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.

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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)

 

 

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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…