Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Changes in Latitudes, Changes in...."

With much anticipation I left Fairbanks on Sunday after four more days of training. After a brief discussion with Gretchen this past Saturday, I knew to expect a fresh white blanket on the tundra as I traveled North once again. We left Fairbanks and quickly entered heavy clouds. Over an hour later we emerged in our Cessna Grand Caravan near the Yukon River. I could barely make out Birch Creek to the left of the airplane, while Fort Yukon was totally obscured to the right. As Venetie got closer the sky began to clear- the sun was shining on the Brooks Range in the distance. I noticed a shimmer off several of the lakes and ponds along our sister community. To my surprise it was ice gently forming on the surface of the water. After a quick stop to drop off two fellow teachers in Venetie we headed North by North East to Arctic Village. As we gained latitude the ice on these bodies of water grew thicker and thicker, eventually suspending snow on the surface. The landscape was poca-dotted in white all the way home.

The last two days I decided to take my high schoolers for a hike during P.E. Despite dropping temperatures and falling frozen precipitation, they enjoy the 55 minute jaunt into the village countryside. Yesterday we walked to Glacier Creek, about 1.3 miles South East of school. During the walk back I was greeted with flurries, as a brief storm blew in from the North. Today we decided to hike along the shore of the Chandalar River. To my surprise this was also frozen. Most of the surrounding ponds and lakes are pretty stagnant, but I did not predict the steadily flowing river current to freeze this soon. There was an intermittent layer of ice along the surface of the Chandalar during most of our hike. At times you could hear these plate tectonic like ice sheets cracking and splintering as they fought the cold to avoid solidifying. Soon enough we will be grabbing cross country ski's for an afternoon tour.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Living the Way of our Ancestors

Recently, someone here in the village asked me how I liked "living the way my ancestors did." That got me to thinking, when did my ancestors live this way? Did they ever? And do the people of Arctic really still live as their ancestors lived? These questions could be answered on a philosophical level, but I'll just consider them on a practical level for now.

The Gwich'in people were nomadic until as late as the 1950's! They followed the caribou herd hunting to survive and did not establish permanent villages until the the riffle was introduced. When the people here refer to living as their ancestors did, they refer to hunting caribou and living without indoor plumbing. Although they do have electricity, telephones, internet access, cable TV, four wheelers and snow machines (I don't think their ancestors had all that!) Compared to living in Fairbanks or another city, the people of Arctic Village do live somewhat how their ancestors did, just with a few more modern conveniences available. When the electricity goes out and the satellites go down, that is when they really go back to living as their ancestors did!

As for my other questions about my ancestors...I called my Grandmother for more information. Grandma told me that her family first got indoor plumbing and a coal furnace in 1948 when she left for college. My grandmother was born in 1931 in Moberly, Missouri and had electricity and a telephone for as long as she can remember. She is pretty sure that her family had both of these things before she was ever born. The phone line she had as a child was a party line, shared with three other residences/businesses and you had to go through the operator to place a call.

I asked Grandma if/when any of our relatives primarily hunted to survive and she said that you would have to go back a very long way to find that. My great great great grandparents came from North Carolina to Missouri in 1837 in a covered wagon. They were primarily farmers and had children who left for the gold rush in California, fought in the Civil War, and settled in Missouri as farmers. My great great grandparents owned a lumber yard in Missouri. My great grandparents owned a store and great grandpa also worked as a mail carrier and car salesman for awhile in Missouri. My grandparents both left home for college and eventually moved to Indiana (after living a few other places) where my Grandfather worked for Universities and my Grandmother worked as an Office Manager for a Non-Profit. My Grandma wasn't really sure when our family first came to America, but it was well before 1800.

So, for me, living in Arctic Village is not really living like my ancestors (and Sam could say the same.) For me, living in Arctic Village is jumping into a totally different way of life - the way of the Gwich'in people and their ancestors. I am privileged to have this opportunity to learn all that this way of life entails, because not too many people anywhere really live the way of their ancestors anymore.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I Woke up to Winter

Did you know that dish soap can freeze? I woke up on Saturday morning and our cabin was so cold that I could see my breath. As I started making coffee I noticed that the dish soap had frozen, inside the cabin, right there on the counter - frozen. Brr...time to get a fire going!

I walked over to school that afternoon to take a shower and do some laundry. When I walked back outside I realized that it had started to SNOW!!!!! September 25th and the snow is already flying. It is going to be a long winter!
There were ravens flying all over picking at the trash barrels and it totally felt like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's, "The Birds" as I walked out of the school building.

There is something romantic and magical about watching snowflakes fall. As I walked home I stopped to take pictures along the way and to catch a few flakes on my tongue!

Snowing falling on the school....
Snow falling on the post office...
And the most beautiful of all, snow falling on the mountains!!!
I love this view from behind our cabin. We look out at the mountains and dream of skiing!
Jack is excited about the snow too. He rolled around in it so much that we don't have much snow left in our yard. He also found something, which he proudly presented to me...
And you thought it was bad when the cat finds a mouse and delivers it to your doorstep...Jack found this in the woods somewhere and carried it to the doorstep.
Ah, caribou hoof, thanks Jack!

Saturday, September 25, 2010


While Sam has been away, I was able to be his sub again. It is sort of like we have been tag-teaming as a couple. When he isn't here I step in and help out. Sometimes it is very challenging, but other times it can be a lot of fun.

One of the lessons Sam left for me to do with the middle schooler's in Art was self portraits. Sam left his own self portrait as an example:

The kids thought it would be really hard to draw themselves, but once they got started I was amazed at what they were able to create! They each started with a real pictures of themselves, traced the major outlines, then filled in details with color.

Their pictures were beautiful! They were filled with so much personality and individuality. The expressions they drew on their faces perfectly captured their own unique likenesses. It was such a joy to watch the kids create something of their own - something with no right or wrong answer, just whatever they wanted it to be.

Reading, Writing and Math...all the stuff on standardized tests, does not come easily for most of these students. It seems that a majority of the school day is spent working on those things and it can leave them feeling pretty worthless. No matter how much encouragement is given, they know they struggle with the "core" curriculum - yes they have test scores that prove that. Showing the kids that they are capable and valuable may not be on any test they will ever take...but it is an investment that will change their lives.

A Three Dog Night

While Sam and Arin (the elementary teacher) have been in Fairbanks the past few days for a teacher training, I have been pet sitting her dogs - River and Abby.

Jack's sleepover with his friends started with everyone in their place.
Jack took his usual spot at the foot of my bed and he "let" River and Abby
share his dog bed on the floor.

It wasn't too long before it started to get cold and all
three dogs came to cuddle in my bed!

I tried to get a picture of all of us together, but my arm wasn't
long enough to capture us all in one shot.

It sure is good to have friends to cuddle with when it gets cold!

Cabin Makeover

We decided to make a few modifications to our cabin to give it some color and to make the most out of a small space. Last time I was in Fairbanks I bought bright colored fabrics and sewed curtains for each window (as I had mentioned in a previous post, two of Sam's students helped me sew the curtains.) I also used scraps of fabric to cover cardboard and make wall hangings that we can also use as bulletin boards.

In the small area that had been a "bathroom", Sam built a loft to store extra gear and installed a hanging bar to create a closet. We are now able to store a lot things in a small space, while maintaining a sense of organization.
We ripped out the table that had been the kitchen area and moved the futon over to create a "living room" space. Jack likes hanging out over there and sneaking up on the futon for naps when he thinks we aren't looking! The cross you see hanging on the wall is one that we got from our church in Missouri, the first church we attended after getting married. It has hung in each place we have lived since we have been married, and now it has made it all the way to Arctic Village!
In the space where the futon used to be, Sam built a desk for our computer. This created a nice little "office" area. Sam built the desk and shelf from scrap wood he found in the yard.

If you follow our blog, you have seen this picture before. This is what our dining area used to look like...

And this is what it looks like now...
The curtains are a modified roman shade that pull up with strings to let the light in. The table that we ripped out from the other side of the room, Sam rebuilt and put beneath the windows so that our whole kitchen is in one corner. Below the table cloth is where we store all of our food and on top of the table is where we do all of our cooking.

This is a picture of what our "bedroom" area had looked like:
And here is a photo of it now...not too much different, but a nice flash of color on the walls. We have started to pin up pictures and inspirational quotes such as our favorite Bible verses on here.

This last photo is for all those who asked....yes, we do have a honey bucket!
It is nice to take a space and try to add touches to make it feel like home, but what I have realized is that home isn't about the things we surround ourselves with. It is about the people with whom we share it!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Think Outside the Bun

After our weekend get-away, Monday was back to the grindstone. The kids had been out of school all week for fall break, while the teachers were at in-service and like after any break it took them awhile to get them back into the routine.

I stopped by Sam's class on Monday to help him with reading groups and overheard the funniest conversation. He was teaching his middle schoolers about writing good paragraphs with an introduction, supporting details and a conclusion. He drew a picture of a hamburger and labelled the top bun introduction, the meat, cheese, lettuce, etc. as details and the bottom bun as the conclusion. It seemed like a straightforward illustration to me, but the kids took it in a whole different direction. They wanted to know if Sam had every really worked in fast food and if he knew anything about cheeseburgers. Sam told them that he had worked at Taco Bell and a girl in the back shouted out, "well that is the problem, we've got to think outside the bun!" Maybe these kids really do have to think outside the bun.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Weekend in Fairbanks

Following a week long inservice in Fairbanks, we were able to stay for the weekend and have some fun! Two of Sam's buddies from the Army (a life that seems long long ago now, but was really just 6 months ago) came to Fairbanks for the weekend and we all hit up Chena Hot Springs!

We started at Angel Rocks and hiked toward the hot springs. I hiked in about two miles with the guys, then ran back out to get the truck and drove the rest of the way to meet the guys at the hot springs. The run back down from Angel Rocks to the parking lot was fantastic! I haven't been able to run for a long time and it was a beautiful day, so I decided to give it a try. As my my feet hit the ground between roots, leaves and rocks I remembered why I love to run. I love the challenge of pushing my body to the limit and I love taking in beautiful scenery as I run! It was also nice that most of the run was downhill!

Jack stops to enjoy the view along the trail.

A view of some of the granite tors

What do you mean 6.5 more miles? Ryan is ready for the hot springs!

Tony strikes the quintessential mountain man pose.

Ryan, Jack and Tony along the top of the ridge line

It was a hazy day, but up above tree line you could see for miles.

After 8.9 miles Ryan gets his reward!

Yeah, Hot Springs!

It really does take away all your aches and pains!

Thanks Ryan and Tony for meeting us in Fairbanks!
It was great to catch-up and enjoy a weekend of Alaskan style fun.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fairbanks In-Service & Shopping

Yukon Flats School District throws a fall in-service each year in Fairbanks. The purpose, bring together all the teachers and aides from all seven schools in the district for professional development. The training ranged from integrating technology in the classroom hosted by Apple contract technicians to application of Reading Mastery mandated curriculum. There were also several roundtable discussion groups regarding curriculum and best practices used by the teachers at each school.

This was an extremely rewarding and productive week for me. Coming from five years in the military I know a little about how professional development should be executed. I saw the most productive and least productive "OPD's" during my Army career. This week I learned a lot about teaching Reading Mastery to my students, but learned even more just from conversation with other Language Arts & English teachers. This week has totally inspired me to try a couple new things in my classroom, particularly with my Writing Program.

The other great thing about our visit to Fairbanks was the opportunity to shop. Of course I spent way to much money on books, but that goes without saying... Actually, I bought so many books I will be sending another box to Arctic Village of "Media Mail"!

We also purchased our winter clothes. Despite living in Anchorage, AK the past 4 years, neither of us are prepared for the arctic temperatures we will face in our village. Winter temp's can shoot as low as -60 or -70 in Arctic Village. There are extended periods of -40 and -50 for weeks on end. Gretchen will be traveling to the North Slope, where wind chills get even colder than Arctic Village. I will be traveling to Fort Yukon periodically where temps can hit -75. Needless to say, it is necessary to travel in these temps, or at least be prepared to survive them. Typically schools close when the temps drop below -50. SO, we swung by Big Rays, the premiere outdoor clothing store in Fairbanks. The timing couldn't have been better, we hit the Fall 25% off Carhartt sale!
I purchased the Carhartt Extreme Arctic bib style coveralls. The are constructed with very durable cordura material on the outside with thick insulation on the inside. I will probably layer then with Patagonia capiliene longer underwear and Mountain Hardwear compressor pants when it gets really cold. The key to surviving up here is not buy the coldest jacket possible, but strategically layer with synthetic materials to survive harsh temperatures and wind chills.
My parka/jacket I have not ordered yet, but will be getting the Mountain Hardware absolute zero mountaineering jacket. This is the parka high elevation mountaineers carry up Denali and Everest. It also comes in a full one piece suit version. I tried on an XL at Beaver Sports in Fairbanks and loved it!
Gretchen found a mens Carhartt Extreme Arctic full one piece suit at the Big Ray's Outlet and Annex last time she was in Fairbanks. She's still shopping for her parka, but looking at either Canadian Goose or a Siberian Parka, both full hooded goose down jackets rated for very cold temps. Canadian Goose is the brand you see many Antarctica scientists wearing at the South Pole.

For footware Gretchen and I both have Sorel boots rated to -50. We purchased these a couple winters ago but only really used them for shoveling the driveway in Eagle River. I wore them on a couple cold days riding snowmachines in Willow and was very impressed. We're still in the market for another pair of cold weather boots, I'll probably get two sets of military surplus "bunny boots", as seen in the photo below. These are a favorite of dog sled mushers and hard working Alaskans in the winter. You can essentially get the boot soaking wet, take off your boot, pour out the water, put on dry socks, wipe the boot out, and you're good to go. Its completely rubberized and insulated. I used them for a couple winter airborne jumps while stationed at Fort Richardson. My coldest jump was -10 and they were great!
We also got to do a little school shopping. Wednesday night Gretchen, Arin, and I bought $800 worth of school supplies from Fred Myers. We drug four shopping carts worth across the store for three hours stocking up on materials to ship back to Arctic Village School.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fall Colors

Part of the freedom of teaching in rural Alaska is deciding to take your kids on a hike during class. So this past Thursday Gretchen took the students into the woods around the school to collect leaves.
This was an activity I always enjoyed as a student, so I was every excited to share it with my kids. To my surprise a lot of these students had never made a leaf print.
Using colored crayons of all the fall colors we made impressions of the many leaves found around Arctic Village and interior Alaska.

We then framed the prints on colored construction paper and hung them in my classroom.

1st Field Trip- Stick Pull Competition

Alaska has several sports as unique as the state itself. The "stick pull" is one of the main events in the yearly Native Youth Olympics.
Students sit facing one another, touch feet, place one hand behind their back, and grapple over a piece of wood.
The first person to let go looses.
Arctic Village hasn't won the stick in at least 2-3 years. My student that won is only a middle schooler, and beat out three other high schoolers.

As tradition goes, Arctic Village brought the stick back to our school for display. We will keep it safely until next years competition.