Isolation in Rural Alaska

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The other week was really hard for me emotionally. When Nathan was interviewing for the job here, the district was really insistent that we understand how isolated it was here. Above anything else, even the cold, they stressed the isolation. Sitting in our apartment in the suburbs of Philly we nodded our heads and said that we totally understood that we would be so far from everything. I thought that because I had grown up in a small town in rural New York that I would easily adjust to life in the bush. We knew what they were talking about, but we couldn’t really understand. You can’t really understand until you are sitting in an apartment hundreds of miles from the closest city, just wishing you didn’t have to cook another meal. Wanting to throw in the towel and just go somewhere. Anywhere. Unfortunately, unless you are going to charter a flight you aren’t going anywhere. So you suck it up, eat a handful of cereal for dinner and go to bed early and upset.

It’s even harder for me as a ‘non-teaching spouse’. We don’t have kids yet, so it’s just me and the puppy at home each day. I have an added feeling of isolation from the happenings at school. Fortunately I have started subbing, and am in the building pretty consistently which is helping. Kids recognize me, and I’m learning their names, so I can stop and chat with them and play when I see them around the village.

As an introvert, I find it hard to make new friends, but I have always forced myself into social situations. I commit to going to open gyms, and pot lucks and feasts, but I can’t help but feel awkward when I am there. I know this is normal for so many people, but I feel most comfortable at home. I am happy when I do go out and enjoy myself, or connect with another person though, so I continue to stretch myself and take advantage of most opportunities that come my way. I sure wouldn’t have ended up in Alaska in the first place if I didn’t have a little taste for adventure right?

Because of the isolation, the little things start to mean a whole lot more way out here. Every day I walk to the post office, and I love getting mail… well, except for the bills! But really, each piece of mail is like a small link with the outside world that I grew up and lived in for more than 25 years.

The Post Office in Napaskiak, AK

The Post Office in Napaskiak, AK

Despite the good things about being out here, I have found that several months in, things began to pile up, and I was really stressed. Here’s a look into my brain:

• I don’t think it will every matter how much we are making, I stress about money. This time because switching to a pay day once a month after being used to a paycheck every week is difficult to budget;
• I was unable to call my sister all week because she was camping for a geology class;
• We ran out of a couple of foods we generally eat, and are running low on flour;
• I still hadn’t ordered a Swiffer for the floor because something else is always more important than clean floors;
• I am still adjusting to a more home centered role in life. The weight of all the finances and food rests on my shoulders.

So yeah, a lot of things were on my mind. Regardless, my mother had said that she had several packages on the way, and that I should make sure to check the mail. When I went to the post office that day there were indeed several packages waiting for us. Opening up a large flat rate box from my mom I found an assortment of canned goods that I hadn’t asked her to send, including several cans of tuna fish- the very same item we had run out of that my husband had been complaining about. As I held the can in my hand, tears started streaming down my face. I got all choked up, and as I went through the other treasures in the boxes I couldn’t hold myself together. Calling my mom I cried and cried thanking her.

I still feel a little dumb that I cried over a can of tuna fish. But that is what the isolation here does to you. Something as simple as canned tuna can seem like a treasure. Something that I have never really given much thought to before moving here. But some of the great things I’m learning by being here have hit me like this. I know I won’t be taking food for granted anymore. Not having the luxury to just pop into the grocery store for a missing ingredient makes me put value in planning ahead, and also all the work that goes into cooking meals every day. I look back at my childhood, and my mother made dinner for us every single night. That takes a lot more effort than I ever thought.

So think of me next time you just pop into the grocery store for that forgotten item you need for dinner. Embrace the ease and convenience in life- and really appreciate that so many things are at your fingertips. I’ve told my mother that I can’t wait for Christmas and the summer when we come home, and that I want to go grocery shopping with her.

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5 thoughts on “Isolation in Rural Alaska

  1. My partner and I are looking at moving to teach in Alaska next year, and your posts have been incredibly illuminating for me. Thank you for sharing the challenges that you’re facing: it’s helping us to make a more informed decision and have conversations about how we’ll tackle these things.
    Even just living in rural Arkansas for a few years (the nearest store is 25 minutes away, and the nearest restaurant is 45 minutes) has been socially isolating and emotionally exhausting in some ways. I can sympathize a little. Hang in there: we’re pulling for you.

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    • I’m glad my posts are helpful! I was surprised how little information was out there, other than what the schools provided, and so we walked into a totally different world unprepared. Now we are settling into things, and some days are really great, and others are hard… but you are going to have that anywhere!

      Another really great blog (especially if you have kids) about rural Alaska is: The Cunningham Family in Bush Alaska. She gives great perspective on life in the Bush as well- especially raising a family and homeschooling.

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  2. I haven’t commented here before but I am so very proud of you for facing your fears & challenges and sharing them so openly. Know that even though we are far away in distance & different time zones we are always supporting you and Nathan.

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  3. I so feel you. Oh man, I feel you. Being out of cheese the last few weeks has been akin to chinese torture, with children! So much of my meal planning revolves around what we can find at the co-op or what has come in a care package or from our Span orders. That would be hard just for Josh and I, but throw in three picky boys, and I tear up when the mac & cheese box arrives!!!

    The isolation is indescribable. And the cold weather doesn’t help at all. I am so glad you are subbing at the school, that will help a lot. I find my connections with the kids in the village bring me such joy!

    I would also encourage you to reach out to your friends back home. See who would be willing to talk on the phone or text, or even write old fashion pen pal letters. Those little connections give a spark to my days and make the loneliness bearable.

    I adore your honesty and can’t wait to read the rest of your posts. So glad you commented on my blog so I could come read yours!!!

    Hugs, friend!

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