Nome, AK

A little over a week ago, I got the opportunity to travel to Nome, AK for the district’s Tech Liaison training. It was my first visit to Nome, which is odd since Nome is the largest “city” in the region (population – approx. 3,600). Most of the time was spent in the NACTEC house(Northwestern Alaska Career and Technical Center), where students from around the region come to learn technical and career skills during the school year and where we set up camp for 2 days in order to learn about the tools we use to keep technology in our schools up and running. I’m not going to write about the training except to mention that it is already making my life easier, instead, I’m going to write about Nome itself.

The first thing to know about Nome is that it is the only “wet” town in the region. Alaska has what is called a “Local Option” law which allows bush villages to decide to what degree alcohol is allowed into the village. Many towns (including Shaktoolik) choose not to allow the possession of alcohol (dry); others like Unalakleet allow the importation of alcohol but not its sale (damp). It doesn’t take long very long after landing in Nome to recognize the effect this has had on the town. Let’s simply say that drunks are not an uncommon sight and leave it at that…

Nome also has a reputation as a mining town and for those of you familiar with active mining towns in very remote locations, you already know what this means. For the rest of you… Nome is dirty. Nome is dingy and one could even call parts of it ramshackle. There’s a feeling of age, but also of haste; mining booms don’t leave much time for planning, zoning laws and strict oversight.

Underlying it all is the history of the town though. Everyone knows about the, Iditarod the annual dogsled race that commemorates the delivery of diphtheria serum from Anchorage via dogsled. Fewer people know that at one point, Nome was the largest town in Alaska; that the US Postal Service refused to allow the town to change it’s name to Anvil City in 1899 or that few of the original gold rush structures have survived numerous fires and violent storms. The history is what draws me to the town, it is what makes me want to visit it again sometime. It isn’t a place I’d like to live, but a place that would be interesting to study and learn about first-hand.

Note to readers: I spent less than 48 hours in Nome, most of that holed up inside a building training. I only spent 3-4 hours exploring the town (and that was spent on Front St.), this is what my viewpoint is based upon and is therefore reflective of a short-term visitor and not someone who lives there.

First snow!

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted an update… it’s not that I don’t have things to post – I’ve been up to quite a bit the last two weeks – I just haven’t had time. I’ll follow up with a couple longer posts when things quiet down a little bit (this evening or tomorrow when I return home from Unalakleet). I just wanted to share a picture for now though:

Unalakleet snow

I’m told it’s not snowing 40 miles away in Shaktoolik, just windy and cold, which is apparently what winter looks like there. Until later!

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.