Dating in the Bush

As some of you know, shortly after my arrival in the Bush, I met someone at my first teacher inservice. She’s from a nearby village and when the district brought us back to the district office for training the next week, we decided to try a relationship – though neither of us knew exactly what it would look like or how it would work.

Well, it has been about 5 weeks now and I can clue you in on how a relationship in the Bush works. It looks quite a bit different from a normal relationship – in fact, it probably resembles internet dating in quite a few ways.

First, there are (usually) nightly instant messenger sessions to answer the all important questions that people apart usually want to know, “How was your day?” and “What have you been thinking about?” It’s an instant messenger conversation because long distance phone calls are expensive and besides, neither of us has a telephone. VHF handsets, which are common for communication in the region, can’t cover the 40 miles between the two villages, nor do we want everyone within the range of the radios listening in on idle chitchat and personal conversations. Usually, nighttime conversations are multi-tasked with cooking, cleaning or working on lesson plans.

Then, maybe once a week, usually on Friday evenings, we find two or three hours to set aside and actually talk to hear each other. Usually, I’m reminded of what a poor substitute text is for voice – so many nuances and feelings simply aren’t conveyed through words and emoticons alone. Unfortunately, copper doesn’t carry the conversation, instead it goes over an internet program called Skype, a voice-over-ip or internet telephone system – which is carried over our satellite links. And the delay between speaking and being heard is about a second, which results in a fair bit of talking over each other before someone realizes it and lets the other finish their thought.

This week – we did something new. A video dinner date using Skype. And like my mentor teacher told me the experience would be, it was one of the highlights of my week. (Along with a reminder that I haven’t had a haircut in almost two months now.) Hopefully this becomes part of our routine as it’s a better substitute for actually seeing one another regularly that we’ve found.

Before coming to the Bush, I never really thought that 40 miles would be long distance. It’s less than an hour’s drive most places – here it is a 6ish hour window of time when the plane might show up, if the weather is good, followed by a 20 minute flight. That’s after forking out $160-$200 for the plane tickets. In a lot of ways, that 40 miles is more like 400. Come winter though, snow and ice will cover the landscape and Norton Sound and I’ll be able to snowmachine there and see her instead. It is odd to think of winter as the season of mobility and travel opportunities, but that’s life in the Alaskan Bush.

Things kids say…

Every week, I work with my social studies classes to learn maps. My Intro to US class is learning all of the states and in addition to names, capitals and abbreviations, I’m trying to teach them a little bit about the history of each state. This week, we added Utah to our maps and I touched on Mormonism and mentioned that they had to give up polygamy to become a state.

After explaining what polygamy was to a group of middle-schoolers, one of them piped up: “But wouldn’t they run out of women?” I nodded my head. “So some of the men would have to marry men?”

Moments like that, when I can hardly stop myself from falling on the floor laughing are what keep me going.

Pining for a salad…

One of the biggest differences in my diet since moving to Shaktoolik has been a lack of fruits and vegetables. It’s not that they’re impossible to get here, just expensive and rarely in good condition. I’ve actually been surprised by the variety that occasionally shows up in the two stores we have. I suppose I’m actually lucky because we’re so close to Unalakleet (the regional hub) that we get regular planes in the mornings and afternoons to supply us.

Today, I was lucky enough to find a cucumber and some carrots in the Native Store (it’s right across the street from the school) and in the afternoon, I took a trip down the street and found Romaine lettuce, a tomato and some a brace of oranges in the Corporation store. All this leads to a fantastic rarity… a salad for dinner! My normal diet consists of grains and meat, so this is quite a treat.

Salad for dinner!

On bush teachers and their habits…

Unfortunately to what is probably the majority of the readers of this blog, this post is going to be spent telling you a little bit about your typical bush teacher. I know, I know… hardly an exciting topic, but if you talk to any teacher from the lower-48 or “Alaska”, you probably don’t have the image quite right.

I mean… I have a classroom and all; in fact, there is a whiteboard, overhead projector, document camera, projector, 5 workstations and a cart of laptops scattered around my room. This is in addition to the desks, chairs and the normal teaching accoutrements. You would almost think it was a normal school until you noticed the satellite dish on the roof (run copper hundreds of miles across the tundra?) and the backup generator out back so we can hold classes when the town’s diesel power plant is down.

You won’t find me (most days) greeting the kids at the door in a shirt and tie though. I mean, yeah, somedays I do; usually around the beginning of the month (when they pay me) or if i start to run out of clean clothes. Instead, I’ll probably be wearing a polo shirt and khakis… blue jeans if it’s Friday, if it fits the shirt better or if I’m not going to have time after work to change before hunting.

The methods differ quite a bit from the schools I grew up in. There’s a closer bond between teacher and student – one that might be considered improper elsewhere, but is only natural when you’re stuck in an isolated and remote village with few trips in or out. While I’m not to the point where I allow students to come visit me in my house, many of the other teachers do. With only 230 people in the town, you’re limiting your social circle by automatically excluding 50 of them. And to be honest, I’m told that several of them are very good hunting guides.

Our methods aren’t mainstream teaching, that’s for sure. I’ve a bookshelf full of math texts, which I barely use. I had to scrounge for a history text to reference. I struggle to make connections with students of a different culture – many of whom have never been farther away from the village than their snowmachine could carry them. Let’s just say that I frequently have to be inventive with my metaphors. But, I teach in a school without grades and my classes are supposedly grouped together by ability levels based on no end of standards that are plugged into a tracking system that tells me what my students should know and be able to do. Whether that’s true or not varies by the day and how distracted my students are by the hunting opportunities available just outside the school walls.

Anyways, there’s a taste of bush teaching. The hours are crazier than teachers usually put in, the preps are wide and varied (I teach 6 different classes across three broad content areas), the kids are unique, the hunting is fantastic and the experiences last a lifetime.

Labor Day Weekend in Koyuk

This past weekend, once 3:30 in the afternoon rolled around, I began my impatient wait to climb onboard an airplane and take a trip out of the village. Not for work this time, but for pleasure. I was invited to visit Erika in Koyuk and with Labor Day extending the weekend to three days, it was the perfect time to go. (I won’t lie… after the first two weeks teaching, making personal and professional adjustments, it was soothing to get out of the village.)

Unfortunately for me… this is the Bush. My 4:30 flight time came and went. 5:30 came and went. Finally at 6, the community agent knocked on the door of the school and let me know that it was about to land. I grabbed my things, threw them in the back of the truck and we headed for the airport. For those of you who don’t know, airports in the Bush aren’t anything like airports in the Lower-48. You know those pesky TSA agents that inspect your baggage? We don’t have them here. That comfortable, warm terminal you sit in while waiting? We don’t have that here. You sit at the end of the road, wait for the plane to stop moving and shut its engine off and then walk up to the door. You shove your baggage into the nose, belly or back of the plane and climb in. No flight attendants, the safety speech consists of the pilot looking over his shoulder and asking, “Everyone find their seat belts?”

I strapped myself into the only empty seat on this 4-seater Cesena, shoved my laptop bag between my feet and let the pilot know that a mutual friend asked me to say hello. Then… away we went, climbing to about 1,000 feet, flying at about 160 mph following the coast west to Koyuk. Twenty minutes later, I landed, hitched a ride down to the teacher housing and picked up Erika along the road.

The next morning, we stuffed some gear into a backpack, headed to the beach and along with the majority of the Koyuk teaching staff, took a boat ride to the cabin of Dumma and Rosemary Otton along the Inglutalik River (pronounced Igloo Delak). It’s amazing how calm Norton Sound is; it’s part of the ocean and conceptually I know that it’s sheltered, but I’m still astounded every time I’m on the water, or even looking out my window and I see 2 inch waves or less.

To be honest, one of the nicest things about this trip was the ability to get out and actually experience the tundra. In Shaktoolik, I’ve been keeping myself so busy that I haven’t really had the time to explore as much as I want to. That’s a shame and something that I need to rectify. There’s so much to see and do here that I simply have to make the time or I’ll regret it. As luck would have it, it turns out that I’m something of a charmer and I convinced Erika to hold still long enough to let me take a few pictures. (And came up with a great idea for a photo to take later, which she also consented to.)

Camping on the tundra


After a bit of blueberry and cranberry picking (the blueberries never made it into a bag, but some cranberries did) we fulfilled what for me was one of the primary purposes of the hike: teaching Erika how to shoot a gun. For those of you back home, I know it’s hard to imagine. A twenty-two year old woman who doesn’t know how to shoot a gun. Have no fear though, by the time I finish my tale of the weekend, you’ll be proud of this former East-coast girl. (I keep joking with her that she’s quickly moving away from being a liberal hippie.)

Erika learning how to shoot

Having successfully fired a few rounds from a .22 long rifle and a .357 pistol (she preferred the rifle) and even hitting what she was aiming at once – not bad for the first time shooting – we headed back to find what everyone else was up to. A few people had gone off to hunt ducks, the rest were hanging out at the camp, and we quickly found that Rosemary is an excellent cook and host. While sitting around and discussing the Inupiat culture and finding out things that we need to know, a call comes in on the CB – there’s a seal headed upriver and Sam is headed back to get it – Rosemary has been wanting a seal since she’s running out of seal oil. (Don’t ask me what all it’s used for, I’m still not entirely sure, but I think it’s eaten, a condiment perhaps.)

Seal hunt on the river

Three shots from the rifle later, Sam and Dumma are able to harpoon it and bring it onto the boat. A short ride back up the river and it’s being brought up onto the beach so that it can be skinned.

Excited already by seeing my first seal (and the prospect of learning how it is skinned and butchered) Rosemary offered to teach everyone how to skin the seal. Quite frankly, it’s simply amazing how much fat is on these creatures.

Seal flippers

Needless to say, it was an amazing experience, but a lot of work. Rosemary put several hours into the process – it’s no small task butchering a seal, that’s for sure. The rest of the evening was rounded out by paddling on the river in an inflatable raft, eating muktuk and musk ox, guitar playing, singing and a gorgeous sunset. It was truly a night that will stick with me for quite a while.

Rafting on the Inglutalik River

Tundra Sunset

Sam and Jason

Terry on the guitar

Sunday around noon we headed back and the rest of the weekend turned into a blur. Laundry in an attempt to get the stink of seal out of our clothes, showering in the school because the boiler was out in the teacher housing, exploring town, heading onto the tundra to try my photo idea. (Erika was an awfully good sport about that, I know I wouldn’t have stood on the tundra with mosquitoes biting in a dress.)

Erika on the tundra

And then, all of a sudden it was Monday morning and the Frontier Airways agent was knocking on the door to pick me up and take me back to Shaktoolik, where a mound of planning awaited me. Despite the mound of work and the fun I had though, Shak is home and it’s good to be back.