Sunday, October 26, 2008

I Came THIS Close To A Bear...

...oh yes I did. And its breath stank of fish.

No post yesterday. I had a horrendous migraine, so didn't get a chance to do anything.

So I managed to cram two days events into one. I went shopping to Nordstroms. Ah...home.

Oh, this is the front window of my hotel by the way. I was welcomed by the image of death in the window. I don't think it was anything personal.

Today the lovely Karen and her husband and son came to take me out for the day.

We took a scenic drive and we went to a rehab centre for Alaskan wildlife. The bear in the photo above is a recovering crack cocaine addict.

And I touched this moose. It was sitting right next to the fence and I reached in and stroked its fur.

It is so cold here that even the waterfalls freeze over - like this one. Luckily, I was wearing the usual 17 layers of clothes. In Aniak the day before I left it was so cold that the hairs inside my nose froze. That was a really weird feeling and no, I don't have a picture of it.

And for today I will leave you with some pictures of the glorious scenery we saw today. I'm now off to try and sit on my suitcases so that I can close them. See, I knew that eating all that food would come in handy.

More when I get home. Tata for now.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Aqutak For Breakfast

Well, I am just waiting for my flight to Anchorage. It was snowing heavily yesterday and when I rang Penair to find out what time I needed to check in and how bad the snow needed to be before they stopped the planes flying the guy at the airline said "Do you need a ride to the airport?" People are so nice around here.

Yesterday I was lamenting the fact that I had not had aqutak - aka Eskimo Ice Cream(pronounced a-GOO-duck) this trip. This morning as I arrived at the High School one of the teachers came up and said "Donna, there's aqutak in the kitchen for lunch, but you can have some for breakfast. So I did. And it was yummy. Here is the recipe - take a white fish, boil it, squeeze all the water out of it until it's dry flakes, add a pound of lard, a pound of sugar, a bit of condensed milk if you're feeling decadent and fluff the mixture up until it's light and airy. Then add loads and loads of berries. Eat, and listen to your arteries as they harden. It really doesn't taste of fish or lard. The berries burst on your tongue (I think this one is blueberry and salmonberry). It was scrummy. Of course, the downside is that I now have to declare a stomach full of aqutak when I weigh in at the airport.

I did, apparently, miss out on a delicious dish - moose nose soup. The recipe appears to be 'cut off a moose's nose and boil it with some water and vegetables. Mmmmmmmm. Delish. This is Pizza Hut Alaska Bush style. Esther makes the most delicious pizzas here. Apparently she can never have a day off.

Yesterday I was speaking to two of the teachers from Stony River which is the furthest upriver school. They were saying that they like coming to Aniak because they see fruit and veg here (remember the price of that celery?!) There is no store in Stony River - they have a flying grocery store come in. One banana costs over $1. I would miss fruit and veg if I lived here. I seem to be existing on meat, meat and more meat.

I went down to the shore yesterday and took pictures in the same place as I did when I arrived. So here are the before and after pictures in the same position to show how the river has now completely frozen and the change of weather in 8 days.

Kuskokwim River 16 October

Kuskokwim River 23 October

One of the teachers from here in Aniak paid me the highest compliment yesterday. There is one High School girl who sat through 2 exercises not wanting to do anything. I found out later that she has a very troubled home life, and not much to hope for. Then, during the third exercise she really got interested, started smiling, and ended up writing 2 stories for me. The teacher said that everyone at the school was amazed, and the teachers have started viewing her differently becuae of what she did in that class. That made me happy. And now, I think I'm going to try and sneak some more aqutak and then call the nice man at the airport to give me a ride.

More from Anchorage.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Needless To Say...I Cried

But first...Donna Messes Up.

So, last night I finally got back to Aniak after being fog-bound in Kalskag. Before we left, all the teachers left me in the school in Kalskag to answer the phone (so, Ewan, you were right - first I was a pilot, yesterday afternoon I was a teacher's assistant (one of the teaching assistants didn't turn up so I got to spend all afternoon with one class). I read to them, helped them with maths (oh-oh - the poor kids are going to fail their next test, and drew a picture of a vampire spider for Halloween), and then I was school receptionist. Strangely enough, no-one who called was remotely surprised to hear a very English voice answering the phone with "Hello, Lower Kalskag Elementary School."

We arrived in Aniak and came to the school and had something to eat, and I spent time with the lovely sisters Juliana, Kendel, Miranda and Emily. At this stage I did not know where I was staying. Emily, who I was staying with, has broken her wrist so she and her boyfriend Ronnie had gone to Anchorage to have her wrist operated on (another problem of living in the bush - you can sometimes wait nearly a day before you can get to hospital).

Well, it turned out that I was still staying at their house. Ronnie had left a message at the school saying "The door is open, help yourself to anything in the fridge." Yes - bad idea (Paulie Walnuts - you will be pleased to know that there is a chunk of cheese in there the size of a small house). They left for Anchorage on Sunday and their house has been unlocked ever since - one of the lovely things about living in the bush.

I didn't really want to stay there on my own - a bear might come in and eat all the cheese, so Sue came to stay too. Being the big city girl I am I locked the door when we were inside...and forgot to take the lock off this morning and locked us out. With visions of having to break a window to get my suitcase Sue and I set off for the school. I managed to get hold of Ronnie's sister (everyone knows everyone else here) and she's going to go round and unlock it again - or maybe just break in - I'm not quite sure.

Today is 'in service' for all the teachers from all the Kuskokwim villages in the Kuspuk school district (Ewan - if you like the word Kuskokwim, you would love Chuathbaluk, which is pronounced Chuccchhhbalucccchhh as though you are getting something horrible out of your throat. It's really hard to pronounce and I keep getting people to repeat it to me. It means 'Big Blueberry Hill' in Yup'ik and non natives just call it Chewy). Schools are off and all the teachers and teachers' aides are here, so there are about 40 or 50 all gathered together. They have training sessions on various things and a bit later this morning I am doing a session on creative writing.

Just now the Superintendent spoke and as part of his speech he presented me with a Certificate which says:

"Certificate of Recognition - On October 14, 2008, the Kuspuk School District Board of Education would like to recognise Donna Moore for a multi-year Writing Literacy Partnership between Scotland and 10 village schools along Alaska's Mid Kuskokwim River that inspired students to write their own creative stories. You believed in them, gave them praise and confidence and they will always remember you for that."

I just cried in front of 40 or 50 people. How embarrassed do I feel?!

By the way 'The Bush' in Alaska is any community not on the road system. There's a guy here from Texas who has come to speak to the teachers about a computer system they use. He was telling me this morning that when he was arranging his transport he spoke to the administrator from the school district and said "So, when I get to Anchorage should I just hire a car?" She laughed uproariously and explained that he would need to fly to Aniak. "So, when I get to Aniak should I just hire a car then?" Oh, the poor, poor fool :o)

And Aniak has more roads than anywhere else. Kalskag is the next biggest and has a couple of roads but most people still travel by ATV or snow machine. There are some trucks there - they either bring them in by barge in the summer, or drive them down the ice road (the river) in the winter. But once they break down, they just die there and stay there forever. Parts of Kalskag are a truck graveyard.

I forgot - in Sleetmute I ate raw turnip and it was yummy.

Tata my lovelies,

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Goodbye Sleetmute, Hello Kalskag

Some of my favourite sisters from Aniak - Juliana (age 12), Miranda (age 7), Kendel (age 10) - photo taken by Miranda's twin sister Emily. Miranda and Emily have both written me stories, Juliana is a wonderful poet, Kendel loves books. Lovely, bright and funny girls.

By the way, did I mention that I flew a plane? :o)

Yesterday's commute to Lower Kalskag Elementary School was a huge one - 30 seconds across the snowy playground. Karen had told me that the students had been awaiting my arrival yesterday and were disappointed that my plane was late. A lot of the older students in Sue's class (age 11-13) had written me e-mail and stories last year so I was looking forward to seeing them.

But first it was off to the younger classes for the morning. Then, at lunchtime when I went in for lunch I got hugged to death by Sue's class :o) I spent a couple of hours with them in the afternoon and we had fun doing some exercises. Again, they showed great imagination and humour and really came up with some great stuff. They were excited to see their books and one of the boys, Joey, said "I think I will send it to my grandma". So I gave him another copy. I told them I was doing another competition and he said "How much do I have to pay you to let me win this time?" LOL.

For the final hour of the day it was off to the youngest class. One of the little girls, Julia, had fun impersonating me. I think she has a future in entertainment. She's 6 and she managed my accent perfectly. "How do you know our names?" said one little girl, amazed, when I said "Why don't you come up next Axenia?" Their names are written in big lettters on the front of their desks :o)

After school Sue came to take me for a walk with her dogs. We tromped through the forest, saw moose tracks, I fell over in a snowdrift. It was lovely. We then walked down to the river. Down here it's completely frozen over and they will soon be able to drive on it. It was amazing to see this really wide river just stopped in its tracks.

Then it was over to Sue's for burgers over a fire pit in her back yard. Yes, we ate outside at 20 degrees below freezing. I am so intrepid. I am also bloody freezing. Some of the children came over - Levi, Menzo, Russell, Eliza and Richard. They had no gloves. I was wearing 2 pairs of gloves, scarf, hat, and 3 sweaters. They kept saying they weren't cold - what are their hands made of out here? It's not human flesh, at any rate. They put hotdogs on sticks and cooked them in the fire, and then toasted marshmallows. I did Eliza's because she is only 5 but I burned them to a cinder so Menzo (age 6) had to take over, raising his eyebrows at me. He's promised to draw me a snow machine, a sled, and a big truck that apparently I will like a lot.

Levi told me he will be 13 in January. When he's 13 he told me his mom is going to allow him to chew. I thought he meant chewing gum. What he actually meant was tobacco. The children roam about the village at all hours. A lot of their mothers go to bingo and the children are called 'bingo orphans'. Children change hands a lot. They are sort of 'adopted out' from family to family. Most girls have their first child at 14 or 15 and have a couple of children by the age of 18. For the most part the children are well looked after and very much loved - by everyone in the village. However, there are a number of registered sex offenders here. Mostly, again, due to alcohol. There are about 400 residents in the village. When I asked Karen what percentage of families have problems with alcohol she said "All of them." FAS is a big issue. It's quite easy to spot the children who show signs of it. A lot of the children are very bright. Others have real difficulties.

Apart from anything else a lot of the families live in one room. When mum and dad are up all night drinking, fighting and shouting at each other then there's not much chance of you arriving on time at school the next day, let alone concentrating on your school work. But the happy faces I saw today mean that someone is doing something right. They have good things happening in their lives too, and the teachers here are amazing.

Today I was supposed to be flying out of Kalskag first thing to come back to Aniak, but Aniak was snowed in, so I went back to the Elementary School for more hugs. I also got a trip around Kalskag with Earl who has lived there all his life and he told me all sorts of things about Kalskag then and now. Kalskag is actually split into two villages - Lower and Upper and they are 3 miles apart. The Elementary School is in Lower Kalskag, the High School in Upper. Each village has its own clinic, shop, tribal council, and post office. There are no doctors, no police. The only village with a State Trooper is Aniak. Most of the villages are trying to recruit VPSOs (Village Public Safety Officers) who are essentially the first responders to any crime or emergency - to stabilise situations and protect crime scenes until the State Troopers can get there. However, it's difficult to get people - the State Troopers are not well liked, and if you are a native Alaskan VPSO then a lot of the people you are supposed to be arresting are your relatives and friends.

Lower Kalskag is predominantly Russian Orthodox, Upper is predominantly Catholic. Russian Orthodox weddings can last 2 hours ~(and some of the Elders moan that the priest is too quick "In my day a good wedding lasted 4 hours"!! Everyone stands - men on one side, women on the other. And that's also how people are buried - although more and more, married couples are being buried side by side. The ground here is permafrost at 12-18 inches below ground. So even in the summer when they dig a grave, they need to use a jackhammer!

Many houses still use a honeybucket (which is basically a bucket with a seat on top. If you're lucky, your neighbour goes to the wood to empty his, if you're unlucky, they empty it out in the back yard. Even some recently built houses, while they had a bathroom built in, there is no plumbing. So the toilet, sink and bath can't be used. Sometimes they boil water and use the sink or bath, and just let it out under the house (most of which are on stilts). It would cost about $2m to put in a proper sewage system here (getting the equipment to the village, the pipes need a lot of insulation, plus the difficulty of burying the pipes given the permafrost), so only a few houses have proper working bathrooms.

There is no fresh milk in Kalskag, people use dried milk or long life stuff. There is very seldom fresh eggs either. Fruit and veg is even more expensive, and even less fresh than in Aniak, because it has to come that much further. When Karen and Dave go to Anchorage they go to Costco and spend $200 on stuff...and another $200 transporting it to Kalskag. Yeast and Vanilla Extract are kept behind the counter in the shops - yeast because it is used to make illegal alcohol. Vanilla extract because it has alcohol in. Karen was warned to watch her mouthwash if people visited.

Today I went to the airport 5 times. I finally got out. Oh the ignominy. Usually when asked my weight at the airport I can at least answer discreetly at the check in counter. Well, in Kalskag you basically drive out to the plane, stick your luggage in the hold yourself and then get in the plane. So there we were, about 8 of us sitting in the plane and the pilot asked us each in turn how much we weighed. "Donna Moore - how heavy are you?" (What I actually heard was "Donna - how much do you weigh fatso?" )I whimpered. A woman who was bigger than me said she weighed less, so I am afraid that I shaved 20lbs off my weight and then worried all the way back to Aniak (a 10 minute flight) that we would crash into the Kuskokwim because we didn't have enough fuel because I had lied. I could see the accusatory faces of my fellow passengers as they eyed me up and down. I DID warn the pilot about my heavy boots though.

Here are Kendel and Juliana at the back and Miranda and Emily in front. I now have a list of things they want from Scotland - chocolate, books, necklace like mine, candy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"This is Your Captain Speaking"

Yesterday I flew a plane. No...wait...let me say that again because I'm not sure you heard it correctly. YESTERDAY I FLEW A PLANE!!!!! Just call me Biggles.

I was supposed to be flying out of Sleetmute on Sunday, back to Aniak so that I could fly to Kalskag first thing on Monday. However, a couple of the planes were down with mechanical trouble (the duck tape had come off the window or something :o) ) so they were going to fly me out on Monday instead. "Your plane will be there at about 11 or half 11 or maybe earlier." So on Monday morning I was all ready by 10 and decided to go for a last walk down to the river. I called in at the school to be met by a message "They're sending Fred's plane for you. When you hear it scurry out to the runway." Oh, those pesky check-in procedures.

So I waited and waited and eventually at 1pm the plane came. This was fine. I was due to fly out of Aniak at 3.15 to go to Kalskag. Fred had to pick up a water sample in Chuathbaluk which was about 45 minutes away. Since I love take offs and landings out here, that was excellent news.

So, there we were. I sat next to Fred, put on my headset and we took off. It had been snowing lightly in Sleetmute and the sky was grey, but as we got to about 5 minutes out of Sleetmute the weather cleared up and it was lovely. "Would you like to fly the plane?" said Fred. I twisted around in my seat, just in case there was a co-pilot stretched out in the back who I hadn't noticed. "ME??? Fred, I don't even drive a car!"

"It's easy. Just steer us along the course of the river. Move this." he pointed to what I shall call the steering wheel, since I don't know the technical term (they didn't teach us that in flying school)."to the left when you want to go left, and right when you want to go right. Pull it back when you want to go up and push it down when you want to go lower." Or was it the other way round...? This dial tells you where we are - try and keep that in the middle except when we're turning. This dial tells you what height we're at. Try and keep it around 900 feet except when we're going through the hills. If the fog rolls in, take it lower so that you can see the river." I looked at him. "Sometimes it gets so foggy that you can't see one side of the river from the other." I whimpered. "I'm not expecting that to happen."

So I took control of the plane. I FLEW THE DAMN PLANE! For about half an hour I was in control. Keeping at a steady 900 feet...OK, at first it was an UNSTEADY 750 to 1300 feet (looking at TWO dials AND where I was going was really tough, you know...I flew along the line of the river. At one point Fred said "You're doing great. Just follow the river and you'll get to Aniak. Wake me up when we get there."

Because the river meanders and twists there were a couple of times where we took a short cut through the hills. I swear I thought I was going to crash us into the trees. "How do you aim the plane when you're not following the river." Fred set a dial for 250 W and said "Keep it at that setting."

"THREE dials? You want me to watch THREE dials?" So I did. We flew in between hills and then back along the river.

"Just point the plane at that patch of white there. That's the runway in Chuathbaluk."

"You're going to take over now, right Fred?"

"Nope, you're doing just great." He went onto the radio and said we were 5 minutes out of Chuathbaluk. "Now bring it down steadily at about 100 feet a minute." I concentrated hard. "Donna, that's 300 feet in 30 seconds. We're going to be there 3 minutes early." Whoops. As we came in over the trees I reluctantly handed control back and Fred brought it into land.

As he was taxi-ingalong the runway ready to take off again he said "Do you like roller coasters?" "Oh yes," I said. So he sped along the runway towards the trees at the end. As I opened my mouth to say "There's a squirrel sitting on that branch and I can see the whites of its eyes and it looks as petrified as I am." the plane lifted sharply into the air and my stomach did a back flip. I'm very glad I didn't have that piece of blueberry cheesecake for breakfast.

He then flew about 50 feet over the river so I could see the ice floes. This far down the river they have stopped, blocked up at Aniak. The ice is all lumpy at the moment, made up of little separate floes. At some point the weather will warm up, the ice will melt a bit, and it will smooth out.. He then sped up and did the stomach churning bit again. This time, I went weightless and came out of my seat. "That's cos I got us to 2 Gs" he said "Do it again! Do it again!" I squealed.

Flying will never be the same again. I took a few photos but not as many as I usually do becaause, I'm not sure if I mentioned it but I WAS FLYING THE PLANE!

I had to wait a while for the flight to Kalskag as they took me off the earlier one and put me on one at 4pm. It was really a novel experience for the airport manager to say "Donna - there's a phone call for you."

I arrived in Kalskag and was taken to Karen and Dave's house. Lovely people - I stayed with them last year. Dave made dinner - Caribou and bear. Yes, I have added Winnie The Pooh to my growing list of epicurean sins. Dave caught the bear. It was a black bear so I made sure to get its credentials before I ate it, as bear meat takes on the flavour of whatever it had been eating. Luckily, this one wasn't found at the town dump but sitting in the blueberry patch with its furry little lips all blue and juicy. And it tasted dee-lish-us. And very tender. Why do I sound like Hannibal Lecter?

Photos will be added and comments will be commented on (I'm looking at YOU Ewan and Paulie Walnuts), but right now I am late for school :o)

Tata my lovelies.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Day With My Friend Mary

This is Mary Effemka, who is one of the loveliest people it has ever been my pleasure to meet. She is a cook at the school here and when I left last year she gave me a lovely note and gift. I saw her briefly on Thursday as I arrived and she left for an in-service day and I was sad that I wasn't going to get to see her for longer. But she stopped by the B&B on her way home last night and asked me to come and visit her today. I had brought her some gifts from Scotland, which I gave her when I saw her as I wasn't sure when my plane was coming to pick me up, but luckily there were no planes out of Sleetmute on Sunday, so I was pleased to get a chance to spend some time with her.

So I set off for her house this morning. It was gorgeously sunny but the coldest day here yet. It called for scarf, hat, 3 sweaters and 2 pairs of gloves.

When I arrived she was waiting at the window for me to arrive and welcomed me into her home which was as warm as toast and smelled of cinnamon, as she was baking.

She has hundreds of photos all around the walls. These are photos of her parents and sister in the 1940s (the picture on the right) and pictures of her husband's family. She's a widow now - her husband killed himself earlier this year. She was telling me that it is tradition when someone dies that you not sleep alone in the house where they have died for a year after their death. Most of the time she has one of her grand-daughters to stay with her at night, but as they are away in Anchorage at the moment, last night she went over and stayed with a neighbour. On the one year anniversary of his death there will be a big 'Feed' and then she can stay there alone again.

She had made me fry bread - which is like funnel cake/doughnuts, twisted and dipped in icing sugar and we sat and drank tea and chatted. Yup'ik people speak very slowly and thoughtfully and it is really relaxing being in their company. She was telling me all about her family, where she grew up, her childhood, and how things have changed since she was young. I stayed for hours. She gave me a beautiful gift - a little handmade tray made of bark, a candle in a pretty egg-shaped pot, and some fancy soap. She also gave me the most wonderful note that made me cry (yes, Vincent, I KNOW everything makes me cry but this was really special). It says, in part, "...I don't want to be at the airport if Donna go. I have no self control when my tears start falling." Every time I think about it I tear up. And while I was there she said to me "I'm afraid you won't ever come back." I told her that somehow I think I'll be back one day :o)

After I left Mary I had another wander around the village. This is the road up to Blueberry Hill...or Cranberry Hill as Alfreda calls it, since there are no blueberries there :o) There was the wonderful smell of woodsmoke throughout the village today as there was a slight wind.

I then walked right down to the other end of the village and cut through to the shore and walked back along. This time I took a couple of videos with my camera so I hope they come out OK.

I shall be sorry to leave Sleetmute. It is a very special place. Harsh but beautiful - in all sorts of ways. A place of many contradictions.

On the other hand, I've been eating about 5 meals a day, as everyone keeps feeding me, so it's probably a good thing that I am going! This is for Ewan - yesterday I had eggs, bacon and toast, frybread and cookies, moose stir fry, moose steak, mock lobster and sirloin steak...OK, that was SIX meals. They'd better not push me down a hill or I will become a huge snowball.

Snow Is Very Cold...

...when you fall flat on your face in it.

This will be a post with a lot of random stuff that I have forgotten to mention before. Yesterday, being a Saturday, there was no school. So Alfreda and Samuel had said that they would take me for a walk around the village. So I walked uptown to pick them up, then we went downtown, then we went back uptown again. It's a very small place but we stopped to play with the dogs, throw snowballs at icicles and visit with people, so it took us about 3 hours.

There are 3 or 4 houses where the teachers live, and the B&B/store where I am staying, and then there are about 20 other houses. The total population of the village is about 80. 17 of those 20 houses have families with alcohol problems. All 20 have lost someone to alcohol - whether it's suicide, accident or murder. A number of villagers are in jail for arson or manslaughter - all alcohol related. One of my students from last year is in a treatment centre after trying to kill himself. He ended up shooting part of his face off.

Someone once asked the lady who owns the B&B whether it was not depressing that there are so many alcohol related deaths but she said that she was surprised there are not more. She said that when she hears partying late into the night she's always happy the next morning when there ISN'T a report of someone falling into the river and drowning, or being found frozen to death at the town dump.
A couple of weeks ago, 2 of the villagers went down to Aniak to pick up a new ATV that one of them had bought with the family's Permanent Fund Dividend. Down in Aniak they picked up the ATV, got drunk, and then tipped the boat over on the way back. Luckily they were OK but the new $7K machine is now down at the bottom of the Kuskokwim.

This is a damp village. They're allowed to drink alcohol, but not sell it. As a result, there's a lot of bootlegging. Scotch that would cost $11 in Anchorage costs between $60 and $100 here.

This is a picture of Susan's husband Doug, and his friend Scott. I forgot to mention that Doug has some brilliant phrases. He told me a Marine Corps toast that I'm not sure I should repeat here, given the fact that my mum is reading it :o) He has been up here since he was 23 and before he met his wife he went to the lower 48 to meet another woman he had been corresponding with. He'd never seen her before and he said that when he met her "She looked like 7 bags of a**holes and they'd taken out all the pretty ones" :o)

Here is my transport of Friday night. It was excellent fun. After Sam and Alfreda and I had roamed the village I dropped them off and then walked down to the shore.

I keep being drawn to the river. It's about 1/8th of a mile across and even in the few days I have been here, it's freezing up more and more.
This part is now frozen half across. As I stood on the shore I could hear the ice shifting and creaking and banging together and the sound echoes around. Apparently the river is completely frozen down below Aniak. So I'm hoping that when I get to Kalskag on Monday I will be able to go out on the river.

I walked back through the snow along the shore. At one point I walked up the hill to take photos of an abandoned house. I was carefully trudging upwards when suddenly a dog barked right behind me. I jumped and fell flat on my face, and slid, face first, back down the hill! It was REALLY REALLY cold. You'd better appreciate these 2 photos. You have no idea what I went though to get them!