“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.”


Back to the basics

There’s a couple of really nice things about living in the Bush that you really can’t appreciate unless you’re here. So many of the things that are taken for granted in modern society simply don’t exist here or are too expensive to justify getting them. Take bread for example. You can get bread; there’s a Wonderbread bakery in Anchorage that ships out to the Bush. However, it’s so expensive that it makes far more sense to bake your own.

So, that’s what I’ve started doing. Last night (far too late at night as it turns out), I started making my first batch of bread. A simple little white bread, nothing too special, but it turned out pretty well.

But… why is this actually one of the nice things about living in the Bush? Because it makes you truly appreciate it. Sure, it’s a hassle, but it tastes so much better than something you go pick up at the store. Life is simpler in the Bush, and while it’s sometimes more work, it’s a simpler lifestyle in so many ways; it agrees with me, it’s so much more peaceful here than anywhere else I’ve been.

Baking bread

Back to Shaktoolik for a few days, now I’m leaving again

Training went really well, I understand how the model works and how to integrate it into my classroom much better now. More than anything else, the idea is that you plan your lessons to meet the standards instead of shoehorning the standards in after you’ve planned the lesson. It improves your ability to make sure that what’s being taught is actually important and gives a clearer purpose for your teaching. This isn’t revolutionary, it’s simply implementing ideas that have been there for a while. A lot of the BSSD gear (shirts, mugs, whatever) has the motto: “Making Best Practices Common Practice.” They take it quite seriously too; nothing that we implement district wide is done without a research base; they’re not doing things off the cuff, but as history has shown, the district is willing to make drastic changes if they’re needed.

Now that I’ve driven off everyone that isn’t a teacher (oh, and my mom, because she’ll read whatever I type up) let’s get to the more exciting parts of my adventure, eh?

There’s a lot of stuff I’ve seen here that has really surprised me, but few things have really flown me for a loop so far. I mean, sure headless, dead walruses show up on the beach, you run into trash displaying a multitude of Asian languages, there’s the occasional seal skeleton… and you know all the fishing spots by the large number of gutted fish laying on the river bottoms nearby. Oh, and kids drive ATVs while sitting on their mother’s lap… many of them get their first guns around age 3 and I’ve run into a couple 16 year old boys who captain their own boats and hire on crew. (They’re paid $0.80/lb for the salmon they catch in their nets.)

However, I frequently do catch myself saying, “Only in the bush…” quite often, about little things really. I guess you just have to take a lot of the bigger changes whole, not trying to digest them and compare them. For example, today the school secretary, Agnes, brought in a list of phone students’ names along with their parents names, home phone numbers and VHF frequencies. Only in the bush.

We’ve been having a couple power outages in the past few days. That’s been a blast; no one seems to know how to turn on the school’s generator, not even the school district’s electrician. Since you really can’t find this out anywhere, most bush villages are powered by large diesel generators. Unalakleet has one (though I haven’t found it yet) and Shaktoolik does too. It’s, uhm… quite interesting to look at:


Work has been going pretty well, I think I won’t have too much difficulty getting along with the staff. The tech work has been keeping me pretty busy, but I’m just about done and I’ve been able to get some planning in. I need to do a lot more before school starts though. Tomorrow I’m heading back to Unalakleet, I’ve got a technology training session to go to (something to do with video…) and then I’ll have training in our reading program on Thursday and Friday. Friday night will see me back in Shaktoolik (we’re scheduled to fly on the district’s plane, which I’m really excited about) for a long Saturday meeting and I’ll spend Sunday and Monday getting ready for Tuesday, the first day of school.

I’ll leave you with some pictures though, and I might even caption some of them.

The Shaktoolik school; my apartment is on the second floor, on the north side (you’re looking at the south and east sides of the building).

A dead walrus that floated up and landed on the beach near Unalakleet. The heads are taken for the ivory.

I took sunrise walks every morning of training with a friend I met, it was early but it sure was beautiful.


I guess you have to be a photographer to appreciate this photo.

Getting Settled in and Training

I know, I know… I should be updating more. I’ve got pictures of the village and my apartment, but I haven’t had time to process them yet. I’ll work on it when I get back from training on Friday night and try to get them up.

It’s been fun to get out and about in the village. I’ve got a Post Office box now and I went fishing on my first full day in the village.

Silver Salmon

One stop along the river

Not bad for just casting the line in the water and reeling it back in. I also received most of my food just before I got on the plane for training in Unalakleet, which is where I am now. It’s been fun, I met a lot of cool people and I’m learning a lot, the whole instructional model and how it actually works is making a lot more sense now.

Well, I’m gonna go check out what’s going on with dinner. I promise I’ll put up a bunch of pictures on Friday.

Well, I’m in the Bush…

After an adventurous trip, I’ve made it to Shaktoolik and I’m only a day late and a suitcase short.

I was supposed to fly out of Anchorage on Thursday, but half an hour after we were supposed to take off, we were told our flight was canceled. Lynda (a teacher from my school that I had met up with because we were both in Anchorage) and I went up to the ticket counter to find out when they were rebooking us and it was announced our flight was boarding. Naturally, we’re a little confused and ask what’s going on. “Oh, just the Aniak portion of your flight is going. The runway conditions are too bad in Unakaleet.” Lynda, having just been there a few days ago retorts with, “Well, tell them to move the truck off the runway!” (They’re working on resurfacing their runway.) Come to find out when we got to Unakaleet yesterday that they actually had a full flight for Aniak and wanted the plane they would have to use to send us to Unakaleet for somewhere else.

So, I rented a car and Lynda called one of the former teaching couples from Shaktoolik that were living and Anchorage so we had a place to sleep. I decided that as long as were there, I’d like to see something scenic, so we drove the Seward highway down to Whittier. It was gorgeous! I got to see glaciers, blue glacial ice floating in a lake, we drove a 2.5 mile tunnel through a mountain, there were waterfalls, the ocean and Prince William Sound… it was amazing!

The morning, we were at the airport and did manage to board the plane, a little Saab puddle jumper. I can’t get over just how gorgeous this state is. We flew right by Denali and got to see it jutting from the clouds. The Rockies have nothing on the Alaska range; Denali was fully covered by snow and glaciers. After that, there wasn’t a whole lot to see, the clouds turned into a blanket that stretched from horizon to horizon. When we got overhead of Unakaleet, our pilot circled for a good long time and Lynda was getting worried that they were going to turn back to Anchorage without letting us off. Then the pilot goes into a steep dive and cuts power to the engines… which is just what I want him to do in a 32 seat plane that was held aloft by two propellors…

We made it though; only come to find out, two of our suitcases hadn’t. But, it’s the Bush, things happen and so Lynda and I toured Unakaleet, stopped by the only restaurant in town for a $12 7-inch sub and Lynda showed me around the District Office where I met a number of absolutely fantastic people. It was closing in on 3:30, when our flight to Shaktoolik was supposed to land, so we headed back to the airport, swinging through the area’s only coffee shop on the way. 3:30 rolls around and still no plane. He finally gets in and gets loaded about 4:30pm, just as the Frontier flight carrying our principal and her husband land; then we get told that the missing luggage from Anchorage is on board!

Bering Air says they’ll wait and their agent in Unakaleet drives me over to Frontier building and we find my principal, her husband and their dog along with Lynda’s bag… but not mine. We load up anyway, head over to the Bering Air flight and they pull some mail off to accommodate everyone and I’m told they’ll watch for my suitcase. And then we hit the skies in Cessna Caravan. At an altitude of about 150 feet, we’re flying right underneath the clouds and follow the coastline north to Shaktoolik. Let me tell you, it is absolutely gorgeous! If nothing else, this entire experience will be worth it for that flight alone.

Heidi (the Special Ed teacher) met us all at the airport and we loaded up the school pickup truck; Lynda took an ATV home with her husband and with three in the front of the pickup and one in the back holding onto things, we hit the road into Shaktoolik.

I’m halfway settled into my apartment now, there’s cleaning left to do and various things to finish arranging, but I hope to be done today. The post office opens at 3pm so I’ll head over there and arrange for a P.O. Box and figure out how to make an insurance claim for a few things that got broken in the mail. (You would not believe the number of taped back together boxes I found on my arrival. It doesn’t look like anythings missing, but several things broke; one box dripped glass when I picked it up.)

I’ll get pictures posted when I have time.