Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Visit to Barrow

As principal at the local high school, my husband gets the opportunity to travel with sports teams, acting as the official liaison for the district and preventing problems that might occur with students. Last week when the wrestling traveled to Barrow for 4 days, Douglas ended up going with.

It was a process getting there, with a cargo plane ride from Homer to Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay to Barrow (the flights up to Prudhoe Bay were full, shuttling oil field workers back and forth). Just a few days before Douglas got there it was 50 degrees below zero, but he lucked out and it was 15 to 30 above the 4 days he was there--the same temperatures as Homer. The current principal at Homer High School was principal in Barrow for two years. He said that when it was 50 below, the two block walk from the airport to the high school was the longest walk he has ever taken in his life. Douglas was prepared with long underwear, coveralls, boots and all sorts of cold weather gear and was fortunate in not needing it.

The sun didn't rise the whole time Douglas was there, and the brightest it got was a mid-evening twilight (I lightened my pictures so they represent how dark it was). The school took the 6 or 7 wrestling teams that were there on a tour of the town. Pictured above is the sign at the highest latitude of land in the U.S. Behind it is the Arctic Ocean. The football field was under snow, which was a bummer because we've heard much about this high-tech wonder.

All of the buildings are built on stilts to prevent the thawing of the permafrost. Douglas described Barrow as "Any American town, a little run-down fishing village." There are 4 schools serving the 5000 or so people in Barrow: 2 elementaries, a middle school and high school. When sports teams come the high school houses them and feeds them, slightly alleviating the huge expense of getting there (approximately $1000 per ticket round trip, Homer to Barrow).

There was one store, with clothes, groceries, 4-wheelers and everything else sold in it. Prices were about 20% or more higher than Homer (which is already 20-50% higher than the Lower 48. For example, a can of soup was $3. A 5 pound bag of fresh apples and oranges was $14. A small container of laundry detergent was $15. Electricity, on the other hand, is relatively cheap because they pump the natural gas out of the ground and right into their generators.

As they were leaving, one of the coaches asked a local if they had some muk-tuk the kids could try. The lady said a whale had just been harvested and the blubber had been shipped in. She gave him a 10 pound box of muk-tuk. He shared it with the staff back at Homer. It was very chewy--impossible to bite off a piece in fact. A lady mentioned to me that her husband worked in Barrow and he would chew on two little pieces of muk-tuk and it had enough energy to last him for hours (despite that he lost 40 pounds while working in the 50 below weather). What you see pictured below is about four inches long. The dark part is the whale skin. I chewed on a piece like this for a minute or two this afternoon. Seven hours later, even after eating lunch and dinner, the taste of the muk-tuk is still in my mouth. It reminds me of a buttery flavor. I can understand how this would be a staple in the Eskimo diet. It is pure energy and it lasts a long time. I can also see why the Eskimo's teeth would get worn down from such a diet.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ice Skating Beluga Lake

In 3 years of living here, we've never gotten to Beluga Lake in Homer during the 3-5 day window in early winter when the lake freezes over and the ice is perfect for skating. This year, despite having to play musical skates (both our kids outgrew their ice skates, plus we have our exchange student to fit with skates), I was determined to make it out on the lake to skate.

As you can see, it is a good sized lake, and nearly the entire surface was smooth as an indoor skating rink. It was glorious, skating along, completely free, with the sunshine and mountains and a huge expanse of smooth ice. We went skating every day for the past 3 days, and at times there were over 100 people on the ice, but it never felt crowded with so much space to spread out.

From here on out, we will make sure we get out on the lake for the few days a year when it is skateable!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

High School Sports In Alaska: What a Trip!

Two events have changed our perspective this fall: my husband got the assistant principal job at Homer High School and we got an exchange student from Mexico. Both of these events have initiated us into a new group: high school sports.

Anywhere else, kids just hop on a bus and ride to their destination. In Alaska, if schools in the bush (not on the road system) want to have sports, they must get other teams to come and play them, in addition to getting out of the bush to go play other teams. Plus, the distance between schools can be immense. The Kenai Peninsula School District requires an administrator be at nearly every home sports event as well as some of the larger away events. Thus, Douglas ended up traveling nearly every weekend from mid-August through October for sports. Our exchange student, who was in swimming, traveled a great deal too. Here are some of their adventures in the name of high school sports.

Kodiak is an island 45 minutes away by plane and 9 hours away by ferry (on a good day, or depending on whether you're going with or against the winds and tide). Kodiak's football program is relatively new. In order to be part of the conference, they have to help pay for teams to come play them. This year they wanted to go cheap and make the Homer football team take the ferry both ways. This would have meant the students would have to take a bus to Whittier to get on the ferry, take the ferry to Kodiak, and then take the ferry back. They would have missed 3 days of school for a Saturday game to make all the connections. After much negotiation, they flew there but took the ferry back.

Even taking the ferry back can be quite an ordeal. They had to be at the ferry terminal 2 hours before casting off, which was 9 p.m. They were supposed to get out of the harbor at 11, but the ferries carry freight, and the day the football team was heading home it took an extra 2 hours to unload and load the freight, so they didn't even get out of harbor till after 1 a.m. The kids were sprawled all over the ship in any comfortable place they could find. There are often a number of different sports teams or groups on the ship at any given time. At noon the next day, the team arrived in Homer. With a plane ride they would have been home the evening before, but the cost was prohibitive for a team of 40.

The next weekend Douglas got to spend 5 days going to a volleyball tournament in Cordova. The kids took a bus to Whittier, hopped on the ferry for what is normally a short ride to Cordova, but the ferry had to stop by Valdez to pick up volleyball players so that added a few hours to the ride both ways. Once, teams from an entire tournament got stuck in Cordova for a week because of bad weather, and some administrators were ecstatic to get cots in the water treatment plant. The little town wasn't equipped handle that many people for that long.

This year swimming regionals were in Kodiak, so the swim/dive team had to figure out how to get their entire team to Kodiak, house them and transport them. All the other teams on the Kenai Peninsula had to do the same. The swim team coaches opted to charge the students $300 to go to Kodiak, which was basically their plane ticket, and fundraising paid for the housing and transportation. Some kids didn't go because their families couldn't afford it.

Nearly every swim meet that was more than 4 hours away (there are only a few high schools of Homer's size that are closer than Anchorage), students had to pay $50-$60 for the hotel and then they were on their own for meals. This adds up. Our exchange student probably spent $600 or more to swim this year.

Next week Douglas is going to go to Barrow with the Homer wrestling team. He has to figure out when he needs to be there, find connecting flights from Homer to Anchorage to Fairbanks to Barrow. At this point all the hotels in Barrow are full the first night he is supposed to be up there so he has to find a place to stay....somehow, somewhere. Hopefully all the flights won't be full by the time he makes his reservations.

When teams travel, sometimes a the hosting school is willing to house them and even feed them. Homer is good about that: this past weekend they hosted a wrestling tournament for 11 schools from all over the state. All the teams stayed in the high school. When the volleyball team went to Cordova the school there fed all the teams breakfast each day. This relieves the fundraising burden, and as well as family finances, but it is partly because many communities don't have fast food restaurants or other quick food options.

Now our exchange student is on the cross-country ski team. Parents are required to help volunteer and fundraise. The athletes themselves must volunteer at least 10 hours to fundraising during the season, and a chart in the locker room keeps track of their progress. That is on top of training and waxing their skis, never mind about homework. Sports become their life.

I am blown away by the commitment of families to their kids' sports. In Homer High School, 60% of the students participate in sports (not counting other extracurricular activities). Some students are in 3 different sports. I can't even begin to imagine how expensive that could get. This year we have been initiated into this culture, both from an administrator's perspective and as parents. It makes my head swim to think about it, and I don't know if I'm glad that I now know what is in store for me in a few years when I'll have two kids in high school!

Putting Up the Rope: Ohlson Mountain Rope Tow

We got dumped with nearly three feet of snow this past weekend in the Homer area, so downhill skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts were itching to get the Ohlson Mountain Rope tow up and running to take advantage of the unseasonably early snowfall. We are friends with people who are friends with some of the Ohlson Mountain organizers (sounds like a small town thing) so we got a call Sunday that the rope tow was going to go operational. It sounded like an interesting Sunday afternoon expedition, so despite the snowstorm we packed up our vehicle with snowshoes, sleds, snowboards, downhill and cross-country skis, warm clothes and snacks and headed out to Ohlson Mountain.

Luckily the plow had just come through on Ohlson Mountain Road, otherwise it would have been a treacherous drive. As it was, even the parking area for the rope tow had been plowed out (with snowbanks about 4 feet high--as deep as they were much of last winter!). We unloaded our equipment of choice: snowshoes, sleds and snowboards were on our list for the first foray. We dumped all our things in the warming hut and left the kids there to haul firewood into the warming hut and to play.

The adults, about 7 of us plus a couple who had been planning on skiing, grabbed the thick pads that are attached to the rope tow poles. We got those snapped on and headed up the slope on snowshoes. The snow was mid-thigh to nearly waist deep in places and the incline near the top is steep, making for a tricky climb. I was gasping for breath and sweating most of the way and was immensely relieved to get to the top.

There we were met with a huge pile of rope that needed to be dragged down the mountain and then threaded onto the rope tow machinery. After figuring out which was the top rope and which was the bottom, each person grabbed a section of the rope and started dragging it down the mountain. Ladders were found to climb the poles. Luckily we had a couple young guys who were willing to climb them with the heavy, frozen rope over their shoulders and heave them onto the wheels. Each time they climbed, the rest of us would pull the rope to give them enough slack to get the rope up, with at least one of us holding the ladder to stabilize it for the climber.

It was a messy process carrying the ladders through the deep snow from pole to pole, setting them up, getting enough slack for the person to carry the rope up the pole and then moving on to the next one. We got into the rhythm of it, though, and the project was completed in a little over two hours.

Much to the kids' disappointment, the snow was too deep to snowboard well. The couple on skis were able to get to the top of the hill where it was steeper, but they were having a hard time turning in thick, waist-deep snow. They looked like they were swimming. The kids weren't able to make it very high on the slope (it takes considerable strength to hold onto the rope tow, and it seems to take specific muscles, as attested by our upper body soreness at the beginning of every rope tow season) so they ended up boarding down on the rope area where they came up.

After a week of compacting, we're hoping that the snow conditions will be better this weekend! One of my friends posted pictures (better than mine!) on his Facebook. I will include the link here (not sure if it is public or private; you'll find out!): http://www.facebook.com/#!/album.php?aid=2101590&id=1210874850&fbid=1722964833205