National Geographic : 1990 Feb
thapaskans Along the Yukon One of thefew women in her village able to perform the ancientAthapaskan songs, Karen Esmailka (right)hopes to pass them on to her daughter,Whitney. In remote villages like hers along Alaska's Yukon River, such traditionsare in danger of being swept awayforever by aflood of modern problems. By BRAD REYNOLDS Photographs by DON DOLL IT'SEASY, they said. Nothing to it. Wearing snowshoes is just like walk ing, they said. But with my face two inches above the snow, my feet twisted over my head, and my body wedged between two willows in minus 20° weather on an island in the frozen Yukon River, it did not seem all that easy. Ellen Peters, kneeling in front of me on snowshoes, looked up from her rabbit snare. "Are you OK?" Ellen has been snaring rabbits most of her 70 years. Small, less than a hundred pounds, she agreed to take me, a man twice her size and half her age, along to help on this trip. Athapaskan Indians like Ellen have trapped, fished, and hunted along the middle Yukon River in north-central Alaska for at least 2,500 years. It is called the Koyukon region, and the Athapaskans who live there refer to themselves as Dena, "the people." In Ellen's village of Nulato, on the banks of the Yukon, we hooked a wooden sled behind the new Bravo snowmobile her son Mark had bought with money earned from fighting forest fires. I balanced on the runners of the sled while she drove the Bravo out of town, onto the frozen Yukon, and three miles upriver to her snares. Ellen has .two stickers pasted onto her snowmobile's windshield: "Mothers Against Drunk Driving" and "Don't Drink and Drive." She came to a stop at a small island, and we put on our snowshoes. I struggled. Ellen slipped hers on, dropped a hatchet into an Army pack, slung it over her back, and lit a cigarette while she patiently stood waiting for me. She wore quilted snow pants, a home made parka, mittens, mooseskin mukluks. Sunglasses protected her eyes from the harsh snow glare. We plunged into thick willow growth, fol lowing a snare line Ellen knows by heart. She pointed out willows that rabbits had gnawed and showed me broken branches where moose had brushed by with their huge racks of antlers. When she meets a moose on her trail, she stands quietly until the animal senses her presence, then she stamps her feet and whistles to scare it off. She also pointed out the tracks of fox, ptarmigan, and wolf. As I pant and flounder in her wake, she moves steadily ahead, smoking cigarettes and whistling "Amazing Grace" as she peers through the willows at her snares. She ties a noose of wire onto a willow in a rabbit trail, setting out about 30 snares along a two-mile stretch. Today Ellen will find only two rab bits caught in her wire snares. There used to be lots more rabbits, she tells BRAD REYNOLDS and DON DOLL, both Jesuit priests, continue their study of Alaska's native cul tures begun with "Eskimo Hunters of the Bering Sea" in the GEOGRAPHIC's June 1984 issue.