Changes: With Feet in Two Worlds Now

Point Hope from plane n

From the air on the south side of the peninsula, our village of Point Hope is a small interruption in a vast, roadless, icy land. This photo was taken in late January from a little six-seat plane as we flew in from a trip to Anchorage. What’s missing in this picture? Sea ice. There should be a thick sheet of it in the foreground where this year there is only open water.

Back in early November, we made the decision that this would be our final year in Point Hope. We’ve loved living here, and the decision was not easy. The people of this village – our adopted hometown these past three years – have been kind and generous and fierce and proud, attributes we greatly admire. Our students have been wonderful, and when you teach in a building where from kindergarten through senior high there are fewer than 200 students, they all become your students. In our combined 30+ years of teaching, neither of us had ever bonded with students the way we bonded with the students of Tikigaq School.

freezing rain point hope n

Freezing rain turned this stalk of grass into a silvery jewel. Rain in January in Point Hope is not completely unheard of, but days in a row of such weather during what is usually the coldest month of the year is highly unusual.

In mid-December we turned in our resignations, not sure where we would go next, urged only be the sense that it was time for us to go. The pull is a feeling that is difficult to describe or explain. The letters of resignation were short, polite, appreciative, but with them we cut the cord. No safety net. No turning back. We began to focus on our next move.

Aurora feb 2014 a n

A few nights ago, the aurora borealis put on a show. This was not one of the dancing, colorful displays we’ve seen in the past, but a steady, emerald swath glowing just above the northern horizon. 

At first, we were limiting our consideration to Alaska, dreaming of a situation in the Southeast where we might live within an easy walk of our boats and our new school. Our free time was consumed wtih the routine but critical tasks associated with a job search: revising our resumés, shoring up our references, researching schools and communities, distilling our careers and lives into tightly written letters of introduction. As two souls with nomadic DNA and Gypsy blood caught in this modern “career path” world, it’s a process we’ve been through many times.

But this time around, there was a twist to the job hunting. We both constructed online career histories on Linkedin, a networking website for professionals. Out of the blue, Barbra received a query from a headhunter with an agency that places teachers, administrators and technology experts with overseas schools. Although the particular company the inquiring person represented didn’t interest us, it got us thinking.

What if…?

Could we…?

What would we do with our boats?!?

tikigaq old bones_new

Early morning light bathes whale bones in the ghost town of Old Tikigaq pink and gold after a night of fresh snow.

After careful research, we signed aboard with Search Associates, an agency that works with over 600 internationally-minded schools in 160 countries. While we lacked the experience with International Baccalaureate programs these schools desired, our backgrounds are rich in quality experience and our references are strong. We allowed ourselves to dream, and although we thought that in order to get our foot in the door we’d accept the right position in virtually any country, there were a few countries that were very much on our short list. Our dream list.

One of those countries was Mongolia. Several years ago, when we were living in Sacramento, our local Trout Unlimited chapter invited a guest who had recently made a film about fly fishing in Mongolia for lenok (an ancient form of trout) and taimen (the world’s largest trout/salmon). The vast, sparsely populated countryside was sublime. The rivers were pristine. The idea of a remote camp out on the steppes, the guides speaking Mongolian, the huge night sky filled with stars after a day spent pursuing species of fish few anglers will ever encounter, our stomachs filled with rock roasted meat, our minds pleasantly humming with yak-milk vodka, and beyond the camp neither a light nor a human sound for as far as one could see or hear, is an idea that has been growing in us ever since.

We are due in country on July 31. It appears that we’ve already found a nice apartment just a few minute’s walk from the International School of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar. We’re thrilled. This is just the dose of “New” we’ve been craving.

A couple of weeks ago, we were in the Anchorage airport, flying back to Point Hope when we suddenly encountered a scent that, for us, will always be pleasantly, irresistibly memorable. Muktuk. Whale fat. We looked around and soon found a small group of people who appeared to be Eskimo pushing a cart loaded with coolers, no doubt the source of the mildly sweet, rich smell. “We’re two among 0.00000-something percent of people in the world who can instantly identify that smell,” I said to Barbra as we laughed about our arcane expertise.

This morning one of Barbra’s students, Dmitri, came to school wearing the same scent. “Wow,” Barbra said with a smile. “You smell like muktuk!”

“Yeah,” Dmitri smiled back. “It’s good, isn’t it.”

Little stories like that keep us wanting to explore and experience.

pt hope from plane dawn n

Sunrise over Point Hope, a village by the Chuckchi sea.

26 thoughts on “Changes: With Feet in Two Worlds Now

  1. Wow, good luck in Mongolia! Once upon a time I dreamed about wandering as an anthropologist, but I’ve settled myself considerably since then. I’ve seen a lot of documentaries on the steppes of Mongolia, and it’s fascinating and remote.

  2. So excited for you guys! Lance the Truck, Stanley the Camper, Gillie the C-Dory, and Bandon the Sailboat will all be in good hands while you are gone. Expect us to come and visit sometime after you’ve been established for a while. Until then, let’s make this summer an exciting one!

  3. Wow! I am looking forward to learning about Mongolia, its people and foods through your words and lenses, just as I’ve enjoyed your Alaskan adventures!

    • Good to hear from you, Kim! Yes, we are very excited about Mongolia – it was definitely on our short list as we considered the next place to explore. Looking forward to trying yak-milk vodka and becoming masters of roasted meat and stir fry!

  4. How wonderful and what an inspiring journey! I’ve only been to Point Hope a few times and it’s a special place… but it sounds like you’ve found a new place that is also pretty special. Best of luck.

  5. Yippee! We’re going to Mongolia! I think many of us feel like we’ve been on this adventure with you all along. So it will be fun & informative to experience a new climate and cuisine. I’m especially looking forward to all the amazing photos that you’ll be sharing with us. Good luck on the next step of your incredible life. I admire your adventurous spirits! Life at Sutterville is good, but it can’t compare to the enriched life that you two are experiencing. (And none of our children come to school smelling like whale fat. Wow! I’m going to have to share that fascinating piece of information with my students.) I’m glad that you two took the risk to fully follow your dreams. I can’t wait to get to Mongolia via your blog postings!:-)

    • So good to hear from you, Sharon! We often think of our Sutterville friends and those warm California days. But yes, we are really eager to cross the Pacific and begin our next chapter in Mongolia. Lots of photos and stories to come! Come on along!

  6. Your Northern light Photograph was more impressive that most I have seen, because you personalized it by adding object in the foreground….and made it art!

  7. Thanks for taking us along these past few years. I can’t wait to see what recipes, photos and adventures you will be sharing with us next. Best of luck to you both!

  8. Amazing to hear, catch a taimen for me! And if you happen to be stopping in Tokyo on your way to Mongolia from Alaska, drop me a line!

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