This is a film about change and contemporary life in Shungnak, a village on the Kobuk
River in northwestern Alaska, 75 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Life in this inland
community is dominated by the seasons and the river. In October, when the film begins,
the Kobuk becomes filled with ice, which slowly thickens until freeze-up is complete.
Traditional subsistence activities still continue: women net fish under the ice, and
a man and his wife construct a cottonwood mudshark trap that is carefully placed in
the river ice. The combination of old and new technology is pervasive. Some people
hitch their teams of huskies to a sled, others travel by snowmobile.
Old people reflect upon these changes. "In the old days," George Cleveland laughs,
"you knew your good dogs would get you home. Today, if your snowmachine breaks down,
you have to walk! On the other hand," he says, "most things these days are easier
than in the past, when people had to be tough in order to survive. Today, you just
plug in the bubbling coffee pot, pull the string for light, and turn the stove's knob
when you are cold." Indeed, popcorn is cooking on the stove as children don masks
for Halloween trick-or-treating.
The film reveals that life along the Kobuk River is still inextricably linked to the
harsh and starkly beautiful land, where the December sun rises at 11 a.m. and sets
three hours later. An old man shares his feelings about the changes he has seen: "Long
ago, forest fires put themselves out. Today, even when men fight them, they burn.
I think our earth is getting old, and when things get old and dry they burn. Our earth
is the same way," he adds. "It's ready to burn. I think it's coming close to the time
when we will have a new one."