Call of the Wild: A Speech Language Pathologist’s Journey into the Arctic

September 23, 2014
Sara Ecker, CCC-SLP
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Hi! I’m Sara Ecker and I am a speech-language pathologist in search of exploration and adventure. Last year I found the ultimate assignment as a SLP in the Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska. This year, I invite you to come along with me as I blog about my experiences in the Great White North. Join me as I travel to remote villages, survive extreme conditions and learn about the rewards and challenges of therapy 30 miles above the Arctic Circle. (You can read all of my entries here.)


Alaska plane wing Flying over Southern Alaska on my way to Kotzebue


Seeing grizzly bears and moose is part of the reason I work here. From a few hundred feet in the air, flying on a bush plane, I feel pretty safe. I have gotten used to flying as a means of transportation, but the thrill is still fresh as I get to sit up front near the controls on this particular flight to Noatak. This is the second year I’ve decided to work in Alaska in the Northwest Arctic Borough and this is my first trip of the year. Every other month I make the trek up here to do therapy with kids, check in with the teachers, do evaluations and IEPs. This trip is very special in that I get to go to a village that I’ve never seen before. Selawik and Kotzebue are where my other students are located and they are starting to feel familiar. I know where I can see a caribou leg hanging out of a garbage can. I feel content and accepted as one of my students runs up behind me on the boardwalk and takes my hand while we chat. Every village represents a new something that I didn’t know before and helps me with the puzzle that is life in the Arctic.


Alaska On the flight to Noatak On the flight to Noatak



Alaska The school in Noatak The school in Noatak


Noatak is a village on the Noatak River and watching salmon spawn, jumping into the air like a water display, I see first-hand how fish are ingrained into the lives of people who live here. Catching, preserving and eating fish is a big deal here. Fishing and hunting is how people here survive. They live the subsistence lifestyle like the Inupiat have done for centuries. The kids give me a culture lesson every few days so I can learn how to survive with them. They tell me how to tell if a salmon is still good to eat (if it has white spots, you have to throw it back) or how to not kill a ptarmigan if is alone, as it has bad spirits or is sick.


Alaska boardwalk in Selawik 1 On the boardwalk in Selawik


As a person from the lower 48, I am experiencing a new culture, life and set of values. At times, I feel like I’m having an out of body experience, trying to suspend what I think I know and try to see and experience life from my student’s point of view. My language samples are more to do with hunting or skinning a caribou than asking what kind of super hero they want to be or what sports they like to do. I like it.

I currently have around 55 kids on my caseload. When I’m not visiting the students in person, I am using Skype to connect with the students, special education teachers and educational assistants that help me do direct therapy from 2000 miles away. During the “August visit”, I am typically trying to figure out how to find time to schedule all the kids, what I need to take home (40 lbs of textbooks) so I can support their learning in the classroom and doing the usual evaluations and IEPs. Although Skype therapy may not appear at first to be as good as therapy in person, I love how connected the team is to my goals and what I want them to do every day. There is no therapy in a little speech room. Here the principal, sped director, teachers and assistants are in on what I want for the child to do. It really is a team approach, unlike what I have sometimes seen at other schools. It’s true, I need to rely on others for materials and sometimes they have to be my hands, ears and eyes, but I like that we are truly a team. We are making our way, trying to connect a remote area of the world to the 21st century.

I'm looking forward to my next trip (in October), and sharing my travels with you!


Alaska caribou leg in garbage can Famed caribou leg in garbage can