Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Razdolna School Milestones

Yesterday was a special day for Razdolna School: it had a high school graduate for the third time in the school's 25 year history.
There were also 8 kindergareners graduating (their biggest class of kindergartners ever!) and 3 eighth graders being promoted to high school. The sad part is that this may be Razdolna's last class of graduates as well. The school building has reached its capacity and the population of the village is growing rapidly (next year's kindergarten class is expected to be 12 students). The villagers have worked hard at getting funding to allow them to build a new school building since the school district will not build schools in the villages, but they have run into a plethora of stumbling blocks. Thus, if they do not have a building by fall, the 7th through 12th graders will have to drive 25 minutes down the rutted backroads to Voznesenka's school, the next closest Old Believer village. While this plight did not mar the specialness of the day, it was on the parents' minds, as many of them came up to my husband and said, "We don't want our kids to go."

The Russian Old Believers in Razdolna know how to do a beautiful celebration as evidenced by how they transformed a local garage into a tastefully decorated hall. The school building is too small for a celebration (it can only hold 50 people, and there are 50 students!), so one of the villagers donated the use of his garage. It is a huge garage, with the front section used for spraying down and cleaning up his boat. The back third of the building is a immaculately clean room almost as big as the current school building (In fact, many parents came up to Douglas and said, "Why don't you see if we can use this building for our new school?" When Douglas asked the owner she said, "Ask my husband when he comes back from fishing."). It was done up with cloth, balloons, streamers, window treatments and more. All of the kids were wearing matching outfits that the mothers have sewed in the past few weeks.

After the ceremony, in which each of the 8th graders and high school graduates spoke, there was a wonderful spread of native foods. The previous day a student was sent door to door around the village on a 4-wheeler asking each family what food they were bringing for the party. Nearly everyone in the village was there besides the men who were out fishing.

The high school graduate will receive an $11,000 scholarship to UAA, and she also receives $4000 from Project GRAD, a program that seeks to get more graduates from the villages. In the past, many Old Believers would drop out after 8th grade (which is why they changed it to "promotion" rather than "graduation"!). Boys can earn good money working on the fishing boats with their fathers, and girls get married or help their mothers at home. More and more the kids are completing school, though, and many are going on to college.

There are now about 300 students in the 3 Old Believer villages at the Head of the Bay. Some of these families moved to 7 different countries, persecuted in each, before they found this oasis near Homer, Alaska. They are struggling to retain their traditions, religion and identity, though assimilation was obvious even at the graduation ceremony: a few students from Voznesenka came to the ceremony, and when it was over they clapped. The Razdolna villagers looked at them strangely; in their tradition, they do not clap. One mother came up to Douglas after the ceremony and said, in the ultimate compliment, "I would have clapped!"

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mopping up the Fire

We are back home: the evacuation has been lifted, the road is open again, the buses are shuttling kids to school and life returns to normal. As I gaze out the window on the charred remains of trees, the fields of green grass that were unscathed in the fire, and the fire fighters in yellow and green uniforms continuing to work their way through the area, tears of gratitude well up in my eyes. What a week!

The smoking piles have finally been extinguished and there is only an occasional fire fighter stepping through the area rather than teeming masses of them. Last night we finally felt comfortable wandering through the charred ruins of our neighborhood. I choked up as we walked past our garden: the fire came so close to our house! It burned through the canyon next door to us, turning the tangled mass of brush into a layout of a few charred stumps. The fire burned right around the clump of trees my son's tree fort is in--continued past it towards our home. It made it as far as our garden when our neighbors and fire fighters got a dozer in there and tore a fireline into place. I don't care for the huge clumps of sod marring what was once the field where I thought of planting a strawberry patch. Amazingly, some of my raspberry plants actually survived the dozer and fire. But I'm not complaining either.

It was not a scorching fire: grass is already beginning to grow, pushing up through the charred remains. Some trees were missed, while others burned to oblivion. On one tree near our house, the trunk was charred, while the needles on the green branches were still intact. If you didn't look at the trunk you wouldn't know the tree had burned.

I don't care for smelling like a perpetual campfire. This smell probably will not hold the same meaning for me anymore: less nostalgia and more awe at just what a fire can do. Just one week before the fire started we had our first bonfire of the season in our fire pit. I threw a pine branch with green needles on the fire and we all watched in awe as it snapped, crackled and burned up within seconds. I made a comment about "imagine how those things would burn in a forest fire." Yes, it's still imagination, but our neighbors were here fighting it and if I cared to I could see videos of just what the inferno looked like.

Part of me wishes I had been here helping put out the fire, experiencing it. There was a sense of helplessness being far away from home and not doing anything about it. And the sense of disorientation when we couldn't go home and we tried to pull together some semblance of life was startling. Friends opened their cabin to us, but it wasn't "home". We didn't have this or we didn't have that--things we take for granted in life when we are at home and surrounded by the things that make life comfortable and normal. I have a deeper appreciation of those who go through natural catastrophes: floods, hurricanes, tornadoes.....fires. This was so small compared to many natural events. One week later we are back in our house, a little smokier than when we left it, but hey, what's smoke compared to everything you own being gone? We were ready for that, but happy not to have to experience it.

Three houses burned and a number of sheds and outbuildings in this fire that covered about a 7 mile swath along East End Road. As far as I've heard, no one has been seriously injured. Once again, we are counting all our blessings and thankful for all we have. My gratitude for those who make it their job to fight fires cannot be described. And I will no longer snort at the FireWise ads and literature that educate people on keeping their homes intact during a wildfire. The lawn and fields around our house made a difference, as they did for the house you see in the picture above!

Little Things that Make a Difference: Pick 'n' Pay

Like so many places in Alaska, the most popular ones are often the most nondescript, and someone not in the know wouldn't even think of going shopping in a place like this.

The local Pick 'n' Pay, a resale shop, is a vital fundraising effort for St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Homer. It is only open from 10-3 on Saturdays, unlike the local Salvation Army that is open 6 days a week. Thus, the diehard deal-finders in Homer show up right at 10 am every Saturday and pack this little building full. All adult clothes is $1, all kids clothes 50 cents, toys are free. Turnover is huge, so each week there could be a completely different selection of items. A corp of dedicated volunteers work many hours each week sorting through and displaying the items. Many times when I drop things off to donate, the donation bin is packed, attesting to the popularity of Pick 'n' Pay as a place to pass on gently used items.

We visit the store only when we're in town and killing time between activities or when we're looking for something that we really need that we would have to drive all the way to Soldotna to buy. We have managed to pick up some incredible deals. Last year both the kids needed hiking boots for our backpacking trip, and when we went in there there just happened to be a pair of nearly new hiking boots that fit my daughter perfectly. The next week we went again and there was a pair that fit Denver. Our son has worn boots for the past 6 months so hasn't needed shoes. We decided to do the 5K Migration Run on the Spit last weekend, but discovered he didn't have any shoes for running in. We decided to get to Pick 'n' Pay right at 10 to nab any good shoes, and amazingly there was a very nice pair of running/hiking shoes that fit and (more importantly!) Denver approved of.

When times are tight, places like this can be vital for families with little extra cash, or for people like us it saves us a trip up the road. When I walk out of there with something we really need, it makes me appreciate little things about Homer that help us get by, like Pick 'n' Pay!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Perspectives on the East End Road Fire

This is the area where the roadblock was set up and is the general area the fire started from a downed powerline Tuesday afternoon.

Many areas are still smoking, and fire fighters are watching these spots carefully for flareups.

Two years ago when the fires swept through the Caribou Hills near our home (as in 20 miles away!) I thought that was too close for comfort. This time the fire came within feet of our home, so our perspective of what is "too close for comfort" has changed! Now I say, "As long as our house and barn don't burn, I'll be happy." Here's my family's experience with the East End Road fire.
I was picking up trash along this section of road just a few days ago. Unfortunately, the trash didn't burn! For some reason the fire didn't burn right up to the edge of the road.

Tuesday afternoon about 4:30 Doug headed into town to take the kids rock climbing. The fire had started, but Doug didn't think too much about it--it was a mile or so from our place and he figured they would put it out soon. The kids climbed and Doug got his workout, and at 9:00 as they headed home they hit a roadblock: the fire was growing and they weren't letting people in. Doug didn't want to push it, so he headed back to Homer and got a hotel room for the night.

Wednesday Doug took the kids to school, then drove on home. The road was open, the fire appeared to be out, but there was no electricity yet so he headed into town for the day. That afternoon the fire started up again so the road was shut down and they began to evacuate past Mile 14 East End Road (I've also heard past Mile 16), including the Old Believer villages of Razdolna and Voznesenka. One kid in my daughter's class got really upset because he wasn't going to be able to go home (the busses weren't taking kids past the roadblock).

I had just planted part of my garden on Sunday (carrots, turnips, spinach, etc.) and, ironically, my compost pile was still frozen; I had taken off the top (undecomposed part) and was pitching the decomposed part into the garden to till in as it thawed out. Think it is thawed out now??!!

A friend offered an empty cabin at around Mile 12 EE Road for my husband and kids that night so the kids were able to take the bus to school the next day. Meanwhile, I was in Kenai for training all week, so I was getting bits and pieces of news. Our landlord emailed us and told us my compost pile and part of my garden fence had burned before our neighbors put it out (there was still no electricity, but there was enough pressure in our garden hose that they were able to extinguish it). I discovered from my aunt that the fire had gone right under (but not burned) 2 of our next door neighbor's sheds. My daughter told me that one of her classmates' houses almost burned (the house you see in the background of the garden picture)--the fire was right up to the outside of the house. My neighbor said her manure pile went poof and burnt right up, and her bulls lay there in their pen with manure and hay catching fire and smoking around them. On Wednesday the burning and smoke were so bad they couldn't see very far, and our neighbors kept driving up to check on our house since they couldn't see it from theirs.

Thursday evening I left my training a day early to regroup with my family. They let us past the roadblock so we could get to our house. Our plan was to get our meat out of the freezer and get some clothes for the kids--they had been wearing the same clothes day and night for 3 days! All of the pictures you see here were taken yesterday (Thursday) evening. A fire engine has been parked in our driveway for the past 3 days since the area we live in, although it has been burned, is considered one of the "hot spots" that could reignite. Our entire house stank of smoke. Someone had removed the propane tank from our grill and put it in the middle of a nearby field, and they also took the gas cans out of our barn. Our lawn was burnt in patches where a spark had ignited an area, and there were smoking patches in every direction we looked.

McNeil Canyon School is the central meeting place. Tents are set up near the playground for firefighters staying overnight and fire engines park here before heading to the fire 6-10 miles up the road.

As of Thursday morning the state fire fighters were taking over for the local crews. Razdolna School was back in session, though Voznesenka students are expected to go back on Monday. Electricity was approved to be turned back on Thursday evening. The roads are still closed since there are many fire engines and other equipment working the area. Locals can stay in their houses if they want to. We just got some rain here in Homer and temperatures are in the 30's so that is a good thing for the fire. Mopping up will continue for at least a week if no new fires develop.

I left home Monday morning more concerned about Redoubt blowing and stranding me in Kenai, but the surprise came from a totally different direction. We are so grateful to be together as a family and our house safe. From all we've heard, it is a miracle no homes have burnt, so we all have much to be thankful for. It may not be over yet, but we'll hold onto the blessings we have!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Wasilla, Alaska

Governor Sarah Palin has put Wasilla on the map since she was once mayor there. I'd driven through it once before on the way to Fairbanks, but not since it became a place on the map. So I was anticipating a visit there this past weekend for my son's state wrestling tournament at the Wasilla Sports Complex.

I've heard Wasilla described as "a giant stripmall," and that was definitely my impression. Most of the city was strung along a few miles of highway, the route people must take if they are driving to Denali or Fairbanks (or anywhere north!). On a Friday evening the traffic was backed up bumpter to bumper for miles as people headed out of town. To my small town sensibilities, it was somewhat overwhelming: every fast food place in existence, traffic lights, traffic, big box stores (Fred Meyers, Target, Sears, Walmart). I hadn't realized how used to Homer I have gotten, where non-chain stores are the exception rather than the rule, and the biggest store appears to be Ulmers, the local drugstore (in the old fashioned sense of the term).

The Wasilla Sports Complex (pictured here), built at a cost of $16 million while Palin was mayor of Wasilla, is quite the complex. What you see in the picture is the hockey rink in the winter and an all-purpose room in the summer with a running track all around the top. The other half of the building is a turf room for playing soccer, and there is a pro shop, concessions and meeting rooms as well. There were nearly 700 school age kids wrestling and the stands were comfortably full but not close to packed. It never felt too crowded (and that's coming from my small town standards again!).

One other very attractive feature of Wasilla is its outdoor park area just off the main drag in about the middle of town. It has one of those huge wooden playgrounds that kids can get lost in, basketball courts (that had games going on all courts when we were there), tennis courts, a skateboard park, paved walking/rollerblading/biking paths, fields to play ball on and a picnic pavilion. This park was packed on Saturday evening when we were there--a bright, sunny day in the 70's. The 70's??!! Yes--it totally freaked us out how hot it was! We checked the temps in Homer at the same time: it was in the 50's there. Needless to say, we enjoyed the warmth, though my son did comment, "I don't know how I ever put up with the heat when we lived in the Lower 48!" I think we're in the right place because we like 50's and 60's more than 70's and 80's too!

Overall, it was interesting to see the town Palin was mayor of before she became governor. Seems like quite the stretch to jump from politics in a relatively small town to Juneau!