Call of the Wild: From Liquid to Solid

October 25, 2014
Sara Ecker, CCC-SLP
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My plane left Portland at 10:30 on a Sunday night for a 2 week trip to Selawik and Kotzebue. I arrived in Anchorage around 1:30 a.m. and slept in the airport, upstairs in the art gallery -- the place all the locals suggest. I woke at around 6:00 a.m., got my my last Starbucks for the next two weeks, and made my 7:00 a.m., 90-minute flight to Kotzebue.

When I got off the plane Kotzebue, which leads down directly onto the blacktop, I was immediately assaulted by strong wind and cold. As much as I try to mentally prepare for the cold weather, I am still surprised that it’s close to 30 degrees in October. In Portland, it was still in the 70s! I retrieved all my bags from the baggage claim, and called Kobuk cab. When one calls a taxi in Kotzebue, one must be prepared to share, so I placed my bags in the trunk and fit into the back seat with a few other people. They accept as many people as they can fit, but the price is only $7 to anywhere in town (or, if you’re an elder, it's $5).

Alaska Kotz old house Old house in Kotzebue

Since it was already 8:30 in the morning, I went straight to June Nelson Elementary school. I hauled all of my luggage (which includes almost all of my food for the following two weeks) across the playground, up the stairs and through the hall to my office. Yeah! I had finally arrived. Although I'm always exhausted from traveling all night, the first day is one of my favorite days. I’m fresh and it’s exciting to see the kids in person after a month of seeing them over Skype. It's is all about checking in with the teachers, making sure they know I’m there and seeing as many kids as I can.

Alaska Stop sign in Kotzebue Stop sign in Kotzebue

After school, I made my way over to Bibber’s B and B, where many professionals stay in Kotzebue. There is a large, rather fancy hotel in town, but the cost at $250/night keeps me away. There’s a communal kitchen at the B and B and, along with a homey feeling, the proprietress Jean is a hoot. When I arrived, I called the kitchen phone and told her it was "Sara the Speech Pathologist" and, since it’s my second year there, she knows who I am and welcomed me in.

Alaska Boardwalk in Selawik Boardwalk in Selawik

The next morning, I was back on a plane, this time to Selawik. I usually stay in Kotzebue for a few days before heading over, but for this trip it made more sense to fly there the second day. The bush planes are small, and I was the only passenger this trip (unless you count the hundred+ cases of Pepsi). We flew for a little over 30 minutes, passing over tundra that has serpentine rivers of water covering a majority of the land. When we got to Selawik, I didn’t see anyone I knew as I disembarked from the bush plane, so I texted my colleague at the school. I wrote, “I’m here!” but I got no response back. "Uh-oh," I thought . . . the plane was surprisingly on time. I then called the school, told them I was waiting at the airfield, and they let me know that someone was on the way. Satisfied that I was taken care of, the pilot got back in his plane and was off to his next stop. As the small plane flew over head and I waited with my four pieces of luggage -- including a large air mattress I found at the district office, a bag full of food, various tests and testing materials, sleeping bag, and clothes -- I felt utterly alone and over-packed. I’ve been teased at times for “packing light” (sarcasm) and I’ve tried to whittle down my belongings, but by now, I really don’t care. There is no potable water, no restaurants, food is super expensive, I’ve been caught without a mattress here, and I’m resigned to just bringing every single item I need.

“Dang, It’s cold outside!” I thought to myself as I waited. The rain was starting for Fall, and I slowly realized that I would have to get out my emergency clothes including rain pants, rain jacket, hat and gloves. Thankfully, the four wheeler with a trailer arrived pretty quickly and I loaded my stuff and hopped on the back. Soon we were making our way down the boardwalks to the school (Selawik doesn’t have roads, rather they use boardwalks which people use for their four wheelers and snow machines).

Alaska Board walk on the way to school Board walk on the way to school
Alaska Selawik River before the freeze Selawik River before the freeze

I met-up with my colleague Mary, with whom I work closely. It’s always exciting to meet up with teachers. They are pretty isolated, so I’m sure it’s fun to have people visit, too. I usually try to bring some food up for them, as it’s a lot cheaper to buy goods in Portland, and she was excited as I gave her the four pounds of cheese she and her roommate requested.

After seeing kids all day, I decided go for a walk. A family was cutting up a caribou and I took a few pictures (not for the squeamish!). All around me, I saw fish strips drying outside on racks besides homes. I even saw a confiscated dried fish in the mouth of a rogue dog! I also try to take a walk every morning I'm there. The twinkling stars are still out at 7am and I like how the village feels cool and still. There was frost on the boardwalks this trip, making it easy to see that the transition to Winter is fast approaching.

Alaska Sunset in Selawik Sunset in Selawik

After four days in Selawik, I returned to Kotzebue for the rest of my trip. The weather was cooling quickly and as the days passed in Kotzebue, I could see the ocean gradually start to freeze. It’s an awesome, awe inspiring occurrence to see the small pieces of ice slowly accumulate to change the ocean from a liquid to a solid. The sunsets are amazing this time of year, and with the golden-pink color of the sky and the currents of ice swirling below me, my only thought was that I must be in a magical place. I feel so lucky to be there for all of these truly amazing moments.

Call of the Wild logoHi! 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.