The Realities of Village Life

With the addition of this latest installment, we are caught up with the highlights of the winter. Of course, the events and happenings over three months cannot be properly conveyed in 3000 words or less.

The Land Sleeps

FEBRUARY:

The reality of village life is that we are at the mercy of the weather. When the snow comes, there are no planes. No planes mean no provisions, no eggs, no fresh food, and few luxuries (unless they were laid-in well before the snow). It means no people flying into or out of the village. People have been in Bethel on weather hold for many days at a time. Many of our Itinerant Service Providers (Social Worker, School Counselor, State Testing Personnel, etc…) have been unable to visit since December. We miss them and the services they provide for our school-age children. Life is frozen in place – waiting for movement of any kind.

Village Tractor Frozen in Place

When the weather is bad for a long period of time, the village can experience a lack of water. There is no plumbing in the village homes and drinking water is typically gathered from rain and ponds. Since the cold weather set in several months ago, the ponds are now all frozen and fresh water comes in the form of ice or snow. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of snow to make a small amount of drinkable water, so most villagers take their snow machines, with sleds attached, out to a location upriver that is known for it’s “Sweet Water”. They chip blocks of ice out of the stream and drag them back to their homes to serve as their primary source of water. Needless to say there are a lot of snow machines making these daily trips and some families and elders have become concerned with having enough water. Everyone pitches in to ensure that there is enough water for everyone.

Blocks of “Sweet Water”

Even in this time of bad weather, the daylight has been creeping back and the lengthening days encourage us to be outside more. Sadly, this has been a very cold February and it has been difficult to be outside for any length of time, even with all the cold-weather gear we have. There is an itchy impatience to February that is difficult to describe. Enjoying the  dark days of deep winter while simultaneously longing for the Spring; wanting to savor the fun the snow brings, while craving the sounds of the returning water birds, and a thousand other diametrically opposed emotions create dynamic tension and makes for a restlessness. The sunrises have been spectacular when it’s clear and cold. Lot’s of amazing sun-dogs to watch!

Sun Dog (AKA – The Sun Putting on It’s Mittens)

Staying Warm

The windows are frozen closed and we are wishing for fresh air to move through our home. The last trip to Bethel, at the end of February, I found myself in the grocery store looking wistfully at a bunch of daffodils – you know the 2/$5 bunch grown in the Skagit Valley and sold at the local grocery. This bunch had six daffodils and cost $12. I just picked up a bunch and smelled that fresh “yellow-flower” smell for a few minutes. I contemplated buying them, but couldn’t think about how I would ever get them home to Kipnuk, by the time all my bags went through their ordeals. In the end, I cherished the experience with an understanding and awareness that I am craving SPRING.

Turn Mountain

This month, in addition to the restlessness, death has come to our village and the delta – we have lost 7 important people in the past 3 weeks and have participated with our village in a much different way. It seems that much of the month has been about attending wakes, bringing coffee and cookies to family’s homes, and saying, “So sorry for your loss.” We have spent long days waiting for relatives to come on planes, long overdue because of the weather, to have funerals which take place in snowstorms that would keep most people inside. What is left is the sadness of those left behind and the impatience of the young who want life to return to normal as soon as possible. Everyone in the village has been touched by these losses.

New Graves in the Snow

It is important to note that death, and the rituals surrounding death, in the village is much different than in the lower 48. Here, when there is a body in the village, there is no basketball AT ALL. It is the height of disrespect to play ball when there is an unburied body. The dead are kept at their home, or the home of a loved one, for at least three days. During this time, the body is never left alone – hence the coffee and food. There is someone keeping vigil 24 hours a day until they are taken to the church for the service. People gather, tell stories, sit with the dead, eat, and visit in the home – no one is alone. When it is time for the burrial, the body is taken to the church and everyone from the village goes. Then they go to the graves and place the casket in a white box which sits on top of the tundra.

Graves in the Snow

Our trips to the grave are sadder for the new boxes and crosses, a testament to the losses of us all, and the relentlessness of February.

Hurry up, Spring. We are ready for the wheel to turn and the season to change.

Next time:

SPRING is HERE!

Winter Deepens

Hoar Frost on Foliage

JANUARY:

The New Year found us celebrating being in Alaska for 4 months with almost continual problems with shipping, shopping, and missing mail. Due to the ongoing bad weather, we had a steep increase in all of the above. Several of our orders were lost, much of the post was delayed, and there were days-on-end of listening for planes and hoping that some of our provisions would make it here in time. Greg’s Christmas present arrived just in time for Russian Orthodox Christmas in January.  

And speaking about bad weather, there is nothing quite like a genuine blizzard. By way of warning, several villagers took the time to tell us the story of the young man who wandered off into a blizzard and they found him, “slumped over, the next day, by the dump.” This story is so ingrained in the fabric of the village and serves as a warning to those who might dare go out into the snow.

Blizzard Setting In

Snow Piles Forming Between Blizzards

One afternoon, the wind and snow were so fierce that we dismissed school early and every child was released to a parent to ensure their safety. Then, just walking the 20 feet home became a harrowing journey. I called Greg to watch for me before I stepped out the back door of the school and kept my sight firmly on the staircase by the house as I walked into the wind blowing the icy snow sideways counting my steps to the porch.

 

The next few hours our home shook from the wind and it sounded like the windows would break from the icy snow being driven into the side of our home. Even though we worried a little, the school generator worked like a champ and we had power and heat through the whole experience. Blizzards are like nothing we’ve ever experienced. They are intense, fierce, and powerful and the next day, it’s like nothing had even happened, EXCEPT for the HUGE drifts of snow all over the place and the COLD clear air! Some of the drifts were up to the roofs of the little houses next to the school. Other places where drifts accumulated, next to the boardwalks and against the school, proved to be another type of playground.

Snow Drifts After Blizzard

Snow Drifts Formed After Blizzard

The bravest of the children would climb up on the railings of the boardwalks and do flips into the soft, cotton-like drifts of snow. Some children took advantage of the wind-swept ice and went “skating” on the clear surfaces. No skates required, just rubber-soled shoes. Some children worked to make tunnels through the drifts by the school and played hide and seek in the snow. Some children even went out to play basketball on the snow/ice covered outdoor court. Spectators carved seats into the drifts to watch and to cheer on their friends playing. When Greg and I stopped to watch, the children reminded us that, “We are Yup’ik – we play basketball – even in the snow!”

All the snow allowed us to bring out the snowshoes! WOW! That was so fun!! Getting to snowshoe out to the Graves and back was really awesome! There was one especially awkward moment when Kim fell into one of the drifts and the extra length of the snowshoes created a very comical situation trying to stand up again. By the time we were both upright again, we were laughing so hard that several children came to investigate. Finding us laughing next to a huge drift was an invitation for kids to jump up to the top and slide down. More laughter, play, and fun ensued. The stress and fear that comes in with a blizzard are quickly replaced by the joy of new snow and a changed landscape.

And, Isabella LOVES the snow. She views the drifts as big, giant snow cones which she loves to eat! This winter we have been letting her off-leash when we are at least a mile out of the village. She loves this freedom to explore, wander, and eat snow! It is part of her great adventure to sniff after fox tracks and mouse holes while discovering the landscape. Her other favorite activity is sliding around on the icy puddles. All of this contributes to the sense of fun and joy that accompanies our daily winter walks in the snow.

Isabella Enjoying a Home-made Snow Cone

Next up…The Realities of Village Life…

 

An Unconventional Holiday

a-winter-sun

The Solstice Sun

Note: As you may notice about many blogs from people in Alaska, there is a lull that happens in the winter. This lull is best described as an intense enjoyment of the darkness and solitude of the season. We will catch you up on the events of the last three months in quick succession.

DECEMBER:

When we initially heard we had vacation for three weeks during the holidays we thought “What a perfect time to travel and visit family!” Of course, that was before the realities of village travel to and from Kipnuk, Alaska became apparent Then we had to start getting more realistic….

When we lived in Renton, Washington, Kim would often have 2 weeks off for the holidays, but Greg would be lucky to get 2 days off in all of December. There was seldom enough free time to travel so we would generally plan a meal with family, volunteer at Luther’s Table, and sometimes squeeze in a visit with friends. Three weeks sounded like an amazing opportunity.

Over the last 4 months, we have realized that travel in and out of Kipnuk is always unpredictable. There are days where you may see six or seven planes come through (mind you most carry 6-9 passengers – or less if they have lots of cargo). Then there are other times where the fog, wind, or snow might prevent planes from landing for days. The unpredictable nature of travel was the biggest factor for reconsidering our travel decisions.

winter-air-travel

Winter Air Travel

 

The second factor that affected our reversal in travel plans was having to travel with our dog, Isabella. Our girl cannot be neatly stowed under the seat in a carrier which  means she flies cargo. While on the smaller planes this is not a problem,  on the larger ones, pet travel is not always guaranteed. We came to understand that we could have found ourselves stuck in Bethel for days waiting on a plane she could travel in. Holiday travel, at best, is very exhausting. Adding these complications on top of that led us to scratch our travel plans.

Our Girl Catching Snowflakes

Our Girl Catching Snowflakes

Instead of a glamorous holiday in the lower 48, we elected to remain in the village for the whole vacation. So, one of the first things we did was decorate for the holiday! Out came the two boxes of Christmas ornaments and the small artificial tree that we had shipped north with our belongings. Up went the lights — all over the house, and by the beginning of December, the halls were officially decked!

kipnuk-christmas-tree

Kipnuk Christmas Tree

Excitement for the Solstice and the coming darkness was indescribable. Each day we lost more daylight, and each day we wondered, “How dark would it really be by the Solstice?” We had the uncontrollable urge to bake. Greg found the best sugar cookie recipe and we ran out of molasses from all the cookies he made.

And, on the day of Solstice, we still had 5 hours and 54 minutes of daylight. The sun spent the day hovering very low on the horizon.  That day, it rose in the far South-East corner of the tundra and set on the very South-West corner of the village.

cloud-formations

Winter Sky

As vacation crept closer, we did get a lot of questioning looks when we would tell people we weren’t going anywhere for the holidays. Even several days after the winter holiday started, people would look at us and ask us when we were going. We were told we would get bored and run out of things to do but since we have rarely had so much time off together, we felt we were up for the challenge!

So, you might ask what we did for 3 weeks in a village that has no restaurants, no coffee shops, no museums, no theaters or other forms of entertainment? Well, we enjoyed life as it happened…

a-panaorama-of-the-cemetary

Winter Landscape

During the break, we had a lot of variety of weather; from snow storms and blizzards, to thaws and freezing rain, plus a little flooding thrown in for fun. While we had to shorten our walks on several days we were still able to get out and enjoy the village and the vastness of the tundra.

We also had the opportunity to do a little volunteer work. During the break, Kipnuk hosted a basketball competition that was sponsored by the Junior High basketball team. Adult teams from other villages came to Kipnuk to compete against each other. While the weather presented some challenges for travel, the closest villages were still accessible by snow machine, so many teams used this method of travel to make it to the competition. This week-long competition offered plenty of opportunity to meet more of our community members.

boats-in-december

Winter Boats

Besides the basketball adventure, we were invited to visit the local Moravian church and hear students sing and share readings in their native language (Yupik). Carolers came to our home to sing a song and to bless our house! We also listened to musicians from Kipnuk and surrounding villages sing a variety songs in both their native and English languages as well. This provided us yet a different opportunity to interact with our community.

Tom Cod Drying

Tom Cod Drying

Finally, we received invitations from several local families for holiday dinner. This allowed us to get better acquainted with others, learn a little more background and history, and enjoy some of the local dishes.

While we did not travel to different places for the holidays, we supported our community and learned more about the place we currently call home. And, we watched the light return. What a very pleasant way to spend the holidays.

sunrise-with-frost

The Returning Sun

Coming up next:

Winter Deepens…