Book Extract: Journey Through Fire And Ice, Or Alive In Alaska

November 20, 2021

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At the age of twenty-three, Deanne Burch accompanied her husband, Ernest “Tiger” Burch to the Inuit village of Kivalina, Alaska, a barrier island 23 miles above the Arctic Circle. Over fifty years later, in Journey Through Fire and Ice: Shattered Dreams Above the Arctic Circle she remembers the young girl who left on an unknown journey. A journey that will live in her heart forever. This excerpt is published by permission.



Last night I dreamt I was back in Kivalina, Alaska, with my husband, Tiger. We were young, in our twenties, recently married  with a bright future ahead of us. In my dream it was late spring, when the sun never set and people wandered from house to house at all times of the day and night. The country was awake with tiny wildflowers, though the temperature rarely rose above forty-five degrees Fahrenheit. The sea ice was the color of aquamarines and it sparkled in the sunlight. Sometimes the sky turned white as the fog rolled in, obscuring everything for miles around.

In my dream the scene quickly morphed into a winter painted in muted pastels—dove-gray hills in the distance, with the snow reflecting pinks and mauves when the sun was low. A perpetual glow toured the horizon for a few days in late fall, but by early December there was no light at all. The colors of Kivalina were an echo of my life there: the grays mirrored my loneliness and isolation, the soft whispers of pinks and mauves offered me fragments of hope.

In this dream, shaking, I struggled to light the kerosene lantern, our only form of light. Oh God, what if it ignites in my face? I worried. I gave this job to Tiger when he was home, but he wasn’t around. The room was cold as the wind howled through the cracks and crevices of our dwelling. I didn’t want to be here for another winter.

When I woke, even wrapped in blankets, I shivered and my feet were ice cold. I reached over to touch my husband and instead was met with an empty place and a sense of overwhelming loss. He wasn’t there.

I climbed out of bed and stepped out onto the deck at our cottage in Ontario, Canada. The sun was rising and the lake reflected the bright pinks, violets, and blue of the sky. This is where, more than fifty years ago, my life with Tiger began, and how I ended up on a journey that changed my life forever. Fifty-five years after I lived in Kivalina, I think about our existence there almost every day. It changed me from a young girl with hopes and expectations to a mature woman with knowledge and understanding.

Before I left for Alaska, my mother used to say to me, “Deanne, it’s only a plane trip away.” In reality it was so much more than that. Kivalina, Alaska, was four plane trips away. There were no phones. Our contact to the outside world was by mail. The mail plane came twice a week but by the time letters arrived, the news was ten days old.

We were two people with very different expectations. Tiger thought he could take his twenty-three-year-old wife to a remote Eskimo village and she would adapt to a way of life totally foreign to her. I naïvely thought love would conquer everything. In the end, it could not conquer loneliness, isolation, culture shock, and primitive living conditions. Now, looking back, at that time so long ago, I realize what a great adventure we had. Yes, it was full of hardship, but we also had some incredible experiences that I am so grateful for.

We lived in Alaska for less time than we had planned. It was more challenging than we’d anticipated and in the end, it defined who we were and what we did, long after we left. It stole my innocence and my belief that we could have a fairy-tale ending. Tiger, despite his tragic accident, loved Kivalina. It lived in the very fiber of his soul until the day he died.

I walked back into the cottage, still shaken by my dream. For a long time, I wished the memories of Kivalina would fade, but decades later, they are as vibrant as ever. Tiger would say what happened to us was bad luck. I would say it was destiny.

I am inviting to you to take the journey I took fifty-five years ago.



My grandmother (fondly known as Goggy) was prescient. She seemed to know things before they happened, or she dreamed about them after they occurred, even when she wasn’t present for them. One day, my grandmother said to my mother, “Ruth, I don’t want Elizabeth living with the Eskimos.” (My grandmother often called me by my middle name, Elizabeth.)

I was fifteen at the time, and still in high school. I was about to enter our small kitchen when I overheard their conversation. They were sitting at the metal table and as I watched from the doorway, I could smell the smoke from the cigarette Mom always lit when she was agitated, which was most of the time. My grandmother was drinking tea and eating her lunch at eight in the morning. For reasons unbeknownst to us, she started her day at three a.m.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mother,” my mom replied, flicking her cigarette, “Deanne wouldn’t do that. Whatever gave you this idea?” My grandmother was adamant as she responded, “I know it’s going to happen, and I don’t want her going there.” I wanted to shout, “Mom’s right! Don’t worry about it.” But I didn’t. Why bother? Living with the Eskimos was the last thing I would ever do. I learned enough about that northern area in grade school to know I didn’t want to be a part of it. I would never live with the Eskimos, not even in my wildest dreams. Bundling up in a thick parka and heavy boots in order to ward off the winter chill was not in my repertoire. It was cold here, in Toronto, but it was frigid in the north. No, the cold was not for me. I wanted to ignore what she was saying, and I decided this was one thing she predicted that would never come true. At least I hoped it was.

And yet, eight years later, I was living in the small village of Kivalina with my husband, Ernest Burch, who was known by all of his friends as Tiger. We married in 1963 and in 1964, our great adventure to Alaska began. I was terrified to leave the safety net of family and friends and I soon learned living with the Eskimos was more challenging than I ever dreamed of. Looking back, I wondered if my grandmother had a premonition of what was going to happen there. By the time we arrived in Alaska, Goggy was in a nursing home and never knew her prediction had come true.

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