Friday, October 5, 2007


So, after spending a day in the school in Kalskag, I flew back to Aniak. The next morning I was being picked up early to fly to Sleetmute - one of the smallest villages along this bit of the Kuskokwim. They only have 15 students in the whole school, but were flying students in from Red Devil, Stony River, Crooked Creek and Chuathbaluk, so altogether with Elementary and High School there were going to be about 35 students.

Since the rule was the more flights I take, the smaller the plane gets, this was to be my smallest plane - which meant I got to clamber in and sit next to the pilot, Steve, and to wear a pair of earphones and talk to him on the microphone. "Don't push the red button." That was the safety demonstration. I even shut and locked my own door. I felt like Biggles.

So, sitting on my hands so I didn't touch the red button, we set off. Steve told me that the fog meant that we had to fly low over the river. "If you see a bear or a moose will you point it out?" I said "Of course" said Steve, confidently. Needless to say, we didn't see so much as Winnie The Pooh, let alone one of these 14 foot bears with the huge heads the children keep telling me about.I now think there are no bears in Alaska. Steve asked me if I wanted to take the scenic tour. Well, duh...So we stopped off in Red Devil and Stony River along the way. If I thought Aniak and Kuspuk airports were small, they were nothing compared to these. Aniak has a proper runway. It's about 6 feet long but it has tarmac and white lines. Most of the runways in the small villages are basically just a track in a field. If you're lucky there's gravel. If you're UNlucky, they are full of potholes filled with water. Each time he was coming in to land Steve would say into the radio something like "5 miles from Stony River, landing from the north". Of course, when we landed, there was absolutely nothing around -- no other planes, no people, and definitely no control tower. "Who are you telling?" I said, "The bears? So they can disappear before I get here?" He just laughed.

Steve is employed by the school district and his job is to fly people and supplies to and from the various schools, so I got to visit a couple of the schools I wasn't actually going to be talking to the children at. In Red Devil all the pupils except one (ie, about 10 of them) had actually already flown off to Sleetmute to see me, so I went in and said hello to one poor lonely girl who was having a test. In Stony River (a lovely little place)I paid a quick visit to each of the classes, and had a chat with the Principal and the cook.

The schools are all named after people of importance in the villages, so there are schools called 'Gusty Michael School', 'Zackar Levi Elementary School', Auntie Mary Nicoli Elementary School', and each of them has ATVs out front - what a great way to arrive at school.

Eventually I arrived in Sleetmute. This was where Special Agent Vernon came to meet me and started my day off on such a high note. First of all I saw all the children together and introduced myself and had a question and answer session. Then it was an hour and a half with the high schoolers. This was my first experience of talking to High Schoolers, the other children I had seen had all been Kindergarten through Elementary. I was expecting grumpy teenagers. I started off with a couple :o) I had split them into four groups and told them they were going to do a radio commercial for a book (thanks Jools!). They had to make up a synopsis for a book, make up a title and an author name, and also tell us why we should buy their book as we all only had enough money to buy one book.

They started off with blank looks and blank pieces of paper. Some of them said they didn't know what to write but as I went round the four groups the most wonderful ideas started to emerge. Some of these students have great imaginations, and the things they were coming up with were funny and touching and interesting. One group decided to tell a story which was a mix between traditional and modern. The group consisted of 2 sets of sisters who were all cousins. (I have subsequently heard from them by e-mail. I told them I enjoyed their story and that they should maybe think about doing some stories based on yup'ik traditions but with their own twist. So they're going to interview the village elders and write down the stories, and hopefully do a book. I was thrilled).

I'm doing a competition for all of them. In every class I have been I told the students that if they write a story and send it to me, I'm going to be having a competition (I left some money with Emily for prizes). There are several that I hope will do, as they had such great ideas.

The older children all have laptops, which is part of a programme out here. They use them for music and fun and chatting, but they also use them for schoolwork. One boy of about 15, Ryan, showed me a story he had written called The Key. He has promised to send it to me - if he doesn't I will be badgering him for it because it was excellent.

All the High Schoolers really got into it and I think...hope...they enjoyed the morning. I've heard from Emily that the ones she spoke to said they did.
After the High School kids it was lunchtime. What I really like about these villages is that they invite the village Elders in for lunch. So sitting with the children are the village's senior citizens. I like that. In this picture, Vernon is the one with his hand up and the big grin on his face (which never left him the whole day - he's such a character, Ryan is the one in the white t-shirt staring into space, and the 4 girls writing the book (Bedu, Darien, Tracy and Wendy are at the back to the left of me).

Over lunch I sat with some of the Elementary children. I learned a lot - the est way to shoot a ptarmigan, what to do if I see a black bear. That you can eat brown bear but not black (they eat the trash in the dumps and their meat doesn't taste too good!). One boy of about 8 told me about his gun "I have a .223" he said. "Is that a rifle?" said the big city girl. He looked at me with disgust and said "No, it's a bolt action." His words were dripping with a "You're so stupid" subtext. "Oh," said I, not wanting to ask what a bolt action was and show my ignorance still further.

Well, I will stop here for now. I have much more to say about Sleetmute but need to pack my case as I am going back to anchorage today. I will be sad to leave. Very sad.

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