This one is new. It is not too long ago, maybe I'd say five years, and already they have to make better access to it because it's already sinking in,” Alexie said, pointing at a warped part of the boardwalk with a second layer of boards on top. “They had to put this because the regular walkway is starting to go underwater.”
Alexie pointed at patches of houses and recalled when he took photos of them in the spring, completely flooded. Alexie’s cousin, James Berlin Jr., said that with the state of the soil, it isn’t safe or even possible to practice aspects of the Yup’ik lifestyle he grew up with.
“My parents didn't worry about me when I was a kid running around. Because it was firm ground back then. Frozen tundra. And we'd spend hours on the tundra plain, eating berries. Looking for eggs. Just all kinds of stuff, you know. Between our house and the lagoon, if you walked right now, it'd be ankle deep. Knee deep in some places.”
Now, Berlin Jr. said, kids don’t have as much freedom as he used to or much to do in general. But he gets why. “If my kid was about, I'd make sure he stays on the boardwalk. Not running off on where I used to run on as a kid,” he said. “It's not safe, especially with the lagoon being in the middle of a village.”
Fishing is different too. Berlin Jr. used to go right down to the shore with his grandpa and dip net for whitefish. Now, because of erosion, the water is too shallow.
“We used to have ducks come and nest on the riverbanks, so my grandma would, in the springtime, she'd walk the bank to get some duck eggs for breakfast,” said Berlin Jr. “And if you notice, I'll put up my motor before we launch and before we park, whereas we used to be able to just leave the motor down and have fish swim in right off the riverbank from us. Now we have to search for them.”
The permafrost itself was a tool in subsistence practices too, used to refrigerate and preserve food and ferment fish. That’s not the case anymore.
“You used to be able to take a shovel, and just take the top layer of the tundra, and make what we call our whitefish, to ferment our whitefish. We used to be able to just take the top layer off and put the fish in permafrost; it would be less than a foot. Now if you take a shovel in the same spot that we used to make them, you won't get to the permafrost. It'll be all squishy mud-clay. With a spade shovel, you know, spade shovel isn't very big,” said Berlin Jr.
With fewer harvested meals and more processed foods in local diets, there’s been an increase in chronic diseases in Nunapitchuk as well. The community's health has declined. According to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, Alaska Natives in the region have a life expectancy that is 10 years below the national average due to diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart problems, which are related to diet. That means Nunapitchuk no longer has the Elders it used to, who would pass on generations-old knowledge about the land and culture.
“I grew up in the village with our Elders in the[ir] nineties; they would pass away in their nineties,” said Alexie. “And today, the oldest male in the community is late seventies now.”
With the community settled and the ground giving way beneath the village, aspects of the Yup'ik culture that have lived on are becoming less tenable. This fall, Nunapitchuk’s tribe, city government, and local corporation unanimously passed a resolution that they want to move the entire town. Community members overwhelmingly supported the decision.
In the final part of this four-part series, KYUK will explore how the village of Nunapitchuk builds its case to relocate.