Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Day before Halloween

Looking across the river.  -Yukon River, Alaska [USA]

It's the day before Halloween and we've had snow for a month.  Last night, we officially hit "below zero" temperatures (-5 F/ -20 C).  This is the interior of northern Alaska.

I woke at 6:30, three hours before sunrise, to a light dusting of snow.  The snow is about 8" deep now.

As is my routine, I opened the doors to the school and turned on the lights.  I turn on the large heater in the gym.  This is the only heater that we ever turn-off because it is expensive to operate (translates to "incredibly expensive" in the rest of the world).  We leave all the other heaters on all the time because we need to, otherwise "things freeze up".

Today, "things froze up".

The cook comes in at 8 am sharp to start making breakfast.  It's still very dark outside.  The other teacher (there are only two of us in the K-12 two-classroom school) also comes in at 8 and starts going about his day.  By 8:30, after breakfast has started, I'm told that someone has flushed and the toilet tank isn't filling back up.... the water lines have frozen.

We live inside the Arctic Circle, and it really isn't that big of a deal to be without water.  None of the homes in town have running water nor indoor plumbing (apart from the two "teacher homes").  Each home does have an outhouse.  People are accustomed to "goin' to the creek" for their drinking and cooking water.  They fill 20 drums with water and tote then to their homes on the back of four-wheelers or snow machines.  "It tastes better" they tell me.

So, we tell the students that we need to use the outhouse until further notice.  My class gets a few 5-gallon buckets to fill with water.  We don't need the water, but it is a bit nicer for the cook to have some water to rinse the dishes.  It also helps us avoid any major health concerns should it take a while for the water to return.

The sun rises around 10 am, the same time we call the airplane to let them know the weather.  There aren't any navigation instruments in town, so we call each weekday to report whether we can see the mountains across the river.  If we can see the mountains, the clouds are above 5,000 ft.  That's enough of a ceiling for the plane to safely drop through the clouds without risk of crashing.

However, it isn't quite that easy; it seldom is here.  The pilot also needs to have a break in the clouds.  There also aren't any instruments for landing, so, he must see the ground before he can go through the clouds to land, otherwise, it's too risky.  With fog most mornings and the typical Alaska weather, the plane usually only flies into town 2.36 days out of the five scheduled days each week.

Today, we are in luck; the plane is going to fly.  It looks too cloudy to me, but they are coming anyway and that always brings a bit of excitement.  To add to the excitement, there are two families that have been waiting five days (due to bad weather) for the plane to return to the village.

Sunset at one of the many local
creeks  that feed into the Yukon.
-Yukon River, AK
At 11 am, I drive to the "airport" (translates to three quarter mile stretch of dirt road that is a little more than two lanes wide).  I've been waiting for over two months to have a technician visit to fix our copier/printer and he's scheduled to arrive today.  We are convinced that the school printer is possessed by the souls of many tormented teenagers.

I hear the plane fly overhead.  They always "buzz" town to let us know that they are arriving and we need to head to the airport.  I tell my three students, one is absent today, to "do their math" and dash to the truck.  It's cold, so the truck is "plugged-in" to keep the oil and other fluids from freezing.

I unplug the truck and make the 3.62 minute drive to the runway.  I wait for the plane to turn off it's propellers and then back-up to my favorite spot; the tailgate right under the rear stabilizers of the plane.  Here, I don't have to move quite as far to unload the cargo; easy-off, easy-on.

At times, there is as much as 1,200 lbs. of canned and frozen food for the school and it can get cold real quick unloading that much cargo.  Today, there are only two boxes to unload.

The plane is at capacity, five passengers in addition to the pilot.  All but one of the passengers gets off the plane.

Everyone recognizes everyone that gets off the plane; there are only 36ish people in town.  Anyone that isn't recognized getting off the plane is a visitor.

I stick my head in the plane and ask the one remaining passenger if he is the copier technician.  He gives me a bit of an unexpected look, but not too unexpected (after all, it is Alaska and we expect and don't unexpect most anything) and says, "no".  Then, the pilot tells me that the plane was over the weight limit, so, the technician wasn't allowed on the plane.  I guess the demon copier won't be exorcised today.

- - -

I return to school and stick my head into my classroom.  My class has been working on their math and two of the three are doing well.  One student has a question, so I help her.  Then I unload the truck.  The frozen food is fine, ain't nothing gonna thaw out 'round here.  But, it is cold enough that the contents of the canned goods can expand and explode the can if left outside for too long.

I finish unloading the truck right before lunch, when I'm stopped in the hallway.  I'm informed that older couple from town left Fairbanks yesterday, intending to drive back to town.  Nobody has heard from them and people are concerned.

- - -

Let me explain what "driving into town" means....

From Fairbanks, there is a horrible paved road that runs north, all the way up to the Arctic Ocean.  Paving a road isn't very popular up here, the frost upheaval from the extreme cold destroys roads in less than "no time at all".  So, dirt roads are almost always better roads and the preferred construction in the area.

To get to us, you drive for two hours on the paved road, you then turn and drive east along a dirt road for about an hour or so.  From there, it is possible to turn north and drive to our village.

You'll notice two interesting things about that last sentence.... the first, is that I said "it is possible"; the second, is that I did not say you could turn north on another road, and that really sums it up.  You turn north and drive, but, not on a road;  you just turn north and drive, but it is only possible for a few months each year.

You see, once it gets cold enough, the bogs and "creeks" freeze up enough that you "maybe can" drive over them.  And, that's our "road" into town.  Once everything is frozen enough, you turn north from the dirt road and drive for two hours up and over the frozen mountain and her streams.  It's about 24 frozen miles from the dirt road to reach our town, for a grand total of 5ish hours of driving from Fairbanks, if everything goes well.

This couple left yesterday afternoon hoping to be the first people of the season to drive into town.

- - -

We didn't know much at all.  We thought they had left Fairbanks, but we weren't too certain.

A few phone calls confirmed that they had left yesterday.  Now, we don't know where they are and there is growing concern.

Maybe, they decided to stay somewhere along the way... Plans change frequently here, not from  indecision, but from constantly changing factors.  Hopefully, they stopped somewhere last night and were still en route this morning.

We crossed our fingers and made a few more phone calls.  We are told that they had made it to the "frozen road" turnoff yesterday.

Now, we were really concerned.

- - -

We started to make search and rescue plans.

Again, there is a bit of explaining that needs to happen to understand these ramifications.

The nearest police officer is at least a two hour flight away.  The nearest "anything" is at least a two hour flight away.  Even if we could call, there just isn't anyone whom we might call.  The answer to most any question is, there is us, the 30ish people in town.

So, the 30ish people started discussing options.  We all know what an unplanned night in below-zero temperatures in the Alaskan bush potentially means and we prepare for the worst.

There are only a few snow machines in town that are functioning.  We took stock and slowly decided who should travel on these valuable resources.  There are plans to bring first aid equipment and sleds just in case we need to haul people back.

Everyone in town is related in one form or another.  These aren't just neighbors, it is family.  We keep our planning quiet so as to not disturb the students.

Planning is slow.  And, it really isn't much planning.  Finally, a few men leave with a couple of the women.  They start to go over the mountain on the frozen road.

They return in 15 minutes.

- - -

The older gentleman was found a mile down the road; he was walking back to town.

It seems that they got stuck last night trying to get out of one of the many creeks that need to be crossed.  They spent the night there.  This morning,  he walked the remaining 12 miles back into town.  His wife was still with the vehicle.

There is distinct relief that everyone is in good health.  We all know that it doesn't take much for things to go wrong; horribly wrong.  This was our daily reminder.

And, just like that, the day returns to "normal".  Barely a feather was ruffled; the unexpected is the norm 'round here and this was just another day.  This story will definitely be told, but not today.

- - -

I return to class.  None of the students are any the wiser to the dark decisions that were being made moments earlier.

We read a chapter in our novel.  It's written by a local guy and he talks about how he killed his first grizzly bear at the age of thirteen.  Eyebrows are barely raised.

After we finish reading, we go to the quarter-size gym for PE.  We almost always play basketball.  I'm trying to teach the difference between zone and man-to-man defenses, which is admittedly difficult with only three students.

We make a semi-valiant effort to understand the complexities of defense and then semi-resort to two-on-two until our recently eaten lunch reminds us to stop.  Today was chilli.

Once proud snow vehicle.
-Yukon River, AK
We return to the classroom (translates to a room smaller than a typical living room).  It's time for the next round of classes.  We have three simultaneous on-line classes which pushes our internet link to the very max.  Most days result in two of the three classes freezing and/or losing connection.

There isn't cellular service in town.  There isn't cable TV in town.  There is internet; but only at the school and small medical clinic (translates to a building about the size of a large garden shed).  The monthly bill for this luxury, which is a significantly less-than-medicore internet connection, is the cost of a used luxury sedan, each and every month.  We pay because, well, there isn't another option.

One student works on learning the local dialect, one student practices his watercolor technique, and the last student works on biology.  I move between the three students to reasonably ensure that everyone is paying attention and then answer a few e-mail.

School ends.  We have a snack; freshish oranges, another luxury.  Each day as I hand out the mostly green oranges, I think, "There'll be no scurvy here maties."  Each day, it makes me laugh.

I lock the doors and clean up the water buckets.  We've managed to get the water pipes "unfrozen".  None of the piping was damaged, another relief.  Freezing pipes leads to burst pipes, and that is a nightmare.  It would involve removing the pipes in sub-zero temps and then finding a way to get all the materials into town before we can even begin thinking about repairs.  That would take several weeks at best and a lot of organizing.  "At least the road would be in by then." I laugh to myself, glad we don't have to pursue that option.

I decide to push my advantage and go get my laundry.  There are only two washing machines in town and I'm on day three of the same clothes.  With the water fixed, there's bound to be a line at "the laudromat".

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