I find myself in a peculiar situation as I write this. I’m lying on a bare mattress in school music room in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness waiting for a snowstorm to blow over. How did I end up here? Well like most of my stories, it all started with a ski race. At the award ceremony of the American Birkebeiner a few weeks ago, one of Lauren’s teammate’s sister, who works for one of the Native corporations, asked us if we would consider volunteering and head into the Alaskan wilderness to teach children in remote schools how to Nordic ski through a program called NANANordic. After a quick check of dates we both jumped on the idea and after just a week spent in Anchorage we boarded a small 20-seat plane and headed to a town called Aniak.
Flying there it was pretty obvious they were having a warm winter too. There was barely any snow around and once we landed in Aniak the only thing we could find to slide on was ice, and lots of it! Clearly it had been cold because the local river was apparently 5 foot thick ice and was used as the only road in-between the towns and it was fairly standard to do 80 miles an hour driving up or down river. As one of the local girls said to me “nothing happens when you lose control, the ice is so smooth, you just keep spinning till you stop!” Basically it sounded like one giant game of pinball where you are the ball… After a bit of searching the team (made up of myself, Lauren and three others) found an old outside basketball court that still had a layer of snow on top of all the ice, so for two days we took the kids out there, playing games and had fun.
On the second night at 10:30 we had a fairly quick change of plans and it was decided the group would leave Aniak for schools upriver with better snow and to reach out to more kids we splintered into two groups. Lauren and I headed to a very small village called Sleetmute and the others went to a village called Crooked Creek.
We caught a flight in the school district plane, following the river until we diverted and headed over some low mountains to find Sleetmute nestled on a curving bend of the same river looking small and frozen. The town of Sleetmute has a total population of 75 people, which includes families that live up to 5 miles down or up stream of the mighty Kuskokwin River. Just like in Aniak the river was frozen solid and used as the highway to travel between town and houses. In summer the river is filled with barges and boats ferrying goods to the villages from the sea. It’s the cheapest method of bringing goods such as fuel, cars and snowmobiles to these towns. Our flight from Aniak to Sleetmute was pretty easy but a bit squishy. Sitting in the front of the four-seater plane I had to be extremely carful not to bump the controls when I moved and on landing and take-off I had push back into the chair as far as I could so that the joystick could be pulled back far enough.
Although the school was a lot smaller (only 12 children attend) it was extremely well organized and fairly modern. Before lunch Lauren and I headed out to scope for some good spots to take the kids, although it was nearly as icy as Aniak, it was still fairly slick and the snow was super hard packed from all the snowmobiles. While we were out a snowmobile pulled up and from under a few layers of clothes a little old lady poked her head out and bombarded us with questions, rapidly firing them off. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Where are you from.” Once she heard we were here to teach skiing she became much more friendly and happy we had come. It turned out that she was one of the Elders of the Village and was 83 years old but still chose to live by herself on the other side of the river, a few miles upstream. Definitely a character!
We had lunch with the kids, meeting them all, then we went to the two classes and talked to the kids about skiing and being healthy and nutrition. After school we took our first class and from then we got into a routine with kids skiing up to four times a day but normally three. The kids thoroughly enjoyed skiing with us it seemed and most would come for all three sessions and still be waiting the next day for more.
We generally skied around the village but on the last day Lauren and I headed out for a early morning ski down stream along the river and found some great crust skiing and so for something different we hitched up a snow mobile with a sled (the local school bus) and took the kids and some parents down to the spot we found and had a great time crust skiing.
The morning we were supposed to leave we woke to some snowflakes quietly drifting down and so as we waited to be picked up we just crossed out fingers and hoped the storm would hold off long enough for us to fly out. The little four seater arrived and we quickly got in and headed out, but instead of taking the route back over the mountains we started following the snaking, white frozen river. In the space of just ten minutes the weather had blown in a lot more and the wind and snow was starting to pick up. The pilot explained to us that flying over the river was safer, due to the plane having little navigation gear for no-visibility situations he had to fly by sight so the river, although longer than over the mountains, presented a clear obvious path. The added benefit of the river was we could emergency land on it very easily (we didn’t need to!). Light aircraft crashes were relatively common the pilot said and had been in two himself he said. Some of the kids at school had lost parents in accidents. The frame of a mangled plane was unceremoniously dumped near the entry to the runway as a fairly stark reminder to pull up, the frame belonging to the local storeowner who had put it into the trees off the runway just a few months ago.
The flight for the next hour and a half was fairly rough and as when we finally landed in Aniak I felt like a fly stuck in a jar that a kid had been shaking all morning.
The pilot headed out to then get the others but was forced back, the storm blowing too strong now. We bunkered down in the Aniak music room once more, which is wear I originally, started writing this. We flew out the next day, back to Anchorage on the bigger 20 seater which now felt like a jumbo jet in comparison.
My time up north volunteering was great and such an eye opening experience. Sadly like a lot of Native peoples there are some serious issues in the communities, like violence and alcohol abuse. Nutrition is also a serious issue; with no fresh produce being accessible everything comes from a can or packet. One of the teachers told me they only shop twice a year getting 1200 pounds of food each time. Everyone was fairly dependent on the schools. The children get breakfast and lunch provided there along with toothbrushes and other hygiene needs. A cycle is created where the kids depend on the schools because often the parents are incapable or unsure how to properly look after their kids and then the kids grow up with no really understanding of proper parenting and then as their kids go to school they just expect the school to pick up the slack and take care of them too, creating the dependant cycle on the school system. I have never seen so many fillings, with kids just 4 years old already with 3 or 4 silver teeth.
I’ll let photos do the rest of the talking, it was an amazing trip and I hope I can go on another next year!
Train hard, Rest easy, Live for the moment.