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!

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

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Finding Balance in Alaska's Changing Seasons

Alaska is a place of extremes. The never-ending sunlight in the warmth of summer. The all-encompassing darkness as winter settles around you. The larger than life mountains with their snow-capped peaks. The huge predators that leave you speechless when you come up on one accidentally. It is a place that makes you thankful for a warm house, or blackout curtains, or the ability to carry a firearm as you hike through the tundra.

The changing of seasons is strongly evident here, especially as we've transitioned into November. Snow fell in mid-October, ushering in the end of autumn. While the snow didn't stick around for long, it was obvious that winter had settled on the Alaska Peninsula. Thick frost greets us each morning.  Layers of the frost cover everything, and the sun no longer rises high enough in the sky to clear the ice from our porch.

As we make the inevitable transition into winter, which happens to be one of my favorite seasons, I'm finding myself doing more and more nesting because our lives are becoming more tied to the house. Bread is constantly baking in our oven and hot tea is always on reserve in the evenings. Cody and I are both devouring more books and movies than ever. He's playing his drum kit and renewing his love of art, while I bake and teach myself to knit.

That is not to say that we are staying inside the house constantly.  In fact, quite the contrary. I find myself racing out of school at the end of the day and heading out with a renewed vigor. I think knowing that after 5pm it's simply too dark to walk alone creates an invisible stopwatch over my head, forcing me out into the quickly fading afternoon sunlight.

It's actually been quite a wonderful routine that we've settled into. In the darkness, we are cuddled up inside the house with a good book. In the light we are outside enjoying ourselves as much as possible. We've found ourselves taking the guns out for target practice, stalking around the tundra in search of geese, and breaking new trails around our house that lead down to Loon Lake.

It's all about maintaining that balance out here in the bush, and self-care is incredibly important in Alaska's extreme climate. For me, the fine balance between exploration and relaxation is the key to my happiness, especially as we transition into the darkest and coldest part of our year.

Your turn...What activities have you been doing to prepare for winter? 
Currently listening to...Everlasting Light - The Black Keys

Sunday, October 30, 2016

October Inservice

The third week of October was a short week of school throughout our district. Students and teachers attended on Monday, with a half-day on Tuesday.  Tuesday afternoon, all of the teachers were scheduled to fly out of their villages and to our district's "hub" in King Salmon. Mellisa and I were all set to fly out of the village on Tuesday, but, as with everything in the bush, the weather had other plans.  By lunchtime the winds were howling and our first mini-snowstorm of the season was happening.  I felt certain that we'd be stuck in the village overnight.  Imagine my surprise when I got a call from Lake Clark Air to tell me their pilot was only ten minutes away, which meant we had five to grab our bags and go.

The pilot picked us up and shuttled us to Port Heiden, another village about 70 miles away.  Our landing in Port Heiden was the roughest part of the trip - by far. We dipped sharply as we approached the runway, rocked by a strong wind, and then proceeded to fishtail our way down the runway, finally skidding to a halt not far from where the Port Heiden teachers were sitting and waiting.  Thankfully, the 45 minute flight to King Salmon was uneventful.

Once in King Salmon we headed to the Bristol Bay Borough School, which serves students in King Salmon and Naknek.  They are something of a sister-school district to us, so our inservice trainings were done together. Much unlike our last training, this one was held entirely at the school, which meant we were all sleeping on air mattresses in classrooms, eating in the cafeteria, and showering in the locker rooms.

During the day, our trainings focused on teaching multi-age classrooms, writer's workshops, peeks into successful classrooms throughout our district, and teaching self regulation techniques in schools. We also had sessions that were specifically for us to focus on updating our grading and intervention records.  At night, we could choose to just hang out and relax, or take advantage of one of the offerings the district had set up.  There were two college courses offered (mitten sewing and net hanging), a sip and paint session at the local pizza joint, and a 5k run.

I ended up taking the mitten sewing class because it was an opportunity to learn a unique cultural skill, while gaining a college credit through University of Alaska Fairbanks. The mitten sewing class took place from 5:30pm-9:30pm three days in a row.  My days were long and I was exhausted, but it was worth it to learn such a useful skill.

The other nights of inservice I tried to take advantage of socializing as much as possible because it is one aspect of life that is extremely limited out in Pilot Point. One night we stayed in and had a girls night, complete with face masks.  The other free night I went grocery shopping (King Salmon had VEGETABLES!) and then out to one of the local haunts with a group of the other teachers.

The week was long, but filled with useful information and the wonderful opportunity to create new friendships and socialize outside the bubble of Pilot Point. At then end of the week, I was more than ready to head home and sleep in a real bed, snuggled up with my husband and out dogs. It's funny how quickly we settle into new places. By Friday, I found myself thinking that I couldn't wait to be home - and home meant heading back to my little village.

Your turn...What do you miss about home when you're away?
Currently listening to...Wild Child - Brett Dennen