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!

johnson river - Copy

 

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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