Monday, March 2, 2015

A Change of Venue

I have not posted on this blog for a very long time. I'm sure if I start typing I will easily fill a few pages with the latest exploits of Harebrained Adventures. Here goes:

We have relocated to False Pass Alaska. False Pass is the only occupied settlement on Unimak Island, which is the first island in the Aleutian chain. The scenery is eye-poppingly gorgeous. The community consists of about 60 year-round residents, and about 40 cannery workers at any given time during the fishing season. Our school has a total enrollment this year of 11 students.  I am the middle-high school teacher, and Annette teaches the lower grades. We have a kindergarten teacher aide as well for our two pre-K, and K students. One big happy family!

The village sits on Isanotski Strait, which is the first break in the coastline, connecting the Bering sea to the Pacific Ocean. Because the tides between these bodies of water are opposite each other, they do not so much rise and fall, but rather,, in either direction! In a kayak or other small craft, the current can be anything from frustrating to frightening! Still, it has proven to be a great way to connect with the natural environment. On a rare afternoon when the water was nearly smooth and the wind nearly still, I sat in my kayak and drifted, taking in the spectacular scenery of the aleutian island landforms and marveling at the sound of nearly nothing, as no boats, land vehicles, or industrial sounds were able to reach me where I floated.

A bit of background:

After 14 years in the Kuskokwim delta and neighboring islands, working for The Lower Kuskokwim School District,  the universe...gently nudged us to look for a new place to live and work. To this end, in April, we found ourselves, at the Alaska Teacher Placement Job Fair in Anchorage. Ideally, we were hoping to find positions in the Kenai Borough School District. This would have allowed us to live in our house, and join the ranks of daily commuters across the country (why be normal?). This, however, was not to be, as no positions were available in Kenai, anywhere near home. We wandered the aisles of the job fair, chatting with reps about where they were, who they needed, and what we might do there, were we to go, snagging free pens, pencils, rulers, phone charge boosters (yes! phone charge boosters!), erasers, and other assorted items, that we took even though we knew full well we would have to either throw them out or move them with us when we moved. Eventually, we came across a hand-written sign saying: TEACHING COUPLE WANTED! We went over and started chatting with the superintendent of the Aleutians East Borough School District about what they had to offer. He asked us if we really wanted to work in the Aleutians, and if we would have time for an interview...right there and then. We said, "yes", and proceeded, along with most of the AEBSD school board, into an empty conference room in the hotel. The interview, which was going quite well, by any standard,  ran for about 25 minutes and then someone poked their head into the room saying, "We had this room reserved for 4:00." We talked for about 5 more minutes and then we all had to leave so that "4:00" could have his room. The Superintendent called us over and offered us the job teaching in False Pass right there, on the spot. We told him we would like to think it over, and that we would give him our decision by 9:00 the next morning. By the time we got back down to the job fair at 8:30, we were ready to tell him, "Thanks, but no, thanks." While we sipped our coffee, he met us outside the ballroom and asked us what we had decided. We still wanted to say,"no" but he threw in enough extra perks and enthusiasm for us to come work for him (it's nice to be wanted!) that our resolve collapsed and we were compelled to reverse our decision. The way it worked, he hired us both as "Principal-Teachers" which made us, "the boss" for the first time in either of our professional (or otherwise) careers.  The next thing was to pack and small feat after 14 years of accumulating all the creature comforts and indulgences we needed...or thought we did anyway, to live in rural Alaska.

As it turned out, we really didn't need an awful lot of that stuff, and much of it we stuffed into trash bags and hauled to the dump. Most of the rest, we put out on shelves in the living room and invited the community in to relieve us us of it for (truly) modest prices. We pretty much sold out in about 2 hours, and with only a few boxes of books and clothing left to donate to the Tundra Women's Coalition Shelter in Bethel, we were done. Everything we would ship on was in boxes or totes, waiting to go to the Tuntutuliak post office, as space inside would allow. They really DID NOT have the space and told us as much. Eventually, everything made it to the post office and we made it to our plane, leaving the delta for good...or until we find ourselves back there...I think we will, but I have no idea why.

We spent our summer in Kenai, enjoying the relaxation that no schedule afforded us. We did have family up for a visit and we played tour-guide, which is always fun. When it stops being fun, that will be when I'm sure it is time to leave Alaska. I do not anticipate this any time soon. As August came, we packed our bags, totes, kayaks, pet carriers, and ice chests for travel to our new digs. Because of obligatory miscalculations in time needed to solve packing issues, we found ourselves racing down to Homer to catch the ferry to False Pass. While we wanted a couple of leisurely hours to eat dinner at the Kosmic Kitchen, we instead found ourselves driving straight out to The Spit and unloading our worldly possessions to carry onto the Tustamena. This was still a lot of crap, because I am one who loves his toys, and has to take them with me wherever I go. This makes for an ordeal coming and going, but one I am willing to embrace.

Four days and three nights on the "Trusty Tusty" allowed us to experience the truly wild nature of this part of Alaska and the surrounding ocean. We saw porpoises, seals, sea lions, thousands of birds, dozens of whales, and met some truly adventurous souls, most, surprisingly, with hair grayer (or bluer) than ours. While the Alaska Marine Highway does provide serviceable accommodations, they do not go much past this standard, and so, we all enjoyed the scenery and each other's conversation, stories, pictures, and enthusiasm for what they were experiencing in the moment. We heard typically,"There are a bunch of whales over on the starboard side!" or, "There's a bear on the beach!" -which turn out to NOT be a bear, but rather, a large rusty fuel drum. This provided us with enthusiastic joy (and humor) as well.

When we arrived in False Pass, we were met by many of the locals, including our coworkers who helped us load up the school's truck and haul our belongings to our new teacher housing. The rest of the community was waiting for the boat for another reason: Dinner! For about an hour and a half every two weeks, during ferry season, we have, in town, a decent restaurant in the form of the Tustamena's galley and dining room. The food isn't bad, and if you aren't inclined to cook it certainly beats frozen pizza, We had everything we needed waiting for us, as we had sent it all ahead from Tunt. Unpacking and setting up the house was the next effort, and we had about a week to do this before school started and took up our time, as it tends to do in this business.

Since we have been here in False Pass, We have found new routines to adapt to. Many of the expectations we had of bush experiences failed us here, like for instance, the local store. Typically, in a village, the local store will have limited variety, and crushingly high prices, a graphic illustration of the cost of doing business in rural Alaska. Since our local store relies not on air transportation so much for delivery of supplies, but rather, a biweekly freighter, we enjoy a better selection of goods (still not Costco, but better than a tundra village store by far and away) and prices that are actually quite reasonable (not Walmart prices, but also, refreshingly, NOT Walmart!). The store is only open for two hours a day during the winter season, up to 5 hours during the summer, so planning ahead is important. You can get what you need, and it pays to ask too! We've even done our own Costco order, and it arrived without incident on the freighter. The fresh fruits and veggies and fruits are actually still...fresh!

School started in late August, and the fun continues...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Where DO we go?!

Okay, so winter break is drawn to a close for us here in Tunt, and we are all back in our classrooms preparing for the inevitable onslaught of students who've been out of classrooms for three weeks and, because of Slavic celebrations, have been eating massive amounts of candy for the last several days. Even still, we're glad to see each other and a brief honeymoon will ensue while we tell about our various adventures..."WHERE DID YOU GO," they will ask us repeatedly, and we will tell them.

Getting away from the cold and dark continues to be important. By the the time the winter solstice slides in, we are all tired and in serious need of a break. We spent part of our time at the house in Kenai, and while it was relaxing, 5 hours of daylight fails to accommodate my tendencies to procrastinate. Even waking up at 8:00 means waiting until 10:00 for useable light, then it will be dark again at 4:30. You will get a spectacular sunrise, riotous sunset, and whatever activity you can do during that 5-hour slot in between. An 8-mile hike without snowshoes was NOT a good choice, but still, a learning experience.
Obligatory riotous sunset over Cook Inlet.

Our vacation is almost excessive, but I will not complain, since I am still on the receiving end of three weeks of uninterrupted absence from school, during which time I try to think about school as little as possible...with at least moderate success.

This year we split our time away from the village. The week from Christmas eve to New Year's Eve, we spent in Kenai. On New Year's Eve we flew to Tucson where desert nights cooled off to about 45 F and days warmed to 65 or so. Short sleeves and shorts weather if you insist, but it's definitely forced. Yes, I did don my cargo shorts and tee-shirts, because I DO insist. Winter is a relative thing.

The Border Fence! We used to collect pretty rocks in he washes along this stretch. Not so much anymore.  
In most other years, we have made our way to Austin for the holidays and while seeing friends and family is great, if central Texas is going to have winter weather, it usually falls right around the winter solstice. This is when Texas highways become hockey arenas, with heavily armored F-150's playing power forward, and Prius's and smart cars standing in as pucks. We are likely to get at least a few nice days, but getting away from winter unscathed is not a sure thing.

Hawaii was our destination last year, with our daughter, Senna, her honey, Matt and my mom included in the solar celebration. We ended up on the "Big Island,"with the whole gang after a week on Kauai by ourselves. I highly recommend this destination as an escape from the cold and dark. Winter didn't have a chance!

The schedule of a teacher gives us that same pattern of work and play that most of us grew up with.  It is not typical in the rest of the working world, I am finding more and more. Nor is it as desirable to everyone going on vacation, since summer is "high season," in many places (like Alaska tourist destinations)  or totally inappropriate "low season," like the Caribbean, anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, or the desert southwest. Austin in the summer was our home base in the summer for several years, but never really a great idea, and as soon as we realized how wonderful Alaskan summers can be, we acknowledged that it is just WRONG to leave Alaska in the summer time and after an epic road trip one year (17000 miles, Alaska to Maine and back again) bought our house in Kenai. Someday, we might actually get to live in it for more than two or three months a year.

Pastoral Stand-off?
Everyone was glad to see us, and were happy to be back in school...for now. We'll see how our energy level is holding up by....the end season?

Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Coming and Going

Suffering through the interminable minutes of a staff development session scheduled on the day before a three-week vacation was hard enough. The weather was crap, which is normal for this time of year, and so far, planes were not flying. We weren't worried; we were scheduled to go out the morning of the next day, thinking, we'd have plenty of time to pack, clean up, and leave the house in a condition we wouldn't be too depressed coming back to. We went to bed, woke up bright and early the next morning to...freezing rain and high winds!

We sat around and waited, listening to any chatter on the VHF that might lift our hopes that at some point in the day our plane would fly and we would begin our vacation in a timely manner at our house in Kenai. Scheduled flight time came and went. It was clear we would not make our connection either, but still we were hopeful, ready to go when the plane did arrive. Finally, mid-afternoon, and the skies cleared! The village agent called and said the plane would be coming in 20 minutes. We called for our ride and made our way to the airport with a month's worth of clothes, toys, and gadgets, a dog kennel, cat carrier, and high expectations of a few days to relax and enjoy Christmas vacation on the Kenai Peninsula...alas...this was not to be. With a brief fiasco at the Tuntutuliak airport, which is best left undescribed...for now, We did get to Bethel, where we faced a small airport terminal packed wall-to-wall with travelers trying to go home to their villages or away for a while to distant cities, towns, beaches, and famous mouse empires. None of us were going anywhere that night and so with furrows in our brows we all went off and found places to sleep there in Bethel.

Our only choice, since we had pets and friends already out of town, was the once celebrated, but now less so-hotel in town that would accommodate our pets. We got the "teacher" discount rate, so we only paid about twice what anyone anywhere else would pay for a comparable room, but hey, it's Bethel! Morning came and we proceeded as if we would indeed be leaving Bethel that morning. The cat who is 15 years old and doesn't handle change well, had other plans. He crawled under the bed and then up into the coils of the box spring. This, of course, was about a half hour before we were due at the airport, and so dismantling the bed to retrieve the cat was not the welcome task it might have been, had I more time on my hands. We stuffed him unceremoniously into his carrier.  A bit more exasperated, but still optimistically, and with an actual reservation in hand, along with our menagerie, we made our way back out to the airport and waited patiently for our flight time...which came...and went...with no explanation except, "It's on weather-hold." Oh yeah, and, that morning, I had dropped my iPad on a metal grate outside the hotel. The screen flipped confusedly through the glass that now resembled a spiderweb more than a high-resolution LCD digital display. I turned it off and stuffed it into my back pack, deciding to think about other happier thoughts, like getting the hell out of Bethel before Christmas eve. We were still hopeful that the plane would land and take us didn't. Apparently, the runway in Bethel was too slippery and, indeed, no larger planes landed that evening.

Back to the hotel we went for yet another night, with nerves now frayed well past easy tolerance of a minor inconvenience.  Grouchy would be understating our mood at this point, and the animals had had more than enough too. But after three days waiting, we would NOT have to wait a fourth, and, though late by a couple hours, the plane boarded and we were on our way. The rest was actually quite uneventful. We got to Kenai, found the car parked, and with only a little shoveling and scraping uncovered it enough to drive home to our house that would be "ours", for at least a few days. We settled in and enjoyed eggnog, good food, and the prospect of not thinking very seriously about school for most of the next three weeks. Three days bitten out of it did leave us with at least a bit of resentment though.

In the course of the 14 years we have traveled in at out of the Kuskokwim delta region, we have always had impeccably good fortune at Christmas time anyway. This was indeed the first time that we actually got stuck heading out of the village. Anger, frustration, and feelings of being cheated by fate is common but  railing at the forces of nature, or even the airline operations managers does very little to improve ones situation. The sky will clear when it clears, the planes will fly when they fly. Rather like second-guessing a referee's call or a coach's decision, many a frustrated passenger has conjectured that a plane COULD have flown today, because on some OTHER day, (by ones own myopic perception) just LIKE today, the planes flew! It makes us feel smug and superior for a moment, perhaps, but it won't get you coming...or going any faster than just chilling at the airport and enjoying the company of kindred spirits, some even your old friends and former students, who are in the same boat as you and want desperately to get home just as badly as you do...but they are also glad to see you too.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Tis the Season...2013-14

As holiday vacation approaches many of us, as teachers in rural Alaska, are looking forward to departing for warmer, brighter places for a few days at least. In our case, it's about three weeks, a result of our community having two churches with differing calendars for their winter celebrations. Regular Christmas celebrated by the Moravian church here gives us the conventional ten days to two weeks, just like everywhere else, but the Russian Orthodox church has their "Slavic" celebration which is several days of feasting and gifting, starting in January and lasting well into the month. This means we get time off for both celebrations, and therefore plenty of time for unwinding in southern latitudes...if that were what we had planned.

We, however, are taking leave of the village much closer to home this year, to our home in Kenai, then taking a relatively brief visit to family in Arizona after New Year's...when airfares drop precipitously. It'll be warm, sunny, and should give us a chance to bake ourselves lightly. The plan is to get a tree, celebrate an Alaska Christmas, with access to restaurants, shopping opportunities, movie theaters, and ROADS with CARS. There's lots of snow this year. Perhaps a bit of skijoring with the dog is on the schedule too.

For us, as Alaska bush teachers, the vacation is all about renewal and re-creation. It is a long stretch between Labor Day and Christmas, then it's even longer between New Year's an May...when we set our charges free for the summer. Spring break doesn't work here, since it's still cold and snowy, with nothing to do but stay huddled inside for the week. No one really wants to extend the school year to accommodate a week that is too short, really, to go anywhere further than Anchorage, where it is also cold and snowy, and Spring is still a distant and vague promise. The compromise is a 4-day weekend that corresponds to the week of the district basketball championship tournament. Nowhere to go except Bethel, but still a short breather.

While I look forward to the time off, I'm afraid my body's schedule might not coordinate with the clock, since once I wake up, I probably have less than 5 hours of useful daylight at best, and, after all, it is vacation, so sleeping in will take its toll too.

Happy holidays! All of them!


A chilly day in Aniak (home of the Halfbreeds) during the regional 
volleyball tournament. The sun is "...wearing mittens" The 
meteorological explanation is way less compelling. 

We had fun but lost in the second round. 
As a consolation though, we did beat the Halfbreeds!

Monday, April 8, 2013

April on the Tundra

I have not contributed to this blog in a while, and realize that if I want any continuity in this chronicle I need to type something. The school year has been long. I will not blame it on any one element but I have one in mind. more later...

April came in with warm sunny days, kids were dressed in short sleeves to celebrate the 50-degree temperatures and promises of early break-up and snow melting...followed by a stretch of very cold (sub-zero) temps that vow to hang on for another week at least. Even still, the sun is up early and still up at 10:30 pm so we are all solar powered and sleep cycles are not dictated by clocks but rather circadian rhythms peculiar to the subarctic latitudes.

After a week of standardized testing this week students are done for the year. Planning is getting creative so that we can keep them entertained enough to keep them coming to school rather than going fishing and hunting, or just sleeping in after staying up all night, since the sky is still light at midnight. Solar power doesn't work so well in classrooms with few windows.

Traveling with students this week to Healy, flying, then driving for about five hours. Photos to follow.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Place for Everything

Preparing for a kayak trip, for me, involves a loosely assembled list of various items that would be anything from "handy" to "essential" to "superfluous", depending on ones perspective. The good thing about kayaks is that they really do only carry a finite payload and exceeding it is just not a good idea. As it stands now, this day before departure, our kayaks are all packed with what we intend to bring, stowed in dry bags and fitted together in geometrically compatible fashion, not unlike the old video game, TETRIS.There are a few more things that will not exactly fit in a preordained place and so, of course, a bit of refinement will be required, and hopefully still, we'll be able toget everything "essential" loaded, and still have enough room for the "handy" and "superfluous". For some reason, if there is a space to fill, I manage to fill it.

Luckily, I have Brian to help me focus my energies away from the most superfluous expenditures of energy, so this harebrained adventure may be somewhat less harebrained than usual. Where's the fun in that? We are bringing our share toys and gadgets; I've got my camera, of course. This time I will be getting pictures! Last time we did this trip, two summers ago with Dave and Sally, I took about 500 pictures over three days, saved safely on ONE of my compact flash media cards... which, after being swapped out full ON THE LAST DAY, never made the trip back to Whittier and subsequently home safely, to be uploaded on my computer and disseminated across the internet. I will admit here that indeed, that is part of the reason I'm doing this trip again. the pictures I got were truly amazing with calving glaciers, families of seals hauled out on floating ice blocks, bold little otters swimming up close and personal, and with the zoom I had, I was able to bring them even closer. Alas, there is only one day's worth of photo documentation of that trip, consisting of a bunch of close-up shots of honey dews we found at our last rest stop, an eagle in a tree, and a bored otter. No Ice, seals, or even our camp site. Luckily, Sally had her camera, but no zoom and so she provided me with her wonderfully composed and exposed shots of things taken with normal or macro lenses. I'm also bringing a small video camera as well, since calving ice is a bit to kinetic to sufficiently document in still format. kicking and screaming, I'm being dragged into the 20th century.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shopping Lists

Planning is important. It never means that is what I'm actually going to do, but a plan is a starting point, from which I will invariably deviate as actual conditions require. I have lots of examples. It is the way I've always approached situations. Sometimes the planning is a bit sketchy, in fact, frequently, but there's usually a plan somewhere. Every May, we've closed up our house in the village as we are head out to summer. There is summer here, and everyone looks forward to it, with its long days, fish in the river, chances to see new places, and old friends, under the open sky, unobscured by the requisite layers and coverings of the winter season. Our summer migration has become quite predictable; Bethel, to Anchorage, Down to Kenai, then off to Austin for a couple weeks soaking up the last tolerable days of central Texas spring before the bake-your-brain heat of summer settles in for the next three or four months. We then retreat back to our brief and beautiful summer in Kenai, to unwind, and then rewind in preparation for the following school year in the village.

 Projects take over my mind and visions of them completed dominate my enthusiasm in April and May. I dive headlong into them by early June, making lists of parts and tracking down their sources. By July, they might sit or lay stalled at some juncture requiring some alternative to my original plan. Unfortunately, they will frequently stay this way till it's time to put them away for the season and again change focus toward the long winter season looming, even while the brilliant greens, pinks, blues and purples of late summer's riot of life in its seasonal climax. I don't get things done any more efficiently than I did in the days of year-round habitation, but I'm at least thinking them through more thoroughly, which returns me to the that old theme of deliberateness... or is it deliberation?

By the end of summer, it is time, in earnest, to finish what I can finish, and prepare for the winter. My one modest subsistence activity usually involves catching salmon at the mouth of the Kenai river, in a net the size of a garage door (no, not at all sporting), then smoking them, and bagging them up so that we can take them back out to the village for the winter. We do the same with our spoils from the grocery store too; bagging up portions of chicken beef, and dry supplies we'll need for that long stretch between August and Christmas. We do punctuate it with a short trip to Kenai in October to celebrate our anniversary, and that is also a shopping trip to stock up on items already depleted and nice to have, between Halloween and Christmas. My luggage leaving the village, consists of my suit case, and four or five empty RubberMaid totes that we will fill up with between 60 and 70 pounds of food, cat litter, laundry soap, and whatever else we will consume.

Shopping in the village is an option, a pretty bleak one though, with choices mostly limited to bleached flour and processed items in cans with too much salt, too much sugar, and preservatives. I limit my purchases at the "Corp Store" to eggs, shelf-stable milk, Gatorade powder, and the occasional junk food item. I think if I tried living on the fare at the village store, my insides would have been pickled a long time ago.  As it is, when we get our biweekly delivery of fresh produce, I start planning what I'll do with it, before carrots start wilting, apples get mealy, and mushrooms dry up to tight little knots. Sometimes I beat the elements (of the refrigerator), and sometimes I don't.

Spending $400-500 at a pop on groceries, without blinking has come to me slowly and really only since moving to Alaska, but now I can get pretty philosophical. The problem now is that I'm not very good at shopping for say, a weekend or a week. When we take her shopping, on our visits, Senna has been bestowed with supplies of items she may use sometime before she finishes grad school, but not likely.

Everything here comes by plane. Because of that, we are at the mercy of the weather, the airlines, and even the FAA, as was the case on September 11, 200. Those days actually came and went with a relatively insulated reaction from the folks in our village. Even though no planes flew for almost a week and though the shelves at the store were pretty picked over, most of the locals all had a freezer full of fish and game, or dried fish freshly collected from drying racks. Fortunately for us,  we had just come in for the school year after a successful hunt at Costco, with our lifetime's supplies of everything from pasta to gummy bears so we were fine too. It pays to plan ahead, but there is still much to be said for hare-brained adventures too.
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