Life in the Freezer

We’ve been settling in up here, above the Arctic Circle, and my blogging efforts have been delayed by two factors: I haven’t been exactly sure what we’re doing, and we only got our Internet about a week ago. I’m still waiting on the TV I ordered, which is now two weeks behind schedule, but we are otherwise all set.

Our home came pre-furnished to an almost alarming degree; not just furniture and silverware, but things like canned food, clothing the previous owner didn’t want, and incriminating evidence of an illegal personal distillery (it’s a dry village). Once we cleared out all that stuff and any food that had spoiled (which wasn’t much), it was a simple matter to get the house stuffs we brought with us organized in a livable sort of way.

This rental is much nicer than our trailer in Chugiak, though it is kind of a bunker, with a low ceiling and only two small windows (which are invariably covered by snow drifts). At least we have hot water consistently, and our heater always works, though it is rather loud. Our “front” door faces the prevailing wind, so it is in a near-constant state of being buried, and we have to get out through the garage. The door to the garage, however, can only be securely closed by locking it, so if, say, Katrina goes to work early I have to latch the door behind her, and open it for her when she gets back. However, the place is well-insulated, and having the buffer of the garage means we can brace ourselves for the frigid weather outside.

Everything that happens here seems to be dictated by the weather: the school doesn’t have “snow days” so much as “blizzard days”, mail and visitors from the outside world only arrive if the wind and visibility are safe enough for flying (which seems to be kind of rare this time of year), and preparing to go outside is a complicated but critical process usually involving three or four layers, face masks, and sometimes goggles.

The town of Kaktovik is just a small grid of buildings, isolated on an island in the frozen ocean. You can easily walk the extent of it, but the only places of note (for us) are the health clinic (across the street), the school (two blocks northwest), the post office (next to the school), the store (a block northeast), and the two restaurant/hotels in town (on either end). When we get tired of cooking for ourselves or the teachers at the school go out for a social get-together, those restaurants are really the only choices.

As I mentioned, I haven’t really had a clear picture of what I will be doing up here; my arrival was delayed a few weeks by terrible weather, and I arrived right around the time the school principal, Todd, had to leave for out-of-town district meetings, so I was kind of understandably left in a lurch. After a Christmas vacation at home, I was eager to get back to work, but I had to cool my heels for a few weeks before I could get started. My daily routine consisted of getting up with Katrina to see her off to work at around 7:30, and then puttering around the house until she came home, wondering what to do with myself. Since we were without Internet or a TV screen for much of that, my usual time-wasters were unavailable. I’ve gotten rather good at being a “house-husband”, doing dishes, vacuuming, and sorting laundry. Our little bunker doesn’t have a washing machine, but we have been making weekend trips over to Deb’s place, which does. It gives us a chance to socialize as well as watch the important stuff on TV (like the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics). This week was really my first experience substituting and TA’ing and substitute TA’ing, which is a blog post in itself.

As far as my initial impressions go; it is both less and more rugged than I was picturing. I think you simply can’t prepare for how cold it is up here. On bad days, even the short walk to school is exhausting, fighting the wind and expecting Tauntauns or AT-ATs at any moment. On the other hand, once you get to the school, it is like any other school I’ve ever seen, except all grades are represented, and the entire population could probably fit into a couple of California elementary school classes.

There is a stiff divide between the “native” population and the “white” population, which I also wasn’t ready for. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is out-and-out racism, but it’s clear that we are seen as outsiders and are mildly mistrusted. It doesn’t help that the majority of the teachers are white and the majority of the kids and community members are native, further cementing the perception of a class distinction. For the most part, people are friendly, though, so it’s not a huge issue, it’s just more apparent than I am used to in my overwhelmingly white bread hometown, or my all-inclusive college town.

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