Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 25, 2019

“Nomeward bound”

Many people think husband Art and I travel a lot because we make annual trips to Europe. But compared to my doctor friend Bryce, we’re stay-at-homes!

Just since October, Bryce has been in Guam, Japan, Colombia, Texas, Alaska, Jordan and Egypt, and even slipped in a few visits to his home base of Lindsborg, Kansas! Right now, he’s in Alaska, but next month he’ll be in New Zealand and then France in April.

As for me, I feel I’m traveling vicariously to all these places through his vivid descriptions and beautiful photos of his many adventures.

I met Bryce almost 45 years ago in a Spanish class at Kansas State University. We dated a few months until we went our separate ways - me to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, and he to start medical school in Kansas City. He visited me in Ecuador and I saw him at Christmas when I returned to Kansas for the holidays.

And over the years, we've kept in touch - at first through letters and emails and now through phone messages. The last face-to-face visit we had was in mid-December, when Art and I joined him for coffee and a brief chat when he detoured through Manhattan as he traveled from his home to Kansas City to catch a plane for Jordan.

While I enjoy hearing about all his adventures, I especially like his stories about Alaska. He started working there last July on a temporary gig, but soon decided to accept a "one-month-on/one-month-off" arrangement over the next two years to give medical care to people in Nome and 15 Native American villages.

"Feeling that I’m doing something useful and important while making a tiny difference in the lives of individuals is what I really like most about being here," he explained. "And I love the challenge of trying to make a new place 'home' and to feel at home as quickly as possible in a new place. ... And truly 'falling in love' with the people where I’ve lived has been a gift ..."

He said the idea of trips in small planes to small villages was another big attraction.

One of Bryce’s first messages was about his July salmon fishing experiences, where he caught, gutted and prepared his own meal. On one of his first visits to patients that month, his eyes were opened to another way of life:

... Talking to patients about harpooning walrus, butchering caribou or reindeer, crab pots, killing seals, picking berries in season, preserving greens in seal fat. This is daily life for them to stay alive while they also try to work in the world created by "invaders." This is an education for me. All the reading in the world could not have prepared me for what I’ve heard in the first two days of seeing patients. ...

One of them thought she got sick from eating bad seal oil or some decaying whale blubber because it wasn't the "right color." He said he's became an instant expert on blubber freshness:

... Don't eat the blubber if it has yellow edges. Or at least trim out the yellow decaying parts. It should be nice and pink. You've been forewarned.

On Nov. 8, Bryce voted for the first time as a non-Kansan. He sent a photo of a banner with "Naligaaniktuna!" on it. It means "I voted!" in the Alaska Native language of Iñupiaq.

The longer he stays, the more he’s becoming part of the fabric of the communities he visits. On Nov. 11, he and 16 others marched in the Veteran's Day parade in Nome and were pictured on the front page of The Nome Nugget.

By then, blizzard winds and painful stinging snow-ice required him to dress with head and face coverings, large goggles, a parka, gloves and cleats to keep him from slipping on the ice. He looked like a spaceman.

He's prepared for the bad weather, but he’s not a fan. He said among his least-favorite things is "...walking a mile to the grocery store in minus 29 degree weather (with a little wind) and finding there hasn't been a delivery of milk or eggs for days, but the shelves are full of soda pop and junk food!"

His tales of below-zero temperatures and snow-packed tundra remind me not to complain about our few inches of snow and low-teens temperatures here in Kansas.

Among the people he has described to me are Delbert, who spoke before a United Nations commission in London about how heavy fuel oils are affecting the livelihood of the Arctic peoples; Denny, who wrote a children’s book about a four-generation polar bear family; Trent, who dives off Punuk Island each summer in search of artifacts and fossilized walrus tusks; and Chester, a deaf Siberian Yupik man, who made the weekly run between Gambell and Savoonga carrying the mail by dogsled until 1963 when a landing strip in Savoonga allowed mail to be delivered by plane.

He also talked about Timothy, who, along with his uncle and grandfather, would transport a boat made of walrus skin stretched on Russian driftwood on a dogsled. They would find a broken stretch of ice and launch their boat to hunt walruses, seals and polar bears.

As he relates these incidents, I can "see" how much he enjoys what he is doing. When he stayed at the Native Corporation lodge in Savoonga, he was excited to get free lunch since he is considered an "elder." "Fed from a Sled" was the name he gave to the lunches that came by plane and then were carried to the lodge by sled.

Ah, but all good things must come to an end. After a few days in Savoonga, it was time to return "home." He sent a photo of himself standing in front of a small Bering Air plane. It was captioned "Nomeward Bound."

Left: Bryce standing next to some whale ribs; bottom-center: a yummy bowl of seal blubber; bottom-right: local methods of transport; top-right: Nomeward bound!

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