FAIRBANKS — North Pole resident Janie Snyder was visiting her sister Rosabelle Rexford for Nalukataq, a spring whaling celebration in Barrow, when the unexpected happened.
The two 60-something sisters were out and about, having fun, chatting and greeting relatives and friends when they heard a voice behind them say, “There are the two we’ve been looking for.”
Perhaps it was the sisters’ colorful parkas or their comical antics that attracted a casting director to approach them for the film “Everybody Loves Whales,” starring Hollywood starlet Drew Barrymore.
Whatever the reason, the sisters’ excursion to watch a blanket toss landed them paying parts as extras in the film about Barrow’s epic efforts in 1988 to free three gray whales from the arctic ice.
Janie traded some skeptical remarks with the movie agent about the invitation, not really believing either she or Rosabelle would hear from her again.
But the call came at the end of August and Janie’s reply was, “Sure, I’m ready.”
In early October, the sisters spent four days in Anchorage, put up at the Captain Cook Hotel, and reporting for work at 6:30 a.m. daily.
“It’s fun, fun, fun, especially when you correct a director three times,” Janie said.
“I was being treated first class after that,” she joked.
Janie’s corrections dealt with the correct pronunciation of her Native Inupiaq language used in the film.
“Everything has to be said correctly,” she said. “This film is for Barrow.”
While in Anchorage Janie met and talked with the film’s star, Drew Barrymore. And in her usual outgoing way, Janie directed and led the entire crew into greeting the star one day with “Good Morning Drew Barrymore.”
Janie is visiting Rosabelle again. She flew to the farthest north Alaska community on Thursday for four more days of shooting.
This time, the action is outdoors with temperatures hovering near 20 below zero, and keeping warm is the priority, she said in a short telephone interview Sunday.
Janie jokes about being a movie star, but she has long been famous for her sewing, comic wit, love of fishing, berry picking and laughing among her circle of friends.
“She is a woman who is full of energy and she takes great pride in her ability to sew beautiful kuspuks,” said her Yup’ik friend Ida Alexie of Bethel. “She has great decorating skill for the trimming.”
Janie uses the Inupiaq word atikluk, not kuspuk, for the summer parkas she is renowned for. She has won 15 consecutive gold medals at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics and has stacked up first place awards at the annual Open North American Native clothing contests and the Tanana Valley State Fair.
Janie’s intricate, decorative trim is perfection. She cuts and combines rickrack and bias tape in minute amounts to achieve a variety of creative designs.
A small plastic box near her sewing machine, meant for bead storage, holds the tiny pieces, and she marks and uses the cardboard bias tape holder for a measure.
Janie was born and raised in Barrow, and spoke only Inupiaq until starting school at age 6.
At the beginning of sixth grade, she flew with classmates to Wrangell Institute. A couple of the younger children were so homesick they were sent back to Barrow. Janie decided she wanted to go back home too, and pretended she was inconsolably homesick.
“When I got home, I had no friends, they were all at Wrangell. I learned my lesson,” she said.
Janie attended high school at Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka, and by her senior year the home economics teacher turned over the sewing class to her.
Only later did Janie take up making atikluks. She admired the parkas of older Inupiat women and with the help of her Aunt Elizabeth Patkotak made her first successful pattern. Janie’s sister Rosabelle helped her refine her atikluk pattern too.
Over the years, Janie has made many of the colorful, exactingly trimmed parkas from tiny to very large scale and has traded a lot of her work for caribou and muktuk.
Now she limits her sewing to family, and most recently she ran up two new atikluks for her part in “Everybody Loves Whales.”
Sometimes, Janie’s husband of 37 years, Ron Snyder, becomes involved in selecting colors.
Janie was working as a secretary at the Naval Arctic Research Lab in Barrow when she met Ron Snyder, an electrician transplanted from New York state.
Raised on a farm, Ron understands the hard work that goes with raising, hunting and gathering food, and he too supplements their diet with hunting, fishing and raising a garden.
The couple raised three children at their Badger Road home where they have lived for almost four decades. Rex and Russell have earned degrees from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and daughter Debbie is a computer office management school graduate.
Over the years, Janie has found that she can’t wear atikluks of certain colors while berry picking. Reds and yellows, bring the bees, she explained.
And Janie spends lots of time with her girlfriends berry picking.
“That’s how I learned to cook,” joked Ron. “She’s always gone berry picking.”
This past summer, Janie picked more than 50 gallons of blueberries, painstakingly removing each stem from her haul.
And there is no chance that they will go to waste. She makes jams and jellies of course, and many favorite dishes with the berries. A favorite is Bethel style Eskimo ice cream, mixing the berries with whitefish or halibut. She also shares the bounty with others.
“I just gave an elderly lady five gallons, and it made her day,” Janie said.
Salmonberries, crowberries, low and highbush cranberries, none are overlooked by the indefatigable berry picker.
When Janie accompanies Ron on caribou hunting trips along the Denali Highway, she picks berries while he scopes for antlers.
Janie’s favorite activity is to fish Alaska’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters
She recently returned from Atqasuk, about 60 miles south of Barrow, fishing for grayling in the Meade River. Janie caught her share of grayling and a 12-pound silver salmon.
In Shishmaref and Wainwright, she fishes for Tomcod and smelt. In the summer, she and Ron travel to Chitina for salmon and Valdez for a halibut charter.
During the winter months, except January and February, the Snyders ice fish for char at Birch and Quartz lakes.
Spring usually finds Janie back in Barrow for spring whaling as a part of her brother Don Nungasak’s whaling crew.
One of her jobs is to look for and chip blue ice with an ice spud to get fresh water for drinking.
She also cooks and cleans for the crew and knows how to pack camp in less than a minute when the ice moves.
“That’s when my brother has the pleasure of dumping out the fresh water,” Janie said.
Janie’s boundless energy is reflected not only in her sewing, fishing and berry picking habits but her church work and her travels as well.
A longtime member of First Presbyterian Church, Janie has been active with other Inupiat members in making weekly recordings of hymns sung in Inupiaq every Wednesday at the church. The recordings are broadcast every Saturday evening on KJNP.
Janie keeps in touch with Mount Edgecumbe friends around the state. Many of them visit back and forth or meet in Anchorage or Juneau on other occasions.
Janie’s local friends often gather at the Snyders’ North Pole home during the winter months to play a rollicking, wild card game called Snerts.
A friend of 44 years, Lula “Lubby” Nictune James, said Snerts is best played with 6 or 8 people around a round table.
“When we first start playing, we used to play on the floor,” James said. “As we got old after a while, we couldn’t get up anymore.”
And food is another draw.
“Every time we get together we have a feast,” James said. “Everybody brings something. One lady makes sourdough hotcakes, and we play (Snerts) like crazy.”
James recalled one memorable game in the deep of winter that lasted several days. The temperature had dipped to 50 below and the ladies stayed on.
“We’d go out and start our cars once in a while,” James said. “We have so much fun.”
Janie’s friends aren’t worried her new found stardom will go to her head.
“She just loves what she is doing. Every time we get together we laugh, laugh laugh, laugh,” James said. “That is the thing I like the most,”
“I asked Janie, will she still speak with her friends now that she is a big movie star. That made her laugh,” James said.
Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.
JANIE NUNGASAK SNYDER
Family: Husband Ron; Children: Rex , Debbie and Russell; four grandchildren
Hobbies: Fishing, sewing, picking berries, singing Inupiaq hymns
Current role: Playing an extra in “Everybody Loves Whales.”