I Should Have Known, and Now I Do!

By Jan Littlebear
Noon Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Where to begin? Maybe with Lorrie; after all she's the one who told us when leaving one school for another we need to be ready at the drop of a hat, so someone can find us and get us to the airport in time to catch our flight. Right? Not exactly. She didn't tell us the path to the airport might be washed out to the Bering Sea!

4th & 5th Graders at Kotlik School
Jeanine Griek's 4th & 5th Graders at Kotlik School.

Yesterday afternoon, oh, I'd say around 2:00 PM, an all-call came over the Kotlik school intercom telling everyone that the river was rising. One of the wives had called, looking for her custodian husband so he could get home. She was worried about their boat going down river. That was the beginning. But naïve, inexperienced Jan Littlebear didn't know what that all-call signaled. I finished working with my ECTs, caught up on emails and paperwork, ate my tuna-covered Pilot bread, some dry fruit, took a shower, watched TV-the news and CSI, read some more of my book (Eats, Shoots & Leaves) and fell asleep in one of the most comfortable places a person could hope to bed down. It was warm, cozy, quiet and I only heard an occasional dog barking. Come to think of it, though, the barking dog did have an eerie, helpless timbre to its pitch. I should have known.

Just the day before, as I remained tucked in my sleeping bag on my "wonder" bed (that's another story); the lights came on in the school at 6 AM. So this morning I got up at 5:45 AM, dressed, rolled up my sleeping bag, packed my clothes, put the bed away, returned the classroom to hopefully its normal state, heated some leftover coffee (YUCK!), ate a breakfast bar, an apple, and some pears; got my paperwork ready, lined out my schedule for the day, checked my email, when all of a sudden it dawned on me it was now 7 AM and the school was still dark, the lights were not yet turned on, and there were no people around-usually teachers start arriving by 6:30 AM. Of course it was still dark outside so I couldn't see. I should have known.

Jan Littlebear helps a student.
Jan Littlebear helps a student.

Then from 7 until 8 in the morning, everything happened. People arrived, a few students showed up, and the stories began. Many of the villagers and teachers had been up at midnight, again at 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the morning (while I zzzz'd away!) working to save their belongings- anchoring boats, securing personal stuff that was floating away, making sure ATVs and other survival equipment would still be there when the light of day arrived. Teachers began their normal trek to school, walking on the usual boardwalk path that always brings them to school, only to step into knee-high water and retrace their steps to their homes to change clothes and take an alternative route. They arrived-all of them-in a timely manner. The principal announced there would be no school and for staff to come to the kitchen, along with the smattering of students present, to eat breakfast which had been prepared for the children. We all ate; it was my second breakfast.

This proved to be an absolutely terrific opportunity for me to share some quality social time with one of my ECTs. Just like I had done, this is an older ECT beginning a second career, so he and I already had much in common. A youngster sitting next to us looked at him and commented, "I never heard you laugh so much!" Perhaps he and I were being a bit too social for the moment. :) At the coffee pot in the lounge, I spoke with the day man who told me his story–he was up all night trying to get his boat back. Lucky he had a friend with a boat; probably all Kotlik villagers have such a friend, maybe next time I can even find a way to be a friend (if I'm awake, that is). "How could you search, you know, how could you see at that hour of the night?" I asked. He replied, "Well, my friend has a spotlight on his boat, and I held out my flashlight, and we just kept searching." "Did you find it?" "Yeah, it was drifting out to sea! I'm glad we found it. I need that boat." He was busy cleaning up at school, doing his usual chores and duties, working a seemingly normal day. I'm pretty sure he was operating on little, if any, sleep. Of course I was wide awake. The children who had sloshed their way to school were escorted home, one by one. About 8:30 only the staff remained. I still should have known there was more to come.

Studious Kotlik second graders
Studious Kotlik second graders.

I asked if flights would happen, and was advised to wait until about 10 AM, to see where the water was, and then call. It was starting to get light out and I could see how the water had moved up towards the school and homes. It was amazing the litter, belongings, and I'm sure treasures that had been moved from one place to another in the village of 600. I met with two ECTs, we did the collaborative log, and I called the airlines. "Sure, Grant Airlines will be there, but you'll have to get your own way to the air strip because the boardwalk is washed away. You'll need to find a boat." Oh, darn, I did not pack a boat. Lorrie! Are you there? Hello! :) A boat...okay, we're resilient, I can do this. I first checked with Bernie, the secretary-cuz secretaries know everything, right? She said all the boat people (her words) had gone home. I go in search of Richard, the teacher married into the village and about to retire after 18 years working at the school. I figure he probably knows everything, too!

"Richard, have you got a boat?" "Why?" "Because Grant Airlines tells me I need one to get to the airstrip." "Come on, Jan, I can get you there on my ATV." Thus, the adventure begins!

It's blowing, raining, and getting cold. I have on tennis shoes, by the way :( I'm layered everywhere, but tennis shoes are what cover my feet. We bundle up, go outside and climb aboard his ATV - he puts my 30# duffel bag on the front, holds my briefcase, and "anchors" me behind him. That means he told me to "Hang on, Jan!" I did. It's probably a mile to the airstrip, how hard can that be? Richard and I embark, it's slow and easy going as we sail right over the tops of a lot of debris and wood and glide by personal belongings littering the teetering boardwalk. Other items float by, or are blown along by the wind. My captain is being cautious and I'm sure a lot of that caution was due to the greenhorn sailor-mentor sitting sidesaddle alongside. He reminds me to keep my feet up. I do. Along the way someone is sort of blocking the boardwalk with his ATV, it's broken down and he needs a welder. He asks, "Richard, do you have a welder up at the school?" Richard tells him no. That man and his ATV limp off the trail forward, out of our way, so that we can continue our crossing.

John Broussard and second grader at Kotlik School
John Broussard and a second grader at Kotlik School.

Another villager says, "You be careful Richard, there's a washout up there." I do wonder about this statement, but I also trust Richard. We continue. People wave from their homes, children in their front yards splash through the water wearing their rubber boots—smart kids wear rubber boots. Kotlik is no longer still or quiet. Although many of the dogs seem to be asleep atop doghouses or other places resting, there's at least one active furry guy alert and watching everything. This curious canine is staying dry, holed-up in a boat that is moored next to the steps leading into its owners' home. At one point we "slide" off the boardwalk into the water, at least one wheel slides, that is: mine - my tennis-shoe-clad foot is submerged. Rich says "Hang on, sit still." I do. He manages to get us unstuck and we proceed. I wish I had my camera handy; I can describe it for you, but I'd rather show it to you. It was an image-laden voyage, about to come to a screeching halt! (Can you "halt" a boat/ATV?")

We approach the 6-foot washed-out boardwalk, only a bit more than a city block distance from the airplane which is now watching and waiting for us. Richard, wearing boots, (they're all so smart in Kotlik) hands me my briefcase so he can disembark, check the depth of the stream, and decide whether to proceed or return. A true adventurer, Richard advises we're going on. We enter into the running current, that flooded stream which is-much like a migrating salmon-trying to connect with the Yukon and journey onto the Bering Sea. We make it for a distance-one foot, two feet, three...whoosh! We stop. You can feel the back, left wheel starting to sink, to submerge; Richard maneuvers the controls, the wheel spins; I hope...but the wheel is descending. He says, "Come on, Jan, I'll help you get to the boardwalk, it's real close." I trust Richard. My now-topsy-turvy vantage point from the far side of the ATV's seat is simply not "conducive" to even seeing, let alone "finding" the boardwalk, but I really do trust Richard! I hand him my briefcase (that damn thing will be in the duffel bag next time!), turn around and back down off my crow's nest perch. His expertise helps my soggy shoe find solid footing and from that moment on it's an easy thing to push off from the ATV and actually stand up erect (or is it "a wreck?") ready to walk the remaining little bit to the plane. Rich, my knight in shining (but wet) Carharts, carries my heavy bag; I take that NUISANCE of a briefcase. Three other passengers are ahead of me, a man about my age and an elder with his preschool-aged grandson. They all walked. The man is soaked from behind his knees to his feet - he has on Carhart bib overalls. The little boy, dressed in a green rain slicker, is as dry as cotton. Grandpa, dressed in rain gear, also appears to be pretty dry-both Gramps and Grandson are wearing rubber boots! I have two wet feet. I rethink my dress for next time. I climb onto the plane, fly into a strong headwind and arrive at Emmonak where the electricity is out. Then board another plane to Alakanuk where, as we approach the school, I can see children at recess, playing down below. And I think, "Whew, back to work." I LOVE this job.