The first time I came to Qikiqtaruk I was 17 or 18. I was travelling and hunting. Back then, there was no park established yet (1978) – there was a lot a char and herring, and people came here for sealing as well. The Mackenzie family were living on Qikiqtaruk. Their children were born and raised here. Most often I came here alone, but I wasn’t scared. You really have to watch it when travelling alone, but when I was younger, I made sure to be there to learn from my dad and uncles, to always follow them and help. I got the basics from them, and then I took it another step further and tried to improve.
There is no sense of time when you are travelling around here – you need a lot of patience. You need to know where and when to stop, when it’s safe to move on. Now everybody is always in a hurry, people travel to places quickly, but don’t get to fully experience them. There are journeys that used to take us days when I was little, and today we can travel to those places in hours. But you still have to remember to really experience the place, to stop and take it all in. My family and I, we just love travelling. It’s hard to say what we love about it – everything. The openness. We have all been travelling since we were very little. I was always with my grandmother and her dog team, helping her, hauling ice for fresh water and hunting.
It’s important to have a connection between the generations. To show children the land, teach them how to travel, how to deal with the weather, teach them the language. My grandparents originally came from Alaska. I used to speak Uummarmiut with my grandmother, but we are losing our language and I kick myself for forgetting words. Now teachers are supporting children going out to the land, there are language classes and drum dance groups. My grandchildren are probably better than me in my language. Culture, dances and stories are coming back to schools, to people’s lives as well.
When we’re not travelling, a lot of times we’ll get together, have supper and just tell stories. Everybody would chip in and we’ll all share stories – that’s how we learned about our culture and land. We try to make everything from the land. We share stories about where you see certain animals, how to survive here and be safe. Some people like to keep information to themselves, but I like to share. I know how to travel in the delta and mountains in all seasons, and when I am available, people call me when they need help to find lost people. Everybody knows each other in our community, and we always try to help one another.
I’ve always chosen jobs that are out on the land – animal surveys for beluga whales and grizzly bears, wildlife and environment monitoring, being a guide. I’ve also travelled to teach – I loved travelling to different communities, learning about their livelihoods, and teaching them the basics for how to work with tourists – we were learning off each other and sharing. When I first heard about the park ranger job, I knew I wanted it. I started working as a ranger in 1999, and I really enjoy working out here on Qikiqtaruk Herschel Island Territorial Park. All my previous skills – how to read weather, travel safely, monitor animals, interact with tourists – are useful for the job. I just love being here, and meeting different people – tourists and researchers, that’s my favourite part. Learning different things and increasing my knowledge, too. It’s so peaceful here, but it can also be hard – leaving your family for two weeks or more at a time.
I enjoy meeting people, talking to people. The people that come here are most interested in our lives, what we do, where we are from, the animals they can see here and our stories. We tell them about our work here – for example, the Qikiqtaruk Ecological Monitoring Programme. We do bird surveys, we monitor permafrost depth and changes in plant phenology – the timing of when plants leaf out, flower and disperse their seeds. The raptor survey takes us on a good long trip around the island – all the parts of the island are different in their own, especially the exposed north-west side, which takes a beating from the weather. From the surveys we’ve learned that the raptors are building their nests along the coast, but the nests are collapsing into the ocean. It must affect their populations down the road, and it also throws away the balance between species. There are cycles in the populations of voles and lemmings, some years we see more, others less. We haven’t seen a snowy owl on the island yet this year.
People are concerned that Qikiqtaruk is changing. It’s very different to what I saw when I first came here when I was 18. When we go home, we tell people about the changes we’ve seen on Qikiqtaruk over the years, about climate change. There is pollution from rubbish washing on the shore. There are different animals and wildlife coming – things we never saw before, like the hummingbird Cameron saw. There are different seabirds, eagles. I’ve seen otter tracks around the island, a moose and a beaver – those were never here before. Everything is changing – more extreme weather, higher waters, bigger winds. Some years, people at Shingle Point can’t hunt and support their livelihoods because it’s too windy. The changes are impacting people’s lives. Our collaboration with researchers helps us learn more about those changes – people in our communities appreciate seeing the products of the research, the reports, but also getting the chance to meet the researchers in person and ask questions. We learn from one another, and sharing our knowledge is important. But how to fix climate change is another thing, it takes the whole world to fix those problems, not just the researchers and communities of the Yukon North Slope.
By Ricky Joe, Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island Territorial Park Ranger