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.)
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.