A day in a village

Feb 23, 2013 | 0 comments

The sky is just beginning to get light as I walk into the terminal for Bering Air to check in for my morning flight to the village of Deering. I’m only going for the day, to help out a park ranger from the region and speak to the high school class, but as always, I’m prepared as best I can for the unexpected. My pack is stuffed with classroom materials, extra warm clothes, my camera, a few survival essentials, and a satellite phone for emergencies. It seems a strange combination of things to pack, but necessary, I suppose. 
It turns out I’m the only one on the flight besides the pilot, so we walk out together across the windy tarmac to the little 9-seater Navajo charter plane and I settle in for the 45 minute ride. 
Sunrise from the morning flight

When we arrive in Deering, I can’t even see it until we’re almost on the ground, it’s so small. The village is one long row of houses and buildings on either side of a one-lane road, with the airstrip a little ways out on the tundra. A snowmachine with a sled on back is waiting for me, and I am greeted by an older, nearly toothless man in a fur parka: my ride to the school. I throw my backpack and sat phone in the sled and hop on behind the driver. As we take off, I realize I have absolutely nothing to hold on to as we speed down a path, painfully cold wind biting into my face. I alternate between holding on to the driver for balance, and gripping the narrow back of the seat during the 5 minute ride into town.

Once at the school, I meet up with the park ranger and we hang out in the kindergarten classroom until it’s time to start our programs. As soon as the kindergarteners see me, their faces light up and they all ask me my name; I feel a little guilty for being such a distraction during their class period, but the teacher seems delighted. 
Over the course of the day, I shadow the other park ranger and help out wherever I can, watching as she conducts lesson plans on various topics. The little kids get a lesson on insects, the middle schoolers get a lesson on Alaskan bears, and the 3-5 graders get a lesson on the water cycle. I am in charge of the high school class (about 12 students), and present information on the hot springs and try to help them prepare for their upcoming class trip. There are only about 30 students in the whole school, so I see almost all of them in that one day. 
After school lets out, I wander through town with the other park ranger; we stop at the Native Store to pick up some stuff, and I am once again reminded how remote we are out here. Though the town has no running water, there is also no water sold in the store — just juices and sodas. Cardboard boxes of rotted fruits and vegetables that didn’t sell in time or arrived spoiled are sitting by the door, free for the taking. Most other food items sold are nonperishable and prepackaged, and sell for 2-4x what they are even in Nome. 
We walk all the way down to the other end of town to enjoy the sunlight and cold air. Some of the houses have seal carcasses or hunks of other game meat frozen outside their front porches; there are no cars either, just snowmachines and 4-wheelers. The town is on the coast, but it’s hard to tell because of the sea ice; nonetheless, I can recognize huge cliffs that come all the way to the water’s edge, where I heard the kids talking about collecting bird eggs during summer. We see a couple bush planes come and go, but for the most part, the village seems very isolated.
I call the airline to make sure they don’t forget to pick me up, and sure enough, as scheduled my return flight comes in around 6pm. One of the teachers has agreed to snowmachine me back to the landing strip, and this time I elect to ride in the sled, thinking it would be a more comfortable option. 
False. Next time, I’m riding up front again. First I breathed in a lungful of exhaust, followed by getting blasted in the face by snow and ice kicked up by the snowmachine tread. As the sled fishtailed back and forth around every turn, I had to pull my hat and hood completely over my face to avoid the seering cold air and ice freezing to my skin; by the time we got to the landing strip, my eye had frozen shut and I had to blink it open again. 

There was one other person on the flight on the way back, possibly another pilot but we didn’t really talk as the plane was pretty loud. On our return home, the sunset painted the frozen tundra in pastel colors, pinks, blues, purples, and peaches.

bored in the back of the plane = dorky self photo
Sunset colors over the Kigs
We were nearly back to Nome when the turbulence started; I could make out the Kougarok Road beneath us in some spots where it wasn’t obscured by snowdrift, but as we came over the other side of the mountains, the wind must have picked up.  It was the first time I have ever actually been legitimately worried for my life in an airplane. It started with some hard fishtailing and then a back and forth wobble and then the nose of the plane pitched up for several very long seconds before coming down again. Every few seconds I got that dropping feeling in my stomach like being on a roller coaster. The pilot seemed calm and so did the other passenger (though he was looking around a lot), but after the second bump where we both came clear out of our seats, I saw him tightening his seatbelt. 
It wasn’t terribly upsetting, but more of a realization as I tried to find sanctuary in the calming sunset colors outside, that we were going very, very fast, and very, very low over the mountains. For a brief instant, I wondered how quickly I would know if we were crashing, and if I would feel anything on the impact. Those aren’t thoughts you ever want to seriously consider, but in a period of about 1/100th of a second, that’s where my mind was as my stomach dropped out again and we swerved in ways that I don’t think airplanes should swerve. 
Sunset over the sea ice

And just as quickly as the turbulence started, it was calm again, and we banked gently from one side to another until we wove our way out of the wind and over the sea ice. The brilliant sun cast bold colors on the clouds now, as if teasing the momentary chaos we’d just flown through.

Another for the books. And next week I get to do it all over again for Shishmaref! Except this time I’ll be spending 2 days in the village and have hopefully learned quite a bit from working with the Deering classroom that will help in making a fun program for the Shish students.


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