Ground Truth Trekking

Iliamna Lake Trek

Authors: Caleb Billmeier and Kate Hohman-Billmeier

Traveling on Lake Iliamna

Kate the packraft ninja: pausing for a photo-op GET PHOTO

Kate the packraft ninja: pausing for a photo-op

In March of 2013, we -- Caleb Billmeier and Kate Hohman-Billmeier -- traveled under human power around Alaska’s Lake Iliamna, covering 150 miles of tundra and ice while visiting four villages. The purpose of the journey was to interview elders and culture-bearers in the communities around the lake to document traditional knowledge of earthquakes, extreme weather, climate change, and other hazards arising from the natural environment over the long-term. Ground Truth Trekking’s ongoing seismic hazard investigations in the region provided the impetus for the project, and we thought a journey on skis was a fitting way to get acquainted with the lake environment, and to signify our gratitude as people opened their homes and shared their stories. This project was funded in part by the Western Mining Action Network/Indigenous Environmental Network (WMAN/IEN), and Alaska Conservation Foundation (ACF), as well as Ground Truth Trekking's own funds, and in-kind contributions from the scientists involved in this study.

Our goal was not to collect traditional knowledge for the sole purpose of preservation. Traditional knowledge exists at the intersections of personal experience and the experiences of those who came before. As such, it is not possible to “preserve” traditional knowledge simply through documentation; it cannot be maintained without the component of experience. We saw this project, instead, as an opportunity to learn from those who have a multi-generational perspective on the lake’s natural, cultural, and social environments, and to honor the differing ways that knowledge is produced, utilized, and maintained.

Igiugig Elders

Two elders shared stories with us in their home GET PHOTO

Two elders shared stories with us in their home

In total we engaged with 19 lake residents in the perennial villages of Kokhanok, Igiugig, Newhalen, and Pedro Bay. The conversations were audio recorded and transcribed, totaling nearly 100 pages; copies of these transcripts were sent to all the participating villages. The stories they shared were sprawling and intricate; tales of cascading caribou herds, wind storms, seasonal fishing and hunting camps, defunct White Alice installations, the Good Friday earthquake, reindeer herding, volcanic eruptions, and starvation. By superimposing the knowledge of culture-bearers in the region with the insights learned from ongoing earth sciences investigations, we strive for inclusive approaches to research that promote the sharing of knowledge across boundaries of discipline, culture, and geography.