Field Trip: The Shishmaref Tannery

Welcome to the first The Alaska Teacher Field Trip!!!! Inspired by American Dresdner's adventures at the Semperoper and the Striezelmarkt , TAT decided to offer its own adventures (not pretending for a moment that TAT's adventures will be as glamorous and AD's; we here at TAT specialize in more "rustic" experiences).  First up, the Shishmaref Tannery!

This Field Trip comes by way of an accident. During the aforementioned Inupiaq Days (see previous post), I was walking down the hallway when a fellow teacher approached me and said, "We need a staff member to take a group of kids to the tannery." Knowing that all of the secondary teachers were tied up teaching butchering, beading, basket weaving, and other assorted cultural activities, I volunteered to take the kids as long as I had time to change into my boots (walking outside in non-insulated shoes for extended periods of time = bad).

The picture above is us walking to the Shishmaref Tannery. I've been told it's only a half mile away, but it felt SO MUCH FARTHER than that. It might have been the fact that I was only wearing jeans (the kids were all wearing ski pants), so my legs felt like they were going to fall off. It also might have been the fact that I didn't have my face mask with me, so my cheeks were in serious danger of frostbite. I ended up walking with my gloved hands pressed up against my face. (It's kind of embarrassing, but the person that complained the most on the walk to the tannery was me...)

Shishmaref Tannery- Happy Group

These are my happy kids outside tannery. They are filled with overwhelming glee at the thrill of the field trip, as evidenced by the fact that their hands are all raised above their heads.

Shishmaref Tannery- Seal skin

(Note to self: if you walk all the way to the tannery with your camera idiotically outside its case, it will freeze up on you, and you will be unable to take pictures during the actual tour, and you will be forced to take all of your pictures in a mad frenzy during the last thirty seconds of the field trip.)

At the tannery they soak and dry animal skins. I wish I could tell you more details about the process. Unfortunately, I was so busy fiddling with my camera that I didn't listen very well... (TAT's field staff will work on improving technical details during the next Field Trip.) Skins are mailed to the tannery from all across Alaska. The tannery processes them and mails them back to the owners.

The above picture is a seal skin that has been, soaked, stretched, and dried.

Shishmaref Tannery- Like a Large Dryer

After soaking the skins, they are put in this giant spinning machine that acts kind of like a large dryer. The machine spins the skins and makes them soft.

Shishmaref Tannery- Sawdust

They throw handfuls of sawdust into the giant spinning machine.

Shishmaref Tannery- Fabric softener

They also use fabric softener in the giant spinning machine. It totally cracked me up to see big jugs of pink fabric softener next to the big machines. Just think, the same stuff that makes your jammies soft and yummy smelling is used on animal fur!

Shishmaref Tannery- Yellow Seal Skin

This is a seal skin. It is yellowish because it wasn't washed very well before the tanning process. Seal oil discolors seal skins if it's not washed right away.

Shishmaref Tannery- wolf skins

In addition to seal skins, the tannery also processes wolf skins...

(Disclaimer: these pictures were taken by my handsome husband in 2006 when he visited the tannery. I am using these to supplement by photos because of the aforementioned problems with my camera freezing.)

Shishmaref Tannery- Bear Skins

bear skins...

(Disclaimer: if I misidentify any of these animals, I sincerely apologize. Please remember that I have never actually shot any of these animals myself, and I have only eaten a few of them. Thank you.)

Shishmaref Tannery- Polar Bear Skins

polar bear skins...

Shishmaref Tannery- "Other Soft Things"

and other soft things nice for making into coats.

Shishmaref Tannery- Slippers

You can also buy slippers at the tannery. They are made out of seal skin and beaver fur. They are super warm, and I love mine.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable visit to the Shishmaref Tannery, definitely worth the risk of frostbite and frozen legs.