Northern Science

Chapter 1


Introduction to Northern Science
I remember my first boat ride on the Kuskokwim River. I was twenty years old at the time. The pilot, Sam Yako, told me not to worry about breaking down. He said he had an "extra engine just in case". We broke down. I didn't know what to think when he got out the "extra engine". It was a box of old rusty parts, pistons, coils, hoses, bent props, and stuff. Somehow he got us going again. I don't know how. I started to learn about Alaskan people then. They never seem to be stuck. They always think of something.

Using this book


This icon indicates an activity. It is an indication that there is an opportunity to do something "hands-on".


This icon indicates an activity that requires close teacher supervision. There are truly no safe activities Those with this icon require greater attention.

snow machine

This little icon is a tent. It indicates the end of an idea. It is used in the text to help separate thoughts. A tent is a camping place, a stopping place.

Another time, years ago, we were out in the woods and ran out of matches.
· My partner took the spark plug out of the chainsaw.
· He put the plug cap back on the spark plug.
· He pushed the wet bark in the gap of the plug.
· He held the plug against the cylinder.
· I pulled on the starter cord.
· The plug sparked, and lit the gas on the birch bark.
· We made our fire from the flaming bark.

Now, that is a tough and dangerous way to get a fire going, but real Northern people are never stuck. They always think of something.

Later, when a few more snowmachines came into the country, I was moving from Red Devil Mine to Sleetmute in the spring. The snow was very soft. I met Matfi on the trail. He was hauling two drums of stove oil with his little 1972 twelve hp Skidoo. He had a piece of plywood hanging from the handlebar. I asked him, "How come?" He lifted the plywood, and I saw that he had the spark plug lashed into the cylinder with a beaver snare. Someone had borrowed his machine and stripped the spark plug hole. He tied the plug into the engine with the snare. The plywood was to keep the spark plug from shooting him in the chest if it escaped the snare

Matfi was never stuck!

He was also very kind. He was hauling the stove oil for someone else.

I was a science major in college for two years before I came to Alaska. During the first year I arrived in '66, we were hunting on the lower Holitna River, old Sinka Zaukar, his son Antone and I. Antone had just graduated from high school in Chimewa Oregon, and he didn't know much more than I did.


We wanted to impress old Sinka. When it was time to make camp, we jumped in and out of the boat unloading gear. The Holitna is very muddy down by the mouth of the river. By the second or third trip, we had made a terrible mess in the boat, and our boots were so heavy we could barely lift them. The old man never said a word. He reached out of the boat, cut some willows, threw them on the surface of the mud, and walked up the bank with clean feet.

I really felt stupid. They don't teach that stuff in college or in Chemawa, Oregon.


Another time we were hunting up the Hoholitna River with two boats. It is very swift and narrow far up the river. I had an aluminum boat. My father-in-law followed me in a wooden boat. I took a corner too hard as we worked our way through a channel filled with driftwood. I hit the back corner of the aluminum boat against a drift log. Water started squirting into the boat. We beached the boat after we got through the dangerous part. I didn't know what to do. Water kept leaking in through the crack I had made. At my father in law's direction, we:
· Cleaned the boat around the leak
· Gathered spruce gum,
· Heated it in a can over a campfire,
· Added just enough motor oil to make it flexible when cooled,
· Stirred them together, and
· Applied the sticky spruce gum/oil mixture to the crack in the boat.

It worked! I thought I would fix the crack better when I got home, but not a drop of water leaked into the boat for the next two years.

Years afterward, I made another hole, a bigger one this time. The spruce gum solution didn't work. We mixed a little beaver fur with the spruce gum to make it hold together. That patch lasted a long time too. The fur worked in the spruce gum the way reinforcing steel works in concrete.

I later learned that when old timers chinked their cabins with mud, they often put moose hair in the mud. Moose hair holds the mud together in the same way.

Fiberglass resin would crack if it weren't for the fibers in the cloth. The idea is the same.



There's always a trick to learn, or a new way to think to solve any problem. Problem solving starts with knowing there is a solution, and confidently looking for it. After a few years, I started to learn a few things.

One time I was 120 miles up the Holitna river. I had fuel pump problems with my outboard motor. When I took the pump apart, I ruined the cork gasket. We rummaged around the boat looking for material to make a new gasket. We looked for a material that could:
· Flex
· Be cut with a knife,
· Resist gasoline, and
· Be airtight

We settled on a piece of leather from my gun case. We carefully carved and punched holes in the piece of leather and assembled the pump. When I sold the motor two years later, it still had the leather gasket. There was no need to buy a new one.

My fuel pump went bad on another motor. There was no way to fix it on the spot, so I:
· Put the tank on top of a fifty-five gallon fuel drum
· Hooked the fuel line straight to the carburetor, by-passing the fuel pump.

Gravity fed the fuel to the carburetor. I didn't need a fuel pump as long as the tank was higher than the carburetor. I enjoy being creative and not being helpless.

Several years ago, when I was in Hawaii, I spent a night with one of the locals. He was going to enter a spear fishing championship the next day. He needed to put new barbs on his spears but couldn't drill the hardened steel shaft of the spears. I put some of my Alaskan skills to work.

· I heated the shaft red hot in the propane burner, and let it cool slowly. This softened the steel.
· I sharpened his drill bits. We drilled the holes like drilling butter.
· I made rivets out of nails, and fastened the barbs to the shaft.

I had learned how to work iron a little bit when making ice picks, stoves, sled brakes and Alaskan style fishing spears. Northern skills work anywhere!

He called me "an island boy" before the night was over. He won second place in the spear fishing championship.


1) What did Matfi do to keep the spark plug from shooting him in the chest?

2) Explain how to mix spruce gum to fix a leaky boat.

3) What is the difference between a college education and an education out in the woods?

4) What is the relationship between fixing a spear in Hawaii and bypassing the fuel pump to gravity feed gasoline to the outboard motor?

5) In your own words, describe how you think the old timers were scientists.

Why Study Science?

When I was young, I thought the world was a pretty exciting place. I also thought it was very scary. Science helped me understand things. Science helped me to be comfortable with the physical world. The more I understood, the more I was in control of my environment, and the less I was controlled by unknown forces. I felt safer.

Familiar situations

Whenever I meet new people I am a little uncomfortable until I get to know them. Once I know them, I am comfortable because I know what to expect of them. In the same way, when I meet a new situation, I am uncomfortable. Once I understand what is happening, I relax. Science always helps me understand and feel safer.

As I grew older, I started seeing patterns. I started seeing relationships between things. I started seeing how things worked and how to use them to my advantage. What really excited me was learning a concept or principle in one problem and recognizing the same concept or principle in another situation. I often could predict what would happen.

I learned about the law of inertia when I was about 10 years old. The rear tire of my bicycle kept cutting the valve stem on the tube, leaving me with frequent flat tires. I thought about it for quite a while. I finally realized that slamming on the brakes, as 10 year olds are apt to do, stopped the outer tire, but inertia kept the tube spinning. Several quick stops jammed the stem of the tube into the sharp steel rim, and soon I had a flat tire. The cure was to wrap the valve stem with tape to protect it and bend the edge of the rim so it wasn't as sharp. My previous experiences with inertia helped me picture in my mind what was happening within the tire where I couldn't observe the problem.


I feel good every time I learn a science concept. I see how it works in one place, and I soon find it working in many others. It is like meeting an old friend in a new place.


We visited Hawaii. The climate and cultures are very different from Alaska, yet I saw similarities. In Alaska, people with glasses have to wipe the fog from their glasses when they come in from the cold. In Hawaii, each island has a wet and a dry side. I thought about it for a little while, and discovered that condensation is working in both situations. I could predict from a map which side of each island would be wet or dry. I could understand why the windows in the rental car fogged up at night when it was rainy. I understood why my windows frosted at -40° in Alaska. One simple understanding gave me insight into many situations.

Science knowledge

In the days when we depended on dog sleds and boats to carry all of our supplies, we had to decide what things we would take and what ones we would leave behind. "Load" was always important. Many times we would have to leave something or someone behind because the load was too great. I used to haul all the supplies for our family 100 miles upriver from the trading post.

Science knowledge and understanding are wonderful because they:

· can be carried anywhere.
· are always useful,
· weigh nothing (no load),
· are never in the way until needed,
· can help us whether we are in the city or the woods, Alaska or the lower 48.


As you read and work from this book you will often ask, "Where is the answer to this question? I can't find it." My answer to your question is, "It's in your own head. You'll have to find it yourself." Alaskans are never stuck!

About My Family & I

My family and I have lived in McGrath, Alaska, for over fifteen years. All of our children went to high school here. Most of our ten grandchildren were born here or Anchorage.

Before living in McGrath, our children were raised in small villages and towns, Sleetmute, Red Devil, Lime Village, Aniak, and Telida. All these villages are on the Kuskokwim River although we have relatives from Nondalton to the Yukon.

I first came to Alaska in 1966. I was twenty then. There were only two snowmachines on that part of the Kuskokwim river. Everyone else had sled dogs for transportation. People thought snowmachines were great, but they were hesitant to buy one. No one wanted to appear to be better than another.

Now, we all have two or three battered snowmachines under or behind our houses. Back then we used to say, "Dogs are better. They never break down, and you don't need gas or parts." But I can remember some terrible dogfights, chewed harnesses and long walks home when they ran away, and lots of other things we wouldn't admit.

Times have changed. Years ago the rich people had snowmachines, and we poor people had dogs. Now it seems that mostly doctors, lawyers and rich people have dogs, and everyone else has a snowmachine.

My wife, Helen, was born and raised in Lime Village. My first trip to Lime Village in the late sixties was like a trip in a time machine. No store, no runway, no electricity, no mail, no roads, no phone, no running water. There were lots of dogs, lots of open country, and lots of animals to hunt.

We have five children that we raised up out in the woods. In later years we lived in McGrath.

Anna is married now. She is teaching in Lime Village. Elizabeth is married, living in McGrath with five children of her own. William got his degree in electronics and works for the Federal Aviation Administration maintaining communication and navigation equipment all over the state of Alaska. He has one son, Daniel.

Rachel attended Seattle Art Institute, and works for a media company in San Diego. Wayne is married with three sons. He has worked construction from Alaska to Hawaii, Massachusetts and Brazil.


I love science, I love life in the Alaskan bush, and I love to teach. Hopefully they come together in this book.

Seventeen years ago I wrote a book, Village Science. In it I described the things we do in villages. I thought the little book would die out after a while, but people are still copying it and asking for copies. In that book, I put together two things:

1. The education I got in school
2. The practical things I learned from elders and my Alaskan experience.

This book follows the first one, but takes the student to a new level of understanding.

I have struggled for a name for this book.

"How Not to Get Stuck" or
"How to Think Your Way Out of Almost Anything."
Or maybe
"How to Feel Safer in the World because You Understand It Better." Or
"How Not to Be Stuck in Modern North Country."

Look at the cover to see what I finally decided.

I ASK...

I'm going to ask one thing of each student who uses this book. There will be many opportunities to share your thoughts and comments with the whole class. I would feel badly if people used the opportunities presented by the activities in this book to put other people down. The purpose of this book is to build people up, not put them down. As I have written the activities, I have seen places where a student could easily say something harmful or helpful about other students. Example: When you classify people in your group, don't sort by attributes that would embarrass anyone.

Please be helpful, not hurtful.

Well, I told you some things about myself, my family and my history. Your assignment is to write to me and tell me about yourself. I can't answer every letter, but I will read them. I like stories about people who use their heads to solve problems. With your permission, I might use your stories in the final copy of this book.

Write to me at:

McGrath, Alaska 99627


1) The purpose of this book is to ________ people up, not _________ them down.

2) How is meeting a new person in a new situation like meeting a new problem you don't know how to solve?

3) Compare the advantages and disadvantages of owning a snowmachine and dogs between the time of the early seventies and now. Ask the elders for insight.

4) How many stories can you gather from your village about people who used their wits to avoid being stuck.

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