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.

still winter

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!

johnson river - Copy

 

Back to Village Life

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

Tunra Cotton Grass

Tundra Cotton Grass growing outside our back door

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

Kasigluk Sunset

Kasigluk-Akula Sunset at 12:30 pm

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

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

Windmills

Kasigluk Windmills

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

Post Office Hours

Post Office Hours

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

Barge Coming In

Barge Coming In – and the Newly Leveled House

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

Checking our Satellite Signal

Checking our Satellite Signal

Recording Dish Alignment

Recording Dish Alignment

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

Our Produce Delivery from Full Circle Farms

Our Produce Delivery from Full Circle Farms

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

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

Shelving in Progress

Shelving in Progress

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

Cutting Fish Into Strips

Cutting Fish Into Strips

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

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

Plane Back to Bethel

Plane Back to Bethel

Bethel Sunset

Bethel Sunset

Next:

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

Saying, “Good-bye for now,” or “Sometimes Good-Bye is another Chance.”

The past six weeks have flown by. With travel and moving, there has been very little time for reflection until just recently. Apologies for the LONG gap in posts.

June was filled with many social events. Saying, “Good-bye for now,” and, “We’ll miss you very much,” was the order of the day. Seeing friends we haven’t seen in a long time, while making time for friends and family we see more often, was a bit challenging. Added to the task of packing and moving, there were times it became overwhelming. Saying goodbye is another chance to remind people we care deeply for them and will miss them and was an essential part of our departure process.

In the end, there were still a fair number of folks we would have loved to have visited with face-to-face but weren’t able to make our schedules match up. Social media takes the sting out of missing absent friends. It’s still lovely to have one last face to face opportunity to let our community know how much we love them and will miss them. And, there were many opportunities.

Almost all “Good-bye for nows” were challenging and there were some that were surprisingly difficult. The ones that were the most difficult for me were the ones where there is a good chance that we won’t be seeing each other in person again. My elder friends gifted me with the opportunity to understand that life is to be lived and mortality catches up with us all, eventually. Other surprisingly difficult partings were folks in the robotics community that we have worked to build over the years. Being surrounded by excellent individuals who regularly practice gracious professionalism is a gift that I never take for granted. Parting ways was painful. For the most part, I hope our paths will cross again, and they may, since that’s the type of community it is.

Of course, saying, “Good-bye for now,” to our home of many years was part of the journey, and since we knew it is in great hands, it wasn’t hard – just different. This led us to the next part of our timeline which was to visit family in Ohio and then Tacoma. This period, with no permanent address and only the possessions in our suitcases, was very liberating. We explored Detroit in the early morning hours with few people awake, rode a Greyhound bus through rural Ohio, and flew thousands of miles. It’s much more challenging on many levels to live outside of the norm, outside of community, and to be uprooted and on the move. Because of the graciousness of family we were able to experience an ersatz freedom from responsibilities that many of us don’t ever get to have. Although we still helped with the dishes and kept from throwing our clothes on the floor, we essentially were relieved of many of our adult responsibilities.

While we were in this process, we took the time to prepare for our own eventual departures from this life and set up our last will and testament. I know it’s a bit gruesome to chat about, so I’ll keep this part a bit short. Having to think about what we will leave behind from this life – our residue – was timely and important. Essentially, we will be leaving in a way that reduces impact on our children and their families and allows them time to simply grieve/celebrate/party/process – whatever. This is one of the most important “Good-bye for nows,” that we thought about.

In essence, this last period of time has been about celebrating the life we have been leading, preparing for our new life, while also preparing for the eventuality of leaving this life all together. It’s been quite a bit to process and having time and space to do so has been helpful.

As I write this, we have unpacked our last box and are getting settled in our new home in Kipnuk. Isabella is a local celebrity and we spend time every evening walking her in the village. So up next: New friends and lots of “Hellos!”