Monday, March 2, 2015

A Change of Venue

I have not posted on this blog for a very long time. I'm sure if I start typing I will easily fill a few pages with the latest exploits of Harebrained Adventures. Here goes:

We have relocated to False Pass Alaska. False Pass is the only occupied settlement on Unimak Island, which is the first island in the Aleutian chain. The scenery is eye-poppingly gorgeous. The community consists of about 60 year-round residents, and about 40 cannery workers at any given time during the fishing season. Our school has a total enrollment this year of 11 students.  I am the middle-high school teacher, and Annette teaches the lower grades. We have a kindergarten teacher aide as well for our two pre-K, and K students. One big happy family!

The village sits on Isanotski Strait, which is the first break in the coastline, connecting the Bering sea to the Pacific Ocean. Because the tides between these bodies of water are opposite each other, they do not so much rise and fall, but rather,, in either direction! In a kayak or other small craft, the current can be anything from frustrating to frightening! Still, it has proven to be a great way to connect with the natural environment. On a rare afternoon when the water was nearly smooth and the wind nearly still, I sat in my kayak and drifted, taking in the spectacular scenery of the aleutian island landforms and marveling at the sound of nearly nothing, as no boats, land vehicles, or industrial sounds were able to reach me where I floated.

A bit of background:

After 14 years in the Kuskokwim delta and neighboring islands, working for The Lower Kuskokwim School District,  the universe...gently nudged us to look for a new place to live and work. To this end, in April, we found ourselves, at the Alaska Teacher Placement Job Fair in Anchorage. Ideally, we were hoping to find positions in the Kenai Borough School District. This would have allowed us to live in our house, and join the ranks of daily commuters across the country (why be normal?). This, however, was not to be, as no positions were available in Kenai, anywhere near home. We wandered the aisles of the job fair, chatting with reps about where they were, who they needed, and what we might do there, were we to go, snagging free pens, pencils, rulers, phone charge boosters (yes! phone charge boosters!), erasers, and other assorted items, that we took even though we knew full well we would have to either throw them out or move them with us when we moved. Eventually, we came across a hand-written sign saying: TEACHING COUPLE WANTED! We went over and started chatting with the superintendent of the Aleutians East Borough School District about what they had to offer. He asked us if we really wanted to work in the Aleutians, and if we would have time for an interview...right there and then. We said, "yes", and proceeded, along with most of the AEBSD school board, into an empty conference room in the hotel. The interview, which was going quite well, by any standard,  ran for about 25 minutes and then someone poked their head into the room saying, "We had this room reserved for 4:00." We talked for about 5 more minutes and then we all had to leave so that "4:00" could have his room. The Superintendent called us over and offered us the job teaching in False Pass right there, on the spot. We told him we would like to think it over, and that we would give him our decision by 9:00 the next morning. By the time we got back down to the job fair at 8:30, we were ready to tell him, "Thanks, but no, thanks." While we sipped our coffee, he met us outside the ballroom and asked us what we had decided. We still wanted to say,"no" but he threw in enough extra perks and enthusiasm for us to come work for him (it's nice to be wanted!) that our resolve collapsed and we were compelled to reverse our decision. The way it worked, he hired us both as "Principal-Teachers" which made us, "the boss" for the first time in either of our professional (or otherwise) careers.  The next thing was to pack and small feat after 14 years of accumulating all the creature comforts and indulgences we needed...or thought we did anyway, to live in rural Alaska.

As it turned out, we really didn't need an awful lot of that stuff, and much of it we stuffed into trash bags and hauled to the dump. Most of the rest, we put out on shelves in the living room and invited the community in to relieve us us of it for (truly) modest prices. We pretty much sold out in about 2 hours, and with only a few boxes of books and clothing left to donate to the Tundra Women's Coalition Shelter in Bethel, we were done. Everything we would ship on was in boxes or totes, waiting to go to the Tuntutuliak post office, as space inside would allow. They really DID NOT have the space and told us as much. Eventually, everything made it to the post office and we made it to our plane, leaving the delta for good...or until we find ourselves back there...I think we will, but I have no idea why.

We spent our summer in Kenai, enjoying the relaxation that no schedule afforded us. We did have family up for a visit and we played tour-guide, which is always fun. When it stops being fun, that will be when I'm sure it is time to leave Alaska. I do not anticipate this any time soon. As August came, we packed our bags, totes, kayaks, pet carriers, and ice chests for travel to our new digs. Because of obligatory miscalculations in time needed to solve packing issues, we found ourselves racing down to Homer to catch the ferry to False Pass. While we wanted a couple of leisurely hours to eat dinner at the Kosmic Kitchen, we instead found ourselves driving straight out to The Spit and unloading our worldly possessions to carry onto the Tustamena. This was still a lot of crap, because I am one who loves his toys, and has to take them with me wherever I go. This makes for an ordeal coming and going, but one I am willing to embrace.

Four days and three nights on the "Trusty Tusty" allowed us to experience the truly wild nature of this part of Alaska and the surrounding ocean. We saw porpoises, seals, sea lions, thousands of birds, dozens of whales, and met some truly adventurous souls, most, surprisingly, with hair grayer (or bluer) than ours. While the Alaska Marine Highway does provide serviceable accommodations, they do not go much past this standard, and so, we all enjoyed the scenery and each other's conversation, stories, pictures, and enthusiasm for what they were experiencing in the moment. We heard typically,"There are a bunch of whales over on the starboard side!" or, "There's a bear on the beach!" -which turn out to NOT be a bear, but rather, a large rusty fuel drum. This provided us with enthusiastic joy (and humor) as well.

When we arrived in False Pass, we were met by many of the locals, including our coworkers who helped us load up the school's truck and haul our belongings to our new teacher housing. The rest of the community was waiting for the boat for another reason: Dinner! For about an hour and a half every two weeks, during ferry season, we have, in town, a decent restaurant in the form of the Tustamena's galley and dining room. The food isn't bad, and if you aren't inclined to cook it certainly beats frozen pizza, We had everything we needed waiting for us, as we had sent it all ahead from Tunt. Unpacking and setting up the house was the next effort, and we had about a week to do this before school started and took up our time, as it tends to do in this business.

Since we have been here in False Pass, We have found new routines to adapt to. Many of the expectations we had of bush experiences failed us here, like for instance, the local store. Typically, in a village, the local store will have limited variety, and crushingly high prices, a graphic illustration of the cost of doing business in rural Alaska. Since our local store relies not on air transportation so much for delivery of supplies, but rather, a biweekly freighter, we enjoy a better selection of goods (still not Costco, but better than a tundra village store by far and away) and prices that are actually quite reasonable (not Walmart prices, but also, refreshingly, NOT Walmart!). The store is only open for two hours a day during the winter season, up to 5 hours during the summer, so planning ahead is important. You can get what you need, and it pays to ask too! We've even done our own Costco order, and it arrived without incident on the freighter. The fresh fruits and veggies and fruits are actually still...fresh!

School started in late August, and the fun continues...

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