“Whiteout!” Friend, Feb. 1986, 40
John Akpik hunched behind his father on the seat of the snowmobile. The machine clacked noisily as it sped across the tundra snow. Although it was noon, only a faint sun shone above the horizon. However, the brightness of the snow and the filmy clouds overhead lighted the way.
John and his father were speeding from Kivalina to Point Hope to see Grandfather Akpik, who was dying. Grandfather was a storyteller, and John remembered the many times that he had listened to Grandfather tell of the old ways of the Eskimos.
As he thought of his grandfather, John kept a sharp eye on the country that they were passing through. It seemed to be an unrelieved white blanket of snow and ice. Yet, for those who looked closely, the country showed its secret directions: an ice ridge looked like a dog sleeping; wind lines on the snow pointed north; the smooth frozen flatness was the Kukpuk River.
Suddenly Father hollered and pointed to the left. “A whiteout! We’ll have to stop.”
The machine came to a halt. John had seen a whiteout in his village, but he had never been caught in one on the tundra. Now he watched the whiteout sweep toward them. The low clouds over the tundra seemed to gather what light there was and scatter it down. Shadows disappeared. John could still see some things in the distance, but he couldn’t tell how far away they were.
Soon the snowmobile seemed to be encased in light cotton. Without any shadows, the snow mounds, the ridges, the hills all blended together. If he and Father kept going, they might head up an ice ridge and zoom right off the other side, never realizing its height. Or they might see a river and believe it to be a mile away, when it was only several feet away. There was no way to tell by looking.
In spite of the whiteout, John thought that they should keep going. They had to see Grandfather, to say good-bye to him.
Father shook his head. “We can’t travel in a whiteout. It’s too dangerous. We could run into a river with unstable ice and not even know it was there.”
“I could walk ahead,” John said. “Grandfather told me a story once about a driver who walked in front of his dog team in a whiteout. He threw his whip ahead of him, and he could see where it landed and if it was safe to keep going. I have my knife. I could throw the sheath ahead of me and watch where it falls.”
The older man thought for a minute. Then he said, “Let’s try it. We can’t wait here. It might be days before the whiteout lifts.”
John walked ahead of the snowmobile as it inched along. It was like moving in a fog, except that the air was clear. Without shadows, John couldn’t tell if his footing would go up or down with each step. But the sheath, dark against the whiteness around them, told its story and helped them each time John tossed it. It fell low in the dips of the snow, it landed high when the land sloped up, and it clattered noisily against any snow cliffs in their path. Progress was slow but steady. Each footstep brought them that much closer to Point Hope.
And just as suddenly as it had arrived, the whiteout faded away. Shadows appeared around them and deepened. Slopes showed their heights, and ridges disclosed their depths. The snowmobile could now go fast without the great danger that the whiteout had caused.
“Grandfather helped us,” John said. “This time I will tell him a story. I will tell him how a great storyteller helped rescue his son and grandson.”