A Glacier in Our Backyard
TWO years ago my husband and I made the decision: We would give up our Wyoming home for a move to Alaska. It was not an easy decision; giving up the known for the unknown never is. And for us in this instance, the known was so comfortable: the unknown filled with so many uncertainties. ``Security: freedom from risk; safe,'' (definition provided by Webster). Secure is what we felt in the town of Ten Sleep nestled in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, the place we had called home for 15 years.
Fresh out of college when we had first accepted teaching positions there, we saw the little ranching community as a place to begin our professional careers, a place to gain a couple of valuable years' experience before moving on to something bigger. Those ``couple'' of years stretched into more than a decade.
During that time we built a log home on three acres of land; made some dear friends; gained the respect of the community as educators; raised two sons.
Upon finally making the decision to move on, letting go was difficult. There seemed to be so much to let go: friends, family (our older son had just graduated from high school and was remaining in Wyoming to go on to college), our house, good-paying tenured teaching positions, the beautiful canyons, mountains, and streams. And for what? A dot on the Alaska map called Perryville.
``Security: freedom from doubt, anxiety, or fear; confidence'' - a state of mind I wish I could state I had claimed for myself as we officially turned in our resignations to the Ten Sleep School Board. In actuality, I felt quite the opposite. Instead of confidence there was apprehension. During the next few weeks the only times I felt free of the other three aforementioned emotions were on the few occasions when they would give way to a cold-sweat panic. So many uncertainties seemed to loom ahead of us in this change we were about to make.
IT was at the Missoula Job Fair in Montana that we had interviewed and signed contracts with the Lake and Peninsula School District of Alaska. (Stretching over 25,000 square miles of area, this district includes 14 village schools, ranging in size from one to 10 teachers.) On the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula, down toward the Aleutian Chain, it would cost just one of us over $1,000 to fly to Perryville. We had to make our decision with our prospective destination unseen.
One thing we did know: The move for us would not be on to something bigger as we so many years ago had imagined. Now, Ten Sleep is small. It is said that if you travel on Wyoming Highway 16 from Buffalo to Worland, you can miss Ten Sleep completely if you blink at the inappropriate moment. (For a short three blocks, this highway serves as the town's Main Street.)
Home for approximately 400 people, the town includes the school, a library, a grocery store, a hardware store, three motels, two gas stations, two bars, four churches, a senior citizens' center, two restaurants and Dirty Sally's - the local gathering place to catch up on the latest town gossip while enjoying a cup of coffee.
But compared to the tiny Aleut fishing village of Perryville (population under 100), Ten Sleep would seem like a metropolis. Our first clue to the remoteness of the area came when I called about the best way to get our small freezer into the village. Impossible - the annual barge into Perryville was already en route. Anything we wanted moved had to go through the United States Postal Service to be flown in. (We reevaluated and condensed our list of necessities.) Perryville is a fly-in ``bush'' community, meaning there are no roads leading in or out of the village. I had a hard time imagining myself being confined to one spot for months at a time.
Feeling so content in our Wyoming home and with our lives there, why did we feel impelled to make this move? That is something I wrestled with for weeks prior to making our final decision. Letting go of the known for the unknown certainly required some risk-taking. But with risks come challenges. And with challenges come opportunities for growth.
Growth - both professional and personal - is a part of what I was seeking with this move. ``Letting go'' implies a sense of ``opening up.'' In order to let go of something in a clenched fist, the hand must open up. By relinquishing the security I felt we had in the familiar surroundings of Wyoming, I was making openings for new experiences in my life. Change, different experiences, a broadening perspective were other aspects of what I was pursuing with this move.
HAVING lived and taught in Perryville for 14 months now, I am still awed by the rugged beauty surrounding us. The village sits at the base of glacier and snow covered Mt. Viniaminov, a volcano that last spewed in the late '60s and has steamed as recently as 1984.
The rolling ocean and sprawling black beaches make up the village front yard. The even line of horizon where gray ocean meets gray sky (or on those rarer sunny days, where hues of blue come together) is interrupted by protruding jagged cliff islands.
A subsistence village, the rich area provides its people their staples, their livelihood, their leisure. The ocean offers clams, sea urchins, octopus, crab, halibut, and seals. The nearby river, Kometoluk, provides an abundance of salmon in the fall and candlefish in the spring.
The surrounding hills, called berry flats, are loaded with another staple for the villagers - berries: salmon, cran, black, and blue. The abundance of fish and berries makes the area a great habitat for brown bear. Staying virtually unseen, their presence is made known by unmistakable tracks left imprinted on sandy paths or by a villager's smokehouse robbed of its drying salmon.
``Up-country'' (the villagers' term for the vast valley of tundra and braiding rivers lying beyond the village) white ptarmigan flock. With no migration trails nearby, only an occasional wandering moose or caribou is spotted.
Day by day, week by week, month by month we have slowly settled into the village and become a part of it. Living as a minority (the only non-natives here are the five of us teachers and our son) and learning a different way of life has expanded my thought as well as my experiences.
The generous and accepting people have been a great help to us in our transition. They are our guides on Honda trips up-country in attempts to ``catch'' a moose or caribou; teach us how to use their gill nets for catching salmon. They show me how to fix their staples of aguduk (berries mixed with shortening and sugar), alogiks (their version of fry bread), and fish pie. They help me knit ``Arctic socks'' to warm our feet, include us in their name day and birthday ``teas'' (would be better termed ``feasts'').
We've been invited to attend special Christmas and Easter services held in the quaint, humble structure which serves as their Russian Orthodox Church. Returning a second year, a few of last year's acquaintances have become close friends.
Being confined within a 10-mile radius certainly has its drawbacks. (Sometimes I feel like we're on an extended camping trip.) Since here we must do without, I have gained a greater appreciation for such things as ice cream, real milk, tossed green salads, sandwiches made with store-bought bread, current daily newspapers, a choice of TV channels, church, shopping, movies, cars, and roads that lead to somewhere.
When a child is injured and is unable to be flown out of the village for several days due to inclement weather, the realization hits that the isolation can be more than an inconvenience.
Within the village are simple pleasures to enjoy: once-a-week mail planes with supplies, letters, and catalogs (it is amazing how quickly mail order companies discover the names of us living in the bush!); a relaxing steam in a villager's banyu (their washhouse); walks with our dogs across the spongy carpet of tundra; outdoor salmon bakes; watching gray whales migrate past the village; winter midmorning sunrises and late spring midnight suns.
ONE June too soon it will be time for us to move on from here, also; we will slip out of the village and people's lives as quickly as we slipped into them. I want to relish and make the most of my days here.
Living without some daily conveniences and outside sources of entertainment has forced me to become more resourceful. Instead of giving up security with this move, through this move I have gained a higher sense of the word.
For me, it has been a freeing feeling to discover that a sense of security can be attained without material assets. Here we do not have the tangibles which I had mistakenly considered as prerequisites to security: familiar surroundings, tenured positions, a home of our own, extended family close by.
Yet do I feel free of fear, doubt, and anxiety? Do I feel confident? For the majority of my moments - yes, I do.