Friday, October 5, 2007

A visit to Hooper Bay School, in the Alaskan tundra

A third grade class at Hooper Bay School, aka Naparyarmiut Elicarviat

When I signed up to go to Bouchercon 2007 in Anchorage, I expected much of what I have experienced at other great mystery conferences: to meet up with fellow readers and writers (mystery-lovers, all); to participate in and listen to fascinating, lively panels; and to reunite with old friends. In this case it also involved a few evenings of karaoke with an unlikely cast of characters who shall remain nameless – but their initials are Brian, Cornelia, David, Alexandra, Ingrid, Ken, Michelle, Jason, Lukas… I’m sure I’m missing a few, but there was a fair amount of liquor involved. I'm only sorry that I didn't have my camera with me...!

But when I agreed to take part in the Authors in the Bush program, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My first inkling that this would be a real adventure came from the questionnaire sent to all the authors who agreed to participate:

How do you feel about traveling by very small boats or bush planes?
Would you eat wild game such as caribou or seal?
Do you mind sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag?
Are you willing to use a “honey bucket”?

(Use your imagination on that last one.)

I might mention that in a past life I was an anthropologist. I’ve tromped through jungles in Central America, visited rural Mexican villages, and spent six weeks in a Vietnamese refugee camp in the Philippines. Becoming the visiting author to a native Alaskan village sounded like an adventure far too intriguing to miss.

Right after Bouchercon ended I boarded an Alaska airplane for Bethel, where I dragged my suitcase down a dark road until I found the small “bush plane” bound for Hooper Bay, in the Yukon Delta, right on the coast of the Bering Sea.

A lone landing strip constitutes the Hooper Bay "airport." I was picked up by George, a maintenance man from Hooper Bay School, and one of the few people in the village with access to a vehicle with an enclosed cab (more on that later.) A lovely sixth-grade teacher, Cate Koskey, welcomed me into her home. Originally from Indiana, Cate has lived and taught in the village for several years. Her apartment, like all the teacher housing and none of the rest of the village, has running water (eating wild game is one thing, but I wasn’t really up for the “honey buckets”.)

Cate, little Esther, and Tuluk: my hosts

After a devastating fire in August, 2006, a huge new school building was constructed to serve over 400 children – more than a third of the town’s total population.

Above: The new school building, which was luckily already under construction when the old building burned. By village standards, this is a massive structure. Though there are only about 1,200 people in town, more than 400 of these are school-age children, so the school plays a large part in the lives of all the villagers. The building is used for a multitude of community events, and is truly a center of village life.

Below: The school at dawn, which was when school was starting, about 8:45 am.

Over the next few days I spoke with several classes, from first grade to twelfth, about all sorts of things: spooky native legends, what Oakland is like, how to find an agent and get published, what “mouse food” is (it’s the contents of the mouse’s secret cache of food for the winter. Apparently it’s quite tasty.)

Hooper Bay School also has a Yup'ik language immersion program for the youngest children, and the native tongue is witnessing a resurgence after several generations of being cast aside in favor of English. The children told me all about yuuyaraq, the Yup'ik way of life, which includes love, responsibility, respect, bravery, and self-discipline.

We also discussed the elements of a classic mystery: a crime, a victim, a bad guy, a detective, red herrings, alibis, evidence, clues, modes of death. The children especially enjoyed coming up with weird ways to kill someone. The younger ones related to "Scooby-Doo", the older ones to "CSI". Even in the remote reaches of the Bering Sea coast, there are satellite dishes and whatever shows Hollywood serves up.

Above: Rambunctious third-graders in class

Above: First graders in their "reading corner"
Below: A teacher aide with Helen; and more fun classes, making me feel welcome

Basketball is a favorite sport. This outdoor court is rarely dry enough to use, but the kids love being outside. Plus, there's an ocean view!

The roads are so pitted --and the weather so extreme--that cars are unknown and only a few have trucks. Nearly everyone uses 4-wheeled ATVs, or "Hondas".

Above: The school parking lot--everyone headed home after school

A group of teenagers--it's common to see four or five, or more, people on each ATV

As one might expect, these Hondas provide vital transportation -- as well as entertainment. My new friend Tuluk took me on a wild ride along the beach to see "Old Hooper Bay" -- the remnants of the ancient village.

Below: Tuluk stands in Cate's "fish camp" -- a structure ready for tenting whenever the fish are running. Cate has learned a great deal about the subsistence ways of the native Alaskans, and enjoys taking part. Check out her blog at The hills in the background are all that's left of "Old Hooper Bay."

On another day, Tuluk, Cate, and Esther took me out to experience the tundra. It's a landscape unlike anything I've ever seen: completely treeless; full of water, puddles, and ponds; and entirely covered with a spongy layer at least six inches deep -- I never could find the ground-- of lichen, tiny berry plants, herbs, and even mushrooms! Above: Gassing up for the trip

Below: The landscape, looking back toward town


Two-year-old Esther was a champion berry-finder; we ate little round "cranberries" and "blackberries" -- unlike the one we know by that name in California. The compelling landscape made me wonder what everything must look like in its more typical guise: covered in snow.
To be continued in Part II!


©Hotbutton Press said...

Wow, ATVs and honeybuckets. Now there's a strange disconnect! What an experience this must have been for you. Didn't you hate leaving all those sweet kids?


Anonymous said...

I used to live there when i was a lot younger, but I moved, its cold and wet in the spring and fall and very beautiful after a rain storm.

Anonymous said...

This is really cool. I'm from Hooper Bay and I'm in one of the Pictures. Right now I am attending Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Thanks for coming to my hometown.

Hailey Lind (aka, Julie) said...

It's great to hear from people from Hooper Bay -- I so enjoyed my time there, but it wasn't nearly long enough! To the last commenter --which picture are you in? I must have met you!
Thanks, all, for writing!
--Hailey (aka, Julie)

Anonymous said...

I hived in Hooper Bay for nine years. I left with my family a year before the fire hapened. I cried when i heard about it, i know attend Thorne Bay High School.