Learning Curve: Tundra sunrise on a snowgo

One of the biggest challenges living where I do is getting in and out of the village. Nunap is 27 miles from the nearest town, the Hub. Roads in the traditional sense don’t exist, as the swampy nature of the tundra in the summer would make such an undertaking a logistical nightmare (and expensive!). Small bush planes criss-cross the skies year round. In the warmer months, boats ply the rivers and lakes. Come winter, the locals utilize snowgoes (snowmobiles) and the occasional car or truck. Last year, almost all of my travel to and from the village occurred in the planes; at the end of the year, I rode down the river in a boat.

The mode of transportation used depends on a) personal choice, b) cost, and c) the weather. This year, the weather has been the biggest factor in how and when you travel. The little planes can’t fly unless visibility is at least 2 miles. Lately, we’ve had lots of fog, the kind that comes and goes in an instant. The day that we left for the holiday break, six of us were supposed to fly to the Hub in time to catch the midday jet to Anchorage. Well, the fog rolled in and didn’t leave. Lucas spent about 30 minutes on the phone with various school support staff, trying to find us a ride to the Hub. For a while, it sounded like we’d caravan down in snowgoes and sleds. Then someone suggested calling Mr. Alexie about getting a ride in his truck. A couple of hours later, I found myself squished in a pick-up truck, riding down the frozen river. Like many things since i moved up here, I’m not sorry that I did it once. I’m not sure I ever want to do it again: The river was deemed safe for large vehicles only two days previously, and there were a couple of spots where the ice creaked a bit ominously. But we made it!

I spent two and a half weeks with my family before returning for the second semester. The first day of travel went smoothly and I arrived in Anchorage without a problem. The following day, I returned to the airport and got a pleasant surprise: Lucas and Andy and Kelly and Cole 2.0 (not my old roommate but one of the new faces on staff this year) had all booked seats on the same flight as me. Our flight to the Hub went off without a hitch, but on arriving around 12:30 we discovered that no bush planes had flown yet that day due to a freezing fog moving through the area and wind gusts of 30 mph. By sheer coincidence, Eech (our school tech guy) and another villager were also at the airport to drop off their older kids for the jet back to Anchorage. Kelly spoke with both of them; several minutes later, she came back over to where the rest of us were collecting the luggage. “So Eech and Mr. Andrew only have one sled between them. They can take three of us plus our luggage.” We quickly worked out that Kelly, Cole 2.0, and I would go with Eech and Mr. Andrew; Lucas and Andy decided to take their chances with the bush airline where they’d previously booked tickets. After bundling up, the three of us clomped outside to our ride. The luggage got loaded on the sled, everyone got settled (Kelly and I on the backs of the snowgoes behind the drivers, Cole 2.0 in the sled), and off we went.

I’ve described the tundra before as flat. Compared to other parts of the state, that’s very true. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Riding on the snowgo gave me a new appreciation for how the terrain rises from the rivers, ponds, and lakes to the bluffs and goes back down. We set out about an hour after sunrise. For the first hour of the trip, we saw no sign of the fog moving through the area. Instead, brilliant sun turned the snow and ice dazzling white and highlighted the little bits of vegetation still visible. The light even picked out a rainbow on the ice crystals suspended in the air. As we rode along, I couldn’t help thinking of a passage from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie: “In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact center. All day long [the horses] went forward, walking and trotting and walking again, but they couldn’t get out of the middle of that circle.”

The earlier wind never diminished. It pushed against our left sides for most of the journey, joined now by the breeze generated by our speed, which pushed at our well-covered faces. I was very grateful Lucas loaned me his ski goggles so that I could see without my eyes freezing. The sounds changed depending on the direction we traveled, but also with the surface we travelled on: Riding on the frozen tundra created a very different background hum compared with the higher-pitched whine generated as we flew across frozen rivers and lakes. At times the snow on the ground and the clouds in the sky merged at the horizon, so it looked as though we would drive into the heavens, a sensation heightened when we finally encountered some of that fog. My sense of time ceased functioning normally; all that mattered was the beauty around me and keeping my seat on the snowgo as it bounced across the terrain.

Eventually, we pulled onto a stretch of river that looked familiar. Within moments, the snowgoes climbed up the river bank one last time and began zooming through the village. When we pulled to a stop outside teacher housing, everyone had a good laugh as we brushed snow off of one another; my backpack was completely covered, as was most of my right side. After unloading the luggage and thanking Eech and Mr. Andrew, I headed for my apartment. As much as I loved the experience, I couldn’t wait to get inside and be done with my travels.

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1 comment
  1. Kay said:

    CJ, I really, really enjoy reading your blogs. Although I don’t think I would like to have the same experience. 🙂

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