For the first time since starting this website, I’m writing from the field. Usually, I take time after an excursion to ruminate (a lot) on things seen and heard in the Bush. I try to reflect on each nuance and whittle the experiences down to something palatable and hopefully relevant to an overall theme.
Not this time. This experience shall be shared on the daily – or at least, as often as time allows.
I set out for Nightmute (pop ~280) earlier this morning, February 3, 2017. Way early. It was a dark, foggy, nearly-warm morning in Anchorage as I departed for Bethel on a nearly-empty Alaska Airlines flight. The air was turbulent, but I slept like the dead, splayed out across an entire row all to myself.
Connecting in Bethel is always interesting. Today was no different, as the driver for the terminal-to-terminal shuttle apparently went AWOL for an hour or so, but it all worked out fine since my outbound flight was delayed (due to a missing aircraft, go figure).
The flight to Nightmute was as different from the Anchorage flight as could be. The skies were bright, clear, and COLD (it was about 8 degrees Fahrenheit). The ride was smooth and the pilot was a pro. We arrived at the Nightmute airstrip, about a mile and a half outside of town, with ease
This visit to Nightmute offers another couple ‘firsts’ for me:
a) this will be the longest assignment I’ve had in a village so far, almost three weeks.
b) it’s the first time I’ve gone out without a colleague.
These two factors inspired a little anxiousness when they hit me. Packing for a week or so is easy and there’s no worry about whether there will be functional laundry facilities somewhere (there usually are, but accessing them can be challenging). Also, I’ve typically brought all my own food out to villages and bringing calories enough to fuel my quick metabolism for such a span was daunting. Luckily, this concern was handled by our client, who graciously arranged both food and lodging.
Which leaves the second new thing: being out here by myself. Having a colleague in the field is great for a multitude of reasons. You watch each other’s backs for any health or safety concerns (like bears or wolves), there’s another professional to bounce ideas off of, and having a buddy to laugh with during downtime makes the experience all the more enjoyed. Again, not this time.
This Nightmute trip is for an addition to their school. Village schools are vital for the entire community, not just kids. So there’s more at stake than a mere structure filled with classrooms. Even more important is Nightmute’s location, or rather, the facts surrounding its region: the YK Delta.
This is arguably the poorest and most under-served of all Alaskan regions. The North Slope has oil and gas money to provide jobs and funding for capitol projects, and Northwest has pretty large mining operations that grant the same sort of economic stimuli. Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau have sizable government operations, established infrastructure, moderately self-sustaining local economies, and a smattering of resource-extraction operations. These three areas are also bolstered by their accessibility and subsequent tourism.
But places like Nightmute are, to quote today’s pilot, “wayyy out there.” Transportation costs are the first big barrier to development, it just costs so much to get goods or materials out here. But how much?
Let’s put it into perspective: how much would you typically pay for a regular can of Febreeze? A couple bucks? Maybe three? Out here in Nightmute, that can of air-freshening goodness will run you eight and a half dollars. Yup, almost four times more than the normal price in a Lower 48 store.
During this trip, I’m going to write more about the school, people I meet, and any stories that unfold. One exciting bit of news, muskox season just opened, and it looks like the getting is good.
This gentleman gave the crew working on the school a whole side of fresh meat and we’re eagerly looking forward to diving in this weekend. Can’t wait to share how that culinary exploration goes. Until tomorrow…
© Chasen Cunitz and AKv2v.com, 2017
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Alaska: Village to Village