The TH Interview: Sigrid Ekran, Iditarod Competitor and Environmental Activist

When I heard that one of the member's of Will Steger's team heading out across the Arctic to raise awareness of global warming was a woman who practices subsistence living I was bound and determined to interview her. I mean really, How many people do you know who practice a subsistence lifestyle by choice today? And so it was that I wound up interviewing a fascinating human being named Sigrid Ekran. She's been the Iditarod's rookie of the year, practices subsistence living enthusiastically in 2008, and is one of the nicest people you could ask to meet. Her observations on the both the physical effects of global warming and her experience landing for the first time in the middle of NYC are fascinating to read.

TreeHugger: What makes a person decide to move to Alaska and pursue a subsistence lifestyle?Sigrid Ekran: Well I didn't actually move to Alaska to live; I'm from a tiny little farming town and we've always lived a bit out of the land. I actually went to Alaska for a canoe trip with some friends, and sort of stayed and found out if I wanted to stay longer than that summer I'd have to be a student. So I went back to Norway and made my own student program so I could and basically I've been going for my master's since then.

TH: Tell us what it's like to practice subsistence living in 2008?

SE: I lived in Fairbanks the first couple years and I've always been hunting and fishing, but last year I moved to live with an Eskimo couple in Kotzebue, and they live outside of one of the bigger Eskimo villages north of Nome, but they live at camp about 30 miles outside of it so I moved there last year with my 16 dogs that I had, and that was maybe how I started out in the bush. We hunted and fished for a living and then we trained dogs. There are lots of caribou that go right through there and we could just shoot caribou from my stairs to the cabin, and we had the fields and lots of fish and we fished under the ice for the dogs with nets under the ice in the winter time. We'd catch hundreds of fish each day. So we had to pick a lot of berries and herbs, though I still had to finish my masters so I was at school at the same time. I used to run dogs over to Kotzebue and send out my homework via internet.

TH: What effect has that way of life had on the way you view the rest of the world?

SE: So this is new for me to go to New York. I've never seen this numbers of cars and people and round doors and sushi; this is all extreme for me. It's not that abnormal for me to live in the bush, it's been very natural for me. It would have been a lot more extreme for me to move to New York; I think that you guys are all crazy!

TH: What advice can you give to the rest of us based on what that experience has taught you?

I think if people can follow us they would get more of an understanding of what they're talking about. When I am in NY I think people are not out there seeing that we can't hunt this species because it got warm and doesn't survive here anymore. I think it's important that they get a better understanding of what's going on. Everybody can do a little bit. Just little things like always bike, don't use throwaway cups, carpool; but I definitely think education is key for encouraging people to actually take action. I think it's important that we do something now and not just talk about it.

I'm living with some of the elder Eskimos, and I can hear stories how everything has changed. How climate has made their hunting different and the amount of what they get are different and the species are different, and the management rules are different and so forth. I hear when it's 40 below that in the old days it was 70 below at the same time of year. Things have definitely changed, as snow comes later because it's warmer. There are less and less people who are actually living this subsistence life, and everything is later. Of course now there are also pipelines for oil and the caribou do not come where they used to come, so maybe they have to move where they find the species, but they used to get them right outside of their homes and villages.


TH: How did you get involved with mushing and the Iditarod?

SE: When they run the Iditarod they always need someone to do logistics and food drops, so I started working for the Norwegian mushers and that's how I got involved. And working for Susan Butcher inspired me too, plus I flew the trail a couple of times. I still work for the Norwegian mushers but last year was my rookie year and after the Iditarod I had to finish my masters and I was back in Fairbanks. Susan died in 2006 and I kind of wanted to live by myself and I had gotten good experience from Louis and LuLu and they wanted to try to fix the camp up a bit. So this summer I moved out to Susan's old cabin, and that's in Eureka between Minto and Manley, so this year has been more of a trapper's experience with catching beavers and hares. I've definitely been more on my own this year which has been fun.

TH: What's it like to be one of the few female competitors in such a male dominated competition?

SE: I don't think about it so much because I spend my daily life with less people and there have always been more men in what I do. Sometimes I think I have an advantage being young and light, though sometimes being heavier and stronger is an advantage and they have the experience as well. To be really good takes years of experience. Usually it takes a long time to work your way to the top.

TH: What about the experience of being the Iditarod's rookie of the year?

SE: It was good. Even though I had a little bit of bad luck I definitely had a good race, and I learned a lot so I can hopefully not make those mistakes again. There were a lot of good rookies, so it was fun.

TH: And now you're heading out with Will Steger to Ellesmere Island as a part of Global Warming 101. Why have you chosen to get involved with it?

SE: I've always been inspired by explorers and it's been one of my dreams, but Will Steger needed a female musher and he met one of my friends and she said "Oh, I know one!"

TH: And what do you ultimately hope to accomplish with the upcoming trip to Ellesmere Island as part of Global Warming 101?

SE: I think our main goal is to inspire the younger generation to take a more active role in the fight against global warming. Everyone has heard of global warming, and even the oldest Eskimo knows the word. So we need to act if we can inspire people through what we're doing and to educate more young people to, you know For me it's important to be an inspiration to get outside, get water in the creek, get fire, and understand where meat and fish actually come from and how we used to survive.

You can follow the expedition to Ellesmere Island via the Global Warming 101 website.

See also: The TH Interviews with Will Steger and Sam Branson.

Tags: Alaska | Education | TH Interview | United States

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