The YK: Tech & Troubles

Going into Alaska’s remote villages can be surreal. This post describes insights from intense excursions in five villages of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: St. Mary’s, Mountain Village, Pitka’s Point, Tununak, and Quinhagaq.


Why is it surreal? For me, it happens as soon as I exit the plane. You can instantly feel the ancient pull of nature. It’s unnerving at times, the natural order is a heavy thing to absorb. It was here before humanity and will continue long after we’ve gone.

Perhaps it’s just that the effect is more intense when you step off a teeny single-prop plane. No roads lead into rural Alaska, so one travels by small aircraft.

These rides have become my favorite part of journeying into Alaska’s villages. The bumps and jolts of a jet are nothing compared to a single prop plane. The mind manufactures many ways to distract itself from the jarring motions. Typically, whatever song I heard earlier that day starts to play faster and louder in my head as my stomach churns. After landing and uncurling from proportionately miniature seats, I tend to stumble out of the tiny door and it always seems like I’ve been transported to another world.

Behold, Alaska’s Chariots

The YK has varied terrain, with hills, tussocks, hummocks, and mountains in the distance depending on visibility and where you are. So you never know what the new setting will feel like until your boots have kissed earth.

No matter the village, humanity’s capabilities are more apparent in the bush. Technology and fortitude are keenly utilized to overcome adverse and extreme conditions. One way this is frequently observed: snow fences.

The Great Wall of Anti-Snow

It seems obvious, but these massive structures prevent snowdrift catastrophes all across rural Alaska, particularly when vital airstrips or infrastructure need protection from moving mountains of snow capable of burying an entire village. Some settlements are entirely surrounded by them! Like medieval fortifications, but without moats.

Another great example of technological adaptation can be seen sticking out of the ground and keeps permafrost frozen: thermosiphons. Basically, these are hollow poles that take heat in the ground and bring it to the surface.

Themosiphons keeping the ground below this building from turning to slurry (bonus solar panels on the top for added green energy!)

Thermosiphons are a common sight near the Arctic Circle and anywhere with permafrost that needs to stay cold. But why? What happens when permafrost warms?

How they work – courtesy of some amazing Canadian scientists

Once melted, most tundra or frozen ground becomes mud. The ice in the ground turns to water and the water is liquidy. Thus, the ground becomes super unstable. Unsuitable for buildings or foundations of any sort. Hence, thermosiphons are critical.

Thermosiphons: passively keeping permafrost in a frozen state by bringing heat to the surface

Things like thermosiphons are beautiful reminders of the resiliency within Alaska’s villagers. They make it work. All while making due with shockingly little. However, technology is not always good. In fact, some believe the lack of amenities adds to the villages’ rich cultures.

There is a stark development gap between the majority of America and these remote communities. Some of the harshest realities revolve around simple things that I used to take for granted:

Basically, in economic terms, there is profound scarcity. So how does lacking these things yield benefits?

Throughout the course of human civilization, technological development has and continues to be pivotal. But what have we lost along the way? With new toys and ways to detach, are we losing our ability to connect on a profound level with our fellow man? I don’t mean a one-on-one conversational connection. No, this runs deeper. Connections we can sense and cherish deep in the core of our beings.

One man in the community of Mountain Village (pop: 816) bemoaned the tech influx and called it “our children’s poison.” I asked if he meant the possible health risks that might come from over-exposure to wireless technology. He laughed and looked at a nearby satellite array.

Technology, connecting and detaching us

“No,” he said after a long pause, “but that is concerning.” The man turned to me and looked up into my eyes. After holding my gaze for another uncomfortably long moment, he told me about his grandson.

The story seemed familiar enough: a family concerned because a high school kid can’t put down his laptop. But the man became more distressed when he told me how his grandson now only comes to village gatherings if the internet is down.

“He can’t connect with us if a screen’s in his face. It blocks the human connection.” He pointed to his heart as he said this. I felt what he meant by it.

Human connection. That tingly sensation that flies up your spine when doing something entirely selfless for someone you don’t know. It’s that fulfillment that springs from the chest cavity whilst dancing in a group. It’s unwavering trust and hope in a tribe, be it comprised of families, friends, or peers.

Such profound connectivity is palpable in Alaskan villages. There is little to no wealth, hence (by the thinking of my Mountain Village friend) there is less technology to detract and distract from the bonds of human connection.

In rural Alaska, when someone drives past, they wave. As kids play along the streets, they call out and say, “hey mister!” It feels right. Pure. Perfectly human and entirely the way it should be.

This kid on his bike in Pitka’s Point waved heartily before showing off some sick wheelies

There are probably downsides to all technology. Even the ones that you would think are entirely helpful.

For instance, the snow fences I mentioned can sometimes work against a village. The snows that build up can reach absurd heights and act as a ground insulator, trapping heat and melting permafrost. While this won’t harm anyone if the fence is far enough away from a village, I’ve seen permafrost degradation from snow buildup seriously impact foundations near fences. (To the point of destroying large structures from the bottom up).

By the same token, sometimes thermosiphons are relied upon too heavily without understanding the permafrost beneath. This has led to extremely expensive repairs or total building remediation in certain instances.

Maybe there’s no moral to this YK tale of technology and travails. Perhaps it’s this:

Enjoy thine tech, but with caution and prudence. 

© Chasen Cunitz and, 2016

Use or duplication of this material without express and written permission is prohibited.

Alaska: Village to Village



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