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A look Around Eek

I called Eek home for seven years.

The Yup’ik Eskimo village of Eek is 415 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The delta is about the size of the state of Louisiana, but within that delta roads are rare and people are few.

The Eek post office in winter

Eek, with a population of 300, is a small village that sits on one bank of the Eek River. That river flows into the Kuskokwim and out to the Bering Sea.     

For seven years I taught in the village school. I left at the end of the 2013-2014 school year to write full time, but the students asked me back for graduation.

While I stood on the play deck in front of the school to make this short video, happiness and sadness mixed together. I was happy to be back and be a part of the graduation, but sad that this would be my last afternoon in the village. My speech was done, the graduation complete. The next morning I would leave for home. A chapter of my life was complete. 

A Visit from Dirk

School is out now in Eek, Alaska, and the staff has departed.

Dirk, a longtime co-worker and friend from Eek, took the slow route home. Along with his dog Katja, he visited Anchorage and Kenai and then traveled north to Delta Junction and across into the Yukon and south to British Columbia. Then he crossed the border into the United States and Washington State.

Dirk Martin and Kyle Pratt with Katja

I made a similar trip down the ALCAN Highway several years ago with my youngest son Robert. If you have an adventurous spirit I recommend it. More than once we had to stop because wildlife, such as moose, bear and buffalo, blocked the road. Dirk is a very adventurous sort and didn’t follow the highway as I did. He weaved his way down several small roads and through tiny Canadian hamlets before returning to the ALCAN.

Dirk took some time to hike, camp and fly fish along the way. We had a soft bed waiting for him when he arrived. Then we did some hiking on my own property. I’m not sure who enjoyed that more, him or Katja.

We had less than a day before Dirk had to head east toward his home, but it was nice to visit with him and catch up on the news from Eek.

Back to Eek School

Back to Eek School

Traveling to Eek School is an adventure.

My return to Eek started early in the morning of May 14th. Robert, my youngest son, drove me to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Since the Alaska Airlines flight took off at 8:00am, we both got up way too early. The flight to Anchorage, on a regular 737, took about three hours.

A view of Eek, Alaska

The next stop was Bethel, Alaska, and the flight there is where the adventure begins. Bethel is about four hundred miles beyond the road system, so everything has to come in by ship or plane. Most planes to Bethel are combi aircraft. The cabin is partitioned to allow use as both a cargo and passenger plane. Most combi aircraft typically feature an oversized cargo door. I walked out onto the tarmac with other passengers to board the combi plane through the backdoor. In the middle of the cabin is the wall separating the cargo and passenger sections. There is no first-class section to Bethel. The flight aboard the 737-combi took about 50 minutes.

Clouds obscured my view and I worried that the flight might not be able to land. Once before, I had flown out to Bethel only to fly over the city and return to Anchorage without landing. Another time I had waited in Bethel for the plane to arrive. I heard the plane fly over and then away without landing. If the plane land in Bethel, you don’t leave.

This day was overcast, but we landed without trouble. Walking across the tarmac to the small Bethel terminal, a cold, wet, wind hit my face. I was certainly back in Alaska.

Each plane gets smaller as you travel toward Eek, and for the third, and last, leg of the journey, I would ride a Cessna 207 prop plane operated by Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures. As we taxied out to the runway, I asked if anyone would be meeting us when we arrived. The pilot didn’t know. Since I didn’t want to walk a mile in the cold carrying my luggage, and since there was food onboard for the graduation, I asked if he would radio back to his office and have them advise the school that we were inbound. Shortly after takeoff he did. This final flight took about 25 minutes.

On final approach to Eek I spotted Brett, the school principal, towing a trailer with an ATV in route to the dirt landing strip outside of town. Brett looked much as I remembered him, the rugged Alaskan, at home in the bush on an ATV. After arrival and handshakes we all unloaded the plane and I hopped on for a muddy ride back to Eek School. 

The New Cover

A few weeks ago, I received a call from the principal of Eek School.

Eek is a Yup’ik, Eskimo, village 415 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska. Starting in 2007, I taught in the village school for seven years. Because it is a small village of 300 people, I quickly learned the name, and background, of nearly every student.

Everyone from pre-school to high school seniors are in one ten room building. Most of the time, I worked with small groups of students of various ages. However, the first year I taught a class of mostly sixth grade students. I watched them grow over the years from children, to teens and verging on adulthood. This year, in the largest graduation from in memory, eight students would receive their diploma from the school.

That’s why Brett, the principal of Eek School, called me a few weeks ago. Most of the students from my original sixth grade class would be graduating and, they wanted me to be there and speak at the ceremony.

I was excited to be back in the village, see so many friends and, most of all, to see these eight students graduate.  

Back: Shawn Cingliaq Alexie and Evon Apataq White

Third Row: Terrance Cingarkaq Henry and Gerald Putuk Brown

Second Row: Florence Akuqaq Moore

First Row: Timothy Cirunaq Heakin, Christian Angassaq Pleasant and Frank Callaq Carter.

They are the students on the new cover of the website. I wish you all the very best as you begin your adult lives.

I’ll be writing more about Eek, the school and these graduates in the coming days.


North to Alaska

I’m flying north to Alaska on Thursday.

The seven graduating students invited me to give the commencement address at Eek School on Friday, May fifteenth. I taught at the school for seven years and, had most of the seven graduating students in class from the sixth grade through to the eleventh. I wrote about many of my adventures at the school, and the region, here in this blog.  

Although it will be brief, I am pleased and honored to return, talk and share this time with my former students. This is the largest graduating class that I am aware of from this school and, I’m proud to be a part of it. I’ll write more, probably after my return, and post some of the pictures from the event.

In the meantime, enjoy this video I created on the first day of spring while teaching in Eek, Alaska.

A Weird Coincidence

A week ago Loni, the Eek School secretary, said, “I just met someone with your name.”

“My first name, Kyle?”

“No your whole name, Kyle Pratt,” she replied.

Kyle Pratt meets Kyle Pratt at the Eek airfield

She went on to say that he was there as part of the ongoing project to bring running water to the village and had already left. The idea that someone in the village would have the same first and last name was amusing. “If he returns to the village, let me know.”

A few days later, the agent for one of the bush airlines came up to me with a puzzled look. “I have a crate of weatherization materials with your name on it.” I told him about the other Kyle.

Alice, the Eek postmistress told me. “A guy came in and said he was Kyle Pratt. I said ‘No, you’re not.’ But he was.”

The next day I met the other Kyle Pratt just as I was getting breakfast ready for the students and opening the school. We didn’t have long to talk, but I found out he was from Washington state. “The whole thing just got weirder,” I thought.

I didn’t see him for several days and then on Friday it was time for me to leave Eek and this time for good, (More on that later.), I saw him walking from the school as I rode in a trailer behind the school ATV. I was on my way to the village airfield and thought that was the last time I would see him.

Our plane landed on the dirt runway as we grabbed our bags from the trailer. Suddenly Kyle, on another ATV, rounded one of the buildings at the airfield. He came up to me and said, “I just have to ask you a question. The woman at the clinic said we have the same birthday.”

I told him mine.

He shook his head. “That is unreal.” He told me his birthday.

We not only share the same first name and last name,

And we are both from Washington state,

And, that day we were both in the same remote Alaskan village.

We also have the same birth month and day. (But different years.)

I am still shaking my head in puzzlement. What are the odds?

Stamps and More Stamps

When you live in a rural Alaskan village the post office becomes a lifeline.

Eek is hundreds of miles off the Alaska road system. There is only one dirt road in the village. It runs from the airport through the village to an old airport on the other side. It doesn’t connect to any other road. This rough and often muddy lane is used by ATVs, snowmobiles and as a walking path.

There is one general store in the village but, as you can imagine, many things are just not available. But, when the weather is good, the mail plane lands in Eek six days a week. So, my family regularly sends packages. Post office flat rate packages are a godsend here. That is how I came to receive the package pictured here. I asked my wife if she put all those stamps on it. She said, “No, I just paid for it and left.”

I guess they had a few extra stamps they needed to use. Also, notice the five cent postage meter stamp in the corner.    

The Trip II

(Part Two)

After removing the freight from the plane loading our luggage was easy and quick.

Just before takeoff the pilot turned in his seat and gave the usual speech about seatbelts and, in case of a crash, where the emergency transponder was located, then he said, “If we get to Bethel and I start circling it’s because the visibility has gone down over the airport.”

At that moment visions of us flying around and around over Bethel, but ultimately returning to Eek darkened the already cloudy day for me. The pilot went on to say, “It has been doing that all day.” However, he seems confident we would land in Bethel.

 I had planned to take video as we bumped down Eek’s icy dirt runway and get a shot of the village as we lifted in the air, but instead I was scraping frost off the inside of the window. When the window was clear I did took the video of frozen tundra which you see here.

The Caravan that you see in the video is much bigger than the Cessna 207s that normally service the village. This is fast luxury flying from the for us.

The weather stayed clear and we were soon on the ground in Bethel. It was now about four in the afternoon of December 21st. As I walked from the plane toward Grant Aviation terminal in Bethel I considered my options. I had no hotel reservation. My travel itinerary had me arriving home, with Santa, late on Christmas Eve. I decided to head over to the Alaska Airline terminal and try and get on the evening flight to Anchorage. I knew that it was very unlikely that I would get a seat, but I saw no reason not to try.

The Alaska Airlines terminal in Bethel, consists mostly of a waiting room with three ticket counters, a TSA checkpoint, baggage carousel, and bathrooms around the edges. By modern airport standards its small and drab. The clerk behind the counter shook his head slowly. “Every seat is taken, but I can take your name down in case something opens up.”

I thanked him and sat down with my friends Dirk and Julia in the waiting area. Dirk had missed his flight on Friday, but had managed to get rebook earlier and get a seat on the night flight. Julia was even luckier; she had originally booked herself on the upcoming flight. I sat between them wondering just how long I would be in Bethel.

Three hours later, as I chatted with my friends, a voice came over the waiting area. “Kyle Pratt, please report to the ticket counter.”

I nearly ran.

Going up to the same clerk he said, “I’ve got you a seat on the flight tonight and as he typed my information in he added, “a seat has opened up on the red eye flight to Seattle. Do you want it?”

“Yes!”

For over an hour I relaxed in the glow of knowing I would be home by morning. Then I again heard the crackle of the PA system. “Attention in the terminal, the runway lights here in Bethel are broken, they won’t turn on, and consequently the 9:30 flight to Anchorage has been cancelled.”

(Part Three tomorrow)

The Trip

(Part One)

The trip from Eek was a like a trip across the river Styx.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. As I’ve mentioned before, there are no roads in the region of Alaska where I work. Travel in winter is by snowmobile, bush plane or dog team. I had chartered a plane for five teachers (including me), the principal, two children and a dog. We planned to fly out of the village on Friday, when school closed for the Christmas holiday, land at Bethel, the regional airport, and go our separate ways. Some would fly out Friday night to Anchorage; others would stay a day or two and then head on. I planned to stay the night and then catch the Saturday Afternoon flight to Anchorage.

However, the village was a strange site on Friday. In the past, Eek has always been a frozen blanket of snow and ice by December, but on Friday the temperature hovered around freezing. Bone chilling water stood on frozen lakes, streams and rivers. Rain mixed with snow and then froze with each dip in temperature. The dirt runway at the edge of the village was an ice rink and the planes couldn’t fly for fear of icing on the wings. We waited, but didn’t go anywhere that day. One teacher missed his flight out of Bethel that night.

My flight was scheduled for 1:30 Saturday afternoon. I awoke Saturday morning around seven. It was still completely dark when I stepped outside and looked around the village. There was no rain and I could see lights at the far end of the village. Those were good signs, but it was windy. At about ten in the morning we had the first hint of sun. It soon became clear that when the wind died down fog rolled in. When the wind picked up it gusted too hard to fly. We talked to several bush airline companies, including one that has a reputation for flying in marginal weather, but soon abandoned all hope of flying out any time soon. As the plane I should have been on boarded in Bethel, I reluctantly phoned Alaska Airlines to reschedule my trip home. The customer service agent was very nice, waived all fees and booked me out of Bethel and gave me the first open seat out of Anchorage—on Christmas Eve. With a sigh I took the new itinerary. At least now I had time for the weather to change.

And change it did, just minutes after the plane that I should have been on departed from Bethel the weather started to clear. Two hours later we got a call from Grant Aviation asking if we were still interested in getting to Bethel.

“Yes!”

Grant had a Cessna 208 turboprop, commonly called a Caravan, coming into Bethel from another village. They would refuel and deice and then fly to Eek for us. Nearly two hours later the phone rang. “The Caravan is fifteen minutes out from Eek,” the woman on the line announced.

We packed last minute items, climbed into the wagon or on the ATV and headed out to the airport. The plane arrived just minutes after we did, but it was full of freight for the village. Before we could board we had to haul the boxes off the plane. Still we were happy to do it, glad to be starting our Christmas break. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking the hardest part would soon be over.

(Part two tomorrow.)

Winter has returned

Winter has returned to western Alaska with a vengeance.

For several weeks the temperatures in and around the village of Eek have been extraordinarily mild with temperatures hovering in the mid to upper thirties. 

Eek School, early December 2013

As you can see in this picture, taken last week, the snow had almost entirely melted. I walked to the village store that day with just a jacket on. I didn’t need gloves, snow pants or a hat.  A dozen or more children were playing in and around the area that day.

My wife, Lorraine, commented that the temperature at our home near Chehalis, in Washington State were much colder with freezing weather and snow on the ground.

Today in this part of Alaska the weather has returned to a much more normal state. The sky may be blue, but the current temperature is 5 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of – 12. I won’t be going to the store today and, I suspect, most children will be playing inside.

The Pledge of Allegiance

As regular readers of this blog know, I teach in the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Eek, Alaska.

Every morning the students of our small school gather in the gym for announcements and to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. On Tuesday’s and Thursday’s this is done in English, but on the other days it is done in their native language of Yup’ik. I usually try to follow along reading a poster of the pledge written in Yup’ik. I can do okay until the end where the words get longer and harder to pronounce.

The one minute video embedded here shows the principal asking the students to stand and everyone saying the pledge in a way most people will never hear.

Jury Duty (part 2)

Traveling by bush plane is nothing like a regular airline.

As you may have guessed from the picture in part one, I did find Ferdinand and, with him driving, I rode to the airstrip sitting on the side of the ATV. Like the airfield the road to it is dirt, but with hundreds of pot holes, mud, water, ice and gravel. I’m always glad when these trips are over—my butt is sore and my pant legs are splashed with mud.

The pilot of an eight seat Cessna 207, like the one in this earlier picture, was heading back to Bethel so we climbed on board. The plane is cramped and all the seats were full, but the flight was only 20 minutes long.

Upon arrival in Bethel I walked up to the Grant Aviation ticket counter and gave the lady my name and said, “I’m here for jury duty.”

She asked for my juror number and then thanked me. While no paperwork or money changed hands at that time I’m sure the taxpayers of Alaska got the bill. Still, one of the things I like about Alaska is the casual informality.

After checking in at the courthouse I did a fair amount of reading, waiting and talking to a couple of other people from Eek. My friend Loni was one of them, but she was excused that afternoon. I’ve got to ask here how she did that.

Hours later as the northern sun was dipping low in the sky the Judge said we were all excused for the day and to come back tomorrow at eleven.

Really? Eleven? Most people go to lunch at that time, I thought.

After a good night’s sleep and a large breakfast, all paid for with tax dollars, I reported back to the courthouse and waited and read and waited. I filled out a questionnaire, answered questions from both the prosecutor and defense attorney, but eventually I was excused.

In Eek there is only one tiny general store so, I took the opportunity to shop for groceries at a full size store in Bethel. I walked from the courthouse to the store and, after shopping, caught a taxi to the Grant Aviation terminal at the airport. I walked up to the ticket counter and without showing paperwork or ID said, “I had jury duty, but I need to head home to Eek now.”

The lady said, “Sure thing.”  

Again I smiled at the casualness of bush Alaska. Five people, all excused jurors, ended up on a Cessna headed back to Eek that night. As the tiny plane lifted into the night sky I think we were all thinking the same thing, it was good to be going home.

Jury Duty (part 1)

Jury duty in bush Alaska means traveling by plane—if weather permits.

I was supposed to report for jury duty on Tuesday of last week. I packed a bag with three days of clothes because travel at this time of year is always iffy. I might fly into Bethel and get stuck there, so it’s smart to pack extra underwear and socks. However, wind and freezing rain meant that no bush planes could fly, so that day I did my regular job of teaching.

Kyle Pratt waiting beside the plane

The next day the rain had stopped and the wind died down. I thought we would be flying in, but as the first rays of sun hit the village I couldn’t see the runway on the edge of the village. Experience has taught me that if I can’t see it, planes won’t be landing. As the morning ticked on, the fog waxed and waned, but I never saw the runway. Again, I taught in our village school.

On Thursday the sky was clear and the winds were calm. Planes began arriving early. In the village you can go out to the airport and catch a flight, but it is just a dirt field, you wait in the weather, so most people wait for a call from the local agent. They tell you a plane is coming and there is probably a space for you. No one called me. When my friend Loni, who also had jury duty, phoned the agent, she was told passengers were backed up and waiting. We would have to wait. I started teaching.

By 11:00am I figured we were not going in for jury duty. I even phoned the courthouse in Bethel to tell them I couldn’t get in. Of course that is when Loni phoned to say that the plane was nine minutes out from the village.

“What?” I said into the phone, but she had already hung up. I told the students I had at that time to go to their other class, pulled on my boots and parka and headed out to find Ferdinand, one of the local school workers, and hope he could drive me up to the airport on the school ATV.

(Part two tomorrow)

Only in Alaska

I stepped out the door of my apartment this morning and there was the principal with two rifles.

I live just across the hall from Brett, the principal here in Eek. Today he was just ahead of me in the hall wearing hip waders with one rifle slung over his shoulder and the other in his hand.

“Are you going hunting?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m going up river to check for beaver and places to set traps, but if I see a caribou I might take a shot.”

Brett skinning a beaver

Actually, it’s a good idea to be armed when you leave Eek. From the highest point at the edge of the village all you can see is the vast Alaskan wilderness. In this place an unarmed human is not at the top of the food chain.

Herds of Caribou have migrated within sight of the village. Wolves and bears have wandered to its edge and into the nearby dump.

I didn’t get a picture of Brett as he prepared to leave today, but this is a recent one of him skinning a beaver on the back deck of the school.

Just another day in Alaska.

 

The Delta Discovery

About ten days ago several of our students here in Eek excitedly told me there was an article about me in The Delta Discovery.

The Delta Discovery is the weekly newspaper in our region of Alaska. I had sent them a press release about the book and later someone from the paper had asked me a few questions so, of course, I wanted to read the article.

Between classes I went to the school office where copies are usually available. There were copies from the previous week, but not the current, August 28, issue that I was supposedly in. Later, a co-worker went to the village store promising to bring me a copy but, when she returned, said all the copies were gone.

Monday evening I flew into Bethel on school business. There, in the regional transportation and business hub, and home of The Delta Discovery, I was confident I would find a copy.

There was none at my hotel. Tuesday, after meetings and training, I stopped by the school district office, but didn’t find any copies. That evening I went grocery shopping (an important thing to do when you get to the big city), but both Swanson’s and AC store, were already selling the next issue. At that point I gave up.

Kyle Pratt finally has his copy!

I was in Bethel until the end of the week. Every day at least two people would ask me if I’d seen the article about me in the Delta Discovery. I’d smile and say, “No, but I’ve heard about it.”

I returned paperless to Eek Friday evening. Saturday morning I went to the school to write lesson plans and prepare for Monday. As I walked in I stopped by the office. There on the floor, literally in the first place I had gone looking, was a bound stack of the August 28th issue of The Delta Discovery. I sat in the secretary’s chair and read the article.

The next day the article about me was posted online. Click here if you want to read it.

 

More Art

I’ve written before about the apparent fascination the students of Eek School have with drawing me. This last week I was working with this young lady on math when I got a phone call. I answered the call leaving her to finish some problems on the board. When I hung up, she had completed the math work and was busily engaged drawing me.

 

Unboxing and Signing

Through Many Fires has arrived on the Alaskan Tundra!

My wife received the promotional copies of Through Many Fires a few days ago and forwarded some of them to me in Eek, Alaska, for signing. The books arrived today on the mail plane and someone brought it over to the school. I don’t know who because I found the box sitting next to the school office door as school was closing. This is not unusual. As I was walking back to my classroom Ella, a student, asked me what was in the box. I said, “Come with me I need your help.”

Once we were in the classroom I asked her to use my iPod to film me opening the package. At that point it occurred to me the box might be one of the food care packages my wife often sends. If it was, Ella would certainly be confused why I wanted to make a video as I opened it. 

As you can see though, it was the first print copies of Through Many Fires. Thanks for helping out Ella, you did a good job.    

If I promised you an autographed copy of Through Many Fires and you have been wondering when it would arrive, the answer is soon.  I’ll be signing them tonight and mailing them tomorrow.

 

Back in Eek

Yesterday I flew back to the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Eek.

Kyle Pratt points to himself

This will be my seventh year teaching in this remote Alaskan village.  Getting to Eek starts with a flight to Anchorage, but that is only the beginning.  From there you catch an Alaskan Airlines flight to Bethel, about 400 miles west of Anchorage on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, one of the largest river deltas in the world. 

This region is about the size of Oregon, but there are few roads in this marshy region and none where I am going.  This time of year, travel is by boat or bush plane.  So, after arriving in Bethel, I headed over to Grant Aviation, with a fellow Eek teacher Caitlyn James, to catch the next plane to the village.

Bush planes fly on a notoriously fickle schedule.  The departure time may be listed as 2:30, but consider that as only a rough estimate.        

Kyle Pratt with most of the staff of Eek School.

While waiting at the terminal Caitlyn said, “There’s a photo with you in it over there on the wall.”  Of course, I had to go check that out.  The picture is from about two years ago and shows most of the Eek School staff, including me, at the village airport with a Grant plane in the background.  It's weird to see a photo of me hanging in a random location.

We left not long afterwards on a Cessna 207 and arrived in Eek ahead of schedule.  I’ll be in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region until Christmas vacation.

Artistic Students

James during his red period

Unfortunately, art is one of those classes that we don’t often offer at Eek School.

We wish we could offer art more often, but reading, Writing and Math take priority and art teachers willing to come to the bush Alaska are hard to find.  That doesn’t mean that our students are any less artistic.  Art is very much a part of the Yup’ik culture.  I wish the students would do more with traditional themes, but for some reason they often like to draw me.

This first drawing was done just today by James.  We are doing state testing this week and I was helping out in his class.  When James was done with testing for the day he decided that drawing me was a great idea.  Picasso had his blue and red periods so, I’m guessing, James is in a red period.

lena draws Kyle Pratt

I can barely write a legible word using dry erase markers however, earlier this year Elena had just a couple of minutes at the end of class and created this image using them.  She is a very talented student; she won a school emblem design contest and has created a number of detailed drawings.

Over the last few years I have collected a number of different drawings.  After a while I started posting them on the bulletin board beside my desk.  As you can see there are contemporary drawings, others depict me when I was young and in the military, and one student seems to be exploring cubism. 

Students draw Kyle Pratt

Some of the drawings just show up on my desk, others are proudly presented to me.  I’m glad the students like to draw but I find their interest in drawing me a bit bewildering and at the same time very amusing.   

 

 

Merry Christmas

The temperature was -20 as we waited for the plane to arrive in Eek.

That was last Thursday.  The plane arrived on time, thankfully, for the flight to Bethel, Alaska.  I stayed the night in Bethel and then caught the morning flight to Anchorage and another plane to Seattle.  My youngest son was at the airport to pick me up for the hour and a half drive home.  It was a long trip, but thankfully, I arrived home safely late on Friday.

Connie and Caitlyn waiting for the plane in Eek.  Dirk in Background.

It is Christmas morning now and looking out the window beside me I see a few of the many evergreen trees near the house.  A light snow has fallen and the temperature is hovering around freezing, but blades of green grass still poke up through the snow.  It might be a good day for a warm fire.

I may be down in Washington State, but I still think of my other home up in Alaska.  Thinking of Christmas in Alaska led me to recall the Hallelujah Chorus video that the nearby village of Quinhagak made and uploaded just before Christmas of 2010.  It has gone viral with over a 1,555,000 views.  I hope you enjoy it.  Merry Christmas.