Alaska: First Impressions

The first hint that things were going to be different was the flight from Anchorage. The plane was what the locals call a “combi”, that is, a Boeing 737-400 combination, where the front half of the plane is cargo space while the rear half is the passenger cabin. I was also surprised when the flight attendants greeted several passengers by name and inquired about their families.

The town where the school district is headquartered is sometimes referred to as the Hub. Measured by my past travels, the Hub’s airport is bordering on miniscule. The terminal building is just large enough to house a couple of electronic check-in kiosks, the TSA checkpoint, and a small waiting area on the departures side. The arrivals side has two small baggage claim belts. The district representative, Arby, was waiting right inside the terminal door with a sign. Once he had corralled us new teachers and our luggage, we headed outside. It was then that I realized the building we’d just exited only served the Alaska Airlines jets; further down the road I could see the hangars for the smaller bush airlines that serve the numerous villages in the region.

I stayed in the Hub for a total of three days. Before leaving my hometown, I had looked the place up on the Internet, and had come to the conclusion that it was about the size of my college town. That might have been true in terms of population, but that first night was enough to show me that that was the only accurate comparison I can draw between the two places. In this part of Alaska, all buildings are erected on pylons because of the swampy nature of the ground. District staff made a point that first night of warning us newbies to stay on the roads, as the tall grasses do a good job of hiding the edges of the numerous lakes and ponds. Because of the permafrost only a foot or so beneath ground level, sewage and water pipes are located above ground, with stiles that allow people to pass over them. With the exception of the road to the airport, all of the roads in the Hub are packed dirt. You can walk around town, but the random layout of the streets makes getting anywhere in a timely fashion next to impossible. On my first full day in town, district staff kindly ran people on errands to the local phone company (none of the major service providers reach further than Anchorage) and the local bank. The second day, the first actual day of orientation, was devoted to learning about the culture of the natives who call this region home, which I will write about more in later posts. The third day was more presentations, this time about the district itself. Finally, on the afternoon of that third day, I and the other new teachers headed for our respective villages.

My new home is in a village called Nunap. It’s about 27 miles west of the Hub, and accessible only by plane, boat, or snow machine. (Apparently, the locals do not like calling them snow mobiles. I have yet to figure out why, but when in Rome….) Ted, the principal at my school, had also been in the Hub for meetings while I was undergoing orientation. Rather than take one of the scheduled flights, he chartered a plane from a local bush airline to fly all of us newbies and himself back to the village at the same time. I’d never ridden in a bush plane before that day. Now that I have, I think that it is the closest that I will ever come to flying unassisted. A plane that small doesn’t go nearly as high as a jet, and you get to see more detail on the ground below. I passed the flight snapping photos of the incredible scenery: Lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes, the occasional boat or campsite. When I signed the contract for this job, the idea of flying everywhere worried me slightly. Now, I think I’m going to love it.

Twenty-five minutes later, we came in for a landing at the village airstrip. But that will have to wait for another post. Before I leave, however, I want to let you know this: I fully intend to keep writing this blog. However, I only have access to the Internet when I’m at the school. Also, school starts on Wednesday. Life is going to get a little busy. But I will write more. See you here in another week or so!

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