A Great Alaskan Adventure

Being a teacher, I decided I wanted a break from the classroom for Spring Break.  So, naturally, I decided to visit a teacher friend of mine in Kasigluk, AK.  I spent the week in her classroom learning about her life as a teacher in a small Alaskan village, and falling in love with the people and places I had the privilege to see and talk to while there.  Even sitting here at home – it’s hard to believe everything I just experienced this week – and it will be even harder to try and describe what no words can fully explain.  But this will be my best attempt to share my experiences in a place so unlike anything I have ever known.

I began my journey on Friday evening – flying out of the Milwaukee, WI airport around 7:30 PM.  After a (very) brief stop in Minneapolis, MN, I continued on to Anchorage AK on an overnight flight.  I arrived in Anchorage at 12:30 AM (I gained 3 hours flying to Alaska) and had some time to sleep in the airport before my 6:15 AM flight out. Unfortunately, this meant my hours in Anchorage yielded no views of the beautiful scenery – as the sun doesn’t rise until after 8 AM at this time of year.  Disappointed at the lack of mountain views (I comforted myself with the fact that I would be back in the summer to visit in the daylight) I continued on to Bethel, AK (west of Anchorage).  This is where my true adventure begins.  I now was going to be navigating from a town out to a small village in the middle of the Alaskan tundra.  Fortunately I had a surprise waiting for me in Bethel!  My teacher friend, Anna, due to inclement weather had decided to fly in to Bethel, AK the previous night to surprise me! She was afraid, correctly, that due to fog and visibility issues, flights would be delayed out to the villages.  So we hailed a taxi and went into the hub of Bethel to find some breakfast.  We settled on the Red Basket – a small diner much like those found in other small towns, except they offered reindeer as an option. I seriously considered trying the new dish, but being only 8 AM decided that breakfast food sounded better.  After breakfast, we got a tour of Bethel from the next taxi driver, and then went to the home of some teacher friends of Anna’s to spend some time while we waited for the weather to clear.

By mid-afternoon, flights were leaving so we headed to Era, a small plane airport that provided flights to the tundra villages.  I was very excited to ride in a small plane, and I was not disappointed.  Our plane – a small 7-seater, including the pilot and co-pilot’s seats, promised a new adventure. And, luck of luck!, the plane was full, and I got nominated to sit in the co-pilot’s seat.  I was beaming (and probably looked ridiculously excited), but ready to get my first views of the tundra.  These planes fly quite low, so you can watch the villages go by under you and see nothing but snow and ice for as far as the eye can see.

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Boarding the plane to take us to Kasigluk, AK.

Sitting in the co-pilot's seat.

Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat.

The plane ride to Kasigluk, AK takes about 20 minutes.  The landing strip still had snow and ice on it – which made me nervous, but was a routine landing for the pilots of these planes.  The airstrip is a bit outside the village, but fortunately someone was nice enough to offer to let us ride in their sled (towed behind their snow machine) into the village.  And so there I found myself, with my snow pants and parka riding in the middle of the tundra toward this small village of around 300 people.  The village is set up in a rough square, with the school, community center, and water treatment/electrical buildings in the center, and the homes, store, post-office, police office, and recycling center around the edges.  We headed to Anna’s house first, which is located right next to the school.  Anna is lucky to live in a village with running water, so it provided all the comforts of home.  After resting and meeting Anna’s housemate, Bobby, she gave me a tour of the school and village.  Fortunately, I had brought some warm weather with me (in the 30’s!) so it was a pleasant walk.  The warm weather also meant that most village children were out playing with friends, and adults were working outside.  So there were a lot of introductions, hello’s, and “Who’s this?” as we walked the square.  Anna also decided to visit a particular family to see that a member had made it back safely from Bethel after the weather delays.  Homes in the village are built up on stilts, sometimes with storage underneath, because of the massive amounts of snow, and also mud that comes with the melting of the snow.  This home also had a small fish camp in front (an area for drying fish outside and a smoke house), as well as a steam house (a small building used to steam in (like a sauna).  Many generations of a family often live together, and this home was no exception, as people of all ages ran, worked, talked, and laughed around the house.  We were just in time for dinner – and moose tongue soup was on the menu.  Well, no time like the present to try a new dish, so Anna and I each sampled.  Boiling the moose tongue in water had left it with an oily broth, different from anything I’ve ever had.  But the tongue was good, tasting much like other meat, just slightly chewier.  After chatting for a while, we headed back to Anna’s house for glorious sleep (much needed after having slept on planes and in the airport the previous night).

Moose tongue soup.

Moose tongue soup.

Walking to the store in Kasigluk.

Walking to the store in Kasigluk.

Yes, this is a 4-wheeler buried in the snow.

Yes, this is a 4-wheeler buried in the snow.

Sunday dawned another glorious day on the tundra.  Pancakes and salmon and crowe berries were on the menu.  I also tried powdered milk for the first time, as fresh milk is unavailable in the village.  With the pancakes, I sampled Alaskan birch syrup – but decided it was a bit thick and had a flavor less appealing than maple syrup. Anna and I then went to school to work in her classroom for a while.  I decided my week project would be organizing her classroom library.  Anna and I also talked about the challenges faced in her teaching, brainstorming ways to make things better.  Being teachers, we just can’t get away from the question, “How can I better help my students?”, and so much of our conversations centered on that.  Much of my learning curve was listening to the realities of village life.  I was fascinated by these amazing people who lived in this entirely snow covered land, in a village not accessible by any road.

In the afternoon, a group of students came and made pumpkin chocolate chip cookies with Anna and I.  While we waited for the cookies to bake, the students painted, which resulted in Anna and I getting some fan mail. This was also my chance to learn a little more about the languages in Kasigluk.  The original language is Yup’ik, which students learn from elders in the village.  However, English has also taken hold.  Currently students at school are taught in a dual-language program – with different subjects being taught in Yup’ik and English.  This means that conversation is often a mix of the languages, so I had to be a close listener to understand everything. There are also certain expressions and ways of saying phrases that I found myself picking up as the week carried on.

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The paintings made for us by students.

The paintings made for us by students.

I was looking forward to meeting all of Anna’s students on Monday morning, but unfortunately, Anna and I found ourselves sick with food poisoning instead.  We spent the day puking, sleeping, resting, and, later, nibbling on crackers and applesauce.  Needless to say, not the way we had pictured the day going.

Fortunately, by Tuesday morning we both felt much, much better, and headed to school for the day.  I got the privilege of co-teaching math with Anna in the morning due to the week being a testing week for the state of Alaska, meaning normal school routines were interrupted.  In the afternoon, I finished up the library, and helped around the classroom as needed. After school let out, Anna, Marie (who teaches with Anna in the classroom), and I went to the post-office and the store.  This was my first time to explore the prices I had infamously heard about from Anna.  The box of cereal we bought cost almost $7 for price comparison.  Anna and I also found a huge beef heart for sale, but not knowing quite how to cook beef heart, decided to pass on that purchase.  Anna then took me on a walk across the tundra to Fox Lake (currently a frozen lake covered in snow, so really you can’t tell it’s a lake at all).  However, it was beautiful to walk across the white world of Alaska.  We also found a sled dog team tied up in their own little sled dog village (complete with individual dog houses and a shed buried in snow for storage).  For dinner, we ate moose meat – roasted in the oven by Bobby.  It was delicious!

Beef heart.

Beef heart.

Moose meat and carrots.

Moose meat and carrots.

The tundra, with the sled dog village in the background.

The tundra, with the sled dog village in the background.

Kasigluk, AK

Kasigluk, AK

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Kasigluk, AK from Fox Lake.

Wednesday, I spent the morning teaching with Anna, and the afternoon reading with students in her classroom to help Anna document what reading level students were at.  After school, we went to church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the only church in the village.  Neither Anna nor I are members of the Russian Orthodox Church, but I wanted to experience everything I could while I was in the village, and church is a part of the village life.  And boy was it an experience!  Women and children stand on the left, and men on the right (there are no chairs, except a few for the elderly and women with children).  At times the congregation kneels, so as Anna put it, it was an aerobic workout.  Fortunately, much of the service was in English, which is not always the case, so I could understand much of what was said.  The priest also welcomed and thanked Anna and I for coming, which was really nice.  Late Wednesday evening, Anna and I decided to rearrange her classroom to a layout she thought would work better for her students.  I, as the nominated organizer, cleared, and cleaned up shelves that then were moved to provide a divider in her room.  We then rearranged desks and tables, finishing up in the wee morning hours.  We couldn’t wait to show the students.

The Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian Orthodox Church.

Dressed for church.

Dressed for church.

Anna's rearranged classroom!

Anna’s rearranged classroom!

Thursday, during the day, was a repeat of Wednesday – spending the morning and early afternoon in the classroom with Anna.  Her students and I were quickly becoming fond of each other.  I read to them each day I was there – and that was some of the most attentive listening I saw from them.  They were all very eager to get their one-on-one chance to read to me too.   After school, Anna and I showed Marie some pictures we found while cleaning, pictures of fish camp.  Marie then sat down and told me all about fish camp and answered all of my questions. I enjoyed being the student, and just learning.  It’s what I had been doing all week anyway.  So much to learn, and all of it so interesting!  Later Thursday promised a whole new adventure – a trip to the other half of Kasigluk.  Anna had to teach me this, but Kasigluk is divided into the old village, and the new village.  Anna lives in Akula, or the new village, which is on one side of the Johnson River.  On the other side of the river lies Akiuk, or the old village.  Both villages currently have schools and run as separate villages, except they share the air strip and the police force divides itself between both.  However, the old village is slowly sinking, which is why the new village was built so that eventually all would move to the new village.  Not all want to move, however, so that has been a slow process.  Anyway, Akiuk was having Yuraq, the traditional style of Yup’ik dance, practice, and Anna and I had been invited to attend.  An older student drove us over in a sled attached to his parent’s snow machine.  The sled ride itself was an adventure, and my first time to another village.  Then of course the dancing was all new too.  The dancing is directed by drums, and therefore danced to the beat of the drums.  Anna and I watched for a while, and then we joined in. After the dance practice we were driven back to Akula where we went to Volley Night.  Anna, an avid volleyball player, started Volley Night as a way to connect with the village, and now it is a favorite weekly event. Whoever shows up plays, and despite my poor volleyball skills, I actually had a lot of fun.

Anna ready to travel in the sled.

Anna ready to travel in the sled.

Traditional Yup'ik dancing.

Traditional Yup’ik dancing.

Friday was my last day in the village.  Students only have a half day on Fridays, so I finished reading with students, and then gave them each a book to keep.  They were so excited to have a book of their own!   For lunch, two of the village families had brought me dried fish to try before I left.  So I had dried white fish, king salmon, and flat fish. Not bad! The families have been so generous with food and having me experience everything I can.

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Dried King Salmon

In the afternoon, students can come back to school for a 30 minute open gym time, so Anna and I watched older students practice NYO (Native Youth Olympics) http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/curriculum/NativeGames/nyo.html

I didn’t know anything about this these events and competitions, but was utterly fascinated with them.  A few of the students demonstrated some of the events for me.  I would love to see a full competition sometime.  Also on Friday afternoon, a student of Anna’s came in and helped Anna and I put up a new word wall in her classroom.  Because of the dual language program, there must be a Yup’ik and English word wall in the classroom.  So her student practiced his Yup’ik by saying the words to me as we worked on the word wall.  It was so much fun to spend time with her students.  As he left, he said, “See you on Monday, Miss Allison!” He knew I had to leave but I truly have loved my time in Kasigluk, and everyone made me feel so welcomed, it was hard to leave!

Unfortunately I did have to leave on Friday evening.  I flew out on a slightly larger plane, holding around 15 people.  I retraced my steps to Bethel, Anchorage, and then Chicago this time.  The whole time I couldn’t believe it had been a week already.  I learned so much, and enjoyed every minute of it.  I was asked to stay more times than I can count.  I had my future planned by Susan, who wanted me to come teach and Matt to come be a doctor in Bethel or traveling the villages.  And who knows?  Maybe someday we will.  But for now I’m back in Milwaukee, transitioning from a land covered in snow to one covered in grass, and where it’s now warm enough I can put the parka away.  I hope I do at least get to travel back someday.  I miss you already Anna!

Anna and I in front of my departure plane.

Anna and I in front of my departure plane.

Kasigluk, AK from the air.

Kasigluk, AK from the air.

Anna also keeps a blog of her time in Alaska, so you can read more about her experiences here: http://aka-mylife.tumblr.com/

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Published in: on April 6, 2013 at 11:35 pm  Comments (3)