Deeanne Burch is a deceptively gentle woman, but super strong when she needs to be. In her travel memoir, Journey Through Fire and Ice: Shattered Dreams Above the Arctic Circle she recounts life in a remote Inuit village. She tells it like it is -- and it gets scary. But she prevails.
We begin with her comfortable early life in Canada centering on Toronto and the lake nearby, and memories of her storybook honeymoon in Europe with Tiger, her new husband who is doing a study of an isolated fishing village on an island in northern Alaska.
Deeanne talks of the primitive setting, customs, socialization, and challenging chores like drying fish and cutting blubber. And she has trouble eating foods like raw seal liver.
There are moments of beauty, but a disastrous ice camping excursion is followed by an even more devastating experience a few days later with an oil lantern -- which results in a frightening outcome, and having to leave.
She and Tiger eventually return to finish the study, but both have changed, and learned. Deanne's story brings up questions about society, resilience and reality. And she ends our conversation with an interesting memory.
Deanne Burch writes children's books and is a photographer. Visit www.Deanneburch.com, or follow her on Facebook at @DeanneBurchAuthor. Journey Through Fire and Ice: Shattered Dreams Above the Arctic Circle is available from Amazon.com .
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.com. Please follow, rate and review this weekly travel podcast!
* Transcript edited for clarity.
Lea Lane 0:04
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.
Places I Remember focuses on destinations, travel topics, and often inspiring stories of people, places and experiences from travel around the world. For example, in Episode 21, we talked with Jim Davidson, who was climbing Everest when there was the strongest earthquake ever in Nepal, and he summited. In Episode 20, we talked with actor Stephen Bishop and his mother Leslie about the realities of traveling during the Jim Crow era, and now as black travelers, In episodes 14 and 15, my son Randall, Chief Content Editor of Forbes, told stories of his extreme adventures from Liberia to Syria to running with the bulls in Pamplona.
Lea Lane 1:03
This episode's incredible story features Deeanne Burch, an author who suffered tragedy and dealt with primitive conditions living in a remote barrier island off Alaska's Arctic coast over 50 years ago, Deeanne's new memoir about this experience, her journey through fire and ice and shattered dreams above the Arctic Circle. Welcome, Deanne. Well, I read your memoir, I couldn't put it down. You manage to not only tell a harrowing story, but also give us a real sense of place about a desolate island, and a stoic people living above the Arctic Circle. Before we get to your big adventure, let's start by talking a bit about your life before. You were born and raised in Canada, and attended the University of Toronto. Tell us a bit about Canada in the 1950s and 60s.
Deeanne Burch 1:50
Well, we certainly were just on the edge. Least Toronto was just on the edge of being a great city, theaters and started to open up and there were wonderful restaurants. And it was a place that I was very sorry to leave. However, I do have a summer home just 120 miles above Toronto. So I get to Toronto occasionally. Haven't been there for a couple of years because of the pandemic.
Lea Lane 2:17
I love. But it's that lakes name, but as the lakes name, Lake Muskoka.
Deeanne Burch 2:21
It's, it's a beautiful, it's a beautiful area. And I finally got there this summer after last summer, it was first time in 54 years, I would go on there. So this summer, it was definitely a treat for me to get there and be part of, you know, be part of my friends in my life up there.
Lea Lane 2:43
Is it still as beautiful as you remembered?
Deeanne Burch 2:48
Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I probably thought it was even more beautiful, because I hadn't been there for a year. But yes. And my friends were all there. It was an incredible experience just being there.
Lea Lane 2:59
Some of the things you mentioned, I relate to, you had a long honeymoon in Europe. And in the book, you mentioned some of your favorite places that you remember on that trip and how it affected you. Can you share a couple of memories of your honeymoon? Tell us about it.
Deeanne Burch 3:12
I guess, really, I have so many places that I loved. When we went on our honeymoon probably, which isn't even mentioned in my memoir. I was going to Norway, because I had a friend that lived there. And she and her husband owned a moose preserve. So we had the most wonderful moose for dinner one night, it tasted so much better than roast beef. Really, it was just a treat being in Norway. I loved all the places we were, I think probably because I’m of Scottish descent. I love Scotland and I would love to go back there.
Lea Lane 3:49
Well, I hope you do. It's all those places you're talking about, beautiful. Your memoir focuses on the summer of 1964 when you were 23 years old, and you accompanied your husband Tiger to the remote into an island village of Kivalina, Alaska. Tiger was conducting a study of the people there. And you were a city girl, you write that you're unprepared for what you were about to experience. You wrote that you thought you would instinctively adapt to this difficult way of life. And you seemed to think that love would conquer all. How did that work out?
Deeanne Burch 4:23
Ah, it didn't. I think I thought that when we went up there that we were going on an adventure together. And he was so immersed in his work that I found it very difficult to really adapt. And also of course he wanted me to do everything that the we call them now Inuit but at that point we did refer to them as Eskimos and they even referred to themselves as Eskimos at that point. But he wanted me to do everything that the women up there did. I had to cut up seals and render the blubber into seal oil, had to dry the fashion, cut up clean and cut up and dry the fish. Basically, I did everything that the native women did. And I tried to adapt, it was very difficult, because they were always very suspicious of white women who came to the village. Tiger said that they were so used to women saying that they were dirty, and, you know, just lived in little shacks. And I guess in a way that's true. Their houses were very small, very small. They were all one room houses. With the exception of our house. I felt that perhaps I was the lucky one. I was living like a queen compared to the rest of the villagers.
Lea Lane 5:43
Well, you wrote in the book of waking up from a dream, “Colors a Catalina were an echo of my life there. The grays mirrored my loneliness and isolation. The soft whispers of pink Mo, offered my fragments of hope.” What are some of the reasons, beyond what you said, that it didn't work out? The difficulty, for example of going back home, you wrote, There were four plane trips to get home and no phones. And the news came by mail every 10 days, did that really affect you? Every day? You thought about that kind of thing?
Deeanne Burch 6:13
Well, I think I was really lonely. I missed my family. My first niece was about to be born. And I had been asked to be godmother, but I had to turn it down. Because I didn't think it was fair because originally we were going to be away for two years. And I just didn't think I could be a good godmother to her. So I turned that down. And I just missed being at home. It was very difficult being in a land and in a culture that I knew nothing about. And yet I think gradually I began to adapt to the culture. I know what was difficult, just as I was really adapting to the culture, of course, my husband, the tragedy hit.
Lea Lane 6:54
Well, we'll talk about that in a minute. But just I was reading, you were having situations that most of us can't imagine, there was no plumbing. There was no running water. And electricity wasn't available in your home. So give us a few specifics about that. What was that like?
Deeanne Burch 7:12
The plumbing was a little difficult, because we had a shack, we lived in a house. But of course the toilet wasn't inside the house. It was in a storage room outside. So every time we had to use the toilet, we had to go outside and go into this shack, or at least into the storage room where it was. And that was a little difficult because of course you had to put on your parka to get outside.
Lea Lane 7:39
You write that it's 30 below Fahrenheit, sometimes there.
Deeanne Burch 7:42
Sometimes it wasn't that cool. But a lot of the time it was this. So living without plumbing, for me was very difficult. I was kind of a modest person. It was just a very difficult thing. Living without electricity was probably more difficult for me. Because when Tiger wasn't home, I had to light the kerosene lanterns. And as a child, I had always been terrified of fire. For some reason I used to dream that I was in the lake and I was surrounded by fire. I don't know whether it was a premonition of what was going to happen in my life. Because of course, we did end up in that kind of a situation in a way. I would put off lighting the kerosene lanterns as long as I could, because I was afraid that I was going to get burned by the kerosene lantern.
Lea Lane 8:33
Right. Tell us about some of the foods you ate that you had to eat while you were there.
Deeanne Burch 8:39
Actually, we did eat a lot of canned food. We had, one night I didn't know what to cook. And I had been cutting up seals all day and all of a sudden inspiration. I thought, Oh, I know what I can do. I can cut up the seal liver for dinner. So unfortunately, no bacon, but we did have onioins. And I cooked up some kind of rotten, well, they were not the best sign in say it started to sprout. But I cut up the onions, I fried the liver. And believe it or not the liver was better than cow's liver. Yeah, it was very, very good.
Lea Lane 9:14
I remember I traveled to Greenland and I went to a market and I saw the seal liver all over. And I spoke to people who ate it and they said it took the place very often of the vegetables, there was so few vegetables, the vitamins in the liver were similar and it was very important to eat that.
Deanne Burch 9:31
We also of course, if we went on a trip, we would take along dried fish and seal oil because that was what would keep us warm on the trip. Certainly wasn't my favorite kind of food. But it did keep us warm and it was easy to transport.
Lea Lane 9:47
Tell us about some of your camping trips, that was very interesting to read about.
Deeanne Burch 9:51
Well, the first camping trip we went on was in the summer, we went up to a place called Cape Thompson which was an absolutely beautiful place, and we had taken along dried fish and seal oil to eat and taken along our two dogs with us. When we got up to the cape, and we realized that we couldn't stay there, because there was so many waves that we were afraid that our boat was going to drift away. When we were out there on the way up person from the Arctic lab, the backend, we had the best lunch since we had had since we had left home. We had everything. It was wonderful food. And then on our way back, we were back again, by the same people, they gave us three or four steaks to take home with us, which was just a real treat because we hadn't eaten steaks. And of course, they gave us fresh fruit. And I said to Tiger, I feel like we're charity cases. But he certainly didn't feel that way. He was thrilled to have the steaks. That was a wonderful experience. And the Cape Thompson was absolutely beautiful. There were birds up there that were nesting on the ledges, it was just a fabulous experience. We also went on a kind of a camping trip, it was called Fish Camp. And that was different because the woman and I that were there did all the cooking for the men. And the men would come in hungry and they'd eat separately.
Deeanne Burch 11:15
And I think I said in my memoir, that one night there was no talking, there was no laughter. And I said to Sarah, what's going on, and Sarah put her hand to her mouth. And she shook her head. That night when Tiger came into that camp, he said, we think we heard the inner can which were wild, the wild people up there considered the wild people. So we sat with our backs against the tent. And then he said, do you hear anything right now? And I said no, but I guess really, they had been visited by the wild people. And that to me was a little bit scary because I didn't want to go out of town. And I was afraid that the wild people were going to be around. I was also afraid of bears. And I was afraid of many things. So basically, Sara and I stayed in the tent the whole time unless we had to go outside to relieve ourselves. So that was quite an interesting experience. Our third camping trip, however, was a camping trip. That was a total disaster. Well, that's part of the story. The third camping trip we went on was one day after Thanksgiving. And Tiger had decided that it would be nice for us to get away from the village. I kind of wondered why we weren't going someplace else. I thought, oh, you know, we could go outside. Maybe we could go to Anchorage. But no, if we went to Anchorage, I'd never want to come back to the village,
Deeanne Burch 12:36
We hit up our dog team. And we went 30 miles up the river to where Tiger had a fish cash up there. And on the way up, I was so cold that I thought my feet were gonna freeze and Tiger said, Well, you have to get off the sled and you have to run a while. I guess I shouldn't have been so stupid. But he didn't tell me that. So I got off the sled and I ran a little bit and then I would get back on the sled. So I was panting harder than the dogs were because it was very hard for me to keep up with the dogs. We got there. And it was probably around maybe two in the afternoon. And the sky was already peach, a peach color and it was getting dark. So Tiger set up the tent as quickly as he could. And we got warm. And I took off my mukluks and started to warm up my feet. And he said, Well, let's go out for a walk. And so I put on my mukluks. And just as we got to the door, we heard a dog team. And we thought we were going to be alone for those three nights that we were out there. But oh no. The first night one of the villagers arrived and said, I didn't bring my camping gear. But is it okay if I stay here for the night? And I thought oh no, there goes our steak dinner. So we're gonna have to get up fast. And we're gonna have to get up the seal oil which we did. And Tiger actually, he was kind of happy that this visitor had arrived because he knew that he was going to learn all kinds of things. In the meantime we had our tent kind of at the top of a bluff. And finally when we were just both getting ready for bed, I decided I better go out and relieve myself. And I fell down the block and it was perfect snow for snow angels. But of course I didn't feel like making snow angels at that point. And I walked up and they laughed at me. I felt like the Abominable Snowman. But honestly, I wondered if in the middle of the night the same thing happened. And they were sound asleep what would happen to me. And the next morning Bobby took off. And I thought Oh good. Now we're going to have a nice day together. So Tiger went out, worked on his fish camp class for a while, and I just kind of stayed in the tent and kept warm, and then Tiger decided that we would take a moonlight walk and I said Oh good. That's great. I'd love to do that. So we left the house and all of a sudden, another dog team arrived, and this time it was another person from the village, and I guess they just really wanted to come up and see what we were doing. I don't know. But that's my impression. Lowell stayed that night. And I actually, by that point, I was really frustrated. So I just sat in the tent, and I sulked, because we had to eat the fish and seal oil again. And that wasn't what we had planned at all. Well, the third day, Lowell left in the morning, and Tiger said, Let's go ice fishing. And so I don't really know if I want to go ice fishing, it's really, really cold. By this time, it was probably 30 or 35 below. He says, Oh, come on, it's gonna be fun. So we went up, we really didn't do any ice fishing at all, because I got too cold. And on our way back, we ran into, for the natives who are camped further up the river, it's a good job, we ran into the. Tiger, talked to them for a while. And he told us that Bobby went up. And they said, nobody's going to visit your campsite tonight because it's going to be too cold. In fact, we almost decided to leave, but we're staying on for a few days. So Tiger and I went back to the tent, and he tried to turn on the Coleman stove. And the stove was plugged. By this time, I think it was probably maybe around six at night. So we worked for an hour trying to fix the stove. And he couldn't fix the stove. So we said well, we were not going to survive the night. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to, we had another little tent with us, he said I'm going to make a teepee out of the tent, and we're going to be fine, we'll just light a fire in the teepee. And he said, but whatever you do, don't let your arm or you don't let your foot or whatever it was go into the teepee. So he's standing there, and his foot goes into the teepee. And of course, our tent burned up, and it burned up all around us. And we were left with nothing. So he said, Well, we're going to have to go up river, it's the only way we're going to survive. And so we started to load the tent. And all of a sudden, my knee went on me and that had not happened to me since high school, I couldn't believe that that would happen. So Tiger had to load me on to the sled with the sleeping bags on top of me to keep warm. And we hoped that we would find a way out there. And for a while, we knew we were on the right trail.
Deeanne Burch 17:19
But all of a sudden, we realized that we had lost the trail. Finally, we got on the right trail again. And we did arrive at the natives’ camp site. And they didn't even wake up when we got there. We just kind of climbed over the beds and and put our sleeping bag down, went to sleep. But the next morning I woke up and I was so sick. So we had to stay at the campsite until we could go home. And our trip home was sort of interesting, all of a sudden a wind blew and the dogs were being pulled across sheer ice. And finally we made it to the other side. And I was never so glad in all my life to see the kerosene lanterns that were flickering, almost wondered if it was a dream at that point, but we got home. And one of the women came over to see how we how we had survived the camping trip. And I of course she saw I was freezing cold. So she said, I'm going to pull up my parka and my dress. And so she put my feet on her belly to keep me warm. Which was another way I guess the natives survived. I also learned later that they buried themselves under the snow to keep warm and had a little air hole and hoped that somebody would come along and rescue them. I couldn't have done that.
Lea Lane 18:36
Well, a few days later, real disaster struck. You had the ice part for the first disaster, and the fire part for the second, which do you want to talk about?
Deeanne Burch 18:49
Well, I guess it was six days after our fateful camping trip, which we really didn't think it was fateful. We were sitting around and I was getting ready to cook dinner. And I really thought that I was holding Tiger back, then I talked to him a little bit. He said, Well, for a while I think you were but he said, You survived that camping trip so well that I think you could survive anything at this point. And so then he said, Do you want to go to Anchorage after Christmas? Oh my god. I was so excited. I couldn't believe that he would want to take me to Anchorage. And I was busy fantasizing just what our trip was going to be like. I then told him that it was time to have dinner. And I was still fantasizing about it when he tried to light the Coleman lantern. And the fumes blew up in his face. And he got me out of the house. And he obviously went back and saved his notes. But his rendition of the whole thing was that he ran in to save his notes and he ran through a wall of fire with his hands over his face. Now I know in my heart of hearts that he was burned initially when that fire blew up in his face, because his hands were very badly burned, and his ears left off. So, unfortunately, of course, we were without medical help. So finally I stood outside and I screamed, I didn't know what else, I think I was in my stocking feet. And I just stood there, I was frozen to the ground, and I screamed.
Deeanne Burch 20:26
Finally, a young kid came along, and he ran to get help. And there was so much smoke in the house, that they had to go back to the armory and get gas masks in order to get into the house. In the meantime, I had run around to the back, really not thinking because I could have possibly started the fire again. I had known when I was outside that if I went in that probably the whole house would burn down. I don't know how I knew that. Maybe it was just gut instinct. I could see Tiger through the window. And I knew I had to go in, I just knew I did. Even though the room was so full of smoke. I ran in and I wondered if he was dead. And I think he was waiting to die when the men took them out of the, took him out of the building. And the first place I took them was over to the minister's house. Mildred Sage, the postmaster, she came over in all the smoke, grabbed my Eddie Bauer parka, and rushed me over to where the minister was. By this time, there was a whole bunch of people there praying and I certainly didn't want them there. I wanted to be alone. Then the man took Tiger over to the schoolhouse where he was laid on a mattress and I was there. And I guess the nurse was there too. And they didn't know very much about burns. And unfortunately, well, I mean, I understand why they didn't. So the Chief people looked after Tiger. And every time he took a breath, I thought it was gonna be his last breath. Finally, the school teacher tried to get through to Kotzebue to send a plane up and he couldn't get through. And I said, what's wrong? Why can't a plane get through? Well, we can't get hold of them because it's so cold. Finally, they said that they would send the plane up as quickly as possible. I think it was around 10 o'clock that the plane arrived. And we've been without medical help for 17 hours. By this time, I thought Oh, thank god, as soon as they get the car together, they're going to be able to help them. So as loaded on the plane the whole village came behind us, which was really kind of wonderful. They were there to lend us their support. We got on the plane, landed in Kotzebue, and were taken by ambulance to the hospital. They took one look at him and they said, he can't stay here, we have to send him to Anchorage. The doctor told me that he didn't think Tiger was going to survive.
Lea Lane 22:47
Well, I know this is a terrible ordeal even to discuss at this point. But I know he spent three months back in the mainland US hospital receiving treatment for the burns. And then you returned to Kivolina to complete the study that he started. You had the resilience, both of you, to come back. I know that these life-threatening and harrowing experiences transformed you and you've learned how to embrace challenge, certainly. After the journey, you and Tiger eventually settled in Pennsylvania, you spent 30 years as a professional photographer, you taught and lectured. And since retiring in 2014, you've devoted yourself to writing short stories and children's stories. Now, Deanne, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. You've given us many stories. But could you end by giving us one of your most special of all?
Deeanne Burch 23:43
Well, probably my most special memory would be that I had the resilience to return to the village. That was all Tiger wanted to do. I didn't want to return. But when I did return, we were embraced by the whole community. So that probably is my most special memory of mine.
Lea Lane 23:59
That's beautiful to think of that, that you after all of this and all of the difficulties that connections were there. And people all over the world connect through situations that are difficult, and that's one of the wonderful things about travel, is the connection to the people. Do you know if climate change has affected the village?
Deeanne Burch 24:21
They went to the government and asked for funds to relocate the village. And were successful in doing this. And right now the school has been built. I believe that is 12 miles up river from where Kivalina is, apparently by 2025, Kivalina will be underwater and will no longer exist. Now that's a tragedy. It is, you think of the you think of the people that have lived there for centuries, and all of a sudden have to move because of climate change.
Lea Lane 24:55
Thank you so much for sharing these amazing memories with us. We can all become more resilient travelers if we open our hearts and embrace the challenges that are bound to come our way when we travel. Again, your book is Journey through Fire and Ice: Shattered Dreams above the Arctic Circle. Thanks again and keep traveling.
Do you have a travel story worth sharing with Places I Remember, listeners around the world? If you do, please contact me at the links I put at the end of each episode’s show notes. And on my website, PlacesIRememberLea Lane.com Tell me about your story. And I promise to get back to you. And maybe we'll talk on the podcast.
Lea Lane 25:43
Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.