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

Friday, January 20, 2017

Christmas Break in Alaska

Cody and I spent our Christmas Break differently than most young bush teachers. At Christmastime, there is a mass exodus of teachers leaving (usually the same day that school gets out) and heading down south to spend three weeks with their families. While Cody and I debated this, we also were concerned about the expense. It's nearly $1,000/person just to get to Anchorage from our little village. It's another $500-$800/person to travel from Anchorage to Chicago. The district will happily reimburse my flight to Anchorage, but we still had to pay for Cody's flight to Anchorage, both of our flights to Chicago, and all of the dogs' travel. So, as much as we would have loved to see our families and to go home, continuing to be debt-free ended up winning out and we decided to stay in Pilot Point.


Staying in Pilot Point for Christmas ended up being a fantastic idea. We had a ridiculously relaxing break, and I feel like the community really reached out to us because they were excited to finally have teachers stay over the holiday season. In our first two weeks of break we were invited to holiday parties, game nights, fishing trips, and a local who was heading out of town even loaned us their four-wheeler. I feel like we really were able to cement our relationship with the community by planting ourselves here.



The final week of break we did head to Anchorage for a few days. Our grocery stash was dangerously low, Cody and I both needed to find a new doctor, and Specks (our older dog) had developed a small mass on his gums over the last few weeks and we needed to get him to a vet.


Our stay in Anchorage was...interesting. We store our car in a gated lot near the airport, but somehow we'd managed to have our car get robbed even in a secure lot. Someone had stolen ONE tire off of our car and left it up on a jack. The first two days of our trip revolved around hunting down a tire, filing police reports, and dealing with insurance. After the tire fiasco, we were feeling (understandably) a little burnt on Anchorage. We did manage to have some fun in the city though, and it was nice to take advantage of the amenities of civilization. We ate at a different restaurant every night (49th State Brewing was my favorite), we shopped for new clothes, purchased many fancy groceries, and all of us - dogs included- saw doctors and left feeling healthier.

At the end of the week we headed back to our little village. Our flights both ways were with Lake Clark Air and we flew direct from Pilot Point to Anchorage (and vice versa). This allowed us to fly through some of the most spectacular parts of the state, including Lake Clark National Park. The mountains were huge, the lakes were endless, and I couldn't believe that we are lucky enough to call this beautiful place our home.



Your turn...What did you do over the holiday season? 
Currently listening to... Darkness and the Light - Trampled by Turtles 

(Special shoutout to My Place Hotel for being the most pet-friendly hotel on planet earth, and for having the most helpful staff.  Check this place out if you're ever in Anchorage!)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Moving Your Dogs to Rural Alaska

Oftentimes people ask Cody and I about how our dogs have adjusted to the move. Anyone who knows us knows that we horribly baby our dogs, so, naturally, people wonder how they are holding up in the new environment.  I usually respond to people's questions with a simple, "they're good, it's different, but they're good."  I say this because - they are good! There are some interesting adjustments that we've all had to make though, and being a dog doesn't exempt them from the oddities of life in the bush.



If you're thinking of moving to rural Alaska with a dog, particularly as a teacher, or if you're just curious what they heck we do with ours up here, then this is a good post for you. Here are seven things I've learned about having dogs in bush Alaska, so far:

1.) Room to roam. There really isn't a limit set on where dogs can go here.  For a dog like Specks, who operates leash-free, it's wonderful.  He can roam around, smell all the smells, chase birds on the beach, and just basically live his life like a wild dog. There are no leash laws or rules about dogs being registered.  As long as a dog isn't a nuisance, it's pretty much good to go. Even for a leashed dog like Luna it's still amazing how much exploring she gets to do.

2.) Stray dogs. Stray dogs are EVERYWHERE. In our village, all of the dogs have owners, which is a rarity in bush villages. That doesn't mean that they aren't still much like stray dogs though.  They roam freely all day (and some of them all night too).  Many of them sleep outside and forage around the village for food. Again, we are lucky because our stray dogs are mostly nice, but we do have to be extra careful with our dogs because of this. There are always going to be dogs that yours don't "click" with and it has taken some trial and error to learn to deal with the village dogs.

3.) Wildlife is both good and bad. Our dogs love to chase wildlife.  A shrew, a rabbit, every single duck they see. Here though, we do have to be a bit more careful. We have frequent fox visitors and there are obviously big predators all over the place.  While it's fun for them, it's also quite dangerous. Wolves, bears, and lynx are pretty common in our village and the surrounding areas.  The threat of big predators makes me really nervous because if our dogs wandered off there's a good chance they'd run into one of these animals.

4.) Local attitudes. Alaskans in general look at dogs in a slightly different manner than people from the lower 48. Traditionally, Alaskans have used dogs as a means to get a job done and as a way to travel.  Dogs in our village tend to hunt and forage for a lot of their food (and some of them like to beg at my door too - they must sense that I'm a pushover). Many of them still get fed at home, but it's not always going to be the traditional diet of kibble and treats.  It's often table scraps or chum salmon. Many of the dogs here also sleep outside, warn their owners of bears, and live more like animals of the wild. I've had multiple locals give me a jokingly hard time about walking Luna on a leash or the fact that our dogs don't roam unsupervised. I brush it off and always tell them, "I just love to baby them!"

5.) Buy all doggy items in advance - way in advance. We're lucky because our store does occasionally sell bags dog food. However, this is not the norm, and it's definitely not the brand that our dogs are used to eating.  It takes weeks for our dog food to ship from PetCo, so we have to order 3-5 bags at a time. It's an expensive and necessary evil of having dogs in such a remote place. We also tried to stock up on basic doggy meds and anything they might need if they get ill.  The closest vet is in Anchorage.  Our vet will meet a dog on an airplane at the airport, which is amazing, but little things needed to come with us.

6.) Talk to your district/employer. I highly recommend discussing the pet-friendliness of your village/district with your interviewers before you accept any type of job here. I had one district offer me a job and then tell me they didn't allow pets in teacher housing and another district warned me about bringing dogs because any dogs that the village saw as "strays" would be shot one day per month. Our vet in Anchorage even warned us about animal abuse in certain villages. Obviously, none of those districts or villages would have been good fits for us.  Safety of our pets and the availability of housing that allowed more than one dog was important.

7.) Consider travel. What will you do with your dogs when you travel? As a bush teacher, we have to travel a handful of times per year for district events, inservice trainings, or coaching sports. For these events, it's likely that your pet won't be able to join you. Cody is an aide at the school and is therefore exempt for these events, but if you're alone or if your spouse teaches too you do need to take into consideration who will watch your dogs when you are gone. You also have to consider the cost of flying them to and from your village. Some airlines charge per pound (we paid $300 for ours on one airline) and other airlines may allow your dogs to count towards your free freight allowance.




If you are planning to come to the bush with dogs you should think about it seriously because it's much different than having dogs in the lower 48. We lucked out with being placed in a village that has a good view of pets and a district that is so pet-friendly, but we had to do the research to find them.  Aside from everything I listed above, we wouldn't have ever considered coming to Alaska without our dogs because they are our family.

Pilot Point seems to be a good place for them though, and I think they're really enjoying the wild rumpus that is their lives in the bush.

Your turn..Do you have any pets? 
Currently listening to... Dog Days Are Over - Florence and the Machine

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Goodbye, 2016

This year was a year of change and adventure in our household. We traveled all over the United States and Canada, we moved to a tiny bush village in Alaska, and we learned to live our lives intentionally as a married couple. Much like I did in 2015, I'd like to take this first post of the year to reflect on my favorite moments from the last twelve months.

January... The beginning of 2016 brought big snows to our little island in Lake Michigan. Cody and I enjoyed a couple of well deserved snow days, and we celebrated by getting some much needed r&r and fitting in a couple of hiking adventures. Beaver Island was picturesque in the snow and provided a peaceful retreat on those breaks from school.



February... The weather in February took a nasty turn and it seemed to be endless weeks of temperatures just above freezing. We tried our best to get out and enjoy ourselves as a way to fight off the winter blues that are so common in the north. Thankfully, the dogs kept us outside often and our awesome island friends kept us busy by going out on the town.



March... Unseasonably warm springtime weather crept into northern Michigan in early March and stuck around for awhile. The snow completely melted and it was warm enough that the dogs happily took a dip in Lake Michigan.  We also got to get out and hike Little Sand Bay Nature Preserve, which is one of our favorite short hikes on Beaver Island.



April... At the beginning of April, Cody and I officially made the announcement that we would be returning to Alaska. I had been feverishly interviewing with potential districts for two weeks leading up to our decision.  While we were sad to be leaving our island life, we were stoked for the adventure unfolding before us.



May... One of my favorite trips of the year occurred this month. My sister, after living the last three years in Hawaii, had moved to Virginia (just outside of DC) and I was able to travel to see her for spring break. I had an absolute blast spending quality time with my nieces, sightseeing in Washington DC, and exploring a new state.




June... Our last month on Beaver Island was fairly stressful as we wrapped-up housing, jobs, and said goodbye to friends that we'd grown to love and cherish over the last two years. We did our best to find some time to enjoy life though because the weather was stellar. My aunt and cousins came to visit two weeks before our move and we had a blast kayaking around the inland lakes, watching sunset on the beach, and just hanging around.



July... July was a complete whirlwind. We crammed in as much family time as we could before heading off on our Alaska-Canada Highway (ALCAN) adventure. We left Michigan in mid-July and spent weeks camping our way through some truly spectacular places.



August... As July turned into August we found ourselves still on the road. We traveled to Banff and Jasper National Parks for the first time and were in awe of the views. We also flew to our little village for the first time and I took off for the most incredible teacher inservice ever. Our inservice included flying to a remote wilderness lodge, learning to fly fish, and collaborating with some truly awesome educators.




September... In September we started really settling into life in our village. We began learning to subsistence fish and we frequently went berry picking on the tundra. By the end of the month, our freezer was stocked with 50+ fillets of wild caught salmon and bags and bags of frozen blackberries, blueberries, and cranberries.



October... We started feeling very "home" in the village this month. We hosted two potlucks in October at the school and learned to make aqutak (eskimo ice cream). I also traveled to King Salmon for another teacher inservice late in the month.  While at inservice, I was able to take a class on skin sewing and learned to make fur mittens.



November... Even though our first snowfall was a month earlier, November was truly a month of beautiful fall weather and colors. This was my first experience with the tundra changing colors, and it was absolutely stunning to watch. I also tried to spend more time doing photography with my nice camera, which helped me capture some cool shots.



December... As we wrapped up the year, we began enjoying true Alaskan winter weather. We saw temperatures in the -20's and snow fell more often than not. The students put on a cute holiday performance and then we released them for three weeks. Cody and I decided to stay in Alaska for the holidays, only traveling to Anchorage for a few days near New Years. It was the perfect ending to a busy year.



With all of that said, I am more than ready to start another year of adventures. 2017 is already proving to be a big year for The Middle(tons) of Nowhere. Stay tuned for new adventures and changes as the year begins! 

Your turn...What were some of the highlights of your year? 
Currently listening to... Shenandoah - Trampled by Turtles 


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Happy Holidays

Wishing you all a wonderful winter season and upcoming year. Thank you for following along on our journey and for continuing to read my blog throughout the years. We can't wait to see what adventures 2017 holds.


Happy Holidays!

Love,
The Middleton Family (Cody, Hannah, Specks, & Luna)

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Holiday Potluck & Performance

Holiday performances are a staple of public schools everywhere.  Poems, skits, songs, and dance are all part of the normal routine. Here in Pilot Point, things are no different. The students practiced endlessly for the two weeks leading up to Christmas Break.  They prepared three songs, two poems, and we even invited the crowd to join us for a quick verse of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." The students looked adorable, and helped design their own cute costumes. Their performance was a hit!




Following the performance, we invited everyone to join us for a potluck, which is a very traditional part of life in the bush. Members of our community brought spaghetti, casserole, dinner rolls, veggies, fruit punch, cupcakes, rhubarb pie, and so much more.  The families really turned out and provided some great dishes to help us celebrate.


As a part of our performance we also ran a food drive. We collected food for the two weeks leading up the the event, and then families could sign-up to receive it at the potluck. Enough food was collected that we ended up passing out food to many families.  It felt so good to give back to the community for the holiday season!


After the performance, it was time for the adults to celebrate. A couple of our local friends threw a Christmas party and we headed over to their house following the potluck. It was so fun to get out and socialize with some of the adults in the community.  We tend get stuck in a routine of going to school and then heading home, but being able to get out and enjoy drinks, laughs, and good food with other adults from the community was a perfect way to wrap-up the school semester. 

Your turn...Are you participating in any holiday events this year? 
Currently listening to...Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Judy Garland 




Sunday, December 4, 2016

Winter is Here

Winter has officially arrived on the Alaska Peninsula. The snow arrived about two weeks ago, and it seems set on sticking around for awhile. With the snow, comes the cold - and temperatures in the -20's have been making regular appearances. Despite the cold, winter has always been one of my favorite seasons. I love celebrating the holidays with my family, watching fresh snow quietly settle over the landscape, spending the afternoons ice skating on frozen lakes, and snowshoeing through the hills.


With winter in Alaska also comes the darkness. Sunrise is now at nearly 10am and sunset is at 4:45pm.  The shortened days make me feel like a hibernating bear, sleepy and ready for a long rest. I'll admit that winter always makes me sleep more, which I don't mind at all.  I also spend a lot more time indoors doing little projects, watching movies, cooking, and reading.


When the sun does show its face, I try my best to find my way out into it for awhile.  After school, I rush out the door to make some time for dog walks out on the frozen tundra.  The weekends are no different, except for the fact that we load the car and drive the dogs to different, farther locations to add some variety to our explorations.



While winter is beautiful and relaxing, it can also be a season for cabin fever and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  It's really important, especially in such isolated places, to find ways to keep yourself entertained.  SAD is an especially big issue in Alaska's far northern climates.


Last weekend, Cody and I were feeling particularly cabin-fever-y and just couldn't stay inside and watch one more movie.  The temperatures were in the single digits and the sun had been set for hours, but we didn't care.  We called our neighbors (the other teacher and her husband) and asked if they'd like to go explore the frozen lake. They agreed, so we all bundled up and walked the short distance to Loon Lake. The next hour was spent with all of us laughing, slipping, and sliding our way across the extremely frozen surface.  Within ten minutes of being out there, a Honda (4-wheeler) burst to life and a posse of our students showed up.  They'd apparently seen our headlamps and wanted to come out to play too.


Winter is a beautiful time in Alaska, but it's a harsh time too.  Finding hobbies, staying busy, and maintaining relationships with those around you are all important aspects to staying happy in the bush, especially this time of the year. As winter continues to settle itself fully in the area, and we spend our days locked in hours of shrinking sunlight, life continues to be an unforgettable adventure.

Your turn...Has winter begun yet where you live? 
Currently listening to...Paint the Silence - South