Friday, August 31, 2007

McNeil Canyon School

Aurora and Denver go to McNeil Canyon School, a 10-15 minute drive from our house. It is a K-6 school with about 130 students, which is almost exactly the same size as the elementary in Vanderbilt. Class sizes are mostly 15-20 students. There is one teacher per grade, except for 5/6 which is combined into one big class of 30. The students here call teachers by their first names, which is totally bizarre, and I have a hard time with. I like Aurora's compromise: Mr. Bill. Aurora's teacher was Teacher of the Year recently for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. One third of the students at McNeil are Russian, some who live outside the Russian communities and others who are driven from Razdolna or Voznesenka each day (busses do not go out to the villages).
Each school in this district has a Site Committee, since in this case the school board lives 2 1/2 hours away in Soldotna. The staff is very positive and progressive, using best practices. They find ways to make learning fun. Aurora and Denver never come home tired and drained like they used to, though that could be from the schoolday too, which is from 7:50 a.m. to 2:20 p.m.
School is very rarely cancelled. While there is snow, it is logistically nearly impossible to close school for an entire district that encompasses hundreds of miles. And if one school closed it would put them out of whack with the rest of the district's calendar. So they just don't close school.
I met the principal of McNeil this summer at a potluck and asked him what the biggest challenge the school had. His answer was that more parents are working and not available to volunteer during the day in the school. Frankly, if that is the greatest challenge in the school, I think things must be going awesome! I have a hard time picturing a school with lots of parents volunteering during the day.
Every student that enters this school district has to have a physical. One immunization that kids do not get in Michigan that is required here is the Hepatitis A. All students in the district are required to get a TB test each year. This is done by the school nurse in school.
Overall, it is a very comfortable, positive place for our kids to be, and we are confident they are receiving a good education there.

Our Drives to Work!

The nearest store of any type from where we live is the Fritz Creek General Store you see pictured here, which is also our post office. Our mail is delivered to Homer, but as a service to residents of East End Road, those who have PO boxes can get their mail at Fritz Creek (a 15 minute drive instead of 30 minutes!). The food here is good (hot soup, sandwiches and fresh baked bread) and lots of locals have lunch or dinner here.
Doug has to drive 1/2 mile on gravel, 1 mile on paved road, then 5.5 miles on gravel road to get to Razdolna. The gravel road is new (in the past few years); in the past it was what we call "the bush", which means you cannot drive a car there.
My drive into Homer is longer and more challenging. It is race car driver heaven with all sorts of curves, tight uphills and downhills, hairpin turns, etc. I have actually come to enjoy driving this road every day, though we'll see if I still say that on the first snowfall.
East End Road is the only way into Homer. It follows the bluff above Kachemak Bay. Across the bay is the mountain range with glacier after glacier. I discovered the worst part of this road on the first day of school last week: school busses. If you get behind one, you are going to be stuck behind it alllllll the way into Homer. It makes a 30 minute drive feel like eternity as there are stops to pick up kids every few hundred feet. The elementary students are bussed to McNeil (which is at mile 10 of East End Road). Middle school and high school students are bussed into Homer. The first day of school the line of cars stretched over a mile, out of sight behind me, as we followed the schoolbus. They don't believe in pulling over to let cars pass. Now I have to plan carefully what time I drop my kids off for school so as to avoid the worst 2 of 3 busses that pick up kids on that road.

Bishop's Beach

When we first moved here, I kept referring to Cook Inlet as "the lake" since I am used to the Great Lakes. It seemed the same to me. However, the more time we spend walking on Bishop's Beach, the more fascinating it becomes. The pictures above show Bishop's Beach to the north and south of the parking lot that is right in town. The picture on the left is the way we usually walk. You can walk the beach 15 miles in that direction to Anchor Point. There is also trail to a beach halfway, at 7 miles, and many people make a day hike of that, parking a vehicle at each end.
The biggest difference with this beach and the Great Lakes is the tide and the sealife. Kachemak Bay (which is where this beach is located,off of Cook Inlet) has some of the highest tide changes of anywhere in the world. In fact, there is only one other place that has a greater difference between their high tide and low tide. What this means is that the beach is always changing. Of the dozens of times we have hiked this beach, it is never the same. Two days ago (the full moon), was a very high tide. On the picture on the left, it would be within feet of the cliffs. On the picture on the right, it was all water! Tides bring such fascinating sealife and plants in. We find hermit crabs, kelp, seaweed, shells, clams, mussels, oysters and many more that we don't know what they are. We have seen sea otters swim right up to the shore, and yesterday a bald eagle flew over and landed about 30 feet from me on the sand (it was low tide) with a fish that it proceeded to eat. The eagle's nest is on the promontory you see on the right picture. It had 2 baby eagles in it this year.
The first few times we walked the beach, Denver would take bags and collect "treasures" and bring them home. Now he settles for only the "coolest" things.
There are not a lot of hiking trails in Homer, so if we want to go for a walk, the beach is generally our first choice. Where once it was Aspen Park in Gaylord, now it is a beach that is always changing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Doug didn't know what he was getting into when he mowed the field (playground) next to Razdolna. Two weeks later he is still suffering from what we now know as pushki. Here's what happened, and how he got it.
The grass and weeds in the field at school were 3-4 feet high so Doug got on the school's newly acquired riding lawnmower and went at it. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. A few hours later he broke out in a rash of raised welts and started itch. The juice of the cow's parsnip (a tall plant that grows to about 4 feet high with a white flower on the top) basically causes burns on the skin. When Doug mowed the lawn the juice went right through his clothing. He had 4 hours to take a shower and wash it off to avoid the rash. Unfortunately, he didn't realize what it was until it was too late. His whole body broke out. On top of that, this rash is photosensitive, so once you are exposed, it is very important to stay out of the sunlight otherwise it gets worse. Doug had spent that entire day and part of the next out in the sun. He did not find out what it was until a few days later. He has tried all sorts of creams and ointments. Of all of the ungents, a medicated gel for sunburns with aloe and lidocaine has worked the best by far. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has a website on pushki, and they recommend causticum treatment. Doug has taken it for 3 days, and does not know if that is what has helped, or the gel or just time. He still has some open sores, and the itching has gotten much better, but he still has some discomfort 2 weeks after exposure.
Sensitivity seems to vary from person to person. Our landlord's mom has it so bad that when she gets a blister and it breaks, the ooze from the blister creates new blisters. Her son played with cow's parsnip as a child, picking them and spent hours playing with the stalks and he has never had any ill effects. Once you get pushki you are more suceptible the next time. And I read that if you burn cow's parsnip stalks you can get internal blisters from breathing the smoke! There is so much around that it is nearly impossible to avoid casual contact, and none of us got it all summer despite brushing against it when hiking. It is the fluid inside the stem that is the source of the rash/burn.
I would take a picture, but the flowers have all died and gone to seed for the season (just in the past week or two). If you want to read more about this I highly recommend the Kenai Wildlife Refuge site. Google "pushki" and it will be the first entry. And whatever you do, if you come to Alaska, make sure you know what this looks like and avoid contact with the juice!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Razdolna School

Some of you may have wondered about Doug's working at a Russian school. He is 3 weeks into his job, 2 weeks since school started, so let me share some of the things he has discovered and experienced.

There are currently 41 students at Razdolna, up from 36 last year. At this point 11 kids will be enrolling in kindergarten next year, in a building that has a maximum capacity of 50 students. Needless to say, there are growing pains! Since the school district rents the building from some of the villagers, they cannot actually make any improvements. They are working on a plan to address this problem. Student test scores are high, so Doug's job will be to make them higher! Parents want their kids to have homework.

There was an open house at the school today, and every family stopped by. Many were very appreciative of Doug's being there, there were numerous comments about how the school is looking better, and some were even asking if Doug was going to be there next year! Overall, it is an incredibly positive place to work.

There is a full-time K-4 teacher, Ann, who has taught at the school 10 years and lives in one of the other Russian villages (though not Russian herself). There is a part-time 5-12 teacher, Laura, for whom this is her first year teaching. The other half of the time she is a Title teacher. Doug is the other half-time 5-12 teacher. He teachs math, technology and independent study. They also have various part-time teachers who come in as counselors, to teach Russian, special education, etc. The secretary of the school is a Russian lady who lives in the village and acts as an informal liaison between the school and village.

Doug's comment after the first day of school, about the students: "They are kids like kids everywhere. They are very well-behaved and smart. The only difference is that they will start speaking Russian every so often." Doug was so excited the other day when a student was looking through the Algebra textbook and saw some graphs and said with great enthusiasm, "I really want to learn this stuff!" In 15 years of teaching he has never encountered such an openess to learning.

Obviously there is no bussing, since all the students live in the village. They have an hour for lunch and they all go home. The teachers then have a half hour lunch and half hour prep.

School supplies are delivered to McNeil Canyon School, 15 miles away, so Doug has to pick up water (the water in the school is unpotable), paper, chairs, equipment, etc. He also has to take the trash to the dumpster at McNeil.

The school belongs to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District that encompasses hundreds of miles from north to south, including some schools in the bush (fly-in or boat in only). Doug has never known such an incredible level of support in all his years of teaching. He has been hired to do his job. The district office staff repeatedly state that they are there to help them do their job. This school district is one of the best in the nation for its size. While there is paperwork, like anywhere, Doug says there is a purpose to it (as opposed to pointless paperwork) and he doesn't mind it because he understands why they need it.

The superintendent is very responsive to the administrators (80 of them!). She expects them to do their job as principals, which means having quality teachers on staff. The whole atmosphere of the district is education. The health insurance is self-funded, which means they have not hired a middle-man to pay their insurance costs; the district pays the health insurance bills themselves.

Starting Over

As school starts and the pace of life shifts, I have been reflecting on our move, our expectations and adjusting. Here are a few meandering thoughts.....

I was looking forward to starting over in Alaska with a clean slate, but it definately was not as glamorous or as different as I'd hoped. It has been nice that no one here has expectations of me, what job I should work at, how I should live my life. Yet people develop expectations quickly, and pretty soon we're pegged again.

The big disadvantages of starting over, as I see them, are
1) PAPERWORK! Applying for new insurance, licenses, schools, doctor's offices, utilities, etc. etc. is a huge time siphon. I can see why people with big families don't move! The paperwork for the school alone was 15 minutes per child! Big yuck!
2) Money! It costs so much to move, and having to pay two of everything for awhile (mortgage and rent, electric, phone, etc.) can eat up extra money (what extra money??!!). It's a bit stressful still having an unsold house in Michigan (who's mowing the lawn? Is the place being taken care of?).
3) Not having the kind of friends that just know me. People are friendly, and I enjoy getting to know them, but there is a comfort in being around people I have a history with, who know my sense of humor, my hot buttons, etc., and I know theirs. I miss that kind of friend more than anything. I had forgotten how long it took to develop the awesome friendships I had in Michigan.

The advantages of starting over:
1) New experiences, new places to explore, new friends to be made, different activities to get involved with. As life-long learners, we are finding all this newness great fun. Luckily our kids share this enthusiasm, so while they miss Michigan a little bit, they too are looking forward to new adventures.
2) Not as many expectations of who we are and who we should be.
3) Learning about ourselves and each other as we experience these new situations.
4) Applying our skills in new situations.

We have no regrets. We feel like this is where we are supposed to be, and are enjoying carving out a niche for ourselves even as we wonder how long we will be here. There's no place better than the present!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Engineer Lake and Campground

This is one of the campgrounds we spent a few hours between hikes hanging out at. The loons were calling back and forth (at noon!), and we found this lake to be much more beautiful than Ohmer. It also had less traffic than Ohmer. No vehicles pulled through in the 3 hours we were there. This campground has only 4 sites, but it is at one end of the 4.4 mile Seven Lakes Trail connecting it to Kelly Lake on the Sterling Highway, so it had 2 bathrooms and potable water. We all went swimming here, as the water temperature was wonderful and it was in the 70's or low 80's. The fish were hilarious. I don't know what they were, but the moment we stepped into the water they swam up to our feet and nibbled at them, which was a ticklish affair! They were only 1-3 inches long, looked like rocks, and were not shy! We have this campground on our list to stay at sometime, as well as the camping cabin that is on the north end of this lake (a 1/2 mile or so hike from the campground). The only bummer: no berries at this campground!

Kenai River Loop

On this hike we saw our first bear. Just to the right of Aurora's head in the top picture she spotted a black bear across the river. It was just for a couple seconds, but it was still neat. The other picture is a little backcountry campsite/picnic area on a bluff overlooking the Kenai River. Aurora was enthralled, and wanted to stay for hours. We saw lots of fish jumping as we sat there, and though there had been countless bear scat and rotting carcass smells along the trail, we felt pretty comfortable in that spot. I had told the kids I would carry the backpacking stove out and cook lunch on this trail, but with so many bear around I did not want to cook anything that was "smelly" and would attract bears, so we ate our usual dry, nearly scentless snacks. This path starts in a burn area, then winds into a swampy area, then heads down to the Kenai River in a beautiful spruce forest. There is an Upper Kenai River Trail and a Lower Kenai River Trail (each 5+ miles round-trip), but we took a trail out to the river and a short loop back, which I would guess was 3-4 miles round trip, though we're not sure about that. There is very little elevation gain, so this is a comfortable hike, though the bear presence is incredibly strong so it is not relaxing in that sense. This is another trail on our "definately go back to" list.

Hideout Trail

Three years ago when we visited Alaska, we climbed partway up this mountain, but at that time we didn't have mountain legs, and now we do! The Hideout Trail overlooks Skilak Lake and that is the Kenai River in the background. It is a 1.5 mile roundtrip hike, 500 foot climb. It was neat making these climbs each day, because we could see where we'd been on other hikes. This is a hike full of open alpine meadows. We didn't see any sign of bears, and we relaxed a little from our constant vigilance and noise making. It was on this trail I first saw a Sitka Mountain Ash, a tree with edible fruit that I found in my AK berry book (author: Verna E. Pratt. I highly recommend this little pocket guide). They weren't ripe, but it was one of the few berries in the book I had not seen yet.
As we sat at the overlook I noticed the "rocks" in the river moving. Looking through the binoculars, I thought perhaps they were bears, but if so, we saw 5 of them at once just on the part of the river you see in the picture above. I didn't know what else they could be beside bears. The hike down to the river was the one we had planned on next, and Aurora, thinking they were bears, said, "Let's go! I want to go see some bears up close!" When we did the Kenai River Trail and saw a boat go by it occurred to me those might have been boats.
We enjoyed this hike, and would recommend it for being a beautiful view, but not quite so grueling as some of the others.

Hidden Creek Trail

The Hidden Creek Trail was one of our favorite's. It wound through an unburned, beautiful spruce forest with a wide enough trail to walk side-by-side in some parts. The raspberries along this path were huge, so of course we stopped to graze. There were some sections that were burned, as this is the source of the Hidden Creek Fire of '96 that burned the other areas I have mentioned. Unlike the other trails, where there were few trees still standing, as you can see many skeletons still stand. The forest was very dense before it burned!
The highlight of this hike was meeting a group of about 12 people who had just seen a brown bear in the direction we were heading. We debated for about 10 seconds about going back or continuing (it was a loop), and decided to just continue to practice safe bear habits and continue. In the 300 yards past where we met that group we saw 4 fresh berry-filled bear scat. We were a bit more nervous on that hike than others. We were on the shore of the Skilak Lake, at the mouth where the Kenai River flows into it. Fish were jumping out of the water all over the place. It was bear heaven. The trees were so dense and close to the trail that we couldn't see very far off the trail. That is the trail we most want to go on again next time we get back to the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area.

Bear Mountain Trail

The Bear Mountain Trail is 1.6 miles round trip, a steep 400 foot climb. It is not burned, but it was somewhat open and was therefore very grassy. There was not a profusion of berries, unlike the hikes in the burned areas. The view of Skilak Lake (see picture) was almost more beautiful than yesterday's Skilak Lookout Trail. You can see where we were yesterday. The little knob on the mountain above the lake is the Skilak Lookout. The haze you see in the picture is from the Swan Lake Fire which is just off the right side of this picture on the far side of Skilak Lake. The rocks at the top of this trail were swarming with flies, and it was very hot, so we sat in the shade of a tree. I was nervous up there because there was a very strong scent (I can't remember it well enough to describe it), but it made me think of bear or other wildlife. The bear scat we saw on the way up was filled more with currant berries (I could tell by the shape of the seeds) than the bear scat we saw on the Vista Trail.

Burney's Trail

This was one of the rare hikes that we actually met other people on it-a man offered to take our picture at the top, and his dogs came trotting over. Obviously they wanted to be in the picture too, even though they didn't look at the camera!
This hiking trail has had a lot of improvements done on it in the past month. Part was regravelled and the brush cut along the trail. It is only a mile roundtrip with a 200 foot elevation gain. It has a nice view of Hidden Lake. It is a completely unburned forest, which made it really cozy hiking compared to many of the hikes we have gone on. The kids learned the joy of running downhill on this trail, and so every other trail we hiked we ran down it!

Skilak Lookout Trail

This was a 700 foot climb. The distance was either 4 miles or 5 miles, depending on which source is true (both from the Kenai Wildlife Refuge booklet). There were very strong bear signs along this path: we smelled rotting carcasses in at least 4 different spots. This was a burn area as well, but it was wetter so the vegetation was different than the Vista Trail. There were a couple of unburned areas at the beginning of the trail that were beautiful. We met a couple ladies as we were heading back down, one who had not hiked the trail for 15 years. She was amazed at how different it was since it had burned. We liked this trail more than the Vista. There was some boardwalk where the trail got mucky. There was a very nice view of Skilak Lake from the top, though a view of a different part of the lake than the Vista. On the way up there were gorgeous views of Hidden Lake.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wild berries!!

There were berries on every hike we took in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge area Aug. 10-14, more in the open, fire areas than in the closed woods. There were watermelon berries and raspberries (regular red and trailing) fully ripe and delicious. The low and high bush cranberries, currants and rosehips were not fully ripe. The kids avoided the bunchberries (which I love) and timberberries because our Alaska berry book does not recommend them. Elderberries grew in profusion, but are poisonous until cooked, so we couldn't eat those (they contain a glycoside related to cyanide). And then there were the devil's claw (nasty prickers) and baneberries (a few berries can kill a small child).

Vista Trail

That is Skilak Lake in the background, but it is hard to see because the clouds and water blend in beautifully. By the time we got to the top it was clearer and we could see the smoke from the forest fire across the lake (Swan Lake Fire, started July 29 from a lightning strike, 1600 acres burned so far). There were quite some billows of smoke coming up, which explained the brown haze on the horizon. I hadn't known there was a fire, so I couldn't figure out the "smog"!

This trail was an 800 foot climb, 3 miles roundtrip. There were more berries on this hike than any other hike we did in this area. We "grazed" our way both up and down the mountain, and we learned to grab berries without stopping!

The trail was well worn, but we couldn't see the trail because the grasses were over the kids' heads in many places, and over my head in some places. Though it was a clear day, the dew had been heavy and we got soaked within minutes. By time we reached the top we appreciated being wet because we were so hot! The area was burned in 1996 (Hidden Creek Fire, 5200 acres) so there were just skeletons of trees and no shade.
About 1/4 of the way up we came across a berry-filled bear scat. After that we began to practice good bear-avoidance tactics: talk, sing, whistle or hum or make any type of noise so as not to startle a bear and to give them time to get away from us. As it was our first hike, I was not quite aware of just how important this knowledge was since we encountered many signs of bear on other hikes.

Lower Ohmer Lake Campground

I thought I had more pictures of the campground, but discovered this is the only one--of Denver eating raspberries on the top of the rock. The kids had great fun playing on this rock for the 5 days we stayed at this campground. There were 4 sites, and the only "service" was a pit toilet (nicer than Michigan pit toilets!!). Ohmer Lake was perfect temperature for swimming and wading (warmer than Thumb Lake, for those of you in the know!), and the kids had fun building "docks" on the pea gravel beach you see behind the rock in this picture. A leech bit Denver one day (I know they don't bite, but it sure hurt him the way he went on), and the kids found a couple others about 4 inches long. They were long and skinny, not like the leeches I've seen in Michigan. Aurora saw a 6-inch fish swim in and eat a 1-inch fish right at her feet while she was playing! We saw 2 loons, and they called to each other all night long, and occasionally during the day too. They were so loud it was startling (and if I say that you know it was loud!). I couldn't quite believe the campground was free since everything in Alaska costs money, and they charge for things that are free in Michigan, like hiking on hiking trails. It was weird to spend 5 days camping and not have to pay a cent, but I wasn't complaining either! The campground didn't have water, so we went to another campground to fill up with water. There were 6 different kinds of berries around the campground, and we picked lots of raspberries which we ate with every meal. Next time we need to bring a canoe and swimsuits, though next time it probably won't be in the 70's and sunny like it was the whole time we were there. It was the best weather of the entire summer!

Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area

The kids and I just spent 5 days camping in the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area, about 1 hour north of Soldotna. It is an area with a high concentration of wildlife and lakes. There are 12 trails, from the easiest Egumen Lake (.6 miles, no elevation change) to the Skyline Trail, (2 miles round trip, 2300 foot climb--mentioned in one of my other blog posts). We went on 7 of the hikes, and I will detail each in separate blog entries for ease of reading & so it is clear which pictures go w/which hike. There are also 9 campgrounds, of which only 3 charge fees. The rest are free, but don't offer as many services (no campground hosts; no trash pickup). All campgrounds are on lakes and have boat launches, and all have only pit toilets. Seven of the nine have drinking water. There are also wilderness cabins for rent by reservation. Skilak Lake Road is a gravel road that runs parallel to the Sterling Highway. Many of these campgrounds were established for the road crews who built the Sterling Highway. If you want to get off the main road for a few miles, slow down and take in a hike, the Skilak Lake Road is a good option as it leaves the Sterling Highway and then rejoins it about 18 miles down the road.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Cell phones in Alaska

Cell phone reception here in Alaska is sporadic, at best, and never something we count on having in any particular place. Although Cellular One shows it provides continuous service from Homer up to Fairbanks along the main highway, there are large sections that we have not been able to get reception. We live 30 miles east of Homer, and have not been able to get a good signal here. However, some people have been able to get a signal in strange places. For example, we saw a guy standing on top of his car a half mile from here, talking on his cell phone. Others will mention very specific places where they can make calls from, sometimes. We've given up using our cell phone at home, and drive 10 miles towards town if we want to use the cell. McNeil Canyon School, where the kids will go to school, is the closest spot we get a good signal.