Many Homes

Sunset in Napaskiak
It’s about 1am the night before we leave the village. The sky is finally dark, but not for long, and I lay in bed, unable to sleep. Three years have come down to a flurry of cleaning and packing and tearful goodbyes. 

I hate saying goodbye. But, I love new adventures, and the two go hand in hand. I have learned to laugh through the tears and embrace the whole range of emotions I feel each time we embark on some new adventure. 

I’ve been so lucky to call so many places home. I’ve never been one to like living out of a suitcase. Even in hotels, I love to unpack and really make wherever I am for the moment feel like home. Napaskiak has been home for me longer than anywhere else since my childhood home in New York. Leaving here has been hard. Every picture I took off the wall, every drawer I emptied brought that tightness in my throat. I’ve been so busy with trying to coordinate all the details to move a family and dog back to the Lower 48 that I haven’t had too much time to get excited about my next adventure. 

Sunset in Roanoke, VA:

Sunset in Roanoke

We don’t have an apartment yet, but we will be visiting later in the summer to see my brother and sister-in-law who live there, and hopefully we will find something on that trip. I think having that concrete will really help me get excited. 

I’m not sure we will move again in the future, but then again, we didn’t ever think we would move to Alaska either. I’d be happy to settle down for a while though, and watch my baby grow up in a place he can come to love and call home like I did. My childhood home holds such a strong place in my heart. I hated it as a teen and couldn’t wait to leave after high school, but now I find it is a great place to visit family and spend time. There was so much there that I took for granted as a kid, but I don’t think I would have been able to see that if I hadn’t left. In fact, one of the most important things I have learned is the real importance of family and how the people will always be more important than the physical location you inhabit. In fact, it may seem odd to you reading this, but even though we will be a nine hour drive from my hometown when we move to Roanoke, I am downright giddy at the thought of being able to just jump in my car and see my parents’ faces in less than a day. To be once again easily connected to the people I love makes all the complications of packing worth it. 


Although we will wave goodbye to Napaskiak tomorrow as we fly away, this tiny village will always hold a big piece of my heart. Watching my baby be embraced by a loving community was a priceless thing that I will miss. His babbled conversations with staff at the school as they taught him Yupik bring a smile to my face even now. Thank you to everyone who has welcomed us and embraced our little family that grew so much here. I look back at the person I was stepping off the plane with my husband three years ago, and I can’t believe how much has changed. I was told that we wouldn’t regret taking the leap of faith to move 4,000 miles to a world so different than anything we had ever experienced before, and I can honestly say that I don’t regret it for a second. Thanks, Napaskiak.  ❤

Winter Walks

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Ravens Flying Over the Boardwalk

Alaska winters are long and dark. I’m always looking forward to the time of year when the days are getting longer, and the temperatures are rising enough to go outside for more than just a few minutes. The past week has had some really nice days where I could do just that. Winter walks are some of my favorite. You experience the vastness of the world in a different way after being cooped up inside all winter. The crisp air bites your face, but it feels fresh and exciting, and as long as you wear your ice cleats, you can really go anywhere!

Winter Walks Selfie

I’ve taken several walks now, strapping the baby into his carrier and bundling him under one of my husband’s coats. I’m worried about him getting chilled, but after each walk he has been toasty warm- kept so by my own body heat. I don’t know how people live without baby wearing, it is seriously a lifesaver, and one of my favorite things. You have a happy cuddly baby, and you can continue to actually do things- it’s a win-win!

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Sammy, our dog, has enjoyed these walks as well. I feel bad for her being cooped up in the winter as well. We take her out multiple times a day, but when temperatures are below zero, we hardly want to go trekking on an adventure, so she settles for running around the apartment for her exercise (sorry downstairs neighbors!)

Winter Walks Sammy

Winter is far from over yet, but I think the worst is over. Tickets for the river breakup are being sold. Nathan and I have decided to try and guess this year. Last year we didn’t buy any tickets, but his guess was off by only a day. Essentially the idea is that people buy tickets to guess the day and time that the river ice will break up. They have a tripod set up in Bethel on the ice, with a rope leading to a timer. When the tripod collapses, it pulls the rope, stopping the timer. People from all over the delta try to guess the exact date and time. Whoever has the closest guess wins the prize of $10,000. Talk about an awesome opportunity!

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Last Years Tripod on the River

I’m looking forward to the warmer weather and longer walks. As the boardwalks clear up, I will be able to take off my heavy boots and cleats, and the longer days will let us take walks after dinner. I can’t wait!

 

Do you ever take winter walks? Where are your favorite places to explore? Share with me below in the comments!

New Store!

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The New Store. It’s so much bigger than the old one.

This past week was extremely exciting here in the village. Our new store celebrated it’s grand opening, and I was positively giddy. I’m sure it’s my ‘small town’ showing, but I couldn’t wait to set foot in the new building and do some shopping. The store is bigger, brighter, and full of so many amazing things that we couldn’t get in town before. Prices are still really high, but it’s nice t know that if I really need something I don’t have to wait a few weeks for Amazon to deliver it.

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The old store

Oh- and I had eggs for the first time since being in Anchorage back in September. I have been using powdered eggs for baking, but they are no good to eat by themselves. I can’t tell you how great it was to see that cooler stocked full!

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The whole aisle of candy and snacks was my favorite!

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Fully stocked and beautiful!

The new store is further away from our house now, but the longer walk is totally worth it.

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Nathan overwhelmed by all the choices for jam!

Culture Week at PKA

Two elders soaking the caribou beard for a dance fan.

Two elders soaking the caribou beard for a dance fan.

The past week here in Napaskiak has been full of cultural events at the school. I was so excited to learn more about the traditional Yupik culture and even be able to participate in some activities. I was substituting, so my mornings consisted of classes with the students, and then the afternoon was dedicated to cultural activities. Some of the younger grades even had full day activities.

Elders and adults from around the village came into the school to share their knowledge, and in some cases their supplies or wisdom passed down to them from previous elders. Crafts included learning to crochet, bead, sew qaspeqs (native shirts that are similar to cotton hoodies pronounced like ‘guss-puk’) , leather yo-yos and shell bags, ice picks for fishing, slingshots, and carving various things from antler and ivory. There were also sessions that focused on dog sledding, Native Youth Olympics and traditional native cooking.

The husband wanted to have a qaspeq to wear this week, so naturally because I now have my sewing machine here, he asked if I could make one for him. I was able to borrow a pattern from a neighbor, and pulled one together using some fabric he had purchased in Bethel that weekend during the Cama-i dance festival.

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It was fun to make, although difficult at a few points, and I don’t think it turned out too poorly. The hood is a mess, but as long as he kept it down, it wasn’t too noticeable. Some of the women at the school complimented him on it, and he was very proud to say his wife made it. Apparently it was impressive to the students that I made it in one night. I did have the advantage of the sewing machine to make things go fast.

The finished product!

The finished product!

The first day I didn’t do much other than supervise, and I was in awe of how good the high school kids were at some of the trades. One student was working with mammoth ivory and had fashioned a ring that was stunning. The husband was also working on a ring- his made out of antler, and attested to how difficult it was. In the end it took him a couple tries, but I think it turned out great, and I love wearing it!

The Husband slimmed the ring down a little bit after this to make it more comfortable. He carved it out of an antler. I have so much respect for the subsistence lifestyle that learns to use all parts of the animal.

The Husband slimmed the ring down a little bit after this to make it more comfortable. He carved it out of an antler. I have so much respect for the subsistence lifestyle that learns to use all parts of the animal.

The second day had elder talks, which I was very interested to attend. There is no strict age limit or guideline on what it means to be an elder, but it is usually agreed upon whether someone is or isn’t. The girls and the boys were split up for these talks, and I sat in with the girls. Lots of interesting pieces of history and cultural knowledge were passed down, but it felt like a good conversation with a grandparent. We laughed and learned in Yupik and English. One of the elders who only spoke Yupik was very insightful, and I was lucky to have another elder sitting next to me translating what she was saying.

Messages of love and respect seemed to dominate the talks as the most important cultural values they could hold onto, and I couldn’t agree more.

The third day, I was asked by an elder to jump in and make a dance fan. I couldn’t say no. It was a lot harder than it looked at first, but I struggled through, and she helped me fix all my mistakes!

The start of the dance fan.

The start of the dance fan.

The finished weaved part of the fan. I still need to finish sewing on the Caribou fur along the outside.

The finished weaved part of the fan. I still need to finish sewing on the Caribou fur along the outside.

In traditional Yupik dance, the dancers hold the fans in each hand to accentuate the movement.

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Most of the days ended at about 4pm, where we would gather in the gym to taste what they had been cooking in the kitchen. They made fry breads, moose soup, caribou soup, halibut chowder, and lots of akutaq (eskimo ice cream pronounces ‘a-goo-tuk’). It’s funny that I didn’t really care for akutaq before I got pregnant, but now that I am, I can’t get enough of it! Everyone makes theirs differently, and began swapping recipes at the table. I can’t wait to try more!

Akutaq! Yum!

Akutaq! Yum!

The week culminated in a gallery showing of all the students’ projects in the gym during their normal dance time. I was really impressed with their work, especially some of the younger kids!

All in all, I had a really great time this past week. Sometimes I really marvel at the opportunities that have been presented to me here, and all of the things I wouldn’t have learned if the Husband and I didn’t have the faith to take the plunge and move up here. I can’t wait to keep learning more and more!

Snowy October

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It’s October in rural Alaska, and that traditionally means that the snowflakes are going to start flying. Our first real snow, where any stuck on the ground was the 12th. The temperatures had been cold enough for the river to start freezing earlier that week, but no precipitation had fallen for more than about 15 minutes. It was exciting to wake up to a winter wonderland. I am a strong believer that everything looks prettier when it is covered in a layer of fresh fluffy snow. White is so pristine and pure, and it is even better to be sitting inside a warm house with a cup of hot tea looking out.

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It was exciting to take the puppy out into the snow. She was chasing flakes, rolling around, and eating snow off the ground. This is her first winter and it’s exciting to see her discover snow.

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Snow always brings me back to my childhood in Central New York. We would have such great lake effect snow every winter, and not having a white Christmas was simply unheard of. It wasn’t until just a year or two ago that I had my first Christmas without snow, and I was really sad. It just doesn’t feel like the holidays without it.

That all being said, it does feel a little weird to have snow this early. My brain jumps forward to Christmastime thoughts, and we haven’t even had Halloween yet. Maybe all those corporations who put out Christmas decorations in their stores just happened to all be from Alaska!

And here are some photos from this past Sunday the 19th of October. We woke up to everything being covered in a beautiful frost. It makes everything sparkle and shine, and photos can’t really do it justice.

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The boardwalks are all getting really slippery too now that the frost seems to be a constant. I don’t want to put on my heavy boots just yet, so I’ve been slipping my way over to the school and post office if I wear my cowboy boots… however now that the snow seems to be here to stay (along with some lovely freezing fog in the mornings) I should probably get out those boots if I want to avoid breaking something!

Sailor Boy Pilot Bread

Pilot Bread Box
Before we arrived in the bush we were told of the wonders of Pilot Bread. We had never heard of such a thing before, but were assured that we would grow to love the twice baked bread in the long blue box. In fact, a lot of people here are really obsessed with the Pilot Bread and insist that it is “Alaska’s Soul Food.” In our first two weeks here, while we were waiting for our groceries to arrive from Anchorage, we ventured to the village store. Discovering how expensive regular bread was, and not having the ingredients to make our own yet, we bought a box of pilot bread, figuring we would give it a try.

Now, Pilot Bread is not exactly ‘bread’ per say. It is similar to the Hardtack that sailors would have eaten. A large white bread-like cracker. Sounds boring and rather tasteless right? Well, to be honest, you wouldn’t really want to eat it by itself. Unlike say, saltine crackers, it doesn’t have any salt or flavorings, so instead of a stand-alone, it makes a good base for other foods.

Peanut butter on Pilot Bread is a great and filling snack. The students at school have them every day, and can’t wait for their cracker. Toast the cracker for a little extra flavor before adding any topping you like! The first week of here I had some with Nutella, and it was to die for! You could also try tuna or jam. (Not at the same time of course!)

When we were feeling really creative, my husband and I made mini pizzas on Pilot Bread. It was a really great lunch.

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Nathan Approves of Pilot Pizzas!

Nathan Approves of Pilot Pizzas!

Yummy!

Yummy!

If living in the bush has taught me anything, it’s that you get creative with food and use what you have!

And Sammy loves peanut butter on Pilot Bread too! It’s a great reward for her, and she gobbles it right up!

Sammy Loves Peanut Butter and Pilot Bread!

Sammy Loves Peanut Butter and Pilot Bread!

Freeze Up

You can see the frozen river out beyond the power pole.

You can see the frozen river out beyond the power pole.

Within the past few days, travel has become difficult in and out of the village. We are in the limbo time where the river is no longer passable by boat, but the ice is not yet ready for snow machine (snow mobile to those of you in the lower 48) travel. All traffic in and out must happen via bush planes from Bethel. This time is generally referred to as the “Freeze Up” by people in the village.

To illustrate how quickly this happened let me share a few anecdotes:

On Tuesday I was subbing for a teacher who had to go to Bethel. She was planning on boating over. The morning was too cold for the boat motors to start so she waited until the sun had been out for a few hours, but then could not find anyone who was headed into town that day.

The next morning (Wednesday) I awoke to see ice on the banks of the river! It started creeping out during the day, but there was still a visible flow of water in the center.

Two days later it is Friday, and all the boats are out of the water. Several people who were traveling to Anchorage for the weekend have had to book charter flights out last minute because they were planning on traveling by boat to the airport in Bethel (the cheaper, although longer and colder, alternative).

View of the frozen river from my window.

View of the frozen river from my window.

There have been multiple safety talks at the school this week- especially with the younger kids- to stay away from the river and the ice for now. Later on in the winter the river becomes the ice road that connects all the villages and towns up and down it, but right now it poses a big threat, because it looks safe, but the ice is still very thin. There is a high risk for drowning accidents at this time of year, and we hope to do everything we can to prevent that. The river will not open for traffic for a few weeks yet.

Perhaps this weekend I will venture out to the sandbar to get some close up pictures of the frozen river. The wind here makes the temperatures so much more bitter cold.

Frosty Mornings

Frost covering the playground at the school.

Frost covering the playground at the school.

While everyone on my Facebook news feed is posting pictures of the amazing fall foliage back home, I am dealing with Frost. Every morning now. Until just before noon. I had a dream the other night that I woke up to a foot of snow outside… and it was so realistic that I had to take a second look out the window when I really did wake up!

It's cold! And it's only October!

It’s cold! And it’s only October!

You might notice that I’m a little unhappy about this. Autumn has always been my favorite season, and here I feel that it has been skipped! We started school mid August and while it wasn’t hot summer weather it still didn’t feel like fall to me. Maybe it was due to the lack of jack-o-lanterns, apple cider and leaves changing colors. Or maybe it’s just because my brain was so confused with all of the rapid changes. Whatever the reason, I now find myself bundling up for each voyage outside, and have officially retired my ‘fall coat’ and have moved on to my traditional East Coast Winter Jacket. I do have a Parka for when temperatures dip some more out here, but it just feels too early in the year to have to don my scarf, mittens, hat and coat just to take the dog out in the morning. She sure is impatient with the whole process!

I figured I would have to take some pictures on my walk to the post office the other day- it was 11:30 and there was still an abundance of frost! So enjoy the fall weather wherever you are- it will be gone soon!

Frost still clinging to the side of the boardwalk.

Frost still clinging to the side of the boardwalk.

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Yupik Names

An aerial view of our village.

An aerial view of our village.

In native Yupik villages, it is common for everyone to have an English (or kassaq- pronounced “guss-ick” meaning white person or Caucasian) name as well as a Yupik one. When teachers and other outsiders such as myself come to live in the villages, we receive a Yupik name. It works differently depending on where you live; some villages name you right on the first day, whereas others wait until the get to know you to bestow you with a name.
Yupik names can be a word that describes your personality, something you like, or it could be the name of someone who has passed away. Both Nathan and I have received names, and for different reasons.

Nathan’s Yupik name is Yaqulpak (pronounced ya-gush-buck) which means “Eagle”. He was asked what his favorite animal was, and that was the name they bestowed upon him. He had some trouble pronouncing it, and the kids are really sticklers for correct pronunciation, but everyone tries to help us out in good spirits.

My Yupik name is Amlliq (pronounced um-sh-k) and means “a great step forward” I have been told. I looked it up in the Yupik dictionary and found that it does mean a step, and in some cases it can refer to a legendary fish monster. Pretty cool, in my opinion.

There was an Elizabeth in the village who had passed away, and Amlliq was her Yupik name, so it was passed on to me because we share the same English name. When they pass on a name, they say that it makes that person live on, and others will actually address you by the relationship they had with the other person, be it mother, sister, etc. I was really touched when they gave me my name, and was also excited that I was able to pronounce it correctly the first time!

The language uses a lot of deeper throat sounds and requires you to move your tongue in ways I am not used to, having grown up speaking only English, and a little bit of French. For example the “ll” makes a sound similar to the “sh” in English, but there is a kind of lisp to it as well. I don’t know of any way to denote that phonetically, and I had to be instructed on how to hold my tongue to make the right noise. Also the “iq” makes a “k” sound, but it is almost like you are swallowing the letter. It is placed very far in the back of your throat. To hear natives speak so smoothly, I can only hope someday to sound as good- right now I am really rough and have to think a lot about the sounds, making it a jarring experience where I sound like I am choking about half the time. There is a whole section of the dictionary that I have downloaded that pertains to the phonetics of the language, and where the words come from, that I am going to find very helpful I think.

Moving out here I thought I would pick up the language right away, but I was mistaken. It is nothing like learning in a classroom, and it isn’t a total immersion experience either. I am picking up words here and there, and as I interact with the kids, they teach me when they have the patience. I think the dictionary I found is going to satisfy a lot of my curiosity as well.

Do any of you have great stories about your birth name, or names given to you later on in life? There is so much wrapped up in a person’s name, and I would love to hear your stories in the comments!

Our First Feast

In the orientation we learned that many members of the native communities were Russian Orthodox and held fast to the tradition of feasting when a member of their family had passed away. They feast for about three days after the death, and then have a commemorative feast on the 20th and 40th days after their loved one’s passing. This symbolizes the community eating to aid the loved one on their journey to heaven, with the 40 days being highly symbolic biblically.

On our first full day in the village we attended one such feast at the house of the school’s secretary, Joe. His mother had passed that week. One of the other teachers, Seraphima, was gracious enough to take the rest of us under her wing and explain what to expect and how to act. Unlike many events in the lower 48, we were told that it would be considered rude and insulting to bring anything to his house in terms of food for the feast. Food is still a sign of wealth and well-being in a subsistence culture, and to bring food when someone is hosting you is akin to saying that you don’t think that they can provide.

When we arrived at Joe’s house, we saw lots of other villagers there already, and a swarm of children playing all over the yard and porch. Going inside, we did not have to take off our shoes because there were a lot of people there, rather we proceeded to the dining room/kitchen where a large table was set up with chairs all along and food on it. There were a number of large pots and serving bowls in the corner of the kitchen as well, with Joe’s family members manning the serving duties. We sat or stood quietly around the edge of the room and introduced ourselves to members of the community after saying hello to Joe who had met us at the door. I have heard so many new names in the past week, I’m not sure I will ever learn who everyone is. As overwhelming as it is right now, I’m sure that I will look back on these writings later and laugh.

As each person finished eating, they would rise and leave, and a person who had been waiting would be called to sit in the now vacant seat. As new teachers and members of the village, we were invited to essentially skip ahead and eat before some of the people who had been there before us.
Taking my seat at the table I was offered a variety of different dishes, including clam chowder, moose stew, and another type of fish soup. I took the clam chowder (having been told by a priest who was leaving that it was very good) and I was not disappointed. It was very good- warm, tasty and familiar. Elders sitting around the table urged me to try other types of food that were on our table. I tried some dried whitefish that had been smoked. I almost choked on the first bite, not prepared for the deep smoky flavor. Now I’m used to what we call ‘smoked flavor’ down in the lower 48- a subtle taste that compliments, but doesn’t overpower. This must have been a delicate fish to start with, because it tasted like I had solidified smoke or a wood chip in my mouth. I politely finished the piece, but learned to take smaller bites!

At a feast, it is said that it is “all you can eat” but that is not really the case. It is important to come and show your support, but it is also important to realize that there are simply not enough calories in the village for everyone to eat to their fill all the time- and “all you can eat” is a way for people in the community to provide for each other and support their friends as well as family. The feast continues all day until the family simply runs out of food.

After eating, the group of new teachers took our dishes to the girls washing them in the sink, and thanked the family again for the meal. It is very humbling to be welcomed into a community so openly.