A Short Story with Photos

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It is that magical time of year. The ending of one season and the beginning of the next. Winter coats are coming out of their storage containers. The idea that we need our cleats and mittens is crossing our minds. And the air. The air is indescribable. Breath turns to little ice beings who hang and dance while the light slants through.

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There is a relaxed, almost joyful release of the work and duties of spring, summer and fall. Now begins the season of rest and leisure. Yet. Even that is an illusion.

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We are making mink and blackfish traps, pulling up boats from the water, looking for mouse food, and other activities that we do in winter. People are braiding their Tomcod together to freeze dry in the cold. Praying for the short cold days needed to properly cure them. As our Kipnuk Grandma says, “Too much rain and they get gummy. Like that candy. Gummy Tomcod. Bad for the stomachs.”

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During this transition, we had our first outside visitor. Our daughter came from Tacoma to experience village life. The quiet sleeps, the soft Tundra, chill mornings, bright stars, picking berries, a Throw Party to celebrate children who all graduated, church, bingo, volleyball, parent night, a visit to the post, and an expensive trip to the store (3 items = $30).

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Through her eyes, it occurs to me that we are still busy. Just busy in different ways. The busy-ness of community. Coming together to celebrate each other’s sucess. Coming together to pray. Coming together to play. Coming together for support through good times and difficult ones.

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As I reflect on our place here in Kasigluk, I realize, once again, how grateful we are for community. How grateful we are to be here, and to be of service, to this community of amazing and resilient people and their children. It is humbling.  Ellmikutvaq.

 

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Back to Village Life

The day we were supposed to return to Kasigluk, we got weathered in to Bethel, and had to shelter at the Longhouse. This was THE BEST night sleep we had in the 2 months. The soft rain, with the quiet air, and the stillness. Ah……peace! The next morning we continued on to Kasigluk — armed with a good night sleep and a fine breakfast from the Red Basket. It was just so good to know we were back to the Lower Kuskokwim Delta after the hustle and bustle of the lower 48.

Tunra Cotton Grass

Tundra Cotton Grass growing outside our back door

If you have ever traveled for an extended period, then you have probably experienced the feeling of relief when you finally arrive back home. We  always experienced that upon  our return home to Renton, Washington and thought that this would be what home would always be like. How quickly that concept of home has shifted for us in the past year! How beautiful it was to see that first sunset from our living room window!

Kasigluk Sunset

Kasigluk-Akula Sunset at 12:30 pm

Since this is Kim’s first year as a Principal, we decided to return to the village a little earlier to give ourselves some time to figure things out like: what hours the store and post office were open, determining what that loud boat coming down the river was about,  finding what VHF channel Kasigluk uses, discovering how we get our satellite system working,  deciding who we use for internet service, and starting up our Full Circle Farm delivery. OK, most of those were Greg’s priorities while most of Kim’s centered around figuring out school schedules, where new teachers were going to stay, and how to get the newly leveled teacher building hooked back up to water and power. On top of that we wanted to learn more about village life in Kasigluk.

As the days passed we were finally able to get all of those important issues ironed out. We found out the store was mostly opened to Monday through Saturday until 6 pm, but occasionally they would stay open later. They always have sales on the 1st and 2nd, and 15th and 16th of each month, and occasionally add sales for special events. With things in Alaska being so expensive a 15-20% discount on everything adds up quickly.

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Kasigluk Windmills

We also found out the post office has limited hours. Since there is only one postal agent working at a time they have to close for lunch. That means always checking the time before heading to pick up the post. Anna, and her backup Bertha, have been very helpful getting our mail sorted out.

Post Office Hours

Post Office Hours

As far as the loud boat we kept hearing is concerned, since we are so close to Bethel a hovercraft barge brings supplies up the Johnson river on a regular basis during spring, summer and fall — as long as the river is flowing. It isn’t uncommon to see the barge a couple of times during the week.

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Barge Coming In – and the Newly Leveled House

Then there are the technical challenges. Between VHF, Satelite TV, and Internet, let’s just keep this part short and positive: All technical difficulties can be solved with persistence and patience. In the meantime, Greg learned a lot about satellite dishes.

Checking our Satellite Signal

Checking our Satellite Signal

Recording Dish Alignment

Recording Dish Alignment

The easiest thing to do was restarting our produce delivery. We used Full Circle Farms when we lived in Kipnuk so we went ahead and got that going again. The deliveries are a little more consistent being closer to Bethel, but we still get delays and damaged produce. Luckily they are always willing to credit items that are missing or damaged. One benefit of moving to Kasigluk is that Corp generally has a few more fruits and vegetables in the store so when a shipment gets lost we still have some options.

Our Produce Delivery from Full Circle Farms

Our Produce Delivery from Full Circle Farms

While we were sorting everything out, Kim was working diligently to get things setup at school before the students arrived. One of the teacher houses had to be raised and leveled over the summer. Due to a variety of delays it was ready the night before the teachers arrived. Prior to that moment, there was no heat, sewer, or water connected to the house. That could have been awkward.

One thing we had become spoiled with in Kipnuk was that we had several shelving units available. When we moved to Kasigluk we only brought the small one that Greg had built. In the process of unpacking we decided we needed to go ahead and try to make some additional shelving. As it turns out Kasigluk’s hardware store had a great supply of pine 1” x 4”, 1” x 6”, and 1” x 8” boards, so this was one of Greg’s first projects here.

Shelving in Progress

Shelving in Progress

One of the amazing things about village life is how much people in the village support each other. When someone has a large salmon catch, or catches a moose, it is not uncommon for people to offer other families bags of food. We have received several moose roasts since we have been here and several silver salmon. When one of Kim’s co-workers called to offer us fish one night we went to pick up a salmon. It was already late and we found out she had over thirty fish to process that night and was supposed to go to work the next day. Having never cut strips for fish before Kim offered her assistance as long as her coworker would show her how to do it. They then spent the next few hours cutting, cleaning, filleting and stripping fish for drying. Kim had a great time and learned a new skill!

Cutting Fish Into Strips

Cutting Fish Into Strips

One other learning experience we had shortly after arriving in Kasigluk is how to identify the various berries on the tundra and when the best time is to pick them. When we arrived, the blue berries were already ripening. Shortly after the bog berries (or pink berries) were starting to change. Many people prefer these in their pinker stage than when they start turning darker red as they have a tarter flavor. Finally, the crow berries and cranberries come ready. All of this happens over about a 2-month period so there are ample opportunities to pick berries. There are so many berries on the tundra around Kasigluk that it is near impossible to walk without stepping on berries. If you are used to picking berries in the lower 48 you might look out at the tundra and say “Where are the berries?” because these berry bushes aren’t big shrubs like found down south. They actually crawl along the tundra and the berries are mixed in among the short foliage. It is not uncommon for lots of cranberries to be left behind over the winter, buried under the snow. These berries don’t go to waste, however, as many people prefer collecting them after spring thaw as they say they are much sweeter then.

The first week of August Kim had to head into Bethel for some additional training. There she got to meet the two new teachers. By the time she returned to Kasigluk that weekend some of the returning teachers had arrived. The teachers had a week to prepare before students started on August 17th. All of the preparation paid off as the school year started off pretty smoothly.

Plane Back to Bethel

Plane Back to Bethel

Bethel Sunset

Bethel Sunset

Next:

The school year in full swing and heading into the darkness…

Visiting America (aka The Lower 48)

How does one respond when a person who lives in a remote village in Alaska says, “Someday I hope to visit America!” The first time we heard this, we were surprised. As time wore on we came to understand the meaning of this statement better. Our first real “Aha!” moment was when Kim was on the phone with a person in California inquiring about a Professional Development opportunity. The lady Kim was talking to told her, “Of course you would need to come to America to take the class.” Wait – she is in California and we are in Alaska – aren’t they both part of America?

Entering America – AKA the lower 48

We are no longer surprised to hear things like this. There is a pervasive gap between Alaska and the lower 48 which appears in many different forms. Things cost more to ship, shipping is often delayed, policies made by government (State and Federal) are either not relevant, or not sensitive to people in remote places. We have gotten used to being treated like we are in a different country when ordering from online retailers but hadn’t considered that others BELIEVE we live in a different country.

This month’s blog is about our visit to the foreign country known fondly as “The Lower 48,” or “Outside.”

In January we had made ambitious plans for a 10,000-mile road trip we fondly referred to as, “Round the Lower 48.” Because of extenuating circumstances, it became the, “To Ohio and Back Again,” road trip. Kind of sounds like a Tolkien novel, doesn’t it? Believe me when I say, “There were dragons!!!

We started off from Tacoma, Washington and headed to Spokane to visit family. We couldn’t resist digging in the dirt and installing a Salsa Garden for the family we were staying with. It brought back so many memories of digging in the dirt on warm summer days from that time when gardening was such a large part of our lives.

Once we were done playing in the dirt, we continued East. Our next stop was Missoula, Montana for another quick family visit and a promise to stop longer on our return. We then continued driving to our overnight stop at Chico Hot Springs near Pray, Montana. These amazing hot springs are warm and relaxing – they are sacred waters which flow freely for all to enjoy. The theme of sacred sites and a prayerful journey would follow us throughout the remainder of our trip.

After Pray, we continued to Medicine Wheel, Wyoming. We had a very beautiful drive on Alt Route 14 through the winding mountains. What an amazing place! We ended up getting there later in the day, and the last few visitors where leaving as we arrived, so we had the place to ourselves. Being alone at the Medicine Wheel to pray for our family, friends, and villages was comparable to having Stonehenge all to yourself. This is an amazing spiritual site worth the visit. Find more information here https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/medicine-wheel.

To reach the site we had to take a mile and a half hike, which was made interesting, and a little treacherous, by lingering drifts of snow which partially covered many parts of the path. Wildflowers were already blooming on the parts of the path that were free of snow. By the time we got back to our car it had already been a long day, so we headed to Sheridan, Wyoming for our stopping place that night.

Throughout this trip, we established a consistent pattern in our travels: leisurely wake up and departure, and late night arrivals at our destination for the day. We decided we would stop at places we wanted to visit and not worry too much about the time.

A moon shot along our way east

A shot of the Full Moon during our late night travels

On our next day we first stopped in Fort Collins, Colorado to visit with Dr. Debbie Thompson. We had a lovely adjustment in the park, along with a nice lunch, and then continued down to Limon, Colorado for the night.

An adjustment in the park with Dr. Debbie Thompson

The next two days we traveled on into Columbia, Missouri, taking a stop along the way at BB’s Lawnside BBQ in Kansas City, Missouri for lunch. Then we headed on making a stop at the arch in St. Louis, and rested that evening in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.

On our final travel day heading east we stopped at St Xavier Church in Cincinnati, Ohio and then continued to our final stop in Delaware, Ohio, where we spent most of a week visiting with our grand kids, resting, relaxing and sightseeing. We took time to enjoy a car show in downtown Delaware, visited the Olentangy Indian Caverns, traveled up to see the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio and stopped by the cemetery of Marion Ohio. The time went quickly and before we knew it we found ourselves packing up to head back to Washington state.

On the way back to Seattle we stayed in places like Altoona, Wisconsin, Bismark, North Dakota, and Great Falls, Montana. We decided we really enjoyed visiting Prairie Fire Pottery in Beach, North Dakota and figured we could really enjoy living in Lewiston, Montana.

Art near Beach North Dakota

Landscape near Great Falls Montana.

From Great Falls we headed back to Spokane, Washington with an extended stop in Missoula, MT along the way to have lunch as we had promised. We had a lovely visit – well, all except for Isabella, who kept trying to hide behind a chair to seek safety from Walter the cat.

Walter laying down the law to Isabella.

From Spokane we headed on to Renton, where we scheduled a couple of nights at the local Red Lion so we could leisurely handle the rest of our medical/dental follow-up appointments. Following that we headed back down to Michaela’s house in Tacoma for a couple of nights.

The Columbia River

Since we were back in Washington early, Kim decided to take a course to keep her Washington CTE certificate valid. So, on Sunday June 25th, we headed to Richland where Isabella and Greg hung out in the room learning more about Java (the software and the coffee kind) and Kim worked through some classes.

The Mountain on our way to Richland Washington

Kim’s basket project she created during the WAMC conference.

Finally, on June 30th we headed back to the Seattle area to accept a generous offer by one of Kim’s friends to house sit for her until it was time to return to Kasigluk. This provided us 3+ weeks to adjust to a slower pace of city life, allowed for Kim to complete a couple more classes for work, and gave us time to pack up a few more of our remaining items we had left behind on our quick exodus to Kipnuk last summer. We also got to unwind with a little biking along the Green River, watch the Osprey’s, visit the mountains, and spend time with friends prior to heading back north. Our two months of summer ended up going by quickly and as the last week of July approached we started getting antsy for our return trip to Kasigluk, Alaska.

Coming up next:
Back to village life!

Break-up, Moving, and See-you-laters

When we first moved to Kipnuk, the expectation was to be there for a year and to then move to a different village for the next school year. By the end of April, we knew our new destination would be Kasigluk, Alaska. It was a humbling experience for Kim to interview and accept the Site Admin/Principal position at Akula School in Kasigluk. It was exciting to know that next year we would be Tundra Foxes!

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Kasigluk Tundra

With this destination in mind we could now set into some serious packing. Well, Greg could as Kim was very busy working with her principal to wrap up the school year, and learn all she could, before departing Kipnuk.

School in Kipnuk was scheduled to end on May 17th and the plan was to move the following weekend and to depart for the lower 48 around the 20th – or so – you know a leisurely time schedule. Kim had even booked dental and doctor appointments and made dates to catch up with friends. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

During this time, nearly every day from the beginning of May, we would walk out and look at the changing landscape. Waiting patiently for the spring break-up when our river, the Kugkaktlik, would start flowing again and which would mark the true end of winter. Views from the sky revealed a still very icy Bering Sea. It seemed like winter would be holding on for a long time more.

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Thawing Tundra Next to the Frozen Bering Sea

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Kugkaktlik River Before Break-up

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The River is Almost Clear

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Evening Sun Over Kipnuk Village

We hoped to see break-up before leaving Kipnuk and Greg was able to take pictures and video of  this amazing process.  It seemed like one day the river still had ice on it and the very next day it was as if winter had never happened — the river flowing so easily without any trace of ice. Birds singing, people smiling, the warmer air, and the feel of Spring finally here!

Then, the unexpected happened. The existing principal in Kasigluk needed to depart early for the lower 48 and left on May 10th. Kim was asked to finish the school year as the site administrator at Akula School starting on May 15th.

Kasigluk playground

Kasigluk Playground

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Akiuk Side of Kasigluk

This change meant that we had to be ready to move on May 13th. We had to step up the packing pace a bit. Kasigluk was on a different schedule and their school did not end until May 24th which put pressure on our departure plans. All of a sudden nothing was leisurely. Appointments needed to be rescheduled, plans changed, and planes chartered.

The big question was how to get  efficiently from Kipnuk to Kasigluk. What we learned from some of the tenured staff was that we could charter a plane to move our things. This eliminated the need to relive the packing experience from last year: bundling and labeling everything into big black containers with yellow lids in order to overcome the harsh treatment usually encountered when shipping things to Alaska.

Chartering planes allowed us to transport boxes straight from Kipnuk to Kasigluk avoiding the delay of having our household goods going from Kipnuk to Bethel to Kasigluk with the USPS. Because of less handling, we could use some of the cardboard boxes we had collected over the year and overcome our shortage of shipping tubs. Then we had to revisit the conversation from last May, “How much stuff do we need?” And add the question, “How much stuff can we transport on a plane?”

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Planes Move everything

Taking our family’s weight (Greg, Kim, and Isabella) into account, along with the few things we acquired during the year, we figured we would come close to approximately 3000 pounds, which meant we would have to charter two planes, a Cessna C207 (which could carry 900 pounds) and a Cessna C208 (which could carry 2300 pounds). As we were packing, we discovered that we were going to exceed the target weight of 3200 pounds by a couple hundred pounds.

The final days before departure we began pairing things down, shipping a few boxes that could survive harsh treatment, and giving away many items. We were finally able to get down to 3150 pounds for the planes, including ourselves and the dog, and found we had once again reduced our lives down to 75 boxes and 7 suitcases amounting to less than 3200 pounds of goods.

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The Cessna 208 we used to move from Kipnuk to Kasigluk

To put things into perspective, we recently had a conversation with a family member about how moving companies generate quotes. The formula goes like this: 5,000 pounds for a married couple, then add 1000 pounds for each year of marriage. Whoa….we should have had about 32,500 pounds of stuff….and we probably did before we made this life-changing leap last year.

It is interesting that the conversation of “stuff” regularly rears its head in our life now. It goes like this, “Do you want it or need it?” Followed by, “Will you pay to ship it, or pay to move it?” Depending on the answers, the item may or may not make it into our village lives. We have come to understand stuff in a very visceral way and still wonder if we have too much stuff.

Back to moving……

Once we had everything ready to go, the act of moving was quick and mostly painless (except for the sore backs from lifting all those boxes). We had our planes chartered to arrive Saturday May 13th. We moved all our items to the warehouse at the airstrip the night before. Then, when the planes arrived, it took about 30 minutes to load each plane which was mostly waiting for seats to be removed and stowed, and then approximately 45 minutes in the air flying between villages, and another 30 minutes to unload everything. We were grateful for the help from a couple of the maintenance guys, the local Kipnuk RAVN agent, and one of the young men from the village in Kipnuk to facilitate the ease of our departure. We also had help from one of the teachers in Kasigluk, and many of young people who decided they wanted to help haul boxes from the vehicle to the house. It was one of our quickest and easiest moves yet – 3 hours from start to finish

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Our new Kasigluk Home

When we arrived at our new home, we found that we already had a mostly furnished house because the previous Site Administrator had left most of his belongings behind. This allowed us to take our time unpacking and going through everything in our new household. Not having to look for pots, pans, and the coffee maker was a gift!

We decided to set aside the items that were duplicates for the new teachers that would be arriving in August. This also allowed us the ability to take some time to get to know the new village, and our new home, a little better before our summer departure. It also allowed Kim a smooth start to her new job just 48 hours after leaving Kipnuk.

Johnson River

The Johnson River

Here’s what we have learned about our new home so far. Kasigluk is a village that is slightly smaller than Kipnuk and is divided by the Johnson river. There is no bridge between the two sides of the village, so people travel by boat during the spring, summer, and fall, and by snow machine or 4-wheeler during the winter. There are a few vehicles in Kasigluk that are driven on the ice during the winter to travel up to Bethel to pick up supplies and travelers. There is a time when the ice has either not frozen enough, or has melted too much, that people cannot travel between the two sides.

There are two schools in Kasigluk: Akula (say Ah-goo-la) and Akiuk (say Ah-kee-yook) and Kim is the Site Administrator for the Akula School. Each school has 90+ students, grades K-12. Because they are smaller sites there is a Site Administrator but no Assistant Principal, and some teachers teach more than one grade level in the same classroom. The airport, grocery store, hardware store, and post office are all located on the Akula side. The Russian Orthodox church, the Kasigluk Community Center, and the clinic are also on the Akula side. The Moravian church is on the Akiuk side. Kasigluk has running water and 3 windmills to supplement the generator power. Despite what Google maps shows, Akula school is in the section on the southwest side of the river while Akiuk school is on the Northeast side of the river.

Kasigluk Greg

Travelling Between Akula and Akiuk

And, while we had some time to relax, there was the stress created with the change in timeline. All appointments had to be rescheduled and our departure from Alaska was moved back a week. In between our arrival on May 13th and departure on May 24th there was an ASB meeting, visits from contractors to evaluate the state of the school facilities, two feasts, graduation, and prom. It was a very busy 11 days.

When school wrapped up on May 24th, we had most of our boxes unpacked and many items set aside for the new teachers who would be joining us in August.  We then packed up a couple of suitcases, the dog and her travel crate, and on the afternoon of May 24th headed to Bethel so Kim could check out with the school district.

Because of flight delays, we got there late so Greg and Isabella hung out at the airport awaiting Kim’s return. That evening we took a flight to Anchorage, where we stayed the night. The next morning, Greg went to the DMV to get his Alaska driver’s license and that afternoon we boarded the plane to Seattle.

Plane from Bethel to Anchorage

In the Air between Bethel and Anchorage

Upon our arrival in Seattle we immediately understood that we had quickly adjusted to the slower, quieter village life. The view from the plane as we were landing, of all the houses, cars, and people, was overwhelming. By the time were on the ground and headed south to Tacoma, we were on sensory overload – just in time for rush hour traffic. It is hard to imagine we lived in this environment for so long, and how foreign it had become, in a very short time.

Seattle from the air

Seattle from the Air

The final days of May were spent with our daughter while we got our medical and dental checkups (even Isabella) and planned our foray across the country to visit family and friends.

One of the challenges of village life is there are no dentists, doctors, or vets. There is a clinic staffed with Community Health Aides who perform tests, gather results, and consult with doctors in Bethel and Anchorage for the best treatment plan. Any serious cases require medivac to Bethel, or even to Anchorage. For routine medical care, like physicals, blood-work, and teeth cleanings (even Isabella), our options are to return to Renton for care with doctors we have used for years, or to locate new doctors in Anchorage. We are grateful for the ability to return to the doctors we have used for years and the care they give (even Isabella).

May was busy and filled with so many transitions. The transition from winter to spring through break-up, the transition between Kipnuk to Kasigluk, the transition from the school year to summer vacation, and the transition from Alaska to the lower 48. It was one of the most challenging months so far.

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Coming up next: Visiting America (aka The Lower 48)

 

 

Changes are Coming…

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Frozen Tundra Sunrise with Moon on April 1st

April was a month of change. Another major winter blizzard coated everything in fresh layers of snow complete with cold temperatures and it seemed unlikely that winter would ever end. But before the month was through, the days lengthened, the warming process started, and the tundra grasses began to emerge through the snow. The ice on the ponds melted, bit by bit, and pools of water floated on top of the ice. The land appeared to rise up out of its snowy cloak as it was reborn, day by day. It was still too cold to completely thaw our fresh water sources and the school had to go into extreme rationing mode as the water began to run out.

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The sun is putting on her mittens (because it is so cold).

This month was also a time for learning new skills. One of the local elders, Elizabeth Mute, taught Kim how to sew her own mittens out of wolf and wolverine. By the end of the month she was mostly done with them and they turned out really good and very warm!

Making mittens (1)    Making Mittens (2)

Finished Mittens

Finished Mittens

In her travels, Kim acquired a couple of fox hides from the Akula trapping club. Students had learned how to skin the animals but were not familiar with how to tan the hide in the Yupik way.  Elizabeth Mute happily helped Kim learn how to tan one of the hides. This skill is definitely a work in progress and will take practice.

April Thaw

The Progression of the Season

April’s emphasis on learning has opened the door for a clear understanding that, as people from the lower 48, we really know nothing about nothing (including survival) in one of the harshest, most unforgiving, places in the world. Being able to learn the old skills is a humbling gift and has opened many doors for understanding.

Kipnuk Tulip Festival

Kipnuk Tulip Festival

One of the unique aspects of village life is the reliance on subsistence living. Most families survive by hunting birds and catching fish, seal, and walrus. People also gather berries and tundra greens to complete their diet. It is a year-round process with each season having its primary subsistence activities. April’s theme was seal, fish, and birds.

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The Land Rising from the Snow

April began with snow and quiet and finished with the calls of Ptarmigan, the first swan sighting, and the return of birds. The first call of the seagulls ringing through the still-cold air was breathtaking! Yes! It literally took my breath away to hear the call of the seagulls and to see them winging through the bright blue sky. The silence of winter broken with the sound of air creatures. And that first fresh Eider meat was so amazing and delicious!

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As Winter Loosens Its Hold

This month of transition included the biggest one of all. When Kim accepted the Assistant Site Administrator (Assistant Principal) position in Kipnuk she knew the expectation was that she spends a year as an assistant and then apply for Site Administrator positions as they come open. At the end of April Kim applied for, was offered, and accepted the Site Administrator position at Akula Elitnaurvik in Kasigluk, Alaska.

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New Landscapes Daily

When we headed out on this adventure we really had no idea what to expect. This year we have met many amazing new friends, learned many new skills, and (hopefully) contributed positively to our community. Kipnuk will always be our first village, the place where we experienced our first winter, learned that we know nothing, and fell in love with the Tundra. While it will be tough leaving this place we have come to know as home, we look forward to the excitement of living in a new village with the opportunity to continue to learn.

Kasigluk Spring

Arctic Willow in Kasigluk

Up next: Beak-up, Moving, and See-you-laters

Spring is HERE!

Sunset Through Boardwalk Bridge

Sunset Through Boardwalk Bridge

The Month of March has been a relatively quiet month on the tundra. The snow storms of January and February  have calmed and for many weeks the sun has been out and brightly shining. While the temperatures had dipped into the negative double digits on most nights, during the day we saw them inch up to the positive double digits as well. The return of the sun is noticeable as the days grow longer and longer. The end of the month brings us over 13 hours of light with sunrise happening around 8:25 am and sunset holding off until 9:37 pm. It is an amazing place to experience life!

Icy Boardwalks

Icy Boardwalks

While things are warming a little we still have most of the snow from the previous storms. During this month, the most frequented paths have become more and more compressed. The positive part about this is we can take longer walks on paths that were not available to us during the spring months as we can literally walk on water – you know, the frozen kind. The drawback to this is a lot of the boardwalks have layers of compressed ice and snow and it has become treacherous to walk on them without snow cleats. The kids seem to enjoy the challenge as we often find them skating down the boardwalks – some in skates and some in their normal winter shoes. It’s fun to hear them call out, “Look-Watch!  Mrs. and Mr. Sweet! We’re skating!”

Isabella's Snow Mask

Isabella’s Snow Mask

With all the sunshine and the longer days we have been lulled into a false sense that Spring was on its way, but Mother Nature had different plans. On March 31st, a new winter storm blew in. After just 24 hours, we have new snow drifts 4-5 feet high and it is still snowing. It looks like Punxsutawney Phil was a little off on his forecast of 6 more weeks of winter, at least for Kipnuk, as it looks like we will be keeping our snow and ice until the beginning of May. I guess we could use our own local celebrity to forecast our winters for us. Our options are rather limited as, during the winter, the only animals we have present are a couple of weasels, some mice, the village dogs, our raven clan, and the foxes that get everyone stirred up when they decide to take a stroll through the village. We have seen the signs of their presence, but so far, I have only seen one running from a snow machine as it was headed to the church (the snow machine — not the fox). None of these creatures are stepping up to help us figure out the true weather plans this year.

An interesting Yup’ik story about predicting Spring goes like this. When you see the Ptarmigan coming back from the hills, then Spring is almost here — they know when there won’t be anymore snow. When the cranes come then you KNOW for sure Spring is here.

First Boardwalk Bridge to Cemetary

First Boardwalk Bridge to Cemetery

Final Boardwalk Bridge to Cemetary

Final Boardwalk Bridge to Cemetery

One of the other favorite past times of the children in the village is to climb on the railings and do flips into the snowbanks that build up. With all the fresh snow, I am sure we will begin seeing the body prints from their adventures. They also like to build tunnels through the snow. One of the many things they have taught me during our stay here is how to get out of those deep drifts if you happen to wander into them. Often you are too deep to just back up and out, so you have to sit down and roll out. It isn’t a graceful process, but it works and it keeps you from having to stand around freezing while someone digs you out!

Snow Drifts After First Day

Snow Drifts After First Day

Snow Drifts To Play In

Snow Drifts To Play In

Other activities in March included a quick trip that Kim took to Kongiganak to visit their school. She got to meet many different people who were related to folks in Kipnuk and meet lots of other LKSD teachers. All the villages across the Lower Yukon Delta, while separated by many miles, are connected by many relations.  Greg got to experience his first Maqii (a Yup’ik Sauna) and enjoyed the experience greatly. This is a very efficient way to keep clean with a minimum amount of water.

Speaking of water, as the winter has worn on and renewed it’s commitment, our water concerns are growing. People in the village have ample access to ice, however we are down to only about 7 feet in our reservoir for the school. Really, now. Spring cannot come soon enough.

Finally, Kim spent a day learning how to make fur mittens from one of the elders in the village. It was an amazing day filled with stories about family in different places and how things were in different times. Each piece of fur had a story attached to it and while Kim sewed mittens, the elder wove her basket. Food served included dried fish, caribou/walrus soup, and fry bread. Delicious.

Next Time: Changes are coming

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…

Life and Its Surprises

img_3450

This past month has been filled with all manner of surprises. My last blog seems like a lifetime ago, but only one month has passed. In that time, winter has arrived, like we knew it would, and the landscape has transformed into the snowy scene you see above.

Some of the surprises of the past month have included an unexpected trip to Bethel, followed by a LONG weather delay on the return trip home. Followed by a surprise Thanksgiving dinner invite to celebrate with co-workers who stayed behind in the village. Finally, the biggest surprise of all is how comfortable we feel here during the holidays.

While we miss our friends and family in the lower 48, and yearn for those connections we have left behind, the connection we feel to Kipnuk defies explanation. It is like a place we have been yearning to come to, without having any idea that it even existed. Here, we have found a peace and contentment that had eluded us in out lifestyle in the Seattle area.

This morning, while we enjoyed our breakfast and spoke about what we needed/wanted to do for the day, we mulled over a couple of radical ideas: a long walk and some laundry followed by putting up more Christmas lights. Sounds good. Greg and I then reminisced about what the Sunday morning conversation was on this very weekend last year. It would have been, “We need to go to Costco, then……followed by a long list of social commitments to attend to and chores that needed to be done, in order to prepare for the work week ahead. Oh, and by the way, Greg have been packing for a trip to Connecticut or Portland, or….where-ever he was off to that week.” It was a busy, frenetic, exciting, satisfying, hectic, and rewarding life, filled with community service opportunities and life-changing experiences.

And, if you had asked us a year ago if we were happy, we would have said, “Yes! And, we would like a little more down time, but it’s all good the way it is.” Well, clearly, we were ready for a change that we didn’t even know was coming. And now that it’s here, we are not just happy, we are content. It is the contentment of people living life the way they want to and finally having the time to choose what to do next. It is the contentment of a different kind of connection with the people in our community. Finally, it is the contentment of a single income family. Surprise!

With Greg firmly settled into pre-retirement, there are opportunities for us to use our time in a different manner. He handles the household and the shopping (online and at the local stores) and he handles a lot of the details that we reserved Sunday afternoons for. Since he can handle them at his own pace during the week, Sunday afternoons have been transformed into time to stroll the tundra, relax, and reflect. It is also the time when I attend to correspondences (email and snail mail) which is a luxury I haven’t had in years. It is a time of connection to each other, time to talk about big ideas and small things, both of which matter immensly.

In this time and place, we are happy and content. It is an unconventional (uncomfortable) moment when we realize that some of the things we held most dear no longer fit into the lifestyle we have chosen and the equal realization that what we miss from home are the people. So, it is with happy and contented hearts that we know we will see our friends again, and we will all be different because of our experiences in between. It will be another surprise!

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Next Time: An Unconventional Holiday