Sled Dogs and Oil

The coastline stretched out across the horizon, beyond lay the jumbled heap of ice, offering the only relief in this flat landscape.  Among the pressure ridges and fissures, there likely lurked a polar bear.  Perhaps, an arctic fox followed close by in its tracks, hoping to scavenge any leftover scraps.  Beneath the surface, there was even more life. Ringed seals, other mammals and fish moved within the dark depths, shaded by the ice above.  On shore, a few miles away, a discovery was made that would overturn life in Alaska. While they went about their lives, as their species and ancestors had done for thousands and thousands of years, oil was being discovered in massive quantities in Prudhoe Bay.  Nearly 50 years ago, in April 1969, ARCO and Humble Oil(later to become part of Exxon) announced the discovery of large flows in Drill Site 1.

While the means in which people went about life differed, the lifestyle and practices of those in Alaska had remained virtually unchanged over the previous decades.  The arrival of traders and miners brought new goods and tools to the native people.  Rifles took the place of spears and bow and arrows.  Flour, sugar and tea supplemented whatever people obtained from the land while cotton clothing replaced those made with fur, in the warmer seasons. The airplane was most likely the biggest harbinger of change, reducing transportation time, allowing for easier transport of goods and increasing communication among other things. Each of these had slowly changed the culture from one that was more nomadic and centered around the land, to one that that was more sedentary and centered around a village or a job.  Oil and all that came with it would be the final nail in the coffin.

Land ownership was settled in Alaska starting in 1971 in an effort to move forward with the construction of the pipeline.  The Alaska Natives selected 12% of the land to be held as private property by the native corporations established under Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Along with the land title was an influx of $1 billion, proportionally distributed throughout the newly formed corporations based on population.  Giving up their bargaining chip, Alaska’s first peoples had signed away their right to dispute any further land issues, land that had been wholly theirs until the signing of the final contract. By 1980, all the land within Alaska was spoken for.  If a tract of land wasn’t owned by one of the big three, native corporations, the state or federal government, then it was owned by an individual as private property.  No longer could you venture off into the wilderness and erect a cabin in any spot that met your desires. The time for homesteading was no more.

Oil meant jobs and jobs meant people.  Tens of thousands of people rushed north to Alaska, not unlike those at the turn of the century during the Klondike Gold Rush.  Black gold was the lure this time and dollar signs flashed in the eyes of those that flocked to Anchorage and Fairbanks throughout the 70s.  There were many who worked on the pipeline, with over 70,000 contributing to the project over the two year stretch. Yet, the number of job seekers far outmatched the number of jobs available.  Positions that paid $2,000 per week, with room and board provided for, proved to be irresistible. Waiting lists stretched long and many were denied a chance of working on the project.  During and post construction, the population grew in Alaska’s urban areas, with Anchorage and Fairbanks increasing in size and expanding in area.

Along with oil, came the arrival of an assortment of mechanized and motorized appliances and vehicles.  Snowgos were first introduced in the early 1970s.  No longer were you limited by the energy of your dogs or your legs, but rather how much fuel you could bring along.  The time it took to travel between distances became shorter.  Trap lines were extended while time spent out in the country was reduced.  Before snowgos, an 80-100 mile trap line could take 4-5 days to run, or more if there were poor trail conditions.  Now with the motorized dog, that same 80-100 miles could be done in one day, allowing one to arrive home with wisps of smoke still creeping out of the chimney from the morning fire.

Around the same time, the first chainsaws were produced.  Axes and manual saws were cast aside in favor of the high speed, whirring machines.  Whether for lumber or firewood, trees were able to be cut and boards were able to be milled at a much faster rate than what occurred before. In his book Shadows on the Koyukuk, Sidney Huntington talks of making boats in his early days.  They would gather the logs before splitting them into boards with a two man crosscut saw.  It took three days for them to create the boards for one of their boats.  Now a person with a chainsaw could do it within a day, quite possibly even an afternoon.

Alaska quickly followed in the footsteps of the rest of the western world.  Things were louder, faster and flashier. The noise of the country was replaced with that of an engine, blocking out any sounds within the nearby area.  People became adept with handling and maintaining their new tools.  Knowledge of engines replaced knowledge of maintaining dogs.  Flab and fat accumulated as muscle wore out with the new, less physically taxing technology.

In the old days, running dogs had its cost, but that was primarily time.  If you ran dogs that meant you took the time out in the summer to fish for a few weeks, food for both yourself and the dogs over the winter to come.  For the user of the ax or manual saw the idea was the same. It requires time to sharpen and maintain(as does the chainsaw) and the cutting time takes longer, but there are no inputs. There is no need to purchase oil or gasoline.  Now instead of time, a significant amount of money is required.  Money that forces one to take on a higher paying job in order to make payments or save enough to purchase the goods that one desires.

Less than one hundred years ago, as late as 1950, there were still nomadic bands roaming Alaska.  The transition from living a nomadic lifestyle to the high tech, sedentary lifestyle of today was rapid and stark. The perception of Alaskans by those outside the state is often that of people of the past.  Alaskans are people who hunt, live close to the land, are independent and rugged.  While that remains true for some, the reality is that most live in urban areas not unlike those found in the Lower 48.  The daily concern isn’t about the thickness of the river ice, but what’s the latest from NPR or the sports world.

Such a transition is only natural in an evolving economy, Alaska is only the last to undergo the transformation over the last hundred years.  Yet unlike other states, most of Alaska remains untamed and undeveloped, like it was when it was solely native peoples populating this great land hundreds of years ago. For the able and willing, a lifestyle can still be carved out of the old pathways.  A dog team can be run on the trap line in the winter time, hunting and gathering can form the bulk of a person’s food and a seasonal job like fishing, mining or tour guiding can provide the minimal income needed to cover any other goods that are needed.


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