He Wasn’t Drunk

life in a village

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This is Birch Creek. I’ve long wanted to get some good pictures of it, and I’m happy with these. Birch Creek is home to about 30 people, or maybe 20. Nobody moves here looking for work. In fact, nobody really moves here at all.

Well, that isn’t totally accurate – living in the interior of Alaska has a semi-nomadic quality to it and people, usually family relatives, do come and go.

Gwich’in Athabascans have long dwelt in Birch Creek, fishing and hunting the abundant wildlife. Lawrence does, and one cold, February day earlier this year he was having a drink or two, which may or may not have had something to do with the sudden urge that overcame him to go for a walk. Hum, Fort Yukon’s not too far away.

It’s worth noting that a February stroll across the Yukon Flats probably isn’t anything like a stroll down your neighborhood street. If you are a crow, then Fort Yukon is about 30 miles from Birch Creek, but if you are bipedal like Lawrence and me, then you are looking at a 50 mile hike.

It also bears mentioning to those who may not have followed this blog for long that there are no roads across the Yukon Flats; it is true wilderness. There are no mile markers, no signs that you would recognize. There may be snow-go tracks, if they haven’t been obscured by fresh snow. Sometimes there are stars visible. That’s about it. Except for wolves and the like.

Fortunately for Lawrence, he had plenty of time on his hands. He walked for 15 hours and almost made it. A search team found him 4 miles outside the Fort and brought him in. He felt great, except his legs were a little sore.

Lawrence, by the way, is 52 years old. It was -35˚F when he strolled out the door, and there were less than 6 hours of winter light per day.

His family said he wasn’t really drunk, but they also conceded that he may not have been completely sober. Either way, my hat’s off to Lawrence for accomplishing something I would never try.

inspired by Dorothy Chomicz’s story on Newsminer.com

Come Quickly, May!

life in a village

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January – February – March – April – May

This time of year speeds by so quickly that it blurs my vision. In-service in Fairbanks for a week…then a week of school…now March Madness and another week away from school as chaperone to our team…another week of school…a week of those infallible standardized tests overlapping the week of our carnival…a second week of carnival in Venetie…a third week of carnival in Arctic Village…geese arrive…ducks arrive…school’s out.

Of course, the architects of our marvelous one-size-fits-all system of education think they know better than we, so they have mandated that we give their remarkable test during our week of carnival. Okay, here is a mathematical problem for you:

standardized tests > a week of fun and games

True or False?

The village isn’t about to change the carnival date because that is a traditional thing, and besides, carnival can’t be delayed because the river will become unsafe for the spring games. The kids aren’t about to go to bed early because the nights must be fiddled and danced into the wee hours of the morning. Oh, and the kids won’t be taking their time on the tests because carnival begins at 2 pm everyday. Put down those pencils and get down to the river!

Life is very different here. Arctic Village, Venetie and Fort Yukon families are interconnected, so many of my students will disappear for two weeks after our carnival to spend time with their relations. And hunting is essential to the subsistence way of life, so when the geese come the kids will leave again.

Oh, did I mention that my students must study simple machines, electricity, magnetism and other forms of energy? And complete the yearbook? and create science fair projects? all before school is over?

The baby spruce are pushing their way through the snow now. They know winter’s end is near. We do, too.

Come quickly, May, come quickly!

Chasing Piggens: Heart-Warming Stories From a Frozen Land

life in a village

To all my longtime followers, stop right now and go visit Chasing Piggens. Its author, Keely, is a newcomer to the Yukon Flats and teaches in Venetie, a place even more remote than Fort Yukon (yes, there are such places).

Chasing Piggens is a love story, a tale of a young teacher from outside who finds her way to a remote village on the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter and falls head over heals in love with the land and its people. This is a tale you will not want to miss! Here’s an excerpt:

At quarter to six last night, I realized I had only enough butter left in the freezer for one batch of sugar cookies…I was looking down the barrel of a long two weeks without butter. I tucked myself into my gear and crunched my way over to the store, hoping they were open, hoping I wouldn’t leave the girls stranded in the cold, hoping they’d have butter at the store, hoping they’d be able to break a fifty.

The store is four short aisles of dry goods, a couple of coolers and freezers, and a half-shelf with some bruised and spotted and wildly expensive fruit…I snagged a couple of pounds of butter and set them on the counter. “That’s fifteen dollars” the girl said. I handed her a fifty, and she had to clean out the register to make change for me. I felt like a jerk.

~Keely

Darkness of Another Kind

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the Yukon River in winter – sun at zenith

Nine days to winter solstice. Six hours of half light, eighteen of darkness. Snow fell through the night lightly, and continues even now. Temperatures hover around 0 ˚F (-18 ˚C). One year ago today the mercury fell to -52 ˚F, so we consider ourselves blessed by this comparably warm winter.

The whole village has been on electrical short rations since Wednesday night. The situation is expected to be fixed by tomorrow. Of course, if the situation worsens, we may experience darkness of another kind – pitch black.

In the meantime, city and tribal offices are closed. The post office and clinic are closed. The gasoline station and the AC, our only store, are opened for only several hours a day in alternating shifts. Runway lights at the airport have been turned off so planes can only land for  a few hours around noon. And our school is closed.

Hooray for five day weekends – life is so exciting!

Salmon In the Classroom!

life in a village

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This is our classroom aquarium, home to 500 eyed eggs of the Oncorhynchus kisutch, also known as coho or silver salmon. We have decorated it with stones from around the village.

Every year my 8th graders raise silvers from eggs to fry. My students love this project and I have no lack of volunteers wanting to clean the tank and treat the water. It is their first stop on the way into the classroom.

The Athabascan communities along the Yukon River depend on the salmon for much of their diet. Every year in late summer, when the salmon run for their spawning grounds in the clear and gravelly bottomed streams farther upriver, you will see fish wheels churning along the shores of the Yukon as fishermen harvest the silvers. They will be smoked, jarred, dried and cached for the winter. You can read about the construction of a fish wheel here and see salmon smoking here on Chris’ page.

This project is generously sponsored and maintained by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other organizations like 4H. Out there in the Yukon, wild salmon eggs lie in redds, waiting to hatch under frigid waters capped by ice. And in our classroom our own silvers are almost ready to break out. Already you can see them squirming inside their translucent shells. We can’t wait!

Art

life in a village

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Each year we purchase 500 coho salmon eggs and raise them in our class. Silver salmon are indigenous to Alaskan waters and are a staple of the Athabascan diet. King salmon are more prized but also in short supply, so we were not allowed to catch them this year. When kings are abundant, silvers may be fed to the dogs, but this year they are on the dinner table.

Lots of science and art projects hatch from those eggs. This drawing of a baby salmon in the “alevin” stage is a favorite of mine. You can see its lateral line (a sensory organ that helps the salmon “hear”) and its yolk sac that we affectionately call the lunch bag. Alevin can’t swim so they wiggle around on the gravel bed where they can hide.

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Rochelle drew the gray wolf with black pastels and I wish you could see the wonderfully smooth shading of her original. It is estimated that there are about 160 gray wolves on the Yukon Flats, an area of some 10,000 square miles (6.5 million sq km). That is low, maybe because the moose upon which they prey are also in decline.

Moose are a vital part of the Athabascan diet and hunters have no intention of sharing their meal with the wolves. You can guess what that means for the wolf.

Rochelle no longer attends our school, much to our loss.

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Allison drew her wonderful impression of a hypothesis as part of our study on the scientific method. All that detailed shading in the background took her many, many student hours to complete. Allison is pictured on my last post. I am a big fan of her art.

We haven’t any art classes. We haven’t any art teachers. So we incorporate art into all our classes and do our amateurish best to turn our kids into famous illustrators. Sometimes they teach us! How are they doing?

Looking For Their Moose

life in a village

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Troy is one of my students. He is headed up the Yukon with his dad, looking to fill their winter cache with a moose. Boys learn to hunt at an early age. Most learn at the side of their father, a grandfather or an uncle, but sometimes the role of teacher falls to somebody who is not a relative. Some of the girls enjoy hunting, too.

Once taught, youngsters often hunt with friends and many of our students have sold us some of their catch. I have several students promising to bring me grouse. I hope they deliver because I have lived here more than three years without tasting one.