As someone from the UK, I don’t usually take much note of the fourth of July - or Independence Day as it’s more widely known in the United States.
I was slightly more aware of it when I was nine years old; growing up in Alaska for four years of my childhood I learned about the American War of Independence and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, I would see the shops stock red-white-and-blue cookies, cupcakes and other patriotic things in the run up to the fourth of July and I would always head north to my friend’s cabin to set off fireworks by the lake – essentially to celebrate America separating itself from British rule.
But after moving back to Scotland - and even though I still had a slight American twang I'd adopted within my first few days in Alaska as "the new kid" wanting to fit in at school - 04/07 (or 07/04 in the States) more or less came and went in my annual calendar without too much of a second thought.
But a year ago the fourth of July was a very different day altogether. This time I was back in Alaska.
Last year Luke and I undertook our Due North: Alaska expedition - aiming to be the first people to travel human powered from the southernmost to northernmost point of mainland Alaska. After an intense few months of planning we set off, launching our kayak into the deep blue Pacific waters of southeast Alaska, surrounded by sitka spruce, right to the waters edge.
And so our expedition would take us by kayak up the Inside Passage, by bike passing mountains and glaciers, then up the infamous Dalton Highway - a 400 mile (mainly) dirt road that winds its way into the Arctic, across the tundra, and up to the oil field town of Deadhorse. From there, a final cycle to reach the Arctic Ocean itself and then back in the kayak again towards our final destination Nuvuk - or Point Barrow – a spit of land that sticks northwards from Barrow and is the most northerly point of Alaska and the US.
As well as completing this journey through such varying landscapes, we wanted to witness first-hand and document the impact that climate change is having on the environment of Alaska and how it’s affecting the people that live there.
And so on July 4th 2017, after a gruelling 1500 mile journey by kayak and bike as we travelled northwards from the southernmost point in Alaska, we finally glimpsed our destination for that night - the Helmericks' homestead on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
Since childhood, Teena had known Jim Helmericks and in 1970 the couple got married and headed about 150 mile east of Barrow, Alaska (now known as its native name, Utqiagvik) - to Anachlik Island, on the Colville River Delta – far from any other settlements. The island, about 4 miles long and a few hundred metres wide, had a large freshwater lake at one end. And it was here that they made their home, calling the settlement Colville Village.
Teena and Jim built the house themselves in one short Arctic summer, with the supplies flown in the year before. In this house they had four sons who were born and raised on the island and home schooled by Teena for six half days a week during term time, with lesson plans provided by the Alaskan government.
When school was out for summer they went on extended camping, hunting and fishing trips up the Colville River, finding all sorts of treasures such as mammoth tusks, poking out of the river bed after being preserved in the permafrost for millions of years – or artefacts from the native Inupiat who had long settled in the frozen north – such as primitive sunglasses carved from walrus ivory or whale bones, with tiny gaps to see through that protected their eyes from snowblindness. The upstairs of their house became like a natural history museum.
The Helmericks live off the land. They shoot caribou on the tundra right outside their house, quickly skin and cut it and fill the freezers full of all the different cuts of meat - no part was wasted. The caribou skins they used to use for winter clothing, just like the native Inupiat did.
Every morning at 6am they turn on the generator - the only means of providing power to their home. And so they live their daily lives with its background hum. Every few weeks they pump water from the lake into two huge tanks in the house. With fresh water a scarce resource, showers are short and only taken every few days.
And it was here, at 70oN, on Anachlik Island, that Luke and I would have one of the most memorable and unique dinners of our entire lives.
Almost 250 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, separating America from British rule, there we were - two Brits (us Robertsons) and two Americans (the Helmericks) having a feast of caribou that they’d shot right outside their house, accompanied with sliced carrots from a tin and a delicious apple crumble. The four of us sat at the Helmericks' dining table, inside their self-built house with mounts of birds and maps adorning the walls - on what felt like the edge of the world.
After coming home, I’ve reflected on many things about our expedition (which was ended prematurely by climate change, but that's another story all together) and about the way the Helmericks lived. When you’re on an expedition, you carry everything you need with you. And it turns out you don’t need very much. Everything essentially gets stripped back down to survival: food, water, shelter. We saw this also at the Helmericks' - they live in sync with nature, take only what they need and waste nothing.
And yet people all around the world are facing challenges of resource scarcity, that will only set to increase as the impacts of climate change put further stresses on our one planet. Since coming back to Scotland, I’ve started thinking a lot more about my own impact on the environment and what I can do to reduce it - and the Helmericks and the way they live has been a source of inspiration to me. I maybe can’t live off the land like the Helmericks, but there are things I've started doing to lessen my own impact - taking shorter showers, repairing things, buying less.
And so now in my day to day life I've started thinking more like I'm on an expedition - or that I'm living in the remote Arctic: I try to take only what I need.