KOTZEBUE, Alaska -- A small group of uniformed men made their way across what seemed to be an endless white desert, their gloves and beanies did little to break the bitter-cold wind hitting their already pink faces and blue fingers. In front of them was a massive body of frozen water; behind them, a long workday.
With careful steps, 11 Marines and sailors with 4th Medical Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group, Marine Forces Reserve, all members of the advanced party, made their way across five-foot thick ice to a different kind of classroom. The lesson? Ice fishing. Inupiaq natives offered to teach the Marines and sailors of 4th Medical Bn. how to ice fish, April 11. After working hours, the group snowmobiled to the outskirts of Kotzebue, the town where a humanitarian program, Innovative Readiness Training Arctic Care began April 15. “It’s an amazing experience,” said Cpl. Jesus Godiez of 4th Medical Bn. “I have been fishing before, but ice fishing was a whole different thing.” Godiez credits the experience with helping him learn about local customs and how the Inupiaq survive in such an extreme climate. The Marines helped the locals drill holes in the ice using an auger. After Jung In, a local fishing enthusiast, gave the Marines a quick lesson on how to operate the machine, they jumped in and began drilling the ice in fishing “hot spots” he pointed out along the Kotzebue Sound.
“They were really eager to help out with the catch,” said In, an information technician at Maniilaq Health Center.
However, drilling holes in the ice turned out to be the easy part. The Marines and sailors found it difficult to catch anything, leaving the Sound with a measly four fish; they vowed to return another day and redeem themselves.
As more servicemembers began arriving for the exercise, Godiez said they heard about the ice fishing voyages and wanted to take part. In and the servicemembers arranged another trip to the Kotzebue Sound, April 17, this time with high hopes of a “perfect catch.”
The temperature was below zero degrees Fahrenheit and made fishing difficult, but it did not freeze their determination to catch more of the Sheefish unique to the waters of the Sound. Much to their chagrin, the Marines and sailors spent two hours in foxholes they dug in the snow only to come away empty-handed. However, their disappointment didn’t last long because they had something else to look forward to: a feast made from the previous trip’s catch
Since fish are such a large part of the Inupiaq natives’ diet, during cold winter months they prepare the fish differently. Kaylen Kim, a Maniilaq Health Center employee, treated service members to a Korean-style, Sheefish soup she prepared herself. Supposedly Kim has a secret recipe that makes her soup the best. “It was true,” said Godiez, a native of Fontana, Calif. “The soup was very good.” As Marines sat and ate around the table, Kim joked about her specialty soup, which she calls Kotzebue soup.
“You can only catch the Sheefish around here, in the Kotzebue Sound,” said Kim. “The Sound calls you to fish, “she added. It certainly called to the Marines and sailors who supported IRT Arctic Care 2013.
IRT Arctic Care is a multi-service humanitarian and training program that focuses on enhancing the capability of U.S. forces in peacetime support operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. IRT Arctic Care brings medical, dental and veterinary aid to 12 rural villages of Alaska. The exercise is primarily a Reserve effort with Marine Forces Reserve taking the lead and receiving logistical and medical support from the National Guard, Army Reserve, Navy Reserve and Air Force Reserve.