At 4:50 the airline called. "Ten minutes out!" The principal and I hopped on the snow machine and rushed up to the airstrip. As soon as the plane landed the pilot jumped out, grabbed my gear, jumped back in and we took off.
I looked down at the village below. Good-bye Koyuk. Good-bye Clarence and Dee Dee and Steven. Goodbye Koyuk School. The village of Elim was next.
Elim is pronounced Ee-lim. The village is 96 miles east of Nome. It was formerly the Malemuit Inupit Eskimo village called Nuviakchak. The people live a subsistence lifestyle. Average winter temperatures range between 8 and -8 degrees. Snowfall, approximately 80 inches. Population: 306. Value of an average home- around $60,000, rents- about $355.00 per month. 33% of the homes have no indoor plumbing, 51% heat with wood and 61% do not have a phone.
Once we landed, I slung my gear up onto my back and headed towards the building that looked most likely to be the school.
The door was locked. I banged and banged on it until I heard light footsteps on the other side. "Is anyone there?' I called. I heard a little laugh. "Hey, open up!" I yelled. No reply. I put my mouth to the door and went, "Meow!" That did it, the door pushed open a crack and someone ran away. I stepped inside and looked up the stairs. Suddenly a little girl jumped out, yelled "EEEK GOSSACK!!" And ran away.
I looked around. Where was the office? Then a little dog ran up, sat down and cocked his head at me. "Do YOU know where the office is?" I jokingly asked it. And with that, the dog jumped up and started down the stairs. When I didn't follow, he stopped and looked back at me as if to say, "Well?" So I followed him and he escorted me right to the office.
"I see you've met Selma," came a voice. I looked around. "Selma's the dog. Hi. I'm the principal here."
"Nice to meet you", I said, shaking hands.
"I hear that you are making a book about Alaska's REAL hero dog. It's about time, is all I have to say," she said. Someone took our picture. Kids began to peek into the office. "Gossack!" they screamed and laughed.
"What's a Gossack?" I asked the principal.
"Oh, it's a slang term for a white person," she said.
"Friendly or derogatory?"
"Oh, usually derogatory."
Elim is a beautiful village, especially in the evening. And it is a busy place at night- people buzzing around on snow machines, kids sledding and adults "going visiting." The kids were very friendly and joined me as a group while I walked around. They all wanted "piggy-back" rides, and most of them got 'em.
In the morning I went for a quiet walk around the village. A woman came up to me and asked, "Do you have blubber in your pockets?"
"Excuse me?" I asked.
She said, "You should carry fat in your pockets because polar bears can be hard to see and if you come up on a polar bear, you can throw the fat at him. Then he will go for the blubber which will maybe give you a chance to run away."
"Thanks for the information!" I said.
I was lucky enough not to come face to face with a polar bear in Elim. I visited with many students and made lots of new friends. But finally it was time to go. I hitched a ride up to the airstrip and waited for the plane with a woman. "Here it comes, "she said. I squinted into the sky, I strained to hear....nothing. Then, about a minute later, a plane appeared in the sky.
I was soon on my way to my last village, Golovin.
We were not flying long when the plane made a big loop. Below I saw Golovin. "Don't eat the food, don't drink the water and sleep with one eye open," were some of the things the man in Nome said about Golovin.... and lots of other things that I can't even print. I looked down on the village. I sure hoped he was wrong.
I got off the plane and looked around. No one was there to meet me yet. I thought about the information I'd received about Golovin-
Golovin was settled by the Kauweramuit Eskimos, who later mixed with the Unaligmiut Eskimos. The village was named after a Russian navy captain.The ecomomy is based on subsistence living, reindeer herding and fishing. No roads connect Golovin to other areas. Most residents haul their own water to their homes.
I looked down on the village, worried. I still did not know how I was going to approach my tale. And I knew this village was my last chance. It HAD to come to me here. Golovin was an important village in my story. My hero's part in the adventure ended here.
I heard a truck coming. My ride was here.
A man with a truck drove me to town. He didn't say a word the whole time he drove. He left me and my gear on the snowy road in front of the high school and took off. "Now what?" I wondered, "Where do I go?"
I walked into the high school and found the front office and the principal. Soon the principal was walking me over to the elementary school. "You'll be staying in there," he told me. I was to be an ITINERANT again, sleeping in a classroom.
We walked through the front door, right into a small classroom. Then through the cafeteria- a smaller room with only two tables to eat at. Two kids sat at the tables. At the end of the room were wooden shelves holding giant tins of canned goods. The principal took me to the only other clasroom, in the back, and told me that is where I would stay. Then he left.
I felt weird- the village felt....it felt...I guess SULLEN is the word. Sullen.
Soon more kids started coming in. Once they saw me in the back a marathon peeking session began. Finally a woman came in and introduced herself to me. She explained to me that the kids had come because between six and seven in the evening the school held a reading hour. She invited me to dinner at the apartment she shared with other teachers and I accepted. Finally, someone to talk to.
At dinner I asked the teachers if any of them knew anything about the character I was researching in Golovin- a dog named Togo. None had, but none of them were native to the area. They told me to visit with Maggie who ran the village store, she knew just about everybody and everything.
Back in my classroom, I was unsettled. I had been to Nome, Unalakleet, Koyuk, Elim and now Golovin, drawing and taking notes, and all I had was a big jumbled mess, really. A bunch of stuff, that's all. What was I going to say? I looked around the room, desperate for a clue. Moose antlers sat atop a filing cabinet. There was a shelf with lots of different kinds of bones. A hawk feather. Three children's drawings of the Iditarod Race. Here's one....
There were many hand drawn posters on the wall. They looked like this:
There was a bilingual calendar:
I saw a drawing dedicated to musher Martin Buser and I started thinking about the race- last night had been the Musher's Ball in Anchorage... a big party where the public can meet and dine with the mushers. Tomorrow the great race would start. The action is peaking in Anchorage. But here, as I looked out the window into the darkness.... here it was just quiet and windy and cold. In just over a week this little village would be full of strangers- television people, newspaper folk, pilots, tourists and mushers- all here to observe the Iditarod Race that would be rushing through. But right now, it was quiet.
I tried to sleep. I couldn't sleep. Tomorrow was my last day in the bush country. Staying in the villages, I knew how it felt, I had the FEELING for my story, but how could I, would I, should I communicate it?
TOGO- what is it that I need to say about you?