Springtime in Atmau

The river thaws.  Boats and boardwalks reappear from under the ice.  Tundra becomes saturated in The Floating Village once more.  Sunset comes at 10:30 pm.

 

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“Breakup” begins.

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Ice fishing is over.  Nets will soon be cast.

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New Arctic Pipe construction.

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Pleasant days for a walk around the island loop.

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Melt-water ponds over the boardwalk.

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Frozen tundra becomes impassable muck.

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Late sunsets low on the horizon.

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Dawn’s Early Light

February 16th, 2018 —

Just a quick set of pictures to show off Atmau’s mid-winter beauty.  Dawn comes at 9am; dusk at 6:30.  It’s a 9 1/2 hour day with the long side in the afternoon and early evening.  Civil Twilight adds another half our or so.  Pre-dawn begins at 8:41 and dusk ends at 7:25.   So we’re basically almost at an 11 hour day.

Compared to Northfield and other towns tucked in among hills and mountains, I’d say we’ve got a longer day despite the difference in latitude.

How about a comment to let me know when light hits your eyes and disappears over the hills back in the greater Northfield area?  I’m curious how much light I’m missing or gaining between Vermont and Alaska.

Sunrise Sunset Feb 15 2018 day is done

Fly Day!

I’ve logged 16 fly days between Atmau and Bethel since my arrival in August.  It’s only a 10 minute flight.  But this time of year, a scheduled flight could be delayed for minutes, hours, or days. 

The best way to describe travel in the Delta during the change of seasons is with the old saw,  “You can’t get there from here.”  A layer of ice covers the river, so you can’t travel by boat.  The ice is thin, so the river hasn’t yet become an ice highway.  There’s no snow, ruling out a 30-minute snowmobile ride.

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Air travel is the only option this time of year — and fly days are subject to changing weather.  On any given day, or hour, the delta can be covered with fog or buffeted by howling high winds. There’s also mixed precipitation and freezing rain, the kind that would put any airport on weather hold.  

Another useful turn of phrase to describe travel this time of year is, “Hurry up and wait.”  You need to be ready to jump at a moment’s notice, waiting for a lucky break in the weather.  You call the air carrier every half-hour or so to check the status of the flight.  You’re kind of in limbo, not sure whether you’re going to depart at 9:30 am, 4:30 pm, or perhaps try again the next day.  All you can do is keep your luggage and snow gear on hand — and try to relax like everyone else who’s lived here long enough to know you can’t rush a windstorm.  

When the plane is said to be on its way, the next step is to climb into the John Deere Gator for a bumpy half-mile ride to the airstrip.  Then — wait.  Sometimes the flight is further delayed, which means getting a ride back and forth between the village and airstrip multiple times before the plan actually arrives.

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Most flyers know what it’s like to be stuck in an airport.  It’s boring and uncomfortable.  But that’s life.  Now imagine, instead of jockeying for the nearest phone-charger outlet in Gate 18, you’re standing on a gravel airstrip in a 20 mph westerly wind.  Another useful cliche comes to mind:  Dress in layers.    

But for all this, fly day is as exciting as it gets.  Traveling in a single prop airplane is like riding a motorcycle — you can see the world all around you and feel the power of the wind.  A small plane has bigger windows and cruises at lower altitudes.  You can discover the world below as if an explorer, flying only a few hundred feet above the ground.

I’ve always appreciated pilots.  Their job might seem glorious, but it’s often tedious and stressful.  This is equally true in the delta, but taken up a notch or two.

The airport in Bethel (BET) is the busiest in the state.  It serves a large, low-population region with high transportation needs.  Pilots fill in for the lack taxi drivers, UPS trucks, and postal delivery carriers.  They carry villagers to doctor’s appointments and the AC grocery store.   They deliver Amazon packages and the daily mail.  And they do it in all kinds of weather.

If you talk to anyone in the airport business they’ll assure you, “If you can fly Bethel, you can fly anywhere.”  I’ve been told that BET pilots are in high demand from carriers all over the world.  

I don’t doubt this, having flown in the co-pilot seat from time to time.  These people know how to fly with the wind blowing in all directions.  It’s a little scary the first time the plane lands almost sideways to the runway as the pilot crab-walks a landing.  See for yourself.  Here’s a 38 second video I took last Thursday morning.  

But you get used to it.  When you see the pilot jiggling an instrument or reflexively jerking the stick, you know he’s not any more interested in crashing than you are.  He’s feeling out the wind, rapidly adjusting the speed of the prop and the angles of the flaps and rudder.  He’s in the groove, like a skier dancing through moguls, or a pitcher eyeing first base.  You’re in the hands of a pro, unlike any you’ve ever relied on before.

Today I’m returning to Atmau, two days weathered in.  Fortunately, I’ve been housed at the Old Mission House B&B.  I’ve had the whole place to myself for three nights — enough time to write a glowing Yelp review.

It’s 9:45am, a beautiful morning with the orange twilight of dawn resting on the horizon.  My carrier is Renfro aka Yute Airlines.  The picture at the top of this post is from Thursday, November 16th.  This next one is only four days later.  The weather, as you can see, changes quickly.IMG_20171120_095128487.jpg

I’ve heard the road paving jobs are finishing up back home in Northfield.  Carrier Roasting is opening on East Street next to Good Measure.  A general sense of momentum is growing in Northfield, with reasonable progress and dissent along the way.  One of the most positive turnarounds I’ve observed over the last few years is the number of young families becoming engaged in local affairs.  The NCDN and Promise Community teams; the people showing up, rolling up their sleeves, experiencing trials and triumphs as they strive to improve Northfield.  We have a legacy of young families who’ve done this type of work for generations.  It’s good to see a new generation stepping up to the plate.  : ) 

 

The Lop-Sided Day

I have to plan phone calls home to the East Coast carefully, separated by 4 time zones.  7am seems to be the best time to reach someone during business hours — corresponding to 11am Eastern.  Time is an an interesting concept in Alaska because, if all time zones were equal, it would span 3 hours difference from Juneau to the Atmautluak.  This was the way time was divided in Alaska in 1966, according to the Alaska Historical Society.

Southeast [Alaska] would have Pacific Time; Yakutat would observe Yukon Time; most of Alaska west of the border with the Yukon Territory would fall in Alaska-Hawaii Time; and the Aleutians and western Alaska would be in Bering Time, three hours behind the Southeast.

In 1983, four time zones were shrunk to two, and later, to a single time zone.  At noon, the sun is almost directly over Juneau.  But solar noon doesn’t arrive in Atmautluak for another few hours.  As a result, we have a lop-sided day.

Sunrise Sunset

 

Tomorrow we have only 2 hours of daylight before noon, and five for the rest of the day.  The photo at the top of the page was taken about 10 minutes before 5pm, roughly 20 minutes before darkness fell across the horizon.

If there’s a preference between light on one side of the day vs. the other, I prefer it to be in the afternoon.  In Vermont we’re used to going to work in the dark, and so there’s really no difference here.  It’s the going home in the dark that’s a bummer on the shortest days of the year — and luckily, our afternoons are long enough to at least get a peek of the sunset when the work day is done.

Daylight on the shortest day, winter solstice, will begin at 11am and end just after 4:30pm.  I can live with that.  My lunch break is at 12:10, so I will be able to go for a walk in the morning sun.  At 4pm, I’ll walk home with time to spare before the sun sets.

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9:23 am.  November 14, 2017

I’m told winter is coming a little late this year.  Some of the locals can’t wait for the river and tundra to freeze.  Transportation is a lot easier as the land becomes navigable by snowmobile and the river’s ice-highway by truck.  I was taken by surprise when someone said, “I can’t wait for winter — I’ll be able to ride in a warm truck!”  Prior to winter, travel is by boat, or by waiting on the air-strip for a plane to pick you up.

The river froze over a couple of weeks ago, then thawed completely.  Ice floes are gathering today — and it’s not likely we’ll have an open river much longer.

Once again, it sounds like things are going well in Northfield.  I couldn’t help but notice Saturday it was warmer here in the Y-K Delta than in Northfield, Vermont.  We were at a balmy 36 degrees while folks back home were at a windy 27.  Seems a little upside down.  : )

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First Freeze

A little before 10am the sun rose behind clouds as if through sheer fabric curtains.  A glaze of ice spread over the river in the night, and this morning the gray light of a northern dawn reflects onto boats along the shore.  Yesterday’s wet tundra has become a hardened, walkable surface.  But it doesn’t feel cold.  The air is still, and I’m warm beneath the same ski jacket I wear on the slopes of Vermont.  My rubber, felt-lined Kamik boots arrived in the mail yesterday, as did Amara’s winter gear.  I scan the cold scene while feeling toasty warm.

Atmau isn’t desolate in winter.  It’s actually more accessible as the river becomes an ice highway and the snow-covered delta becomes a snow-machine playground.  School travel costs for sporting events drops.  Transportation by plane is no longer required.  Coaches drive athletes from village to village, using the fleet of district-owned Suburbans.  One of the teachers says happily, “I can’t wait for winter.  We’ll be able to ride in a warm truck!”

No one in the school is allowed to travel without winter clothing after October 1st.  I’ve heard one person complain about the policy, having traveled when the temperatures were too warm for heavy parkas.  But you never know if the weather will change, so the policy seems like a good idea.  For example, our volleyball team left for a meet by boat Friday afternoon.  Today being Sunday with the school closed, I haven’t heard if they’ve already returned.  If not, they’ll probably have to come back by plane.  [Update:  Good news — the team got back home yesterday.]

Boat owners were caught off guard from the First Freeze.  Temperatures are set to rise into the 40’s this week, long enough for them to get their boats out of the water.  See pics below.

That’s the latest news from Atmau.  : )

 

The Floating Village

As you may recall, I’ve taken a teaching position in a small village of Southwestern Alaska.  I’ve been incredibly busy since my first day of arrival on August 2nd, almost every weekend occupied with professional training or cross country meets.  One of my athletes made it to the state finals in Anchorage, but we’ll save that story for another day.

I’ve kind of fallen in love with Atmautluak, aka, Atmau.  It’s beautiful and peaceful.  There are plenty of challenges for me to dive into.  My mind is occupied with all of the things a first-year teacher juggles.  But when I look out my very large window, I see a place of wonder and contrast.

Atmau is a Delacroix Island of the North.  It’s a fishing village lying in one of the largest river deltas in the world — larger than the Mississippi Delta itself.  Two of Alaska’s largest rivers — the Yukon and Kuskokwim — form the Y-K Delta with endless swirls and pockets of fresh, muddy water.  Part of the region is protected as the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.  The Refuge alone covers an area three times the State of Vermont.  The total area of the Y-K Delta is roughly the size of Louisiana.  Atmau, like Delacroix Island, lies just above sea level.  Unlike Delacroix, it’s 80 miles from the ocean by navigable water.  Still, Atmau is a buoy in the tidal plain, even this far away from Kuskokwim Bay.  The river flows in both directions, following the ebb and flood of the Bering Sea.  IMG_0624.JPG

The back and forth of the slow, flat river is a metaphor of a village that seems, for outsiders, a place of contrasts.  The landscape is beautiful, but trash litters the boardwalks.  There’s open water everywhere, although municipal water must be filtered and allocated on a daily basis.

Water, mud, and permafrost dictate the layout of infrastructure and day-to-day living.  Homes and buildings are raised on piling foundations hammered down to the permafrost.  Atmau is a floating village.   There are more boats than four-wheelers, and there are no cars.  (Well, there’s this one sinking into the muck.)

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Boardwalks make up the island’s primary road system.  Wide enough for a person to stand aside as a four-wheeler passes, the walks may be flat, wavy, or partially underwater.  One step off the boardwalk and you may be up to your knees in mud.  At best, you’ll be standing on a spongy surface of tundra marsh.

And then there’s the outdoor basketball court.  Basketball is pretty huge in the Lower Kuskokwim School District.  In the summertime, when the school gym is unavailable, this is where kids shoot hoops:

IMG_0248.JPGPretty cool, eh?

That’s all for now.  I’ve heard good things are happening in Northfield.  A good night was had by all at the second annual Night on the Common.  Northfield Falls is now a Designated Village Center, which puts it in the same position as the Common area for development and grant opportunities.  The Promise Community playground concept is evolving.  Keep up the good work, Northfield!

When the plane doesn’t come, take the boat!

I had to travel to Bethel this week for training. The plane never came, so Larry and I traveled by boat. As the plane flies, Atmautluak is only 18 miles from Bethel. But by boat, it’s 48 miles including 32 wandering bends. The weather was fantastic and I manned the helm, a huge smile on my face the whole way.

Here’s a video from my first ride with Larry, (Principal of Atmautluak school).