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Amid the Chaos

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

42-50841050When a string of deadly attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Egypt made international news late last summer and into the early fall, there seemed to be as much confusion over who Coptic Christians were as there was over what was happening on the Egyptian streets. Bob Simon, a correspondent for the CBS News program 60 Minutes articulated as much when he opened a December segment titled “The Copts” with this sentence: “Think of Egypt and the first thing that comes to mind is not Christianity.”

Yet as Simon would explain, Coptic Christians are one of the world’s oldest Christian communities—and the largest Christian group and largest religious minority in the Middle East, with eight-and-a-half million members representing about 10 percent of the Egyptian population.

Febe Armanios, an associate professor of history at Middlebury, was born in Cairo, and though she emigrated to the United States with her family when she was 10 years old, she has made regular visits to her native country and was raised in the Coptic Church. Armanios, the author of Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt, accompanied Simon and a 60 Minutes production crew to the Middle East when they began initial reporting in early 2013.

About a year after this trip, I visited Armanios in her book-lined office in Middlebury’s Axinn Center. The original purpose of the 60 Minutes segment, she said, was to shed light on the Copts. Two years had passed since the Egyptian revolution, and the minority group was engaged in an increasingly tense relationship with the government of Muhamed Morsi. Yet very little was known about them around the world. As she told Simon in the broadcast, there isn’t a lot of awareness of Egypt’s role in the Christian story. “It’s a forgotten community, as many people have called it.”

For the next 45 minutes, Armanios gave me a brief primer on Coptic Christians. Native Christians of Egypt, the Copts split from Chalcedonian Christianity with other Orthodox churches (Armenians, Syrians, Ethiopians) in 451 AD. Copts have always taken great pride in how deep-rooted Christianity is in Egypt—the first Christian monastery was established there, and one of the sites the 60 Minutes crew visited was an underground chapel where it is believed the Holy Family sought refuge after fleeing King Herod.

Christianity was the religion of the majority in Egypt until about the mid-10th century, but since that time the Copts have experienced a complicated coexistence with the Muslim majority and even with other Christians. Fiercely protective of their identity and loyal to their land and to their ancient form of Christianity, the Copts became largely isolationist, from the 15th century onward. They were suspicious of outsiders, specifically Catholic missionaries in the late 1600s and American missionaries two hundred years later. Internally, they were able to practice their religion, but their position in society ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Until the early 1880s, Copts (like all other non-Muslims) were forced to pay a special “protection” tax and were mostly precluded from holding positions of power. Subsequent reforms would eliminate the tax and would allow Copts to become more integrated into Egyptian society, a movement that coalesced when all Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—opposed British rule early in the 20th century.

When the modern Republic of Egypt was established after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the Copts in Egypt returned to a tenuous coexistence with the Muslim majority. Armanios said that during the last 50 years, one can identify waves of Coptic emigration—in the early 1960s, in the late ’70s, and then a steady stream during the past 30 years under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Though Mubarak’s regime professed secularism, an easy way to direct attention away from other issues— like, say, a struggling economy—was to blame Copts.

Watch: “The Coptic Christians of Egypt” on 60 Minutes

“But the last three years have been a game changer,” Armanios said.

As in the other Egyptian revolutionary movements of 1919 and 1952, Copts joined with the Muslim majority to form a united nationalist front in the revolution of 2011, though the Coptic Pope initially urged his followers to refrain from actively protesting for fear of being made scapegoats. Yet after the Morsi government was established, violence against Copts grew. Tensions were rising. Shortly after the 60 Minutes crew first filmed in Egypt, unidentified extremists attacked the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, an event the Morsi government failed to condemn. And then on July 3, the Egyptian military announced it had removed Morsi from power. Standing beside General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as he announced the change in leadership were other Muslim leaders—and the Coptic Pope.

“It was the first time a Coptic Pope had addressed Egyptians at an explicitly political forum,” said Armanios. “And it was on live television.”

A visible fury ensued across Egypt. “Some people think of Christians as having a secondary status, so they became an easy target,” Armanios said. Angry mobs burned homes, shops, and churches. The Copts were being blamed for conspiring to overthrow Morsi. Then, in August, after Egyptian police and military cleared two Muslim Brotherhood camps, killing close to 1,000 people, the retaliation against Copts was fierce. More than 40 churches were destroyed in just a couple of days. 60 Minutes returned to Egypt for more reporting—this time without Armanios—as the story they had started eight months earlier had taken a dramatic turn.

Sitting in Armanios’s office in early 2014, with violence against Copts still a weekly occurrence, I asked her if this was the greatest persecution Coptic Christians had faced in their 1,600 years of existence.

“That question might be moot,” she replied. “The violence is real.” Whether it’s worse or not as bad as at other times in history may not be the point, she said. She talked about the burgeoning alliance between Copts and other Egyptians and wondered if this could lead to a more pluralistic and democratic country in the years ahead. “Maybe,” she said. “But it is to be determined.”

The Wolf Hound

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

coen-1

Sixteen years ago, Joel Cohen ’84 took down a now-infamous con man. And he doesn’t want you to forget what a heinous guy Jordan Belfort truly is.

 

In 1997, when Joel Cohen ’84 was an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, he took over his office’s investigation of Jordan Belfort, the memoir-writing fraudster who made tens of millions of dollars peddling penny stocks. An FBI special agent named Gregory Coleman had been pursuing Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, since 1992 with a series of prosecutors, but he still lacked the evidence necessary for an indictment. One day, Coleman arrived in Cohen’s office and unrolled a 14-foot-long scroll on a table. Coleman had scribbled names, places, dates, and numbers across the paper in colored markers, tracing the outlines of Belfort’s criminal enterprise.

“I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘What can I do with this?’” Cohen said recently. Then he noticed a few scrawls suggesting that Belfort and his partner, Danny Porush, were laundering their money in Switzerland. Cohen decided that was the lead to follow. “We should try to lop off the head of this organization instead of the feet,” he recalled thinking.

The linchpin for the Swiss strategy turned out to be a tattoo-covered drug dealer named Todd Garrett. Coleman had already started investigating Garrett and his wife, Carolyn—a housewife who  was investing hundreds of thousands of dollars through an account with Stratton Oakmont. She was making a lot of money. She happened to be a Swiss citizen. Coleman had also heard that Todd Garrett was dealing drugs, specifically Quaaludes, to Belfort and other Strattonites. Coleman then received another useful clue. In 1995, a security guard at a mall in Queens had called the NYPD to report a suspicious meeting. A Bentley had pulled up to a black limousine. Two men got out and started arguing, then one passed the other a black suitcase. When the police arrived, they found Garrett in the limo with the suitcase, full of cash, and a gun. They arrested him for illegal firearm possession and seized the cash, figuring they had busted a drug deal. But maybe it had been something else.

Coleman and Cohen subpoenaed security-camera footage from the mall and got a grainy rendering of the meet-up. “We knew Danny Porush was driving a Bentley, and we figured it was a cash drop,” Cohen said. They continued to investigate Garrett’s wife and obtained travel manifests showing that she was making frequent trips to Switzerland. The facts suggested that she and Garrett were Belfort’s cash mules. The trick would be getting Garrett to talk.

“He wouldn’t flip,” Cohen said. “We knew his wife was involved; we threatened to indict his wife, and he didn’t care. He was a Hells Angel, a black belt in karate. Even with a lawyer and an FBI agent sitting next to you, you think, ‘This guy is going to rip my head off!’”

Cohen discovered that they had a trump card. As tough as Garrett looked and acted, he had a weak heart. Some years before, he had contracted a rare virus in Brazil. Now he needed a heart transplant. He was on the transplant waiting list. Cohen did some research and learned that federal prison inmates are not given new hearts. He knew he could indict Garrett for drug dealing—he already had a former Stratton broker who said he had bought Quaaludes from Garrett.

“We told him, ‘If you don’t cooperate and we indict you and you end up going to jail, you won’t get a new heart, and you’ll die,’” Cohen told me. “‘I’m just telling you the way it is. You want a new heart? Do the right thing, talk to us, and you get a new heart.’”

Garrett cooperated.

One of Belfort’s Swiss bankers also cooperated, and the Swiss authorities then came through with some crucial documents. On the Tuesday before the Labor Day weekend of 1998, less than two years after Cohen joined the investigation, FBI agents arrested Jordan Belfort in his mansion on Long Island.

Civility, Please

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

tolerance finalOn the afternoon of September 11, 2013, a Middlebury student and four acquaintances, who are not enrolled at the College, removed 2,977 American flags that had been placed in the lawn in front of Mead Chapel by members of a pair of student groups—the Middlebury College Republicans and Middlebury College Democrats.

The flags were set as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the 9/11 terror attacks, and the act of vandalism left many in the community shocked, angry, hurt, and confused. The student who helped uproot the flags said she found the display offensive to Native Americans and believed the area on which they had been placed had once been an Abenaki burial ground (a claim a local Abenaki chief disputed).

In the days that followed, media attention—mainstream and social—prompted an outpouring of commentary, which included threats and vitriol directed at individuals and the College itself.

In the wake of these events, we sat down with President Liebowitz to talk about civility, responsible discourse, and community standards.

In your e-mail to the community after the incident on campus you made a specific point of stating that as an academic community it’s incumbent upon us to encounter difficult issues, but that doesn’t mean that civility goes out the window when you do so, which is what happened.  
Right. We cherish freedom of speech, but it can’t be at the expense of silencing others. And in this case, we had people who felt very strongly about something, and whether or not we agree with it, it’s their right to voice it. But they can’t voice it by silencing others, by being destructive, and that’s what they did when they forcefully removed the flags.

Civility is a must. We’re an academic institution, and so we don’t only teach facts. We also teach how to argue, how to debate, how to engage, how to learn. And being civil is a key part of doing all of these things.

It seems that when the degree of passion rises, civility starts to slip. Not always, but often.
I think the larger political environment is really in some ways the genesis or the driver of what you’re talking about. If we become less civil on this campus, it’s a reflection of, or it’s an inability to stay removed from, the vitriol that one sees in current national politics.

I mean, I don’t remember this ever—I’ve been a political junkie for a long time, and I can’t recall this level of vitriol. I believe in some ways that models behavior for some individuals, and it only takes one person at one point in time to create this feeling.

There’s a paradox here too, and that is the fact that within this community, we’re overly polite towards one another most times. We’ll have less rigorous and vigorous debate and discussion than one might find, say, if they were in Morningside Heights or in Cambridge. So things can get bottled up, and then when emotions do boil over, people don’t always know how to disagree.
So it’s a combination of things, but I think the bigger issue for us is that Middlebury in some ways is a reflection of a larger political environment that isn’t always pretty.

One of the things that happened in response to this was a flood of vitriolic commentary. Not to excuse the original act, but at the same time, nothing warrants threats against one’s life.
No, it’s terrible. I myself received hundreds of e-mails, literally hundreds of e-mails, and some of them were beyond imagination in terms of the anger, the vitriol, the hatred. The Campus editors told me they got these commentaries in comments on their blog as well. I think many of those writing were not a part of this community, but some of them were.

But let’s not forget what was done here and on what day. September 11 is still an emotional and significant event, and the impact of that day was felt—and continues to be felt—by many, many Americans. People were angry about the disrespect shown for the nearly 3,000 who perished in the attack, but the deep emotions extend far beyond that.They extend to all those who, on the account of that terrorist attack, went to two wars, many of them killed or injured. Their families, no doubt, would view what happened on our campus as unacceptable—not to mention the legal, but highly provocative desecration of the American flag. So the anger and harsh response, while itself very unfortunate, reflects the deep feelings held by so many. There are obviously other ways a protest can be done.

But I do think the tenor of the reaction is also linked to this polarizing political climate. Instead of debate, we mostly see and hear only the extreme views on both ends of the ideological spectrum.
When Bill O’Reilly talked about this incident on his show, The O’Reilly Factor, it was a terrible display of reporting. It was irresponsible and unnecessarily fueled the anger. The show’s producers obviously didn’t check facts with anyone familiar with what actually happened.

After the segment was over, I went upstairs and stopped at my computer. In the three minutes that it took me to close up downstairs and come upstairs, I had already received 18 e-mails, 18 e-mails from people who had watched The O’Reilly Factor, e-mails from Abilene, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; Chicago, Illinois—writing threatening comments that were largely uninformed. They took verbatim what they heard on the show from “reporter” Adam Carolla and from Bill O’Reilly. And it continued for several days.

Wow.
And to answer your question, no, I don’t think such a response was warranted. Though again, I understand the anger and disgust at what happened. Certainly it’s disappointing to see any of them come from Middlebury students, but I would say the overwhelming majority came from outside the College.

But even the ones from Middlebury students point to something that you’ve talked about—close the laptop and go talk to somebody.
Right.

And don’t rely on a comment section or Twitter or—
Anonymous comments, anonymous comments.

Anonymous is even worse. But even when comments are attributable, go talk to someone. Why do you think folks are more likely to respond to a comment section than walk down the hall and talk to someone?
I think it’s just a reflection of how technology has made it so easy for people to comment.  It’s far easier to do something in a faceless way because you don’t have to face the response. Angelique Kidjo, in her Fulton lecture, made this point very, very strongly.  She told the students: “You must face the person with whom you have a disagreement.  In the end, you might not ever speak to that person again, but you can’t end a relationship—you can’t say, ‘I’m not going to speak to my friend for 10 years’ and not speak to them, you’ve got to talk it out.”

This message is a tough one for this generation, because this generation relies so much on, and has really grown up with, social media as the major source for interpersonal communication. So it’s a real challenge.

There were opportunities for students to talk about the flag issue at a series of forums with faculty members. But they were poorly attended, with the exception of maybe one.
I think two.

One or two.
There were, I believe, at least six sessions, and  the best-attended one had maybe 12 students, which is a nice size for such a discussion, but yes, overall attendance was less than what we thought it would be.

In the days after, I went up to Proctor, and I sat down at a table with students and tried to figure out why that was the case—why an incident that created angry debate did not lead to large gatherings to discuss it with faculty. I think by the time the open sessions rolled around—which didn’t take place until the following week for a whole host of reasons—people were formulating their own ideas, they were having so many discussions about this in the dining halls, in their dorms, in their classes,  that they were unsure about what the open sessions would be like. Or maybe it was our students’ already full schedules.

And there’s an interesting twist that students are talking about, which is to say, “What do you think President Liebowitz, what do you think the ultimate harm to the community has been as a result of this?” I pushed them to explain what they meant. At first I was thinking they were concerned that Middlebury’s reputation had been dragged through the mud. But no, they didn’t mean that at all.

What those in Proctor meant seemed to be much more nuanced. They said, “If, in the future, this act serves to silence people who want to speak out and have honest debate, it will have hurt us terribly.” And this was coming from people who largely disagreed, some passionately so, with the act this student committed. Students feared it would further shut down future conversations on important issues.

The strength of this institution is the ability to engage in debate and hear other people’s views and learn from them. And if this incident leads to even a subtle silencing of people to speak out and question the status quo or the prevailing thought, and question even the institution’s perspective on any and all issues, we will have really hurt the College and our students. They need to hear different viewpoints—we all do.  This incident cannot diminish people’s willingness to engage in difficult topics. If it does, then the College will have become a lesser environment for learning.

Some Kind of Place: Auschwitz, Poland

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Auschwitz-photo
There are few place names on the planet that are associated with the heightened level of grotesque depravity as Auschwitz.

Carved out of the quiet Polish village of Oświęcim by Nazi invaders in 1939, Auschwitz was conceived as being a major implement of Heinrich Himmler’s system of forced labor through oppression, a concentration camp that would support the Nazi war effort and, with victory achieved, would serve as one of the greater cities in the Reich. Or so the Nazis believed.

History has recorded a different story, a deranged nightmare of starvation and mass execution. A history populated with gas chambers and crematoriums. A forced labor camp that became a center for extermination.

For the past six years, geographer Anne Knowles has lived with Auschwitz—not in the physical place, but with it, with its conception and its construction and the chaos and instability that belie the common perception of Nazi calculation and precision.

Knowles came to Auschwitz during a two-week workshop that she helped organize at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., a fortnight that brought together nine scholars from diverse disciplines—historical geography, geographic information science (GIS), cartography, history, and architectural history—“to consider how spatial analysis and geographical visualization of the built environment and forced movement of people during the Holocaust might inspire new research questions and pedagogical applications.”

From that workshop in 2007 came a grant from the National Science Foundation that funded six projects (pairing at least one historian with one geographer) that would examine the operational scale of the Holocaust; those six projects became six book chapters in the forthcoming Geographies of the Holocaust.

Though the Holocaust exists as one of the most profoundly devastating geographical events in human history, before these projects, few scholars had ever identified and investigated the spaces and geographical patterns of the genocide. No one had used GIS to do spatial analysis of these events, and, says Knowles, likely never would have if such a disparate group of academics hadn’t come together and forged a multi-faceted collaboration. “It was this frisson,” claims Knowles, “people coming together from different perspectives and different fields and then rubbing up against one another, that set off the sparks of discovery.”

This story presents some of the findings contained in a chapter titled “Visualizing the Archive: Building at Auschwitz as a Geographic Problem,” co-authored by Knowles; Paul Jaskot, an architectural historian at DePaul University; and Chester Harvey ’09 and Benjamin Perry Blackshear ’12.

Auschwitz, says Knowles, was supposed to become one of the greater cities in the Reich. A city was planned that would feature an entrance pavilion and a garden city. A grand headquarters for the commandant was drawn, as were estates for officers. In the idealized designs of architect Lothar Hartjenstein, Auschwitz was to become a “complex urban world supporting the control over a vast, greater Germany.”

But, Knowles says, these 1942 plans were displaced by more pragmatic demands in 1943. “What were built instead were more barracks to house many more guards, who were needed to control hundreds of thousands of prisoners scheduled to arrive from the Jewish ghetto in Budapest.”

Auschwitz-PlansHarvey and Blackshear used architectural drawings and plans and construction records to create the map at right. In green, you see structures that were included in the original plans for Auschwitz and subsequently built. In purple are the buildings that were not included in the original plan, but built out of necessity, including new guard barracks in the lower center of the map. And in orange are the areas planned by architect Lothar Hartjenstein, but never realized. In the upper left corner of the map are the plans for the commandant’s headquarters. Foundations were dug, but that is all. As the researchers note in their chapter, “the rationally planned total environment evident in the clarity of the SS’s ideal conceptualization of the complex in 1943 clashes with the messy reality of plans and buildings that were actualized in fits and starts over time.”

Or, as Knowles says, “The exigencies of war and genocide took over.”

With the erection of crematoria and the implementation of genocide, the SS entered a fevered stretch of drawing and redrawing plans that led to the construction of buildings that would “facilitate the day to day operation of the camp.” Perversely, this would include amenities intended to “entertain and distract” the guards charged with increasingly brutal and inhumane work.

The map below, reconstructed by Blackshear to indicate the dense variety of functions in one small part of the camp, shows the placement of two saunas on the east side of Auschwitz I, circa November 1943. Write the authors, “This cluster of different functions has remained invisible in the scholarship even though our color overlays make it clear that they were in fact extremely visible to the SS and inmates at the site.”

Auschwitz-BlackshearChillingly, the saunas’ design echoed the decorative carpentry of central European tradition. That is, they were not only functional, but had an aesthetic, recreational purpose as well—all within sight of the death chambers.

A primary goal of the Auschwitz research was to use GIS to help understand the role sight played in the exercise of control at the camps. “We wanted to know what the guards could see and what impact that had on the prisoners,” Knowles says. “Were there places that were more dangerous than others? Were there places where people could escape notice?”

Knowles worked with Chester Harvey to use architectural plans, archival images, and aerial photographs to recreate the site and then render three-dimensional images of the camp. “We could place a hypothetical guard in any place in the camp and show what he could see most and least clearly,” Knowles says. Harvey generated the image bellow. The dash of white near the middle of the map indicates the approximate field of view for a person of average height standing in the center of that location.

“But that did not turn out to be the most interesting question—what could a guard see?” Knowles says. “See those buildings shaded red? Those are buildings that were under construction from May 1943 to May 1944. Paul Jaskot looked at this image and asked, rather casually, ‘Could we animate this?’”

Because Harvey had compiled a database of information that included when individual buildings were constructed and what they were used for, he was able to animate just how fluid this site was. “It’s a simple thing,” Knowles says, “but in the mind of an architecture historian, it created what we call in GIS circles ‘the eureka moment.’

RedBarracks“Paul said, ‘Oh my God, look at how chaotic this was—for eight months this was a construction site,’” Knowles recalls. “What the guards saw, changed constantly. The landscape was altered over and over and over. Think about the commotion of a construction site, and then add a swelling population of guards—and prisoners.”

Write the authors, “The scale of construction and its duration probably meant that much of the camp was visually confusing, quite a different environment than the regimented, rational, static image of the camp that has become so familiar to us.”

The Holocaust has always been an event rooted in time and place, Knowles says. “We’re trying to see what that looks like and then analyze the relationship between the two, place and time.”

Mapping, she says, “shows us what [the Nazis] built and did; it shows what their priorities were, rather than what they talked about. It sends a chill down the spine.”

Also, she adds, “In my mind, it highlights the absurdity of Nazi dreams.”

Some Kind of Place: Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Grovers
I’ve lived in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, three times now, each occasion as Emily Webb, the protagonist of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town.

The people who live in this fictional village are unsentimental, hard working, and full of love, though they don’t always have the tools to express it. As Wilder wrote in the preface to the 1957 collection Three Plays, Grover’s Corners is a lens in which “to find value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” The door is always open to visitors.

Grover’s Corners has been my benchmark to measure time and growth. I first played Emily at summer camp on Lake Champlain; it was my first big lead in a play, the role gave me the confidence to pursue my love for acting. Ten years later as a professional in a production in Baltimore, Maryland, I was made aware of the pressure of the iconic role and my own shortcomings as a developing actress. Now married, nearing 30, and revisiting the play this past summer in the acting ensemble at the Bread Loaf School of English, I found Grover’s Corners to be a new place, different from the one I knew as a teenager. It no longer felt like a physical location, but rather a fragile moment in time—our moment in time. It creates community by showing us community, and you don’t need to be from small-town New England to understand it.

Wilder wrote: “The climax of this play needs only five-square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.” What happens on those five-square feet is funny, awkward, brutal, optimistic, and forgiving. That world—Grover’s Corners—is home to me. It is a home created by the artists and the audiences who visit it. In this imagined world, I have been most fully myself. I find remnants of it in Brooklyn, exchanging smiles with a stranger, biking through the park, sharing dinner at home with my husband and friends. It’s a place that allows reflection and growth.
It can happen anywhere or anytime—as long as you leave room for hope.

Julia Proctor ’06 is an actress living in Brooklyn with her husband, Phil Aroneanu ’06. For more on Julia, visit www.juliaproctor.com.

Some Kind of Place: South Sudan/Congo Border

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

SouthSudanBorder
From above, this place is endlessly vast. We fly for hours and hours in planes and helicopters; then we walk by foot. From above, this place is smooth—a smooth, vast wilderness, beyond history, before people. But there are people here. Mothers and fathers, infants and babies, yearning youth, and ancient elders. They are connected by webs of motorcycle tracks held in place by mud huts and ancestor spirits. Yet one can still travel hundreds of miles through these jungles and not see a soul.

Here so many edges of Africa come together under impossibly thick, low-hanging canopy of brush and forest. The frontiers of South Sudan and Congo and Central African Republic. On these edges sits the center of Africa.

Such places are rare in the world. They exist at both the center and the end of things. Entire rebel groups can disappear in these lands. Massive cathedrals appear down tiny dusty tracks. Here, guns from nearby conflicts ebb and flow like tides until the neighboring conflicts become this place’s conflict.

It is a place where the notion of government is a faint one, a trickling stream that dries up in the dry season and sometimes doesn’t run all year long.

In the heat beneath the arc of the plane, the Earth sweats green. And the smoothness turns into reaching thorns and sharp grasses.

Then when I return months later, it has turned brown, and the crust of the Earth has cracked like soft-dried lava.

The sharp grasses have gone dull, and the thorns have grown smaller.

Trevor Snapp ’03 is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, The Guardian (London), among other publications. He works globally, and for the past few years has been based out of Mexico and East Africa. His work can be found at www.trevorsnapp.com.

Some Kind of Place: Nuiqsut, Alaska

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

2013-08-03 The Storm

I. Path to the Sea
The blades of the fiberglass kayak paddles rise and fall to a rhythm as balanced as a pendulum’s. In the deafening Arctic quiet, they splash into the murky water with deep chops, the sound muffled only by the wind. Under cloudy skies, the river is a long, wide pane of gray, broken periodically by sandbars speckled with chalk-white caribou skulls. Steep banks rise on either side of the water, crowned at the top with tufts of grassy tundra. The cabins of a fish camp, where a family of Inupiat Eskimos likely spent the summer catching the year’s supply of char, burbot, and Dolly Varden trout, appear empty. Near one of the small, shingled buildings, what appears to be a small grizzly bear reveals itself as a musk ox when it raises its shaggy head to the sound of the boats, turns, and gallops out of sight.

As they slowly navigate the river, the small, rugged, inflatable crafts—weighing five pounds and collapsible to the size of a sleeping bag—add bright yellow and red to the otherwise stark aesthetic. Chelsea Ward-Waller ’12, Brett Woelber ’09, and his brother Paxson ’08 are on the Colville River, less than two miles from the Arctic Ocean.

From the start of their journey in the sweeping mountain passes and sunlit canyons of Alaska’s Brooks Range, they have come 300 human-powered miles in a month. They’ve named their trek Expedition Arguk—arguk meaning to walk against the wind, in Alaskan Inupiat—and they didn’t embark without putting a lot of careful thought into what they planned to do and why they planned to do it. Brett is a hydrologist; Chelsea, a geologist; Paxson, a media producer. All have a powerful affinity for the outdoors, for nature’s wild frontiers. They saw in Arguk an opportunity to traverse one of this country’s most rugged, remote regions, and they wanted to do so before the landscape was forever altered by encroaching development; a bridge, soon to be built by ConocoPhillips, will span the Colville River, offering easy access to the energy company’s newest drill site. “Our trip is limited,” Paxson explains, “We aren’t experts. We’re not going to provide a dry environmental assessment [of what’s going on here], what we can provide, though, is what it’s like to be here.”

And what it’s like to be out here is a discordant mash of serene beauty and perpetual discomfort. Three weeks on two different rivers means being constantly wet; something as simple as slipping on dry, five-toed socks before curling up in a sleeping bag is nothing short of sacrosanct. Campsites are often buffeted by piercing winds and require an electric “bear-proof” to be erected each evening.
To the group’s surprise, they haven’t seen many grizzlies. Several days into their first stretch of paddling on the Anaktuvuk River in the Brooks Range, a grizzly swam across the river in front of them, climbed up on the bank, stared, then darted into thicket of small trees. Still, everyone keeps bear spray within reach at all times. In Fairbanks, before beginning the trip, and after much debate and consideration, they decided on an extra measure: Brett carries a .44 magnum on his hip that has yet to leave its leather holster. Still, they’re not mentally prepared for what they encounter as they near the ocean.

Chelsea is the first to see the enormous, lumbering form. White spots (seagulls, skulls, driftwood) on the horizon are plentiful, and the landscape’s flatness often makes size difficult to judge—but a polar bear seen from less than a half-mile off is unmistakable.

Paddling ceases.

The bear’s shoulder rotates almost mechanically, and its legs move in a slow, seemingly effortless plod, yet it covers ground quickly. Then, suddenly, it disappears into the river ahead. Paddling begins again, this time with hurried purpose. Polar bears are known to attack prey by swimming underneath it, so the packrafters retreat to a sandbar in the middle of the river and get out of their boats. For several minutes, the bear is nowhere to be seen. Brett brings the .44 out and holds it at his side. Finally, it reappears on the opposite bank and continues down the shore.

Once the bear is well out of sight, the group presses on toward the mouth of the river; within a few hours, they wade into the Arctic Ocean. When they turn and look back across the tundra, what seem like abbreviated skylines of miniature cities appear at different distances across the horizon—the derricks from the Colville River Unit Alpine Oil Pool.

II. From Beginning to End
Arguk began at the Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, where Luke Douglas ’09, Brett, Paxson, and Chelsea hiked into the Arctic National Preserve: 13,000 square miles with few named landmarks or a single trail. Navigation involved topographic maps, compasses, landmarks, and a little guesswork. With the shadows of clouds moving along with them, they passed through valleys and over steep passes, crowned with ridgelines of striated rock. They followed braided rivers, at times walking through rushing water when it proved easier than hiking over tussocks, the hillocks of thick grass that make up the vast floor of the region.

After the first week, they arrived at Anaktuvuk Pass, a small Nunamiut Eskimo village in the central Brooks Range. There, Jason Mercer, a biologist and the group’s fifth member, joined them. But they were not five for long. Luke arrived in Anaktuvuk with a badly sprained ankle and, after much deliberation, left on a flight back to Anchorage shortly after Jason arrived. The new group of four would use their packrafts to float down the Anaktuvuk River to its confluence with the Colville. Where its headwaters lay was a mystery, however, and no one in town seemed to know. After substantial wandering, they found a small, meandering channel through some grassland, began paddling and, soon enough, found themselves on a narrow river.

The landscape north of the Brooks Range changed drastically; they were suddenly surrounded by bright green, perfectly rounded hills. It looked “like you could walk blindfolded for a hundred miles without tripping,” Brett remembers, and though it seemed empty at first, more and more birds began to appear. Many were in molt and couldn’t fly, so as the boats approached, they ran down the riverbanks in large flocks, flapping their wings until just out of sight. When the boats came around the next river bend, the charade began anew and continued for miles and miles.

The packrafters then entered the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), the largest single unit of public land in the United States (measuring slightly larger than the state of Maine), in Alaska’s North Slope. The region was opened for oil development in February, an event that garnered litle attention, even in Alaska.

After entering the NPR-A at the confluence of the Anaktuvuk and Colville Rivers, the packrafters spotted another boat filled with paleontologists who invited them to their camp at Ocean Point, where the saltwater from the Arctic Ocean begins to mix with the freshwater from the mountains. The next morning, they visited their dig site, where a group of duck-billed dinosaurs had been killed en masse millions of years ago. Thousands of bones spilled from the side of a bluff.

After leaving the paleontologists, the packrafters paddled through thick sea fog as they neared the ocean. Motorboats full of Inupiat Eskimos would pull alongside; a few of the natives would snap pictures of the visitors. There had been a celebration in the nearby village of Nuiqsut, population 400.  The people in Anaktuvuk Pass had warned the packrafters about Nuiqsut—an insular and protective community, they claimed.

The village’s power lines soon came into view, standing tall over the prefabricated houses arranged among a neat grid of gravel roads. When the packrafters arrived, they deflated their boats, walked past the graveyard on the edge of the village, and entered the town offices to introduce themselves.

2013-08-15 01 NuiqsutIII. The Village
Contrary to the opinion of those south of Nuiqsut, Expedition Arguk was welcomed warmly in the village. People in pickup trucks and four-wheelers waved when they passed by on the town’s gravel roads; some would stop to welcome them or ask where they’d come from and why.

Caribou and moose antlers lay unceremoniously on the tops of garages and the ice cellars outside homes. (The ice cellars are used to store whale skin and blubber after a hunt.) Subsistence hunting accounts for a large part of the diet in Nuiqsut, though there is a grocery store in town where a half gallon of Darigold two-percent milk runs for $9.99, a dozen grade AA eggs cost $6.99, and one and a half quarts of Dreyer’s Rich and Creamy Vanilla ice cream will run you $15.35.

The visitors attended Thursday night Bingo in the town hall, bringing their own sheets and markers and finding seats around one of the long wooden tables in a room full of Inupiat women and a few men. Chelsea won $100 in the first game, and she, like every subsequent winner, received the room’s applause. Several days later, representatives from ConocoPhillips held a meeting in the same room to discuss the construction of the CD-5 bridge across the Colville River to the new drill site. Door prize tickets were handed out before the meeting began, and someone translated the presentation from English to Inupiat. “There will be some blasting involved.” “The bridge will withstand flood conditions.”

The presentation ended with, “Does everyone have a door prize ticket?”

“760694.”

Clap. Clap.

A new first-aid kit.

“760675.”

Clap, clap.

A new set of kitchen knives.

Jason left Nuiqsut first, followed by Brett and Chelsea. Paxson was the last of Arguk to leave. He boarded a small prop plane, flying under the name Era Alaska. After bumping down the small airstrip, the plane lifted off the ground, slowly gained altitude, and disappeared into the fog, bound for Deadhorse, 60 miles away, where a larger plane awaited.