Libby Casey, NPR
Matthew Gilbert's cabin in Arctic Village doesn't have running water, and he must gather wood for fuel five miles from the village.
Libby Casey, NPR
Matthew's grandfather, the Rev. Trimble Gilbert, inspired him to interview elders and hunters to document climate change in Arctic Village.
Libby Casey, NPR
The way of life of people in Arctic Village hangs in the balance of a changing climate.
Matthew Gilbert could have a front-row seat on climate change if he chooses to stay and watch. The 28-year-old lives in one of America's most remote, wild places: Arctic Village. It's in Alaska's far north and borders the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. No roads connect this village to the outside world, and at this time of year only one plane lands here each day.
Gilbert was raised by his grandparents, and every day he walks over to their house to have coffee and conversation and to help out with chores. This is where he learned his first lessons in environmental awareness.
Animals "can't talk for themselves," says his grandfather, the Rev. Trimble Gilbert. "But we can talk for them. So that's what the old people said, you have to say something for the animal."
The 72-year-old is a respected elder among the Gwich'in Athabascan, or Caribou People. A few years ago, he told his grandson that weasel-like animals called martens were coming closer to the village than ever before. Village elders said it was because of so many forest fires, which they blamed on the land drying out. Matthew was intrigued and wanted to learn more.
"I got to know how much my Gwich'in people know about the earth and the weather," he says. "They know a lot, from the littlest stuff to the biggest stuff."
A Threatened Way of Life
The summer after he finished college, Matthew received two grants from environmental groups. They paid him to interview elders and hunters about how this part of Alaska was changing. He consulted scientists and read reports. But he was startled by the knowledge of his own people.
"Just graduated from college, I thought I knew everything," he says. "They quickly humbled me."
Matthew gave the elders maps and had them sketch migration routes and waterfowl habitat. They showed him how their hunting camps and traplines were moving.
"Native people out there in rural areas of Alaska are year-round observers. If there's a new plant coming in, or a new animal, they'll be the first to see it. And they'll notice subtle things, like changes in blueberries, whereas some scientist in an office in Fairbanks [is] not going to notice something like that, no matter how good the satellite is," Matthew says with a laugh.
On a walk through the village, Matthew points out what the elders cited as evidence of warming. A lake where he and his friends used to fish, and where his grandfather once shot ducks, is "drying out," he says. "You see bushes all over the lake area; that shows you that there's land there. So this is a subsistence lake that we're gonna lose in the next 10 years or so."
If the lakes dry up, he explains, the fish will die. Then migratory birds and the caribou will move on. And that will throw the Gwich'in lifestyle into doubt.
To get anywhere outside the village, Matthew jumps on his snowmobile. The Gwich'in use the frozen rivers and lakes as highways. But in recent years, Matthew says, the spring breakup has been erratic.
"Ice conditions are getting a lot less predictable because of global warming," he explains. "My grandpa's trying to send a message out to all the guys to be careful when they go out. You have to cross over [the ice] to get anywhere — to get animals, timber, anything."
Those basic tasks of survival can take up most of a person's time here. With fuel prices above $8 a gallon, everyone chops wood. Matthew gathers his five miles from the village, at the base of Thaa it'sii, or Ground Squirrel Mountain.
"It's a real workout," he says, breathing heavily as he drags the logs. "It's a full-time job to live here. It takes all your energy to get wood and get water, because you have to go down to the river and bring a bucket and fill up a tank. You have to get a caribou, which is just as hard as getting wood, and you have to do stuff like that every week, sometimes every day."
His cabin doesn't have running water, much less access to the Internet.
The Sky's the Limit
His grandfather says he knows it's hard for young people to stay in the village, but he hopes Matthew does.
"He tried to learn from the elders. That's where he got that education, hanging around with them," Trimble Gilbert says. "And I'm pretty sure he's going use it. He's going to learn more and more the traditional way. And then we need him, so he can help his own people."
Matthew doesn't say anything when his grandfather finishes speaking. It's a lot of weight on a young man's shoulders. He's one of about 15 college graduates in the village of 150 people.
Matthew misses the ease of big cities, their exotic restaurants and fresh vegetables. He wants to travel and see the world, and he hopes to start a master's program in rural development in the fall. But he's been thinking: Perhaps he could take correspondence classes and stay at home.
If he left, he says, the biggest thing he would miss is the freedom of his home, where "the sky's the limit."
"I realized that a couple years ago," he says. "You know, I'm really thankful I grew up in Arctic Village."
It's a world that Matthew Gilbert hopes is around forever.