Yakima Herald Article: Life & Death @ 50 Below

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By Scott Sandsberry / Yakima Herald-Republic

When they signed the contracts to accept teaching positions at a place where the temperature that very day was 104 degrees above zero, Scott and Tiffany Haugen were comfortably indoors.

The temperature outside, factoring in the biting wind chill, was an ironically identical 104 degrees. BELOW zero.

When the Haugens come to the Yakima SunDome next week for the three day (Feb. 20-22) run of the Central Washington Sportsmen Show, they’ll be there not because of their fascinating history, but rather to share their expertise in all things outdoors — he on how to hunt for and field-dress big game, and she on how to turn that wild meat into delectable table fare.

If you can catch them off to one side between presentations, though, don’t miss that opportunity. Because you’ve never met anyone like the Haugens.

You don’t know anybody else who has killed, at a range of five feet, a charging lion that had recently made its living by feasting on African villagers.

Or spent seven years on Arctic permafrost teaching Eskimo village children whose grandparents spoke little or no English and many of whose parents had had no choice but to learn, forced as children by the government into boarding schools where their native tongue was forbidden.

Or tracked a polar bear by following the blood trail of the Inupiat villager it was dragging.

Or been caught in a whiteout, unable to see or to breathe, knowing if their sense of direction was the slightest bit off, their own bodies might be found, frozen solid, mere yards from the home they couldn’t see.

• • •

How Tiffany and Scott, elementary schoolmates in a tiny hamlet outside of Springfield, Ore., became the Haugens, beloved and courageous teachers of Inupiat children hundreds of frigid miles north of the Arctic Circle was, well, an unlikely tale.

They had never been boyfriend and girlfriend while growing up in Walterville, and only after graduating from college — her from Oregon State, him from Oregon — did they catch up with each other long enough to share their future plans.

His was to go to Alaska and teach Eskimo children on the Arctic tundra, and while there to hunt, fish and trap from the frozen north’s natural wealth of wildlife.

Of course, that being a place of no trees, sub-zero temperatures and 2 1/2 winter months of 24-hour darkness, Tiffany’s response wasn’t surprising: You’d better enjoy that now while you’re single, she told him, because no woman would ever follow you up there.

Nine months later Tiffany was married to Scott Haugen and living on the shores of the Arctic Ocean at Point Lay, Alaska, teaching native kids.

“We knew from family friends somebody who had worked up there as a teacher, and she said if you can teach up there on the North Slope (of Alaska), you can pretty much write your ticket to teach anywhere in the world,” Tiffany says. Plus:

“I’ve always been a little bit of an adventure junkie, and that sounded like as good an adventure as any.??

At times, almost too much of one.

• • •

Getting to know and teach the Inupiat children filled the new teachers’ hearts. Many of the elders didn’t speak English, but when the Haugens wanted to hear their stories, the kids would translate and the Haugens were fascinated.

Recalls Scott, “They were a very gracious, kind-hearted people who just had an amazing affinity and love for the outdoors.”

But theirs was a harsh, unforgiving and occasionally unpredictable land.

Homes were built on stilts, to keep the floors’ warmth from melting the permafrost and sinking into the tundra. One winter, the temperature dropped below zero for 200 straight days.

The polar bears living around Point Lay largely ignored the two-legged creatures. One winter, though, the ice pack froze in different patterns than usual, leaving the bears unable to find and feast on enough seals to maintain their body fat through the two-plus months of total darkness.

One bear — starving for this lack of its normal prey source — came into Point Lay and killed a villager, right in the heart of what served as downtown, and dragged it to the edge of the frozen Arctic Ocean. Scott, the experienced big-game hunter and tracker, took a flashlight and a rifle and followed the blood trail.


Into the 42-below-zero blackness.

“The first thing I saw,” he says, “were (the bear’s) eyes reflecting. I stayed focused and got as close as I could.”

When he was close enough to take the shot — and not miss, in the darkness — he took it. And didn’t miss.

Because authorities wanted to test the carcass for signs of starvation or some sort of disease that would explain its predatory behavior, the bear didn’t become a dinner meal for the Haugens or others in the village, as did everything else he hunted and killed during his time in Alaska.

Its hide, though, was salvaged and, 15 years later, mounted by students of Homer High School, where the bear now resides, mounted at life size, in the science department.

• • •

That wasn’t Scott Haugen’s closest brush with death. That horrific experience, in fact, was shared with Tiffany.

School at Point Lay had been called off because of an incoming storm, and though the kids had been sent home, Scott and Tiffany stayed at the schoolhouse to catch up on some work. That misjudgment nearly turned out to be fatal.

“I didn’t think it was that bad, but when I stepped out it was just crazy — 70 to 80 mph winds, gusting to over 100,” Scott recalls. “Total whiteout conditions. You couldn’t breathe, because the wind was blowing so hard you couldn’t get any breath. It felt like you were going to suffocate. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

The tornado-like winds ripped one of Tiffany’s gloves from her hand, something she could feel but not really see. “You couldn’t see the hand in front of your face,” Scott says.

It was only 100 yards from the school to the Haugens’ manufactured home — basically a three-bedroom double-wide — but they couldn’t see it and, in the blinding storm, they got completely turned around. And they faced another electrifying challenge.

“The snow had drifted so high that it was getting close to the power lines and they were sagging because of the weight of the snow,” says Tiffany, recalling how close over their heads those wires must have been. “I don’t know about electricity and how it works, but when Scott and I would touch each other, we’d get a shock.

“But then you’re in this storm and you’re practically getting blown away, so to not hold onto each other was not a good option either.”

In the pounding of the wind they began to hear an actual rhythmic pounding. What they didn’t know was that villagers, contacting one another via CB radio, knew the teachers were lost in the storm and were all at their windows, desperately hoping to spot them.

The pounding was from a hand on one of those windows, belonging to the father of one of the Haugens’ students. The house was in the opposite direction of the Haugens’ home.

“If we’d just been a few feet off” and missed that house, Tiffany says, “we’d have ended up down in the Arctic Ocean.

And just as frozen as the water.

• • •

The Haugens lived in the Alaskan tundra for seven years, the last four of them further inland at Anaktuvuk Pass, the last native village in North America to be settled by a people who had always been nomadic.

At that village, where Tiffany taught grades 3-8 and Scott had grades 9-12, the Haugens developed a special relationship with the children. Tiffany and the students would share recipes, exploring ways to interweave Betty Crocker Cookbook concepts with tribal customs of food preparation.

One student, named Evelyn, poured a can of Coke into a crockpot filled with simmering caribou meat, creating a savory taste that became a recipe — named for Evelyn — that Tiffany still shares with the readers of her numerous (and quite popular) cookbooks and columns.

The Haugens also shared parts of their world with the students, taking groups of Inupiat students on “field trips” to Oregon, Washington, California and Florida. And while the kids marveled, so did the Haugens — at the kids’ unbridled wonderment.

“Some of them had seen the Arctic coast, but that’s completely different and most of the kids from Anaktuvuk hadn’t even seen that,” Tiffany says. “It’s just kind of dark, gravelly sand and no waves, and it freezes over most of the year.

“But to see them on the Oregon coast, where you have to walk up this big sand dune, and everybody’s huffing and puffing because it’s steep, and I hurried to get to the top before they got there and saw the waves and the ocean.

“Seeing that, seeing their eyes and their faces just then, was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

• • •

Things change and people move on, of course, and so did the Haugens. After seven years in Alaska, they accepted positions at a school in the western Indonesian island of Sumatra, where the temperature on the day they signed their contract was, yes, 104 degrees.

Their adventures have continued from continent to continent, hunting (and cooking) too many exotic animals to mention. Two, though, stand out.

There was the water buffalo in western Australia, from which they donated more than 1,000 pounds of meat to an aboriginal tribe that spoke no English at all but celebrated this marvelous gift from these strange and wonderful westerners.

There was the African village to which Scott was summoned, by a hunter he knew who had been hired to help rid a village of several lions that had been terrorizing, and killing, villagers for weeks. Haugen and his comrade shot and killed four of the man-eaters in a single night, one of them at point-blank range as it charged them.

“The people were very grateful,” Scott recalls, noting that the villagers held a communal celebration to fete the men who had removed the devils from their midst. And — in keeping with the Haugens’ husband-and-wife ethic of eating and otherwise utilizing all that they hunt and fish — the hunters joined with the hunted villagers to commemorate the occasion.

“So,” says Haugen, “we ate the maneaters.”

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