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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 Lesson in Irony

One definition of irony is an event that “seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.”

With that in mind I submit this picture. It was taken in the hall of our school here in Eek, Alaska. Posted above the lockers the sign declares both in English and the local Yup’ik Eskimo language, “We put our stuff in our lockers.” This is a small community, doors are often unlocked and theft is rare. Lockers are small and most have no locks. If space is tight things, like shoes, are often left out. That is why the sign was there, to encourage the students to be neater and put their personal items in their locker.

The shoes remained beside the sign, and on top of the locker, for days.  

Made My Day

Spring is a hard time for teachers. The students are tired and sense that summer is coming. Teachers are also tired and are counting the days till summer.

Kyle Pratt holds a copy of his book, Through Many Fires, sent to him for an autograph

Yesterday, after a long spring day of inattentive, restless, students the school secretary, Loni, brought me a torn cardboard mailer. It was addressed to my personal mailbox, but delivered to the school. This often happens in the village, but this time I didn’t recognize the return address.

Puzzled, I reached in and tore it the rest of the way open. Out came a copy of my book Through Many Fires. Loni stood there puzzled as I read the letter and a smile grew on my face. I’m still a relatively unknown author and don’t get that much fan mail. “It’s from one of my readers.” I said. “I put instructions on my website for anyone who wants me to autograph their book.” Holding up the paperback I added, “He’s the first.”

Loni took a picture while I was still smiling and then I went home with a better feeling about the whole world.

Thing Two

Good teachers do many crazy stunts to get students interested in learning.

Our school in Eek, Alaska, is blessed with some fine teachers. Every March in conjunction with the Iditarod dog sled race our school does an Iditaread reading competition. The students get points moving them along the Iditarod trail for each page they read.

This year, in support of Dr. Seuss and National Read Across America Day, two of our teachers, Julia Oschwald and Kayla Ashe, decorated the elementary wing of the school in a Cat in the Hat theme.

One of our better young readers is Kristin, the young lady standing next to the Cat in the Hat. The garment she is wearing looks like a dress, but is actually a qaspeq, a traditional Yup’ik Eskimo hooded garment.  

Dirk Martin and Kyle Pratt

As a teacher and an author, I support just about anything that encourages students to read, even if it makes me look silly. In the picture I’m Thing Two and my colleague, Dirk Martin, is Thing One.

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Autographed Copy

The first autographed copy of Through Many Fires is in the hands of a reader.

Loni Hoover with the first copy of Through Many Fires

My wife sent up copies of my latest novel to where I work in Eek, Alaska. They arrived on the mail plane this weekend. Loni Hoover, the school secretary and an avid reader, asked me for a copy. Of course, I’m going to give the most powerful person in the building a copy.

For everyone else, if I promised you an autograph copy of Through Many Fires, your copy is in the mail. 

Loni, I hope you enjoy it!

 

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.   

 

 

Bear Aware

 Living out in bush Alaska it's important to be aware of bears, wolves and other animals that might see you as a meal.

            Last year my wife and I were preparing to haul trash out to the village dump when one of our friends said they had seen bear tracks at the dump.  So warned, we drove the ATV out to the dump with a trailer full of trash keeping our eyes open for any movement.  Only ravens greeted us as we piled trash on the burning heap that is the village dump. 

          Today as I spoke with Caitlyn, a first year teacher at our school, I noticed this poster on the cabinet behind her.  It warns, “Don’t attract bears to your home,” and goes on to say people should close and lock all doors and windows that bears could climb through.  It also warns to protect smokehouses, beehives and chicken coops. 

          These are things that the vast majority of Americans never think about, but bear awareness is just part of life in rural Alaska.

A Trip to Bethel

Ready for boarding

Eek, the village where I teach, is out on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta of Alaska. 

          The village sits on a bluff just above the river Eek.  There are so many lakes, streams and ponds in this region that most are unnamed.  Where there is land it is often marshy.  Even in the village the ground can be spongy this time of year.  That is why there are no roads that leave the village.  The ground just isn’t firm enough to support a road and the vehicles that would travel on it.  The one dirt road that goes the length of the village is has numerous bumps, dips and pools of water.  Until freeze up, when all the rivers and streams are well frozen over, if you travel out of the village it will probably be by boat or air.

yle Pratt in the van with Julia and Joylene

                  Last week all the teachers in the Lower Kuskokwim School District were called into Bethel for training.  For most that meant flying by bush plane.  Eight of us from Eek crammed into one small bush plane for the trip.  The picture above was taken on the tarmac in Bethel as we were about to return to Eek.  The scene would be typical of anywhere in the delta region, except the village runways are dirt.

Caitlyn drew the short straw

                Once in Bethel the school district sent a van to pick us up.  Traveling in this region means learning to wait and becoming accustomed to cramped, cold conditions both in the planes and sometimes on the ground.  When the luggage was loaded on the district van there was not enough room for all the people, but no one wanted to wait for the next trip.  No problem, we kept squeezing. We’re all friends.  That is me in the brown coat. 

You know that space between a van seat and the wall of the vehicle, you can fit someone there, and I have photographic proof.  It does take a special kind of teacher to work out here, but we all arrived at the district training in one piece and in good humor. 

The Bear

Kyle Pratt - The Bear

As some of you know, this is my sixth year teaching in Eek, a rural Alaskan village.

          School up here starts early, we are already in our third week.  Every student in our small school knows me and I’m pleased to say that I have a good relationship with the students. 

          Earlier this week as I hurried from one class to the next, one of the students, Carlton, was following me saying, “Kyle can I take your picture?  Come on; let me take your picture, okay?” 

 

          At first I said, “Not now.”  However, he persisted, so I spun around intent on giving him a picture he would remember.

          Carlton was ready and took the shot.

          My expression has garnered many laughs around the school.  My fellow teacher, Dirk, titled it, “Kyle – The Bear,” when he sent me a copy.