Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sour dock and tundra

06/10/14, Chefornak, Alaska: After a productive day in clinic, I met the Dental Assistant and her two sisters, niece, nephew, and Golden Retriever puppy (Zola) near the local store so we could take a walk on the Alaksa tundra. Our goal was to look for and pick sour dock – a redish-greenish leaf that grows wild near ponds in the summer. When we got close to one of the many large ponds, I saw sour dock growing in small patches. As I picked the leaves, I tried a few and found that it is sour (thus the name) and really tasty. It would a great addition to a leafy summer salad. We picked two large bags of sour dock and quickly began walking back to town – it was extremely wind and about 42 degrees.

Sour dock is chopped into small pieces and boiled for a few minutes.It is then frozen and used in sour dock agudak, an Alaska Native dessert that consists of instant potato flakes (a binder), hot water, Crisco (or seal oil), and sugar. The Dental Assistant’s mother made a special batch of sour dock agudak and brought it to the clinic. I was only able to take a few bites before heading to the airport. It was a super interesting treat. Two nights ago, when I went over to the Assistant's home for dinner, I had a large serving of homemade blackberry agudak. It was awesome.

As we walked back, I quickly learned that it’s easy to lose your footing. The tundra is soft and soggy. There were berry blossoms all over and a rich moss that looked like wood shavings.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Half-way point - fish, fish, fish

06/07/14, Chefornak, Alaska: It’s the start of day 6 of 12. During the long summer days, Alaskan villagers are busy catching and preparing fish, picking berries, and hunting – all in preparation for the nose-hair-freezing winter. Subsistence fishing/farming/hunting help Alaska Natives survive the long winter. Currently, it’s the height of the fishing season. Later in the summer will be berry picking and hunting. Of course, the specific harvested goods vary from community to community.

I walked to the local grocery store on day 3 to explore Chefornak and get some exercise. Throughout Chefornak, you can see fish hanging on outdoor wooden structures and drying on boards matressing the Alaskan tundra. From the village boardwalk, you can smell fish, which reminded me of my childhood and early 20s – wonderfully familiar scents that wafted through mom's kitchen on weekend mornings and during trips I’d take to old villages in Korea. Each household has a slightly different wooden structure constructed for drying fish in the Alaskan summer heat. Though it was cold when we first arrived, it’s been warm the past few days and the sunshine has been intense.

One afternoon, I was chatting with the Chefornak health clinic receptionist, who mentioned that she was keeping busy outside of clinic hours preparing fish for the winter. Mothers of children I’d been treating in clinic talked about similarly busy summer schedules. In the village, men and boys take their boats and fish on the river, bringing back gunny sacks filled with halibut, salmon, anchovies, herring, white fish, and other river delicacies. Women and girls clean, prepare, and hang the fish to be dried. It’s a time sensitive process (to prevent spoiling of fish and to take optimal advantage of weather conditions to dry the fish properly).

There are apparently dozens of ways to prepare fish. Some fish are dried and then frozen – and eaten like jerky except that it is dipped into seal oil, which helps villagers keep warm in the winter. Other preparations include fermentation and drying, salt curing, and drying then soaking fish in seal oil. I asked the receptionist if we could stop by after work to watch her prepare fish and she warmly welcomed us to her home on the river. I was able to watch her and her three daughters prepare semi-dried fish to be soaked in seal oil. It was an amazing experience.

 We also got to see families braid anchovies onto beautifully crafted ropes made of dried tundra grass.

Most of the fish will be ready to consume in the late fall and early winter. The food preparation activities require intense family effort. I’m not sure how many families involve children in these activities, but from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like most do - and what a great way for children to contribute to the household and stay busy during the long summer days.

The little things in life

06/02/14, Chefornak, Alaska: Day 1. This is my third clinic trip to a Yukon Kuskokwim village (first trip was to Kipuk in August 2013 and second was to Chevak in October 2013). I arrived into Bethel on June 1 at 8:30PM. The first thing I noticed after landing was how bright it was outside – and then it struck me that I had entered the land of the Midnight Sun. It wasn’t sunny but it was super bright most of the evening. I woke up early to pick up my travel bag from the YKHC dental clinic and arrived the next morning at the Era Airlines counter in Bethel at 8:00 AM, about an hour before my flight to Chefornak. I met the super friendly Dental Assistant who had been assigned to this village trip along with 3 or 4 YKHC social workers who were getting ready to travel out to different villages in the YK. I had 3 requisite cups of very strong Folgers coffee (compliments of the airport). We walked onto the tarmac about 30 minutes after our scheduled departure time to allow for some time for the morning clouds to lift.

Riding aboard a 7-passenger place Cessna is a really cool experience. It's small enough where you have you crouch to get to your seat. You can hear everything - the engines, the propellers, all of the other machinery. Earplugs are a must - I forgot to grab a pair during check in at the Era Airlines counter.

We flew for about an hour and landed in Kipnuk to drop off a few passengers and then continued onto Chefornak, which took about 20 minutes from the Kipnuk airport. When we landed in Chefornak, we were greeted by a Primary Dental Health Aide (PDHA) with whom I had worked during my first village trip to Kipnuk. PDHAs are an integral member of the dental care delivery system in rural Alaska and provide preventive dental care services to villagers. The PDHA met us on her sparkling red 4x4 (all terrain vehicle). After loading our personal belongings onto a second 4x4 with a wooden trailer in tote, we hopped onto the back of the red ATV and rode to the dental clinic.

Once we arrived to the Denali clinic (the name of pre-fabricated structures that serve as health care centers in the YK Delta), we unpacked our dental supplies and started setting up the clinic. Denali clinics are really nice – they contain primary care medical care examination room, an emergency room, and a dental clinic. There is also a room set aside for itinerant health care providers that contains 2 bunk beds and a kitchen with a sink, a small fridge, and microwave. There is also water treatment equipment used to produce drinking water.

After setting up the clinic, I unpacked my large “immigrant suitcase” I had stored in Bethel with one of the dentists. I bought this abnormally large suitcase back in the early 2000s when world travelers were allowed to pack bags that weighed 75 pounds (and sometimes, in my case of jetsetting between Seattle and Seoul, 100+ pounds) unlike today where the strict limit is 50 pounds. The bag contained a portable air mattress, sleeping bag, a small stash of non-perishable snacks, and other random items needed for village trips.

Which brings me to the reason I titled this blog post (the little things in life). First, all of my food for the 2 weeks fit into the small fridge. The dental assistant and I had to play a little bit of “fridge puzzle” but it all fit. SCORE! I can’t believe what a relief it is to know that your perishable foods will stay cold the whole 2 week trip. During past village trips, I’d spend the first few days nervously and voraciously consuming food that wouldn’t fit into the fridge, which is really stressful. Second, when I opened up the front zipper of the immigrant suitcase, I found 2 items that were icing on this wonderful day: a stash of Tazo teabags and a set of Krogers toenail clippers. It felt like Christmas. I can’t describe how unbelievably happy I was to rediscover these precious items I had left in Alaska after my last village trip.

In terms of clinic, it was wonderful to keep busy. We saw 15 patients on day 1 for exams and cleanings and have a full day of patients scheduled for day 2. It helps tremendously to work with a local PDHA who knows the families and is able to call households for same day dental appointments. It’s summer in the YK and the school kids have been on vacation since May 15, which can make it hard to schedule children.

After work, I reheated a bowl of Basmati rice along with General Tso’s Fish and Kung Pao Tofu from my favorite Chinese restaurant in Seattle – a place called Sichuanese Cuisine Restaurant. I took a lukewarm shower, which was wonderful. There have been times in the past when an-end-of-clinic-day shower wasn’t possible (e.g., sewer was backed up, water was turned off, water was ice cold, gym lockers were locked). Also, this trip I brought with me a cordless 1.7L hot water kettle - one the best ways to ensure easy access to cuppa. The planned kettle coupled with a fistful of surprise Tazo teabags are the perfect pairing.

Lesson reinforced on day 1: enjoy the little things in life. Teabags, toenail clippers, and the ability to shower – I feel like the luckiest itinerant village dentist in the world!