Coming to Alaska (an interview with my mom)

(In other words, perhaps it’s genetic.)

So tell me about coming to Alaska?

Back in 1979 I was at one of those turning points in my life. I hated my job. I was breaking up from a long term relationship. And I was graduating with a Masters degree in special ed. I decided that if I was ever going to realize my dream of escaping to the wilderness, this was the perfect opportunity. I began looking for teaching positions. There was a position open in an Alaskan village and in Ft. Greely, Co. The Alaskan school district contacted me immediately: their school board would be in DC the next week, could I possibly meet them there to interview? The interview went great. They offered me the job on the spot. I accepted and began planning my escape.

Nearly everyone I knew thought I was either crazy or the bravest person they’d met. “You’re going to ALASKA? By yourself? You will freeze to death! How will you survive?” My pat response to questions of this sort was, “I will just watch what everybody else does, and do the same thing.” People could not imagine living without television and grocery stores. “What do you mean you can’t drive to that village? You’re not going to have a car? What are you going to do, get around by dogsled? You’re going to fly from village to village in a two seater airplane? What happens if you go down in the wilderness? They’ll never find you. They don’t have plumbing! You know that means you’re going to have to use an outhouse?!” People got real excited about a lot of aspects of me moving to the Alaskan bush. I was secretly looking forward to all of this with relish, but trying to hide my anticipation from the naysayers.

I decided that it would be smart to learn as much as I could about this village before I went there, and since one of the Alaskan Senators was from that village I made an appointment to go to DC and talk with him. When I arrived for our appointment, he was out of town, but I talked with his secretary who was from Fairbanks. She told me not to listen to all of the naysayers. She said “bring your ball gowns, you’ll just wear your bunny boots underneath them and change into your heels when you get to the dance.” This made me a little concerned as I didn’t actually own any ballgowns. I figured I’d fake it.

What was it like when you first got here?

I left my hometown July 4, independence day, 1979. Arrived in the little big city July 5th. After spending the night in a hotel, I flew straight out to the village. I had brought quite a bit of luggage. When I landed at the airport, there was no real evidence of which way town was. And me, with a thousand pounds of luggage, and no transport. When I asked, someone pointed in the direction, and I began ferrying my footlockers, carrying one fifty feet then going back for another. It wasn’t too long before I realized how quickly word spread in small towns. Someone drove up saying, “hi, you’re the new teacher lady. I’m the superintendent.” He helped me load my stuff up and took me to the school district office. It was there that I was informed that the teacher housing I had been told I would have was no longer available. I could sleep on the floor at the school until I could find a place.

The school psychologist let me stay at his house. I stayed with him for a month, until the woman I had first rented from came back from fish camp. She rented me a house that was in a pretty poor state of repair. I spent a week cleaning, carting out bottles of urine, tons of trash, washing walls, doing a total repair on the drip oil heater. After about a month she came over one day drunk and saw that I had stacked a lot of firewood in the artic entry. She was upset and evicted me. I was not as upset about this as I might have been, as I had realized just how cold this house was going to be. It was only September and already it was cold.

Now I don’t know how to word this, but your dad and I hooked up about that time.

The weekend before school began, one of the white trappers in town offered to take me up a pretty river with one of his buddies. His buddy took the boat back to town, but never returned for us. We were stuck 12 miles up river. School was to start in a couple days. I had to get back. I was ready to walk. The white trapper insisted that we should take the canvas canoe from his fish camp. So off we went. Between the two of us, and the dog, we had two inches of freeboard.*n This may be the opportune moment to mention that I have a severe phobia of water. This was in no way a calm float down an idyllic stream. There were many points when I was sure that my friends had been right: I’m gonna die.

We made it to a landing about five miles from the village, which was about two miles from where the tributary we were on met the Mighty River. We walked five miles to town. At which time, this trapper informed me that I didn’t know how to walk right, but somehow I made it anyway and showed up for school on time, if slightly worse for the wear.

I thought you were an itinerant teacher? How did that work?

I flew to a different village every week, trained aids to work with my students in those villages, returned to the Village for the weekend, where I thawed out my cabin, and then left on Monday for another vilage.

*freeboard – the space between the top of the boat and the water.


  1. yes, i cant’ wait to read the rest of the story…if there is one.
    coming to alaska indeed. I wonder what draws people of the ilk there?

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