Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
May 6, 2000 - Issue 09

The Summer That Wasn't
by Lee Dye

For years, "Old Willie" told the legends of "the year that summer did not come" for the Eskimos living near the top of the world. In the tiny villages that dotted the coastline near present-day Nome, Alaska, only a handful of people survived.

But the stories remained just that, stories handed down from one generation to the next, stories that William A. Oquilluk had heard at the knee of his grandfather in the early 1900s.

Iceland Ash Darkens Alaskan Skies
Now, more than two centuries after a bitterly cold summer denied the Kauwerak people of western Alaska the chance to collect the food they needed for the next winter, scientists have found powerful evidence that Old Willie's stories were true. An enormous volcanic eruption in far-off Iceland spewed so much ash into the sky that it blackened the sun, and summer really never came in 1783.

Oquilluk was born in 1896, and spent much of his life in a small village on Alaska's Seward Peninsula. Willie became so obsessed with the stories of his people that he began writing them down, but a fire destroyed his log cabin, along with 20 years of

He told often of the sudden change in the weather one June, just as the Eskimos were getting ready to collect the meat and fish and berries during the critical but brief hunting season. But just as summer began to dawn, the north wind came, bringing weather so bitter that the hunting season ended before it could begin.

Of all the villagers in that region, only about 10 survived, Willie recounted, including a mother and her small son who walked at least 215 miles through the bitter cold, with virtually nothing to eat, to finally reach another village where food was available. Two others who survived were an old woman and her granddaughter, who ate a seal-skin boat. (See sidebar, below.)

Tree Rings Record Climate Story
Jump to the present. Gordon Jacoby of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of Columbia University, was spending a little time with old friends, archaeologists Karen and Bill Workman of Anchorage, Alaska. Karen began telling Jacoby of the old legends, then asked a pointed question. The tree ring for 1783 is missing the dark "latewood" part indicating an abrupt, early end to summer.

"Would your trees tell anything about it?" she asked. Jacoby is the co-founder of the Lamont-Doherty Tree Ring Laboratory, and over the past quarter of a century he has collected cores from trees from around the world, including some near the ancient villages of the Kauwerak people.

Jacoby returned to his lab and pulled out the records revealing the growth patterns for trees in that area, and he centered on one particular ring that had intrigued him for years.

"It was unique," Jacoby says.

The growth for the first part of the year, 1783, appeared normal, but it came to "an abrupt end" just as summer should have begun, he says. The record was clear: 1783 was the coldest growing season in more than 900 years. To find out why, Jacoby turned to a very different historical record.

Distant Cataclysm
On June 8, 1783, the Skaptar Jokull volcano in Iceland suddenly roared to life. The Laki eruption, as it came to be known, was one of the most disastrous volcanic events in history. Lava roared down the mountainside, overflowing canyons that were 600 feet deep, destroying 20 villages. About 10,000 people died, mostly from starvation. That was 20 percent of the country's population.

The eruption sent up a dense cloud of sulfur-rich gas. Prevailing winds carried the cloud over the northern tip of Canada and Alaska, and across the Pacific to Japan, where 1783 is also known as the year that summer never came, Jacoby says.

The sulfurous gasses in the cloud combined with water in the upper atmosphere to form crystals of acid that reflected solar radiation back into space, Jacoby says. The result was a sudden and dramatic end of summer. Jacoby's tree ring analysis shows that the impact in North America was limited to only the northernmost area of Alaska. Villages south of Willie's home would have seen some cooling, but nothing like that that nearly wiped out the Kauwerak people.

Oral History Written Twice
Willie's story might have been lost after the fire that destroyed his home, but by chance he met a writer, Laurel L. Bland, who was eager to document the ways of the ancient people of the far north. She persuaded Willie to try to write his stories again.

Willie was already 71 and suffering with palsy, but in September 1970, he and Brand set out in a 14-foot wooden boat to revisit his past. They paused along the barren coastline of northern Alaska where the old villages had been, and Willie began to jot down his memories.

The stories were compiled in a manuscript,
People of Kauwerak: Legends of the Northern Eskimo, and a publisher was found.
In January 1972, Brand and Willie sat down and reviewed the galley proofs of the book. Willie said he was glad the book was finished, and he asked Brand to "take care of it."

The next afternoon, while taking a nap, Willie died quietly in his sleep.

His book is out of print now, and a scientist Willie never met has confirmed summer never came to his people in 1783.

He might have been thrilled by that, and he probably would have marveled at the technology, but he wouldn't have been surprised. Those who knew him say Willie never doubted the truth of his stories.

Two Who Survived
People of Kauwerak: Legends of the Northern Eskimo:

Willie told one story of two people who miraculously survived in the village of Sinruk, 27 miles west of where Nome, Alaska, stands today:

"There was an old lady named Nasaruhk. This means 'hood.' She had a grandchild named Paniruhk. This means 'cute little daughter.' Their home was at the end of the village. It was not a very big house, but they lived in it comfortably.

"They had no one to hunt for them. The people in the village always gave them meat and fish. Whenever they received the meat or fish Grandma always dried them for future use. Whenever they were dry she put them in a poke [skin bag] with seal oil to save for winter time.

"In the summer Nasaruhk and her granddaughter went out and picked all sorts of plants and leaves when they were growing. They saved them in pokes with seal oil, too. People in the village took care of Nasaruhk and Paniruhk because there was no one to take care of them in their house.

"One day the Eskimo calendar came to the first month of the year. It was the moon of April, Nuwaitoivick. This means the time caribou are going to a good dry place to bear fawns. The birds of all kinds came. Snow began to melt. Water began to run in the rivers. The birds laid their eggs.

"Then the clouds began sailing from the north. Soon it was overcast. The wind was getting stronger and stronger. Soon it was getting real cold. A big snowstorm came. In a few days everything was all frozen up and snow was flying in the blowing wind. The winter had started all over again instead of summer time coming. It stayed that way for one whole year. Springtime did not
come again until the next Nuwaitoivick. Then came fine weather.

"People all along the Norton Sound and Bering Sea coast were starving or already dead from hunger. Only the old lady, Nasaruhk, and her granddaughter Paniruhk were left of the Sinruk village. The old lady and the little girl had lived off all the food Nasaruhk had saved up from what people had given them.

"After many months there was not much food left. No one came to Nasaruhk's home to visit. She found everybody there was dead. She went to other houses. It was the same thing. Everybody had starved.

"Nasaruhk went out and walked around to try to see others moving around the village. There were none to see. It seemed all the people were dead. They had starved to death. Even the dogs were all dead."

The two survived, Willie said, by eating skin from a sealskin boat.

Lee Dye's column appears Wednesdays on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

Learn more about volcano research at these sites:

AVO is a cooperative organization that uses federal, state, and university resources to monitor and study Alaska's hazardous volcanoes, to predict and record eruptive activity, and to implement public safety measures
Alaska Volcano Observatory

To study active volcanism, the U.S.Geological Survey's Volcano Hazards Program depends principally on the research and monitoring conducted at three permanent installations: the Hawaiian, Cascades, and Alaska Volcano Observatories.
Volcano Observatories

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