A walk to the Kuskokwim

Last weekend was calm and sunny, so as the sun was getting low I took a walk down the Tuluksak river to the Kuskokwim.

This compound is on the edge fo the village, with river access. You can see how slick everything is from the warm days and then refreezing at night. This area is set up for processing fish.

A sled dog and I look down the Tuluksak.

Waiting for breakup.

It was so quiet. I’ve seen some ravens flying overhead, but I don’t think any birds are residing in the village. All you can her when you walk is the crunch of snow and ice. Here are some tire tracks from a truck. Folks drive the river in the winter to get to neighboring villages, but also to get water from the Kuskokwim, which is a little less brown and a little more tasty than the Tuluksak water.

Here are some ice road markers to let you know it is time to turn off the river and cut across the land for a bit as a shortcut.

Just as I was nearing the Kuskokwim, I heard and then saw a smowmachine far of but heading my way. I waited until it got to me and the rider stopped and chatted. He wanted to be sure I was OK before heading into the village. Folks out here have a habit of checking in on people who are outside of the normal walking radius of the village, which is a good thing!



First, thanks for reading. Please feel free to use the comments to ask questions, or even send me on missions. If you have curiosity inside of you about something I can tell or show you from here, let it out!

Second, holy cow I’ve been busy! Every day that passes would give me at least three blog posts worth of stuff to write about, and leaves me at the end of the day with my head spinning. Don’t forget I’m also supposed to be writing reports for work, too! But I’ve got to get these posts out – so here you go!

Today, let’s talk a little about honeybuckets. Honeybuckets are what you use when you don’t have a flushing toilet. They are always 5 gallon pails. At some point, the buckets are dumped into receptacles that are along the road or paths of the village. I’m guessing having to dump the honeybucket is the chore assigned to the child who is in the most trouble that day. At some point, the village comes by and empties the receptacles. The waste then gets dumped into a sewage lagoon, which is basically a shit pond some distance from the village.

This is my honeybucket, located in my arctic entry. Just in case the pipes freeze here and at the school (which they did over winter break!)

I was just speaking to a young Yupik man who remarked that when he was little, every village, it seemed, still used honeybuckets. Now Tuluksak is one of maybe five villages in Alaska that does not have a sewage system for the primary residents of the village. Note I say primary residents. Every village school in Alaska has its own power, water, and sewage facilities. Most of the time, these facilities also extend to teacher housing.

Here’s a honeybucket receptacle, plus bonus buckets. The big receptacles are full because the sewage is frozen and can’t be emptied. 

This creates kind of a caste system. I’ve got water, a shower, a washing machine, and a flushing toilet. My neighbor has to get water either from the river or pay for it at the washeteria (more coming on that). If my neighbors want a shower, they’ll have to also pay for that at the washeteria or maybe sneak in and use the school locker room’s showers during open gym. The other option here is to sweat it out in a maqi, or steam bath. This works very well, and many folks prefer it to a shower.

This young man is hauling water up from the Tuluksak river. That pole in his other hand is used to break new ice that has formed over the water hole.

One time during a cultural immersion camp we were working with about 20 youth from this area, staying for a couple weeks at the University of Alaska dorms. Some of the students opined that, though they were taking showers every day, they felt dirty without a maqi.

Oh boy, the wahseteria. It is in great disrepair. The expectation has been that it would be replaced, or become unnecessary, for almost the past 10 years. But, for one reason or another, the water and sewer here hasn’t been completed for village use, and the washeteria has never been replaced. It’s become a significant issue, not just for convenience, but for health reasons. 

The local water, whether from the river or wells that have been drilled here and there, is high in naturally occurring arsenic, iron, and manganese. It’s got a lot of particulate matter in it, and will discolor laundry. The treated water that you pay for at the washeteria is so discolored folks prefer the slightly less-brown river water! 

There are MANY agencies that are focused on helping this village get clean water, including two native health corporations, two tribal corporations, and several government agencies. The big steps for having a water and sewer system require the village – really the Tuluksak Native Community (the name for their tribal government) – to make some things happen. I’m going to try to help connect some dots and do some strategic pushing and pulling to help.

The Plans of Mice and Men…

I’ve been doing some research on the playground. I guess it was only partially built. The Principal mentioned how she wished it was finished on the first day I was here, and the Local Advisory School Board also brought it up. Maybe this is something we can get done with a little community/school collaboration. 

I found a pile of school plans that were really interesting to look through. They are from 2006 and are for the current school. The documents are huge, so here are two snippets that are hard to really see. 

This first picture is in front of the school. It shows plans for a soccer field, a baseball field, and a lighted hockey rink/basketball court. Note the “Accepted not built”. That means that the materials were bought, but nothing was built (except for the baseball backstop – I took a picture of that in an earlier post). 

And here’s another thing for the back of the school – a sand volleyball court:

And, OK, maybe if the sand volleyball court had been built, it would take off, and the tiny village of Tuluksak would be producing some of the finest beach volleyball players in Alaska. As at ease on the the ice rink as they are on the soccer field. I asked a few of my new young friends who gathered around me as I was poring over the maps what they thought of having  soccer, baseball, hockey, and outdoor volleyball fields, courts, and rinks, and they shook their heads.

So much money spent, with so little consideration to: Does anybody want this? or, What will we do when we’ve built it? I could give you more illustrations and stories of this throughout the school. It makes me puzzle over if there is some sort of series of questions that should be asked – of those pushing the stuff,  of those purchasing it, and of those left to deal with it – that get to the heart of creating and maintaining sustainable rural community. Will it last? Can it be made from things from here? By people from here? This is something still forming, but I think there’s something there. 

Drones and Playgrounds

I’ve been there and back again since my last dispatch. Of course it has been a whirlwind. Taking a week away is whittled down significantly with the travel part. It was great to have been in my Tuluksak home long enough to make a list of things that I needed to bring in. Now that I’m back here I’ve got some nice touches to make it feel more like home. Plus I have a bowl to eat things from. That is super helpful. 

I spent most of the day with Ron Fortunado who is up here on a contract working on some interesting science/community/kid stuff. Give me a raincheck on giving all the details – it will feel too much like a report, and I’m feeling some guilt for not writing a proper one of those yet for the Powers That Be. What I like about what Ron is doing is he starts with the kids and the community: “What is something that you are concerned about and want to fix?” Here, there’s been concern about lead in the water after a few kids came back from their Bethel dentist with concerning blood work. Also, concern about rapidly eroding riverbanks creating sandbars in places there haven’t been sandbars before, cause grounded boats, and in one case in the neighboring village, deaths from some kids going too fast on the river. And then I added what I’ve heard from folks and the principal about the playground – first getting finished, and second if it is in the right place or not. 

OK, so from this, here’s what he’s doing. He brought lead and pesticide testing kits for drinking water, and is working with the elementary teacher to teach the kids how to test water. Today we tested their classroom sink water (it was OK), but the hope is to work up to having them test their own household water. Data collected and presented to the community. With the eroding sandbars, he’s working with older kids to use a drone to do some measurements of the riverbank that will be geomapped. The students will keep track of the riverbank over time to measure the rate of erosion. They’ll also be able to use the drone to map current sandbars in the river for navigation this summer. And with the playground project, he worked with some students to program the drone to do an arial transect over the school area. The date is fed into a computer that will work overnight to create a three dimensional model of the school and the land around it. This can be used to start identifying where the high and low points of the property are, to help with locating and/or planning playground placement. Later we hope to look into what kind of design the kids would like to see, and also start to scope out some ways to help keeping the play area dry – all with the kids leading the charge. 

First Day in Tuluksak!

Look, I’m typing this from my real leather couch!

Delayed flights on every leg. Two duffels each at 50 lbs and a tote at 55. The Juneau Alaska Airlines gave me grace, but the Anchorage AK Air made me pay. Bethel in the afternoon in early February and there’s open water everywhere. You could see some snow machines on the river, but later talking to folks they said very few would do it as it was a wet ride, and dangerous. Sunny clear skies and 40 degrees as I sat exhausted at Ravn air after lugging all those bags single handedly through the check in. This was at like 12:00 noon. A two hour wait for my flight.

Folks had been trying to get to Tuluksak for three days, but planes couldn’t land because – get this – the runway was too icy. The warm days had melted the surface of the snow and ice that is usually hard-packed like concrete, and then at night it would freeze smooth as glass. But today the runway had been graveled, so we were good to go.

They had added an extra flight just 30 minutes before mine for all those that had been stranded in Bethel. One of the passengers came up to me and asked if I was that guy that was going to Tuluksak for some undefined reason. I guess I stood out. She was a delightful person named Lesa Meath who works in Tuluksak for a week a month. We’ll talk more about her later.

So, this flight that she was on made it to Tuluksak. And then they called my flight. This was a Cessna single engine 6 seater – the small one. I folded myself in the back with another guy from Tuluksak named Roger, and an elder sat up front who was heading to the neighboring village of Akiak. This was kind of funny because normally, as the Tall Guy, I sit up front, and instead here was this tiny lady who was not much taller than the flight yoke (is that what they call plane steering wheels?). We took off, made a nice slow circle around Bethel, and landed again. Though it remained sunny in Bethel, fog had set in at Tuluksak, just 45 miles away.

I sat at Ravn on weather hold for another 3 hours until they finally cancelled the flight. So I went to Bethel’s only bar – OK, it is a place called Fila’s Pizza, and it serves beer and wine. It is set up as a restaurant, but there are four stools set over by the the waitron station, so that’s the bar. There’s another story’s worth of stuff about my experiences there, so we’ll save that for another post. But what an interesting experience to be having a good IPA and a decent pizza in a place that I’d known for 20 years as a dry town.

Back to Ravn first thing in the morning. My flight would still get me to school in time for a SIG Grant meeting (whatever that was) that the principal, Sharene Craft, wanted me to attend. But, instead I sat for another 5 hours on weather hold. And then, my name was called, I was back on a plane (co-pilot seat, this time!) and in no time I was in Tuluksak!

I dropped off my bags and went straight to the Library, but, alas, the meeting was long over. But there sat an exhausted Sharene and Lesa regrouping after their long meeting. They are both delightful people, and we had some fun just chatting and figuring each other out. I want to save writing about them until I get to know them a little better, but they both certainly helped to put me at ease about whatever I’m getting into. Not that they we telling me things would be easy – they both were clear things are going to be challenging here. More like here were these two lovely people who were game to make whatever positive difference they could, and they were open and honest and game to have me jump in, too.

My little apartment is right across from the entrance to the school. Only teacher housing and the school have full plumbing. The rest of the village uses honeybuckets and there’s a launderette. This kind of creates a caste system in other places I been that are like this. We’ll see. I’ll post more pictures in a bit. There’s no internet over here, though I can use my cell phone for short bursts. For regular internet I’ll need to find some place in the school. There are several empty classrooms right now, so that won’t be a big deal.

The place is much better than I expected. It is clean, the kitchen is great, there are THREE chairs, and this crazy leather couch! One big problem is that someone built I loft for the bed. This is going to put my nose about 5 inches from the ceiling. And the frame for this thing is exactly six feet high. And I’m 6’2”. So going under the loft has me stooped over and doesn’t make it that much of a usable space. I think I overheard Sharene talking to her husband (he’s the shop teacher and Other Duties As Assigned) say that she wished that had come down. Maybe I can help.