The subsistence lifestyle is changing throughout much of Alaska as traditional food sources become harder to come by, says Davin Holen, a coastal community resilience specialist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. For food sources that are still around, it’s often harder for communities to access them, he says, because climate change makes getting around more difficult. A frozen, snow-covered ground is easy to navigate with snowmobiles.
“In the wintertime, the entire landscape is open to you,” he says, but “with summer, you’re really locked into four-wheeler trails and rivers.” As Alaska warms, that winter window is getting smaller. “The loss of a snow cover, or late snow,” he says, “is really detrimental.”
In recent years the winters have been muddier, with less snow making snowmobiles virtually useless at times. The changes Holen sees in the data on subsistence economies bear out in Port Heiden.
Gerda Kosbruk’s niece Adrianne Christensen backs this up: “We lived and thrived here for thousands and thousands of years on local food, and now that our food is changing and going away we’re having to do things like drink cow milk. We didn’t need to drink cow milk before, and cow milk costs $30 a gallon here.”
And the expense of flying in food is just the start. “Now, eating store-bought processed food, we’re not as healthy as we could be,” Adrianne says. “We’re not asking for ice cream; we’re asking for vitamin D for our kids.”
Still, Holen cautions, it’s not all bad news. “I think there are changes going on in the subsistence economy, but I do not think there is actually a decline,” he says. “I think there is an adjustment.”
Coastal communities are subsisting on what’s available, he says, and adapting to the changes.