The Berring Sea along its west coast bound West Central Alaska. Nome, Alaska sits in the north of the region and stretches beyond Bethel in the south end of the region. This territory is equivalent is size to the state of Oregon. Most of its fifty six villages lie on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, which dominate the region.
About twenty miles north east of Bethel lay the village of Akiachak on the west bank of the Kuskokwim River. The coordinates are 61o North latitude and 161o West longitude. This region is sub arctic, for it's below the Arctic Circle, which is 66o North latitude.
Between the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers sit acres of flatlands, dotted with thousands of lakes and marshes. The terrain, not including the lakes, is tundra consisting of low bushes, tall grass, a few small trees, and occasional hills. The ground below is permafrost. The decayed vegetation causes the surface to be rough and spongy.
The summers are short and cool, averaging fifty degrees fahrenheit, rising as light as the low sixties, at times. The winters are long and cold with below zero temperatures and wind chills up to -100o Fahrenheit. The summer solstice has 21 hours of sunlight, but the winter solstice has 3 hours of sunlight. There is no road system connecting the villages, except for the ice highways in the winter on the frozen rivers and streams. In the winter months snow machines are the primary mode of ground transportation.
High winds can occur suddenly reaching up to sixty knott (sixty nine miles per hour) in heavy storms. In general, however, the wind speeds are moderate, with speeds reaching less than fifteen knots (seventeen miles per hour).
Snow falls in early October, but accumulation is small. Fluctuating temperatures cause the snow to alternately freeze and thaw. This creates frozen snow waves on the thousandths of lakes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region. The snow waves freeze in the direction of the wind like a frozen ocean.
Cold weather in December through March stays below zero. The snow that falls during these months remains in a powder form, and drifts with the wind. Each year this region an average anual snowfall of between thirty and fourty eight inches. The snowdrifts often obscure the few landmarks in the area. Rapid changes in the weather cause low ceilings and poor visibility. Very heavy winds cause blizzards and whiteout conditions.
Weather forecasting is essential for any navigator across the tundra. Survival gear must be planned and routinely care for. Understanding and respecting the environment takes time and requires a long trusting relationship with a skilled mentor.
In villages along the Kuskokwim River, Yup'ik hunters follow a rigorous schedule for subsistence hunting of animals, gathering of herbs/berries, and ice fishing. Between October freeze and April break up, they travel by snow machine long distances across the tundra to hunt, trap and gather berries. Snow covers the tundra with a white blanket, which is continually stirred up by the strong winds. During long winter nights they navigate across the tundra using stars, frozen grass, tree growth, and snow waves.
The central problem is traveling from Akiachak to the Yukon River over a dynamic snow covered terrain using the stars, which are in constant motion, but work as a clock compass. Yup'ik men learn these skills from elders, who mentor them over many winters. They travel together, observing the sky and snow covered terrain, sharing stories of their travels.
Akiachak has 585 people in 129 families. 95% of its people are Yup'ik and speak their native language to varying degrees, although most understand and speak English as well. The village has 25 square kilometers of land and 5 square kilometers of water.
For the most part Akiachak is a strong traditional community, where people speak Yup'ik, fish, and have a subsistence life style. It was the first village in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to dissolve its city government and establish a Native village government.
At a very young age, usually eight years old, Yup'ik boys are encouraged to observe the weather every day, since they must learn to predict the weather days, and even months ahead. A skilled elder can predict the weather a full year in advance. There are many subtleties to learn about the environment, the snow and the stars. Just as they study the weather, they must study the stars and travel across the tundra for many years with a mentor.