May is a Time of Transition

May began with snowy bluster and left us wondering if winter really happened at all. On May 6th we had 3+ inches of snow overnight and by the afternoon we were watching cranes fly overhead and were wearing only sweat shirts.

May Morning Photos:

Same Day – May Afternoon:

As the birds returned, we were once again struck by how silent our world is until Spring occurs and then how noisy it is. The winnowing of the Snipe goes on well into the evening and we just can’t stop listening to the sound — marveling at how magical it is to hear after the long cold winter. Children and adults alike were adjusting to the longer days and shorter nights, some finding it easier than others to go to bed at 10 pm with the sun still well overhead.

And about the transitions. We went from:

  • Going on snow machine across the river to break-up and going by boat
  • The Tundra covered with snow and ice to only small patches of frozen ground left
  • No birds in the air to (what seems like) thousands of birds on ponds, in the air, and on the river
  • Prom and Pre-School Graduation
  • School in session to school out of session

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As we went through each transition, we came to understand how quickly life was changing and how fast May travels by.

The breakup seemed very late this year compared to last. The ice on the river refused to surrender its grip on the land until well into mid-May. People were travelling back and forth by walking on the ice while pulling their boat until they hit a patch that was open water and then getting in the boat and travelling to the next patch of ice. It was how people traveled back and forth between the two sides of the village for about a week as the seasons were transitioning.

The Tundra rose up out of its snowy mantle, much less dramatically than last year, and none-the-less, beautiful to behold. Last year’s red berries and cranberries were waiting to dance on the tongue of the lucky forager who found the sweet/sour treasures. This year it was interesting to discover black moss. Moss that was dense in texture and yet hadn’t turned green. This moss was to be found in deep crevasses left behind as the snow slipped away. The blueberry plants were the last to show signs of the tiniest little leaves unfurling towards the end of May.

And the birds! So many! So beautiful! Such wonderful dinners!

Finally, it was time to close up the school year. It was so important to use every day we could for learning, so the end of school festivities were saved for the final two days of school. We had a field day with lots of fun, teamwork, and challenges.  Then we cleaned inside, cleaned outside, cleaned everything and had a picnic for the whole village. And, just like the winter departing, the school year was over.

By the next day, all the non-native teachers had departed the village for their summer adventures in the lower 48 (aka America). It was a quiet time to reflect and refine our understanding of the past school year and quietly celebrate our first full year in Kasigluk.

Over the year, our village has been touched by sadness and joy. We have experienced extreme weather and beautiful days that seemed to last forever. We have made friends, stood with them in celebration, and more importantly, stood with them in times of adversity. We celebrated Staff Appreciation with a big feast for all school employees and their families. Akula’s amazing kitchen staff made a tremendous dinner for everyone!

 

And….at the end of May…..for my birthday and the completion of the school year…..I had my first Throw Party! A Throw Party is an act of gratitude in a Reciprocity Based Society. The first priority is to acquire things to throw like:

  • hair ties
  • scrubbies
  • toys
  • bubble wands
  • kitchen bowls
  • cutting boards
  • cups
  • bowls
  • plates
  • material
  • flip flops
  • pillows
  • blankets
  • CANDY (LOTS)
  • and cake — since it was my birthday

Except for the cake, all these items were acquired at Wal-Mart during a Mid-May Mother’s Day trip and sent back. Greg made the cake and put frosting in between the pieces and put them in tidy little zip-lock bags. One of the ladies I’m close to supervised me to make sure that all the items were prepared just so and that I had enough bags. She also helped me throw some things — because there were a lot of things to throw and it’s kinda hard work. There is a lot to doing this kind of thing and she made sure that it was done properly! Quyana for the assistance!!

It was so fun to throw all of these items to the women who came! Did I mention that Throw Parties are for women only? Yes! By the time we got to the end, there was so much laughing and fun! It was the best birthday I have had in recent memory! And the men. Not allowed to participate — if they do, they may not be good hunters. But, oh, how they love to stand around — far away — and watch the women having so much fun! When we were done, it was apparent to me that this is a way I would like to celebrate my birthday again!

I also made my third Kasbeq from scratch — notice the Seahawk colors — and we prepared for our departure.

 

And then, poof! May was gone and it was our turn to leave the village for the Lower 48 via Bethel. We closed up our home for two months and set out for our own adventures.

Next Time: The Lower 48 — again

 

 

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When will Spring be?

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Still waiting for the sound of birds. One flock of geese spotted in Bethel last weekend. The glory of those flying spirits of the air. Five of them flying in a V formation. They have yet to make it to Kasigluk. We are patiently waiting for their voices to waken us from this long winter slumber.

The ice is rotting on the river. One family member posts on Facebook, “If you see my brother tell him the river is not safe to walk on and keep him on the other side.” We wake to new snow every morning that fades into mud and sloppy puddles by evening. And we still wait for the river to break and life to really begin.

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Travel from the Akiuk side to the Akula side has become treacherous and time consuming. Each family has it’s own way of coping. Some folks move in with family on this side to avoid the commute, some families have a systematic and complex method of crossing involving walking across the ice pulling a boat and testing each step and some families choose to stay put until the river breaks up and boat travel is once again safe.

Last weekend, while flying over the tundra, it was with great hope I noticed the down-stream rivers flowing over and around flows and chunks of ice and that, by the time we made it back to Kasigluk, how frozen and immobile our own river appeared. The season is reluctantly turning, reluctantly moving forward, and reluctantly releasing it’s tight-fisted grasp on the village and its people.

This morning the sound of Ptarmigan — their chicken-y laugh — greeted me as I stood on the porch waiting for the dog to do her morning walk-about. Running in to get Greg, “BIRDS!!” Then back out on the porch to silence. Darn it. Was it just a dream or did they know somehow to keep their song just for me.

Last night, the whistling sound of snipes (yes – they are a REAL thing). Greg saying, “Hear that?” Um, honey, I think it’s just the windmills. Then the inevitable, “No, I really heard them.”

We have a legit case of “Bird Fever.” Not Bird Flu, way more serious. Bird Fever is only cured by that moment when then birds return to Kasigluk and begin once again their ancient life cycle. Building nests, laying eggs, flying from pond to pond, raising their young and ushering in the next wave of subsistence. A pattern of life that has existed for over 4000 years here, waiting for and dependent on, break-up!

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February and Early March

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February, for all of it’s shortness, is one of the LONGEST months in bush Alaska. Winter has turned into something icy and brutal. Food is running low, strep, pneumonia, and the flu are everywhere, planes are few and far between, mail is slow and delayed, and patience with adversity is thin.

March is just that. A march through the end of the winter as we all hold our breath for Spring. Moose season ended March 15th and that last push to get some fresh meat into the freezer was intense. Communal suppers and sharing meals is a way of life this time of year. It speaks to a legacy of survival to share supper with an elder who wipes their bowl clean with their finger. Such a simple gesture gives a glimpse to famine times and times of no running water and conveys that the meal was delicious and satisfying that not a drop should be wasted.

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Lent has begun and we have all surrendered something to the next 40 days, something of value: chocolate, meat, tobacco, gossiping, swearing, etc. And we all know how much prayer that takes. We are focused on this process of purification that ultimately makes us stronger. In the meantime, we are in the midst of the struggle. The struggle to keep the faith that in a few weeks it will appear as if winter never existed. The struggle to keep whole – mind, body, and spirit.

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Weather is unpredictable and we dread those words when the Yute Agent calls and says, “The weather just went down,” or “Bethel is sending the last plane of the day in 15 minutes. Want me to hold you a seat?” It makes me happy to be here in the village with no plans to travel until mid April.

Sudden warming makes travel on the ice river unsafe, while sudden freezing and below zero temps ensure the trails and boardwalks are covered with glare ice. This year has been the year for lots of different types of ice, all of it treacherous.

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In the midst of February was a trip to Texas for Kim to tour successful Dual Language Enrichment programs in the Grand Prairie Independent School District. These programs, with their emphasis on teaching students in their native languages through 1st grade, then teaching in both languages grades 2-6, give insight into the current implementation of Dual Language here at Akula Elitnaurvik. We have some work to do and are eager to add fidelity to our practice. Stops in Anchorage and Seattle made for good mountain pictures.

February, for all its challenges, saw many small victories with HS Girls, HS Boys and JH Basketball programs. Being able to acknowledge a growth year assists us with maintaining a positive attitude about not finishing first and celebrating progress. Additionally, the FTC Robotics team went to State in Anchorage and overcame many difficulties to finish with their heads high and the Judges Award in hand.

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And now we turn to March, noticing a few brave arctic willows adorned with their fuzzy pussy-willow like blooms. A flock of geese spotted down by Ketchikan leaves us wondering how long until they make their way almost 1700 miles to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, aka home.

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We still wait for the first swan of spring to fly overhead on its way to the coast, and the chicken-like chuckle of the first Ptarmigan under our open window. Until that moment, the quiet of the village, as we wait for the season to turn, is filled with the sounds of daily life. The sound of children playing out in the snow, the out-loud musings about Spring and when she will get here, and the persistent snow and ice, are all experienced with deep longing barely veiled under the surface.

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PS…..

Not as much as I thought I would, I miss the smell of daffodils and buying tulips. The land here is still sleeping under many thick layers of snow and ice. When the Tundra awakens we will once again be floating on the water flowing on top of the permafrost.
We will be foraging for the new greens and listening to the sounds of the returning birds.
Sometimes I think about the steep slope of the sinusoidal curve that describes the return of our daylight and wonder about the function that would describe the awakening of the land. Slow at first, and then a cacophony of living things celebrating the new season. And Bingo until then!

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December Musings:

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This represents the third Christmas in Alaska and the second holiday season we have spent in rural Alaska.

Last year, we were so grateful for that moment when the holiday lights went up, we were captivated by the extra warmth and light such a small action brought to our lives. We were excited for the first real snow that happened over Thanksgiving, and we marveled at the changing of the season. The Christmas tree went up right away and we thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this blessed season. We were so excited for our first Christmas in Kipnuk, Alaska! Read more about our adventures from last year in An Unconventional Holiday

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This year, knowing that the winter holidays will be with us for a time, we are more leisurely about our approach to decorating. We are more leisurely about just about everything this year. We haven’t even identified the Christmas Crates, let alone moved things around to accommodate the holiday season. Santa’s visit to our village was a bit of a catalyst to our holiday spirit. Yet, knowing the holidays in Kasigluk, as in other Russian Orthodox villages, don’t end until January 14th, we have a LONG time to celebrate! No need to rush.

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Another change we have noticed is that we are seasoned professionals at winter, or so we think. We have accumulated a wealth of outer wear for every conceivable situation: snow with wind, snow without wind, freezing rain with wind, freezing rain without wind, slushy with wind, slushy without wind, icy with wind, icy without wind, cold and clear, cold and cloudy, cold and colder, and finally…..coldest.

In fact, the weather and how cold it is, followed by a conversation on how cold it “feels” with the wind-chill, occupies a great amount of our time. One of the primary differences is that how it feels this year is much different than last year.

We have had to reset our “I’m cold” experiences. For instance, previously, if the temp is around zero with a “feels like” in the negative numbers, then the seal-skin hat with the flaps and flannel lining comes out. Additional outerwear for this situation included gloves inside of fur mittens. Nice and cozy warm – right? Um, no!  The current correct response is, “Why do I have so many clothes on just to walk to the post?!?”

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While Greg still appreciates being very bundled – especially with hands and feet, Kim has still resisted the seal hat in favor of snow pants and her new arctic fox Russian hat. Make no mistake, it is still cold, it is our relationship with the cold which has changed. WE have changed.

The same conversation can be had around the growing darkness. It is no longer creates apprehension. For in the dark, we can see the amazing stars and auroras, in the darkness we gather ourselves together and rest our spirits. In the cold and dark, the Tundra rests and we, like her, rejuvenate for the next seasonal shift – even though it is months away.

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In the cold and dark, nothing really happens quickly. Post comes slowly, if at all. Provisions are difficult to get and the occasional trip to Bethel, while important for work, has the secondary purpose of restocking the pantry.  And we always hope that we get home without being weathered over. The handy Ceiling Gauge at Yute Commute tell it all!

So, let me tell you about the light! In the light, people are out walking. We wave at all we meet, even if we don’t recognize people under their layers, hats, mittens, and coats. In the light we can visit about the latest happenings in the village, “Did you know….?” In the light, we renew our connections with the amazing people we live with her in Kasigluk! In the light, a few people are out on the frozen river ice fishing and walking. In the light, we can experience the warmth and joy of living in such a singular place!

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It is with gratitude for our abundance that we enter this holiday season. We go there with measured intent knowing that the next several months will be about rest and renewal!

Next up: Happy New Year

 

 

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.