Sunday, February 26, 2017


Basketball is life for students in rural Alaska. Our village is no different in this respect. Basketball is one of the few sports that our students can play year round because all it requires is access to an indoor court (and conveniently all of our schools have one of those). Our village does have an outdoor court - one with wooden planking for a court floor, a fishing net in place of a standard hoop net, and endless ocean views - but it is really only in use during the summer months. The rest of the year, the school basketball court is king.

In our district, there are only two schools that are big enough to compete in regular 5-on-5 basketball tournaments. The rest of our small schools, including Pilot Point, compete in 3-on-3 tournaments instead. This year, I volunteered to be our schools basketball coach. Our team was tiny, with only one student allowed to travel, but we still practiced hard and flew to two separate tournaments this season. We were paired up with Port Heiden, a neighboring tiny school, in order to have enough players to compete. Our schools played together for over ten games this season (all packed into two short tournaments trips).

Our first tournament was in January and took us to Nondalton, one of the far northern schools in our district. Nondalton was large compared to Pilot Point and it felt a bit like stepping into a completely different district. There were many teachers at their school, a huge student store stocked with goodies (pizza, big pretzels, soda, etc). It was also a huge change in scenery. Nondalton was full of trees, big lakes, and huge mountains. We stayed there and played basketball games for three days. The student that I took with me had a blast, but I could also tell he was a bit overwhelmed. At our school all of the students are related in some way. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by other boys and girls his own age who weren't related to him. It was fun to see him come out of his shell and make so many friends.

Our second tournament was in Chignik Lake, which is even farther south on the peninsula than Pilot Point. By this time, we (my student and I) were much more comfortable with traveling for a tournament. We both knew exactly what to expect, which was good because this tournament was longer. Flying into Chignik Lake was spectacular, the views were unlike anything else I've experienced. The southern part of the Alaska Peninsula has to be some of the most spectacularly untouched wilderness in the world.

The tournament itself went smoothly. We played four games, but were unfortunately eliminated after that. Our elimination wasn't too surprising though, as our oldest student was only in 9th grade and our players were pretty small compared to the crews that some of the other schools had assembled. Regardless of the outcome, they played their hearts out and had a blast. I was also incredibly proud of my one player because he took home the Citizenship Award for good behavior!

I had a lot of fun at this tournament. The scenery itself was a selling point, but the people of this community were wonderful too. They really turned out to fill the stands for the evening games and it was fun to interact with them. We did have one slightly unnerving experience while traveling to the Lake though. By the second day, I was getting antsy for some fresh air and some of the teachers were eager to get out for a hike. Unfortunately, the locals there were uncomfortable with teachers exploring the area because of a tragedy that happened in our district a few years ago. It was requested of us that we only walk in close proximity to the school, so we didn't get to explore much, but I totally understood their reasoning. With their request in mind, we stayed close to the school, just exploring the beach that was nearby, and still got to enjoy the beauty of the area.

The weeks that we spent traveling for basketball will be weeks that I will never forget. I learned so much about the intense love of basketball that our students have, as well as so much about their individual cultures and homes. I'm so happy that I got the opportunity to coach this year and I hope that I get to continue to do it in the future.

Your turn...Have you ever coached a sport?
Currently listening to...Oceans & Streams - The Black Keys

**Some of the tournament/game photos were taken from the LPSD Facebook and Cutterlight Photography pages. Thank you to everyone who shared photos from the tournament!!** 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Adventures in Smelting

Consistently cold temperatures, sometimes down in the -20's, have been a regular part of our winter here on the Alaska Peninsula. While we do often get some reprieve, with temperatures jumping all the way up into the 30's occasionally, the cold has been regular enough to cause a deep freeze to occur on our lakes and rivers in the area. This has been VERY exciting to everyone in our village because smelting (going out and ice fishing for tiny smelt fish) is a hugely popular activity. The last few years have been poor for smelting, so the successes of this year have been much to celebrate in our tiny corner of the state. 

We have been invited out to join local families for smelting a few times, but I had been nervous about the thickness of the ice. However, last week, we were informed that the ice was 4+ feet thick on the entire road out to the smelting grounds. I figured that 4+ feet of ice was more than enough to support us out into the wilderness. 

On Friday, Melissa (the other teacher) and I decided that smelting seemed like the perfect "girls night out" activity. We dumped the husbands at home and took off on the ice road, traversing frozen lakes and tundra, to the area where other locals would be fishing. The lake where the actual smelting takes place is a little over halfway to Ugashik, which is a neighboring village that boasts only about 5 regular residents. Although you can glimpse a bit of the village from the smelting spot, it still feels very remote. 

The actual act of catching the fish was a new experience for me. Holes were put into the ice using an auger, which is typical of all ice fishing, but the poles/catching the fish seemed a bit foreign to me. For starters, you use the tine of a fork and attach it to a string. This string is then tied to a piece of wood. There is no bait involved in catching smelt, instead you just lower your fork into the water and the smelt will try to bite it. As soon as you feel a bite, you drag the line up quickly and the fish comes with it. This whole process tends to be pretty quick. Many people in our community have been catching 80-100 fish in the span of only a couple of hours. It seems that you're barely dipping your line in the water before you are having to quickly drag it back out. 

Melissa and I's success the first day led us to drag the husbands out with us the following day. The four of us drove back out and were pleasantly surprised to find no less than fifteen others from our village and Ugashik out there fishing already. Our village tends to be fairly insular, so getting the opportunity to get out and do something with such a large group was a huge deal. I was also excited to meet some of the residents of Ugashik because the tiny, nearly abandoned village is pretty fascinating to me. One of the residents even had a mammoth ivory carving that he brought out to show us. It was pretty incredible! 

We caught quite a few fish over the course of the weekend, and the four (Melissa, Ben, Cody, and I) of us had a fish fry with our daily catch on Saturday night. There is no doubt in my mind that we will go back out, if given another chance. Smelting was just another fun, new experience to add to our list of adventures out here in the bush. 

Your turn...Have you ever gone smelting or ice fishing? 
Currently listening to...Blue Ridge Mountain - Fleet Foxes