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.

First Days of School…

Well, I’ve definitely survived my first week of teaching. In fact, it was a blast! I think I’m now officially spoiled for working in any traditional school district. My students are eager, excited to learn and except for waking up early and not being allowed pop, they actually enjoy being in school. (We’ve banned pop from the school this year… you haven’t seen pop drinking until you’ve seen village pop drinking. I had one kid tell me that he drank a 12 pack of pop the night before and he’s not all that unusual.)

Most teachers I know hate their first week. Everything goes wrong, they have classroom management problems, their kids don’t want to be there… My first day of school, I had kids asking to stay after school! Granted, I have students who are severely behind grade level, I’m ambitiously planning to help one student finish 3 levels worth of math this year and others who are nearly in the same boat, but they care! They’re here trying (for the most part)!

I have a really hard time articulating all the reasons why I’m thankful to be here, but I guess in its simplest form, it boils down to the kids. These kids aren’t like kids in the lower-48. I had soon-to-be students of mine running up to me as I went to the Post Office for mail the day before school started telling me how much they were looking forward to school. Some of that is because they wanted on the basketball court again I’m sure, but it’s true. I look at these kids as I’m teaching them and… they honestly do want to learn.

So, in celebration of such a wonderful day at school, I took a trip down to Old Siteландшафт, where the village was located until they moved it in the 1970s. Then, last night, I went swimming for the first time in the ocean. Well, technically, it was Norton Sound, but it’s close enough to count for me.

Here’s hoping the second week is as wonderful as the first!

“No, man. Alaska, Alaska.”

I wrote this for BSSD’s StraitTalk Blog but also wanted to post it here.

Six months ago, if you’d ask me what I’d be doing at the beginning of August, I would not have had an answer for you. Certainly I would not have imagined the truth. Well, that is not quite the truth… I have always dreamed of at least visiting Alaska, but if I had said I would be living here, it would have been with a jocular smile on my face. It would have been the type of smile that said, “Just kidding; I’ll probably be living in the rat race like everyone else, trying to eek out a living and pay off student loans.”

Now though, well, here I am, smiling at the memory of stepping into the Detroit airport at 5:30am on the 29th of July to board the first of four flights that would take me to my new home. Quickly covering the distance between Detroit and Las Vegas (an area I had spent 45 days earlier in the summer exploring), a short layover put me on the plane to Anchorage. Two-hundred and fifty pages later, the clouds broke and the awe-inspiring sight of the Chugach Mountains became visible through my window. Thankfully, I was met at the airport by a group of Bering Strait School District (BSSD) veterans and new teachers who were participating in this year’s Welcome Wagon event, designed to help new BSSD teachers make the transition through Anchorage and prepare for their new life away on America’s last frontier.

Two days, a cancelled flight and a side trip to Whittier later, I found myself on my third flight, bound for Unalakleet, knowing that I would be in my new home before nightfall (I beat sunset by a good six hours, arriving in Shaktoolik around 6pm.) A short layover, a trip to meet a fantastic group of people at the District Office, and a serendipitous run-in later, I boarded the smallest plane I’ve ever been on for a 15 minute flight along the shore of Norton Sound.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was back on the ground, being greeted by the few teachers at my site who hadn’t been on the plane with me. You know what though? It’s felt like home since my feet hit the dirt and still, almost three weeks later, it still does. And you know what? I’m having a wonderful time in “Alaska, Alaska.”