University of Colorado Fellow Gabe Allen heads into his reporting trip after shifting Arctic ice cuts off cell and internet service in northern Alaska.
After weeks of futile pre-reporting, I started to get nervous. I had talked with a number of other journalists and experts in various Arctic research disciplines, but I had yet to speak with anyone local to Utqiagvik—the place I would travel to in a matter of days. During a call with sea ice expert Andy Mahoney, I learned why. He told me that shifting spring ice had severed the fiber-optic cable that runs under the Chukchi Sea and brings internet, phone, and cell service to the community. The blackout was so all-encompassing that the local grocery store couldn’t even run credit cards.
I arrived in Utqiagvik with very few connections and a vague idea of what I wanted to write about. But, as the days wore on, each interview led to one or two or three more, and a story started to form.
On my second-to-last day in the Arctic, I woke up with a story in my head. All of the interviews and experiences had solidified into a narrative overnight—one about the intersection of Indigenous knowledge and Western scientific research in this unique and austere outpost. I jotted down an outline. Then I jumped in a car with a group of permafrost research technicians and headed to my third day of Nalukataq, the annual whaling festival.
That night, a group of rowdy high-school-aged boys talked me into getting up on the seal skin for “blanket toss.” I launched off the blanket and into the air three times before losing my balance and soaring butt-first into the cheering crowd. Strong arms caught my fall and set me back onto the ground. In that moment, I felt incredibly thankful to the people of Utqiagvik. They had driven me around town and pointed out landmarks, listened to my questions and answered them in earnest, and invited me to participate in ancient traditions. At the end of it all, they caught me when I fell.
Most importantly, I was thankful that people trusted me to tell a part of their story. Other journalists had come to town to write slam-pieces about whaling practices in the past, and some would-be interviewees were wary. But, after a little chatting and a few pointed questions, most saw through to my good intentions.