Somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow

I got to take another trip out to Gambell. I love going out to the villages around Norton Sound. There is a simple, untouched beauty in these places, and even though a lot of modern conveniences have been brought in, life is still tough, more basic, more dependent on the bounty and grace from Mother Nature.


One of the health aids gave us a ride on the four-wheeler out to the Western point of the island, to “See tomorrow” where Russia lies across the international dateline. But here it feels like yesterday. She pointed out the whaling boats, old whale bones and her father’s Umiaq, the old whaling boats built by hand, covered in walrus skins, light, strong, and perfectly designed for hunting whales in potentially icy seas.

Umiaq skeleton


Whale baleen stored under the boat.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

She told us most people don’t make these anymore, because aluminum skiffs are more convenient and a LOT less work. But they notably lack some of the best features of a boat made by hand, the versatility, the flexibility, the design, perfected by their ancestors over centuries.

She told us about whale hunts. The bones of the whales are massive! And make us look so small. And she says it never ceases to amaze her the thought of a small boat with tiny people out on the great sea hunting for sea beasts 30-50 feet long! And how much courage and strength and tenacity it takes to hunt these beasts. How dangerous it is.

In this picture, you can see whale bones, compared to the size of the boats! And compared to the size of their hunters!Umiaq and whale bones

The whaling boats launching stirs excitement in the village. When a whale is caught, the whole village comes out to celebrate. Once the whale is brought onto the beach, everyone helps cut up the whale, savoring and drawing sustenance strength from its blubber and meat. they often use the baleen, the filter feeder system inside the mouth, to make carvings, and they used to use it for baskets.


Another health aid told the story of when one of the boats capsized and the people aboard, including youth, drowned. You can’t help but think about the fragility of life and yet the sheer courage, strength and willpower it takes to live here.  Of course, no place is perfect. And the island isn’t without its grittiness.  So I’m not here to idealize or idyllicize the life, but I sure do enjoy coming out here on the village visits to see how people survive in this harsh, exacting arctic land. I love that I get to be a doctor and work in a healthcare system, and go out to villages that would otherwise have no access to care. I love to see how other people live, so strong and hardy, and in a way that would make the rest of us have to harden up a lot!

Our ride in sub-zero temps, and this is the “ambulance” and emergency patient transport system.

It helps me put life back into perspective. To not sweat the small stuff. To not get bent out of shape, when over little-that-feel-big things.

And it reminds me that over this great big planet, with so many amazing, different places, we are all just the same, with the same desires to be loved and respected, listened-to and understood, to live well, to be cherished and to be happy. And we’re all living between Tomorrow and Yesterday.

*The views in the post are from a new outside observer. They do not represent the views of anyone else—locals, other medical providers or the medical services in Nome.

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