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New Kotzebue garden brings tundra to elders

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 22, 2016
  • Published September 22, 2016

This summer a new garden sprouted in the city of Kotzebue — one made of tundra.

It's rare to see gardens above the Arctic Circle, but staff at the Utuqqanaat Inaat long-term care facility wanted to find a way to make the tundra more accessible to elders living at the facility. So administrator Val Kreil decided to bring the tundra to them.

Kreil said many elders want to head out to pick berries and participate in other subsistence activities, but their health makes it difficult to move around on the uneven tussocks.

The garden brings it to them, with planters set a wheelchair height so patients can easily care for the plants. He scavenged the community for leftover items — broken-down boats, seal oil barrels and even dog sleds — to transform into garden planters. He commissioned someone to build a small umiak as a vessel for the plants.

"We were just trying to think of ways to bring the tundra closer to them," Kreil said. "We used things that are familiar to them."

Kreil said staff at the facility worked over the summer to collect tundra plants for the garden, asking permission from the Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corp. to harvest everything from berries like cranberries and blueberries to sour dock. They even harvested beach greens from the shore.

The garden is the latest step in getting more traditional foods into Utuqqanaat Inaat. Earlier this year a processing center opened that makes it possible to butcher wild game. That allowed traditional meats like musk ox and caribou to be served to elders in the facility.

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