Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in Perryville

Relentless winter storms brought howling winds, blizzards, downpours, and at times -20 degree weather, thus grounding planes and my plans of going home for Christmas. We had one plane land in the village all week. I could’ve taken this plane, but making connections in Anchorage and the rest of the country to make it home by Christmas would've been nearly impossible. Two different planes are required just to get out of the village to Anchorage and then another 2-3 to get to PA. I decided to stay put and enjoy a non-commercialized, peaceful and very different Christmas. Unfortunately my camera quick working, so I don’t have many pictures to post, but I can assure you it was unique. It was hard to be away from family, but not having to go into a Walmart, Giant Eagle or deal with the hustle and bustle of Christmas came close to making up for it. Linda, the head teacher, and I were the only school staff left in the village. We spent most of the week beading glass balls and sewing mittens and hats out of beaver and otter fur, hiking, checking traps, and riding the 4 wheeler.

Besides fish, badarkies and sea urchins are a staple food in southwest Alaska. Both are in abundance and easily harvested. Eating them does require some getting use to, but both are pretty tasty.
Badarkies are found clinging to the rocks. After scraping them off the rock with a knife, they are usually boiled and then eaten by scooping the meat out of the shell.

Sea urchins are gathered among the seaweeds whenever there is a low tide. They are opened with a thin stone or a knife. The eggs from the sea urchin are scooped out with the thumb and eaten raw. You can also throw them in the campfire until the spines crack and then eat them. The sea urchins with light color are the ones which are good eating. Those which have a dark color are not very good to eat. They are said to be skinny.

During breaks in the weather, I took advantage of the bears being in hibernation to go for a few long runs. Below is picture of Duke and Midnight, my running partners. They usually greet me in the morning when the sun comes out and after enjoying a milk bone they lead the way and stick with me for the full 6 miles. During our run they chase away ravens, magpies and sometimes foxes. They're great company to have and I feel safer running on the trails. At the end of our run I reward them with another milk bone.

In Pilot Point, on the Bering sea side of the peninsula, the sea freezes forming sea ice. I spent a week there before coming back to Perryville for Christmas break. It's amazing how much colder it is. The big chunks of sea ice are fun to climb on and even walk out to sea, but only when it's really frozen. I would not want to be stuck on one and end up drifting out to the Bering Sea in the middle of winter. There are many stories of people who have died on the sea ice when crossing by dogsled and snow machine. The frozen waters open up an ice highway in the winters, but with global warming and the changing climate the melting of the ice is less predictable.

About half of the Natives in the village identify with the Russian Orthodox faith and therefore participate in Christmas festivities In Jan. around the 7th. We did however meet for a Christmas potluck and Santa Claus stopped by to hand out gifts. The potluck was delicious and included smoked salmon, candle fish, grilled halibut, halibut balls, fresh grilled shrimp topped with seal oil, crab legs, and an assortment of pies. The kids put on a Christmas play and had a great time.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Thankful for a week spent in Perryville

Week of 11/23/09

After spending most of November traveling between villages, it was great to be home in Perryville for a full week.  The weather was perfect, very little wind and lots of sunshine.  I took advantage of it by going on many hikes, including this one to the top of 3-star.  Christian, Andrew and his brother Nate went along with me.  Even though it wasn't a race, I felt victorious making it to the top first.

Andrew is always scouting for animal tracks.  It's pretty amazing how he figures out an animal's behavior from little evidence.

Come on Christian, you're almost there!

I usually pick a different peak to climb to every weekend that I'm home.  Each climb is slightly different, but they all end with a sense of accomplishment including spectacular views that photos don't come close to capturing.

Trying to find a way down can be just as challenging as the climb up.  One slip or misjudging the slope can result in a serious injury.

Safely back on the ground and heading back to the village I saw several sea lions, but couldn't get my camera out quick enough to snap their photos.  The color of the water was deep blue and at times the waves appeared surfable.  If only I had a board and a very warm dry suit.  I hate to see nice waves wasted, but I'm not sure how safe the waters are.  One of the best places to surf in AK is Yakatut, which I plan on visiting this summer before school starts.  I've been told that I'll find perfect lefts, glassy 20 second rides and huge tubes for the taking with average summer water temps between 50-60 degrees, minus the crowds...a surfer's dream. 

The following is an excerpt from Jake Howard, a writer for the Alaskan Edge.  He recently featured a story about surfing in AK... couldn't have said it better myself...

Truth be told, Alaska is not for wimps. As Parmenter noted in The Land that Duke Forgot, “They call Alaska the ‘Last Frontier,’ but it’s more than that. It’s the last place where America, its true atavistic spirit, exists. It’s the America of John Ford, where accountability and self-reliance still mean something. It’s not the litigation-snarled America we have today, full of blame-shirkers and moral cowards. If you break down, you don’t call the Auto Club. If a bear looms up on the trail ahead, you don’t slap an injunction on him or sue the state because you weren’t mollycoddled with warning signs every 10 yards. And if you get into trouble surfing, you don’t flag down the rescue copter or whistle for Darrick Doerner to swim out and save your lily-white helpless beep.”

The night skies have begun appearing at around 6:00 and even though it has been getting darker earlier, it's not as dark as in PA.  There are very few trees on the south peninsula and on clear nights the moon is bright enough to walk without a flashlight.  I always thought AK was dark with very little sunlight, but I'm learning that's really only at the North Pole and the climate varies greatly throughout the state.  The winds can be incredibly strong and at times gusts reach up to 80 mph creating blizzard conditions.

Perryville sustains enough wind to benefit from turbines.  Since installing the wind turbines, the village has greatly reduced their dependence on generators.

Andrew, Nate and I spent most of Thanksgiving on the trapline.  Even with the 4-wheeler, it's a lot of work checking and setting the traps.  The fox I'm holding up was an exciting catch, because for days he  successfully avoided our snare sets, even relieving himself on a few of them... but we figured him out and now he'll be part of warm hat.  Animal furs are truly the only way to avoid frostbite during Alaska winters.  Next week we're hoping for a wolf.  We set snares around a bait pile we made with halibut carcasses and found huge tracks nearby.

One of most exciting wildlife viewings occurred unexpectedly during school pictures.  It was perfect timing and we even captured the 3 killer whales in the background of the school picture.

The photographers the school hired canceled at the last minute... they probably felt that the trip in a bush plane over 500 miles from civilization was too much of a risk, so the teachers took on the task off taking the pictures.  In the end, we'll save families a lot of money and by using kodak gallery online we'll produce high quality photos.

With no bakery or grocery store nearby the only way to have fresh rolls on Thanksgiving is to make them from scratch.  The Wednesday before Thanksgiving the school sponsors a potluck and invites everyone from the village.  We had the kids baking rolls all morning.  We had a great turnout for the potluck, which included the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing along with lots of smoked salmon and shrimp, and of course many delicious desserts.  The natives secret  to flaky pie crust is using bear fat.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The First Snow on the Peninsula

Week of 11/2 was the calm before the storm.  I had a great visit to Chignik Lake where, as you can see, the snow continues to creep closer to the village.  However it's another week until it actually arrives.  While at the Lake I learned that it's possible to take the snow machines to the Lagoon and the Bay when the rivers and ground are frozen.  Usually the only way is buy boat or plane.  Lately, school at the Lake has been quiet.  Several families are in Anchorage for medical appointments that can't be handled at the community clinic or to visit family.  Due to the small class sizes I was able to spend my time in the classroom working with 1 to 2 students at a time.  What a relaxing and productive week with students. The extra time I have with the students on my caseload is wonderful for teaching them about their Individualized Educational Program (IEP) and involving them more in the development.  I'm currently working with one of the high school students to present the goals he helped create at his next meeting and have him talk about his progress on previous goals.  This is something I wouldn't have time to do in a large school.

I'm still learning about the weather patterns on peninsula, which can change in a 24 hour period.  When I began my walk there was little wind and the temperature was mild.  However, on my way home I ran into 40+mph wind gusts and dropping temperatures.  I was a good 6 miles out.  At one point it was so windy, that I thought of waiting in the ditch for someone to find me, but then I realized there was no one around to look for me, so I got up and kept walking.


Week of 11/9
School visits take me to the Bering Sea side of the Peninsula to Pilot Point and Port Heiden


The weekend of 11/13 brought us our first snowstorm and it was howling out.  It was amazing how much snow was on the ground Saturday morning and the storm roared on all weekend.  Port Heiden is the home of some of the best beach combing, which includes glass balls.  Ronda, Jim, and I did not let a snowstorm get in the way of our treasure hunt.  Despite the snow covered beaches and wind gusts reaching 50+mph we found several glass balls and a fossil of a walrus tusk.


Both days we battled the storm with success, but on Sunday mother nature won.  We chose the beach near north river, which is a good 30 minute ride on the Honda, but one of the best locations for finding glass balls.  Our day began with the usual bundling up in winter gear and cramming on the the Honda.  As we got closer to the beach we knew the storm was picking up, because we had little visibility and our eyes were freezing shut from the strong winds and dropping temperatures.  Once on the beach we found one glass ball and an angry ocean pounding the shores with fierce waves.  It was hard to tell if the tide was going out or coming in and we didn't plan on sticking around to find out.  So no sooner did we arrive and it was time to head home.  About 5 miles from home the Honda dies.  It must have been from the snow blowing on the carburetor and freezing the gas.  So our only choice was to walk.  At this point my feet and hands were frozen, because I use store bought gloves and boots rather than animal skins.  The wind gusts are so strong that they literally blow you off your feet and it's impossible to see more than a foot in front of you.  Ronda and I ran ahead to keep warm, but Jim soon called us back reminding us of dangers of getting lost in a blizzard.  Lucky for us we made it to the airstrip and someone was there working in the garage, so we went in and called Joe at the school to pick us up.  It never felt so good to be inside.  We found warmth, but we needed to go back and get the Honda. We took the truck and somehow between the three of us lifted the quad onto the bed and drove home safely.  Always an adventure in Alaska.

One of the best parts about our trips to the beach was the wildlife we encountered.  This included a sea otter, who we hope found his mother and a herd of caribou that I chose to enjoy instead of fumbling for my camera to take pictures.


One of my walks at Pilot Point took me to an old abandon cannery.
The deteriorating Alaska Packers Cannery, built in 1891 at Pilot Point, is one of the few original cannery sites still capable of being saved. Contamination concerns must be resolved before the City of Pilot Point and the Pilot Point Tribal Council can continue with plans to convert at least some of the buildings into a hostel for a summer youth camp, a museum, a visitor's center, and a community metalsmithing and woodworking shop 





My first flight since the first snow included a gorgeous view and sunny skies.  It's interesting how different the weather is on the pacific side compared to the Bering Sea side.  In fact, Perryville felt like a heat wave with 45 degree temperatures and beaming sunshine.  The day I got home I went for a run with a t-shirt and running pants.


On my way to Chignik Bay for the week
11/17 to 11/20


One of the best parts of teaching in a small community with a school of 18 students is the freedom from rigid schedules and rules.  A lot of instructional time is saved by eliminating time spent on tedious tasks such attendance, following a bell schedule, standing in line at the copier, planning to keep up with pacing guides, etc etc,  This leaves extra time to take advantage of teachable moments.  Such as the one that took place on Thursday afternoon. The high school class was finishing up a study session in my favorite subject, math (haha) As we moved into Science the topic of the water reservoir came up and since I've never been up there and the sun was out, wind was calm it only made sense to leave school early and make the long hike to the top of one of the mountains to check it out.  No permission slips needed, just go home and get your winter gear on and meet back in 10 minutes!

Shak and Ebony joined us on the hike.  Both dogs loved it and were often runining ahead of us.  Ebony has an obsession with fetching rocks.  She picks up a rock and drops it at your feet and barks until you throw it.  This continued the entire hike.  I'm not sure where that dogs gets her energy, because we climbed some steep slopes and she was bouncing after the rock the entire time.

This is one of three steep climbs up a ladder that would take us to the trail.  Our goal was to make it to the water reservoir and back before dark, and with no serious injuries.

View of Chignik Bay from the top of the first ladder.

Parts of the pipe was leaking water which meant lots of ice.

The frozen waterfalls transformed the area into a winter wonderland.

Shak and Ebony enjoying sliding around on the ice.  Ebony is waiting patiently for someone to throw the rock.

Finally, we make it to our destination.  Some of the pipes are still wooden, so I wonder when it was built.

We built a fire to warm up before heading back.

We made it back just before dark.  I definitely didn't want to try and climb down in darkness or chance running into a wolverine.