Monthly Archives: February 2020
There is something quite impressive about a Southwestern Alaska blizzard. We were out at the far end of the village, when our local guide told us that we had 15 minutes left to take cover. He had become incredibly reliable with his predictions, and we had already used up 3/4 of an hour from his first warning call. He had been counting down regularly after that first one.
Visibility had been shortened considerably, and it was obvious that we needed to take cover soon. Even Bear, our furry, four-legged companion, had left us to take his own cover at the 30 minute warning mark.
By sunset, one could hardly see the closest building to you. The wind howled over, under and around the building that housed us. It was simply put: Intense. I can’t think of any time I have experienced such fierce winds. In Fairbanks, we rarely see much wind, the colder it gets, the calmer it gets. Out here in Newtok was a totally different animal. Which meant that we spent far too much time outside reveling in the chaos.
The next day, the kids were climbing up snow drifts against a couple of connex units and running the length of them, then launching off into the massive piles of snow. Backflips were par for the course.
Trails that we had been walking, now had steep drops, only to have us climb back up the other side.
We flew in on a Wednesday, and due to weather, another flight didn’t land at Newtok for the next 8 days. Weather permitting, Grant Aviation makes 2-3 flights per day.
Sticking the landing:
Newtok, Alaska: That wasn’t a landing, as much as it was an arrival.
When we landed in Newtok, the little airstrip was a hive of activity. Two small planes were parked at one end of the runway, with people, gear and supplies being quickly unloaded in the -20F degree air. Two men with four wheelers offered us rides on the back to the heart of the village: The School.
In the summer, Newtok is a village of boardwalks. The entire village is sinking into the tundra, with the melting of the permafrost, and many of the boardwalks will be under water when break up arrives.
Today though, the ground is frozen firm, and the village is encased in snow.
The Yup’ik village of Newtok, which roughly translates to “rustling of grass”, first saw a permanent settlement in 1949, although the ancestors of the residents have lived in the area for over 2000 years. By 1958, the BIA had built a school. The location was determined because it was the farthest up river that barges could bring in supplies.
The Ninglick River has been taking dozens of feet of shoreline annually by erosion, leaving much of Newtok balancing precariously. A new location for the village has been staked out 9 miles away at Mertarvik, which roughly translates as “good water” from Yup’ik. Approximately one third of the village moved across the river onto higher ground this past autumn.
The church was empty, as the priest travels from village to village. The sunset is glowing through the windows on the opposite side.
We spent a lot of time in the school, as it acted as a community center for the village. Everyone seemed to go through the school at some point. The teachers, administration, and students were all very welcoming, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction.
This little guy became our constant companion and guide. Bear would see us out walking from across the village, and he’d come running for us at a gallop. We often had a pack of village dogs following us, and competing for our attention when we were out & about. Like all the residents of Newtok, they were incredibly gracious hosts.
Camera: Rolleiflex 3.5MX; Film: Kodak 120, T-Max 100
The view on the way to Bethel, Alaska, through a very milky Ravn Air window.
2020 is the 50th Anniversary of the Alaska State Parks system. Events will be held at all state parks throughout the year. The first one starts today down in Homer.
Check out the Alaska State Parks website for an event schedule.