The Alaska Highway – A Short Story

Ever since I was a small child, stories of the Alcan Highway have been woven through the fabric of my life. Stories told by my grandfather, grandmother, father, and aunt that spoke of the courage to travel to Alaska this way — even before Alaska was a state. Trips in the 1950’s and 60’s towing one’s life behind. Travelling more miles of rough road than can even be told. And the epic-ness of the journeys. WOW! Thinking to myself, “Someday….that will be me!”

Someday is now! We are headed to Anchorage via this same route that so many of my family members have traveled before. We are travelling with our dog (Isabella) and camping along the way. Living out of our car — the GOATGRL. It is with wonder that I look at the landscape that they have seen and muse about the changes that have happened in the past 7 decades. It is with equal wonder that I think about driving these roads towing trucks, towing mobile homes, towing trailers, and the audacity to attempt such feats with little more than faith and a few dollars.

As we begin our travel on this epic road, we are in Dawson Creek at mile zero. The Alcan has been renamed the Alaska Highway and we join many others on this epic pilgrimage between Dawson Creek, BC and Delta Junction, Alaska. There are retired people, families vacationing and/or moving, old farts on an adventure, young hipsters exploring the world, and us.

It took us a while to get here, though. We had to meander through Oregon and visit cousins, stop for a spell in Spokane to connect with parents and brothers, and then push on into Canada with the express purpose of finding many hot-springs. This part of the story is for another blog post (Family).

The history of the Alaska Highway is well documented and over every stretch of the road there is a story waiting to be found. In some places, the skeleton of the original highway lies, like a corpse, beside the new and improved road. And, at the end of the day, this isn’t really a road that one tells a story about. It’s a road that writes its own story into one’s being as it is experienced. At the end of this road we have our own sense of epic-ness that we will one day spill out in the form of well-formed stories. I’m wondering when that will be. As of this writing several months later, I still can’t really tell you about this experience. The expanse of it, the magnitude, the emptiness of population with the fullness of life.

Truly, living out of our car for many weeks was awesome. Greg, Isabella, and I are gifted at being homeless even as we love and crave the comforts of home. We can make camp quickly and cook a fine meal on nothing more than a camp stove. And, sleeping in a tent in the middle of no-where was fantastic! The one menace…..MOSQUITOES. I will say no more about this now.

After days on the road, there are times when my eyes close and all I can see are endless expanses of trees. Then there are the dreams of trees, rivers, mountains, and the epic silence. This summer was about the road less traveled. Finding those places with few or no people and living out of our car for weeks. We made it to “J” on the ipod — which is a feat when thinking about 16 gigs of music! 

We met the road in Dawson Creek and finished at Delta Junction. It is a road I hope you can take sometime in your life. As you are on this road — so timeless and unchanged — perhaps you will be able to develop well-framed stories that convey this untamed land that you will tell me next time we meet.

Here are a few of the 2000 images we captured along the way.

Next up — Family

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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

 

 

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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A Village Feast

Greg Spring

There are many types of feasts here in Kasigluk. They are an amazing part of village life and cannot be described, they must be experienced! Some are to celebrate new life —  a baby’s one year birthday is cause for a feast. Some are to mourn the passing of loved ones — the days before the burial, the day of the burial, the 20 day, the 40 day, the 1 year, the anniversary. And, there are other reasons to feast: a visiting dignitary or long lost family member, first catch, Slavic, and more.

Common foods served at feasts are as follows. For children, the plate is colorfully filled with goulash (usually moose), jello, and cake. For adults there is usually a choice of moose or fish soup and akutaq. After the meal has been eaten the children run outside to play and the adults gather at the table to enjoy tea or coffee, meats or sweets, and bread and jam. As one chair empties another adult takes that place until everyone has been served. A feast can take days to prepare for, and hours to experience.

While people are waiting for their plates, younger family members pass out presents to the guests. Candy, soda pop, little bars of soap, tiny shampoos, t-shirts, socks, washcloths, and other small items are common gifts. People come to feasts with plastic grocery sacks in order to juggle all the things passed out. Waiting to see what is coming next is as much fun as visiting with the people we are siting with.

Sometimes 200 people (or more) will come to a house for a feast. Plates are first passed out to elders and clergy sitting at the table, then the children and people in the house and then to people on the arctic porch and then outside to the folks standing in line.

WAIT! 200 people? The houses there must be huge! Not really, it’s just that people sit where ever they can. On beds, on the floor, squished in and cozy. Yup’ik houses have a magic quality that defies description. There is always room for one more person.

WAIT! 200 people? HOW does one cook that much food? Once again, it is a magical experience where there is always enough food! AND, I have come to appreciate when there is macaroni salad. It is inconceivable to the Kass’aq mind how feasts really work. And yet, Feasts are one of the most important community events in the village.

Someday, maybe next year, Greg and I will attempt to have a feast. I know it will be likely that we will need much help and assistance from our friends and new family here. This year, we will have a Throw Party for my birthday and that’s where we will start. What’s a Throw Party? I’ll tell you more on another occasion.

So, what might a Saturday night Feast look like for Greg and I? Hmmm…. Please understand that we cook every meal here — with the exception of the occasional school lunch made by the fantastic chefs at Akula Elitnaurvik!

Occasionally, Greg and I will have a different type of “feast.”

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Seal Soup, Seal Oil (in Snapple bottle), Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, Blueberry-Banana Bread, Greg’s home-made Bread

It goes like this…

Appetizer: Popcorn

Bread Course: Sailorboy Pilot Bread or Ritz Crackers sometimes with butter

Salad Course: Some radishes or carrots (with or without little white root hairs)  usually served from a plastic container

Fish  Course: 1 OLD can of smoked oysters with the dust wiped off, or dried fish from the fridge

Cheese Course: Processed cheese wedges in a foil wrapper or single serve processed cheese in plastic. Market price

Dessert Course: 10 peanut M&Ms

Drink Course: Tea served with powdered coffee creamer and sweetener

It’s not an everyday feast, it’s a “sometimes we’re too tired to cook” feast and that’s what’s in the pantry. We are blessed with abundant choices and are grateful for the food we have available, especially as freezers are getting bare and we are waiting STILL for Spring.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Kasigluk pussy willow 2

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

 

 

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!