My plans are to visit smaller villages once I leave Unalakleet. Here's a map to help you understand my route from Nome to Unalakleet, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin and back to Nome.
In the morning I spoke to the students of the Unalakleet school. We made up a story and I drew some pictures. I asked the kids to pose for a photograph and everybody posed nicely.
Then I said, "Let's take a fun photo now. You can do whatever you want!" And this is how they posed.
After school I walked through town. "Nice day, eh?" an older man said to me. "Yes!" I said, but I thought it was cold. Two people went by on snow machines and waved. They jumped off and hurried into the general store. Now, it seemed, everybody was friendly. So I went in. It was a small grocery store and they sold food, boots, underwear and postcards. Three sodas and five postcards cost $6.45. "Thanks!" said the man behind the counter.
Walking back to Marty's I passed many snow covered boats and lots of ice fishing houses that were on sleds. One had a painting on it that looked like a person peeking out of a window. I quickly roughed out a drawing of it, then finished it in the warmth of the apartment.
Back in the school, I sat in the library waiting for my plane flight to the next village. It is interesting- you do not book a flight and get a ticket like you do back East. No, you call the airline company and they tell you what time they think a plane will be coming through. Then you wait. And hope to get a call that announces, "Plane's ten minutes out." Then you rush up to the airstrip and meet the plane. In the meantime I talked to two of the bigger kids. They were on the wrestling team- 125lb. and 145lb. It is a challenge for teams to get together and compete out here in the villages. You can't just hop on a bus. Travel is either by sled or airplane. So the Unalakleet team had only three meets this year and then went right to the regionals. The Sopohmores liked the music of KORN, heavy metal and ska. "Not Rap," they insisted.
My plane was supposed to arrive around 3:30, but the call came at 2:20- "Plane's five minutes out!" A guy gave me a ride to the airstrip in a pickup truck. "Hurry," he said, "Steve's got the plane running. Go around the back of the plane, he's got the propeller running!" I rushed around the rear of the plane.
"Going to Shaktoolik?" the pilot asked.
"No, Koyuk," I said.
"You sure?" he asked.
"Yeah." He shrugged his shoulders. Hey, he had a barrel of pretzels, too. We were quickly airborne. Koyuk next. I hope.
The story I was in Alaska to create runs through Koyuk. The village was founded around 1842, though they know that early man was there 6,000-8,000 years ago. The people are Unalit and Malemuit Eskimo. Would they be friendly? No roads connect Koyuk to other villages. The economy is based on subsistence, living off the land. "I wouldn't go to Koyuk if I lost a bet," the guy in Nome said. I HOPE he was just kidding me.
I thumbed through my sketchbook. Would my story come alive in Koyuk?
As soon as I got out of the airplane at Koyuk I spotted two boys waiting by a sled that was hitched to a snow machine. They studied me carefully. A man said, ".... to the school?"
"Yes," I said. He threw my bags on the sled and we hopped onto the snow machine. The boys rode the sled.
The snow machine bumped and lurched its way through the town. Here in Koyuk the land slopes gently down to the bay. Unlike Unalakleet, there are trees. Most of the buildings are fairly new, simple buildings. The school is a large grey building that sits on pilings that are sunk down far into the ground until they hit bedrock. Huge metal tubes run underneath the building. I wonder what they are? .
In Koyuk, extreme temperatures of -45 to -87 degrees have been reported. Today I would guess it is about zero.
We are at the school now. There's some children waving to me. Looks like Koyuk may be a friendly place.
As I walked into the school, kids came out of everywhere. "Who are you?" they ask.
"I am Robert," I say.
"I am John," a boy says. "I am Matthew," says another. "I am Mary!" a girl says. Everybody is shouting out their name. Then they all laugh hysterically.
I walked down the hall, looking for the office. The kids pressed in close to me- we looked like a parade.
The kids kept talking- "We heard that you were an arthur," they said.
"ARE you an arthur?" Clarence asked, except that it sounded like "Ard you and ardur?" because he had a lollipop in his mouth.
"Yes, I.." I began.....
"Where are you from?"
"New Jersey. Do you know where that is?" I asked.
"No," they all answered.
"Down in the lower 48. The East coast...uh, it takes about twenty hours to fly to Koyuk from there," I explained.
"Ooooohhh..." Clarence said.
"You're an arthur," Steven said again
"Yes I am."
"What's an arthur?" Mary asked.
"Well, actually, the word is author, awww-th-er," I said, "I write books."
"Oooohhhh," they all said.
"In here!" Suddenly, a loud voice called from a small room. All the kids folowed me in. The principal was on the phone, "Uh-uh. No." he said.
"Where's the pump?" asked two boys at once. The principal pointed under the desk. Another boy needed to use the copier. "Okay," the principal said to him. He took a pile of papers off the top of the copier. The boy put his paper in it and pressed the button. The copier jammed. The principal balanced the phone between his head and shoulder and opened it up to fix it. "Can I have a lollipop?" Steven asked from the doorway. "No." Two boys fired up the basketball pump: Rrrrrrrrrrrrr. "Uh-uh, no," the principal said to the phone, then to the boys with the pump, "COULD YOU DO THAT OUT IN THE HALL?!!" A teacher came into the room and reached for a box on the shelf. It slipped and papers went everywhere. By now there was a bazillion people talking in the tiny office- "Can I borrow this?" and "Can we do that?" The principal ushered me out into the hall. "C'mon," he said, then yelled back, "Charlie, give the kids some lollipops!"
"YAY!!" they all screamed.
We walked down the hall, through the room that was both lunchroom and library and he led me into a classroom. "This is where you will stay the night," he said, "I'll try to get back to you later, but I've got a lot of stuff to do right now." And he took off.
I looked around. By the door was a small folded up bed with the word ITINERANT written on the side. Itinerant, that's me- a traveler, a wanderer. How strange- I would be sleeping in a classroom tonight. Would it be quiet? Dark? Scary?
I sat down at the teacher's desk and began to make my notes. I drew this picture of all the stuff on the teacher's desk. I hope she's not embarrassed. See teachers? Better keep your desk clean- you never know who's going to come in and draw it!
I thought about my book, about the story I am here to research. I haven't told you much about it, but I have a reason: because it is a secret. I will tell you that it is a dog story, and a true story. And it will be out in 2002. A few months before it comes out I will tell you all about it. I am going to make it the best story I have ever done because this is about a very special dog. And he was such a great hero that he deserves the very best. I'm going to go outside now and look for the places where my hero dog actually ran
Wow, what a feeling to actually be standing where my hero once did. There's the same trail, the same village. The snow's deep today, just as it would have been then. And it's cold, too, just as it would have been then.
Brr. I decided to go in and get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a busy day- I will speak to the students about some of my books. And I plan to make a painting for them. Can't wait- I am going to make it a fun day!
In the morning there was a lot of commotion around the school- a classroom had been broken into during the night and some things were smashed!
The principal was very upset. He was disappointed that someone would be so mean to the school he loved so much.
At 9 a.m. I set up in the gym and got ready to do my talk. The kids began to come in, one class at a time. When they were all seated the principal stood up in front of the group.
"Ahem!" he said, "Last night somebody broke into the building and destroyed a high school classroom! Until the persons responsible turn themselves in or are turned in by someone else there will be no free gym time, no library and all the soda machines will be turned off." Then he introduced me.
But I didn't have a chance. The students were sad. No one moved. No one looked at me. The only sounds were the buzzing of the lights and the sound of 119 kids with head colds. BZZZZ--HACK-HACK--ACHOO--SNNFFFFT. I could almost hear what the kids were thinking: No free gym time. No library. No sodas. Nowhere to go after school, nowhere to go while our parents are playing bingo, what's for lunch..... The day was ruined for everybody. I'd thought that here in the bush country it might be different, that maybe they didn't have the kinds of kids that wrecked things. Too bad that I am wrong.
My one o'clock flight has been cancelled. Evidently, the pilot dumped the plane through the ice of a frozen lake. He's grounded. And that plane is no longer avaiable.... there might be another flight later.
So now I will wait.
The principal looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. "Hungry?" he asked. One of the kids got me a tray. Here's what a school lunch looks like in Koyuk, Alaska.