ANCHORAGE - Snow is already beating against the doors of many village homes, and for people across the state it comes with anxious thoughts of the season ahead. Will this winter force families to choose between fuel and food? Who will watch out for the elderly and the needy when high costs become too much to bear?
While it doesn't solve the whole problem, one woman in the Northwest Arctic came up with an idea that is helping her region. Ilinniagvik Attautchikun, which means "learning together," is a nonprofit based in Kiana that runs Camp Qalhaq, where volunteers can hunt and harvest animals in return for donating a large part of their food to village elders.
The camp is set on 80 acres of land 12 miles outside of Kotzebue. It has tents, a large fish rack, cold storage, a cabin for winter fishing, and outhouses.
Margaret Schaeffer is president of Ilinniagvik Attautchikun. The land the camp sits on belonged to her mother, but she donated it "because the need is quite huge in the region," Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer said that she had the idea for the camp when she noticed that many people's ancestral hunting grounds had become closed off, absorbed into the Park Service, borough, cities, private property and the Native Lands claim.
"Through the region, people are voicing that they don't have anywhere to hunt like they did before. They want to strengthen their culture and hunt their food more than they used to," said Schaeffer. She noticed more people expressing an interest in hunting as the cost of groceries rose - even a loaf of plain bread costs $5.05 at the village store now, she said.
The nonprofit donates the fuel for hunters, who volunteer their time and equipment, and land and facilities for harvesters. So far, camp volunteers have harvested trout, seal and berries. Next year, they will start harvesting sheefish and caribou as well.
The camp is helping to sustain cultural traditions, because people teach each other the skills they need for harvesting.
So far the camp has been going well for the 2009 seal harvest, Camp Qalhaq saw 36 people from Selawik, Anchorage, Kotzebue, Kivalina, Kobuk and Kiana volunteer their skills and time.
That's why when Schaeffer came across an article about tough economic times in southwest Alaska, she thought that area might benefit from having something like Camp Qalhaq too.
"Bethel is having the same problems we're having. This is one thing they could do - start a public charity," said Schaeffer. "Because they have areas where they can set up fish camps where students can learn from adults and families and provide for themselves."