Summer Blueberry Picking on the Arctic Tundra

Friends from Shishmaref after an afternoon of blueberry picking. Gathering a cupful or two of these small, tart berries growing in scattered clumps across the tundra was work… the fun kind. The following morning, we celebrated with a stack of blueberry waffles.

Accustomed to the six and seven-foot tall blueberry bushes of Oregon where Barbra and I had picked berries by the bucketful when I lived in Astoria, we were surprised to learn that blueberries were growing right under our feet on our walks through the tundra near Shishmaref. “There’s lots,” one of my students told us. “We’re going to go tomorrow. You guys can follow.”

“Follow” is the village English way of saying “come along.” And sure enough, once we learned to key in on the unmistakable Autumn-red of the bushes (if ground-hugging plants that top out at six-inches can properly be called bushes), we began finding an abundance of small, perfectly ripe, deliciously tart berries. The comparatively thick, woody stems of some of these bushes suggested that they had weathered quite a few seasons near the Arctic Circle. Growing among the blueberries were crowberries (locally called blackberries) and low bush cranberries. Elsewhere in the far north, including in Europe, there are cloudberries, perhaps the most delicious berry on earth.

We walked along in the late summer sun, finding patches of berries here and there, crouching and kneeling to pick, and then moving on to find another patch of tell-tale red. Birds were out sharing the bounty – or maybe the insects associated wtih the fruit: lapland longspurs, white-crowned sparrows, savanah sparrows, and other small birds.

The pause that refreshes. A berry-picker gazes across the open tundra on Sarichef Island where Shishmaref is located, snacking on a bag of berries that probably aren’t going to make it all the way home. The red leaves near her feet? Yep. Blueberries!

The Birds are Back in Town!

Feathers puffed against the cold, a female McKay’s bunting warms herself in the radiant heat from a rock. Daily highs are reaching the teens and even the twenties now, and today’s sunshine stretched from sunrise at 7:00 AM to sunset at 11:13 PM. The midnight sun is back, and so are the birds! 
Gripped in the heart of winter, an Arctic landscape can be one of the quietest places on earth. Save for a few hardy ravens that manage to make a living off dumpsters and the local garbage facility, most birds head for warmer climes. There are no tree branches for the wind to whistle through, no dry grass to rustle, and on the coldest nights, even the village dogs huddle up and stay mum. Dark settles in, and the waiting begins.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve increasingly been hearing the welcome twitters and chirps of flocks of the snow birds of the north, snow buntings and McKay’s buntings. It’s been weeks since the last windstorm, and these days we can feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. It feels… wonderful.
I’ve always admired passerines – songbirds. These snow buntings have become some of my favorites.

Murder Weapons?

I think it was Agatha Christie who stumped me with a story of a body which had been found lying by a puddle of water with no murder weapon to be found. Though I puzzled over this, I couldn’t figure it out.

Today as we walked around our village, we heard a loud crash, almost like thick glass shattering. We turned to see fragments of a large icicle smashed on the ground next to the school.  Looking up, we saw clear, sharply pointed, pendant masses hanging menacingly. These icicles were substantial–their girth the size of pop cans. Hung next to each other, they resembled monstrous fangs ready to devastate.

Students and Life

(Ready for summer!)

As the end of the school year nears, I think about my first graders and what they have accomplished this year. When I first accepted the job in Shishmaref, I was told I would have a special group of first graders. That’s about the extent of what I was told. For a variety of reasons, my students had to master many kindergarten standards in addition to their scheduled first grade standards. It was a tall order for six-year-olds. I feel like a very proud mama. I’ve seen amazing growth in my ten young charges. They have blossomed into readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and artists. I can’t help but wonder about their futures. At the beginning of the year, they couldn’t contemplate their future (or articulate it). Now they talk about becoming teachers, pilots, operators of large machinery, hunters…

The end of a school year encourages me to wonder about former students as well. This year in particular. The very first class I bonded with was my first 6th grade class at Sutterville. They were a special class for a few reasons. One of the strongest reasons was that they were so tightly bonded. Did they stay in touch more than any other class? I wonder. They were already very level-headed young people. Many had a maturity about them that is unusual for that age. I’ve heard through the grapevine that a couple of them are going to UC schools next year. That makes me so proud. I’m sure that I represent a fleeting time in their young lives and have little importance any longer…which is healthy. But I wanted to send the message out to the world that I am thinking about all of them and hope that they all are on a path toward whatever they define as success. With much love…

Polar Bear!

With big bright eyes, one of my students announced that his dad had gotten a polar bear. He insisted that I call his dad so I could go see it. So, right after school, Jack and I headed out to talk to the hunter. The previous day he had been out seal hunting a few miles south of Shishmaref and had seen lots of polar bear tracks. He found one of the bears and proudly came home with the fourth polar bear in his lifetime. Telling the story, he concluded with a smile, “My daughters have already put in orders for ruffs!”

The skin was laid out, its mylar-like hair glistening in the sun by his home. It was easy to see why polar bear hair was once a highly valued material for fly-tying. But for how silky the fur looked, it felt surprisingly coarse to touch.  The paws, of course, were huge, and the foot pads were thick and tough and leathery. Stroking the fur and foot pads with our bare hands, we felt a connection to the vast miles of ice this bear had traveled, the arctic cold and wildness, the remoteness of this place.

To Anchorage, or Not To Anchorage

(Our Shishmaref kids)

That was the question.

Jack and I spent the weekend in Anchorage attending the Alaska Teacher Placement job fair. A fascinating experience better left to its own blog post…

Anyway…

We left Shishmaref Thursday morning and had a layover in Nome on the way to Anchorage. The weather was bright and sunny. It was around zero when we left Shish. We arrived in Nome and walked into town for lunch. It was chilly, but we were comfortable in our parkas. We spent the next few days in balmy 50 degree weather. It was amazingly warm.

So Anchorage is warmer than the Arctic Circle. Duh.

We started really selling ourselves…or trying to… on Anchorage. Its central location. Its activities.

After driving from the airport to the hotel, we were convinced that we are not ready to leave the bush. We love the friendly waves hello from everyone we pass in our village. We love the pace of village life. We love learning about the people we live amongst.

We really like experiencing a life that is extraordinary.

This summer, we will go hang out on the Kenai. There we can get our fill of roads, big crowds, and restaurants. Knowing us, I’m sure we’ll find many off the beaten track things to do, as well.

For now, the answer is Not To Anchorage.

We have just signed on with another bush school about 200 miles north of here (yes, you read correctly) in another Inupiat village. We are eager to get to know another community and their history and practices. We hope to put down roots for a little while and accomplish some personal and professional goals.

We are excited to start the next Alaska chapter in Point Hope.

To be continued…

News From the North

(Orange cookies with chocolate chips)

Time is flying by and the daylight is increasing at a phenomenal rate. After the dark lull around winter solstice, we picked up noticeable amounts of daylight every day. Now, the morning twilight is at about 8:15 a.m. and the evening twilight ends about 10:00 p.m. We’ve put foil up in our bedroom window so our cave is nice and dark and welcomes sleep.

Well, a big decision has been made. We will only stay one school year in Shishmaref and are now packing up. The best advice we read was as soon as you know you are going to move, start packing! It looks like we are heading to Anchorage. There are so many interesting places to live in Alaska. For our goals, Anchorage seems like the best fit for the next several years.

We’ve loved living in the village of Shishmaref. The natives are kind and friendly. The environment up here is amazing. I am glad that this experience has been part of my story.

Honestly, the school has been difficult to work in. The values of those who we work with and for don’t synch up with ours. There are so many things that could be easily done to improve the education of the children up here. Maybe someday I will be able to tackle that problem from the chair of the state’s education commissioner.

For now, it’s time to get ready to move from 22 miles from the Artic Circle to 350 miles from the Artic Circle.

Parking Lot

One of the big events out here is basketball. There are two outdoor basketball courts that are used in the summer. During the school year, the gym fills the need. Each school, no matter how small, has a basketball team. When the schools play, the community shows up to cheer them on. In what seems to be tradition out here, the natives cheer on the teams…our side or the other school’s. It’s a terrific social event. I like to visit with people I don’t normally get to talk to.

Today’s game is the first one of the season during the day. It was a great opportunity to photograph what the turnout looks like outside the school. Notice how the outside of the school is all parked up!