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Akutak, bird soup and beautiful setting makes village along Bering Sea sparkle

Wayde Carroll | First Alaskans
Wind turbines provide power in the Kuskokwim delta village of Quinhagak.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
From left, Assiqtaq mark, Bryan Jones and Apacaaq Mark play on insulated sewage pipes in the middle of Quinhagak.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
A graveyard in the Kuskokwim delta village of Quinhagak.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
Nick Joshua works cutting on a gill net in Quinhagak.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
Kids take a boat to the tundra for bird hunting near Quinhagak.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
Jason White, 12, shows off the success of his hunt in Quinhagak.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
Paul Trader hunting for birds in Quinhagak.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
Fall sunset at Quinhagak. This is a small channel connected to the boat launch and boat storage, as well as a fish and game cleaning area.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
Salmon drying in Quinhagak.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
Bryan Jones, 6, plays among the tall grasses behind his home.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine
Annie Cleveland gathers berries on the tundra in Quinhagak.
Wayde Carroll / First Alaskans Magazine

QUINHAGAK -- “The bird soup was delicious,” I say to my host, Grace Mark.

She responds with a slight smile and a soft-spoken “thank you.”

“What kind of bird is it?” I ask.

Grace’s husband, John Mark, a longtime friend of mine, looks up from his second helping and answers, “Bird.”

They both laugh along with the five grandchildren and daughter-in-law they have staying with them. I can’t help but laugh as well.

“It’s some kind of duck,” John says finally. He’s not sure which duck from his recent hunt made it into the pot.

Like most families in Quinhagak, John and Grace take full advantage of the region’s abundance of natural resources.

I take a peek out of the window to see if there’s any late evening light I can take advantage of and am stunned to see a jaw-dropping sunset. Deep reds, oranges and yellows blanket this wide open sky for as far as I can see.

“Whoa!” I exclaim. “I’m going to see if I can catch the reflections in the canal!”  

I grab my camera bag and tripod and rush out the door. Though the sunsets are lengthy, I manage to miss the height of the show by the time I reach the water. Just a golden band on the horizon remains between the endless expanse of the Bering Sea and the dense blue-gray clouds that fill everything above. Disappointed, I start back up the wooden walk toward the Marks' home, enjoying the smoky smell coming from the smokehouses and drying racks just off the path.

The whine of a small outboard motor cuts through the pleasing sound of a breeze whistling thorough the tall, yellowing grasses that surround me. There is a small boat coming to shore below me. I can make out two young boys returning from an afternoon of bird hunting. I wait and watch as they tie up and collect various fowl. A successful trip, it seems. The boys are happy and smiling. I congratulate them and without much convincing they pose for some photos. Twelve-year-old Jason White works hard to keep his prizes held high while 14-year-old Justin Roberts spreads his birds on the grass in front of him. These images turn out to be among my favorites from my five days in the village. The boys head home to start plucking. I marvel at what is just another typical, wonderful scene from daily life in Quinhagak.

Quinhagak or Kwinhagak (Quinn-uh-hawk) is a Yup’ik village nestled along the Kanektok River on the eastern shores of the Kuskokwim Bay. Its Yup’ik name is “Kuinerraq,” which means “new river channel.” It lies within sight of the Bering Sea coast 71 miles southwest of Bethel, the area’s main hub.

The village encompasses roughly five square miles in a marine climate. It receives an average of 22 inches of precipitation and 43 inches of snowfall, with temperature averages of 41 degrees to 57 degrees in the summertime, and 6 degrees to 24 degrees in the winter.

Its origins date back to 1000 A.D. In the past few years, dozens of 500- to 700-year-old sod homes have been excavated nearby at a site known as Nunalleq, or “the old village.” The site, inhabited from around 1350 AD to 1650 AD suffered through “The Little Ice Age,” and has yielded thousands of Yup’ik artifacts. Human hair discovered there is helping scientists to understand how the village’s ancestors altered their lifestyle during extreme environmental change. This, in turn, might help to create a predictive model about what to expect in the future.

The surrounding tundra, rivers, and sea provide locals the opportunity to keep their larders full of seal, salmon, trout, halibut, bear, moose, caribou, fox, beaver, rabbit, and a wide variety of birds that come north each summer to nest. Many types of berries and plants are also gathered and stored for use throughout the winter.

The Kanektok and nearby Arolik rivers are well known for their fantastic fishing, and several guide services bring clients in during the summer.

Though steeped in tradition and culture, Quinhagak utilizes modern technology as well. A video created by the Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat 5th grade class in which villagers creatively display, on hand-held signage, the lyrics for Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in time with the music, went viral on YouTube, garnering more than 1.5 million views so far.

Also, the village is involved in an experimental housing project in conjunction with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks. Prototype homes are being built that resemble traditional Yup’ik dwellings of the past. An octagonal shape, inward-sloped walls, and foam insulation are some of the features the designers feel will lead to affordable, energy-efficient homes the villagers can build themselves. These dwellings are anticipated to cut energy consumption by 50 percent. That’s great news for a village in need of new housing.

On my return flight to Bethel as I look at the landscape of rolling tundra, winding rivers, and thousands of lakes and ponds, I mull over my experiences from the past few days. I’ll never forget the children who followed me often, each one asking “What’s your name? What are you doing? Picture me! Picture me!” many demanded with cheery faces.

There was 6-year-old Bryan Jones acting like an airplane in the tall grasses at sunset. Curious 15-year-old Lisa Bigger asking repeatedly to take pictures with my camera, and her brother Sean coming to talk with me each evening. Nick Joshua diligently repairing gill nets. Bavilla Small approaching me in the bingo hall and inviting me to the birthday party of 1-year-old Jack Abalama and his family that made me feel welcome there.

The akutak (ice cream made of shortening, berries and sugar) was delicious! Sharing a maqi or “steam” with John and his friends. (Even though they had a good laugh when I had to bolt out earlier than anyone else once the temperature became too much for this rookie.) There were more special moments than I can list here.

What a wonderful place.

Wayde Carroll is a freelance photographer and frequent contributor to First Alaskans magazine, where the story first appeared.  Used with permission.