It’s mid-August on Barter Island. The village of Kaktovik sits at the edge of the Beaufort Sea and already residents are saying goodbye to summer.
The majestic Brooks Range in the distance is already covered in snow. More than 240 residents, plus about 80 polar bears, call it home, according to the City of Kaktovik officials. It’s the only village located within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
More than 300 miles from the city of Barrow, while its remote location on Barter Island does make living there expensive, many locals say they can’t imagine leaving for good.
Sheldon Brower has lived in Kaktovik for more than 40 years with his family. He’s seen a lot of change.
“I was born and raised here. I tried moving out, I tried going to little villages or out of state. I just had to come back,” said Sheldon Brower. “We got the ocean, we got the mountains… it’s beautiful here. I mean, it’s just home.”’
Today Kaktovik also has running water, an airport and a school where children use Apple computers. The technology has allowed students to study their native language of Inupiaq but Brower says new technology can also be a distraction.
"Living off the land, going hunting -- I see that slowly disappearing," Brower said. "There's just not that much interest with some people in going out hunting.
Language instructor, Flora Rexford, teaches Inupiat at the local school, and fondly remembers growing up here.
“Back then it felt more of a community, and everybody worked together,” Rexford said.
Rexford wants the youth to connect to thier native culture, as she has, teaching arts and crafts with bones and ivory.
“It’s part of their identity,” Rexford said. “If they don’t have that self-identity, then it’s hard to find their place in the world and we have so much things that are so unique to our area and our culture.”
While Rexford teaches these traditions in school, Brower continues those learning lessons on the ocean. It’s his first year as a whaling captain and he’s teaching his son the ways of working on the sea. He said it’s an honor to be able to provide subsistance for his community.
“It's gong to be the very first time for him and I'm very proud and excited for him,” he said. “Even for me I'm still learning about whaling and hunting I learn from Elders.”
Brower has other lessons he hopes to instill upon his son.
“I’m teaching my daughter and my son always share,” he said. “That’s what my dad taught me. You don’t leave people wanting.”
And the only thing Rexford wanted last summer after leaving was to return to village she loves.
“I love it all,” she said. “I like going out, going on picnics, having bonfires; being out in the land is very spiritual, and you have this connection with it, and you just feel more alive out there.”