Aliyah’s Bone

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img_4057Aliyah found her mammoth bone up the Porcupine. Mammoth fossils are common on the Yukon Flats. Most are found along the rivers that erode so much of the land every spring. People are always showing me mammoth tusks, teeth and bones. Aliyah is very proud of hers.

I’ve mentioned before how grateful I am to get to work with the same students for five unbroken years. We have become a family, of sorts. But the truth is, that family includes every student in the school, even the youngsters in the elementary grades. They all know my name, and they grow up wanting to be in my science class someday. I know, because they tell me so. One or another always greets me in the morning with a “Hi, Dave!” or a “Happy birthday” on the day we older ones would as soon forget. They bring me their rocks and bugs and bones and moldy bread to see. Just like Aliyah, because we are family.

Ice Fishing Lessons

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Alfred cuts a hole

When my neighbors get serious about ice fishing, they do it with a net, not with a line. We have a community service class at my school and they recently set a net at the mouth of the Sucker, right where it flows into the Porcupine. Salmon traveling upriver to their spawning grounds tire and turn in to the smaller side channels like the Sucker for a rest. They find a net instead. The students are catching eight to ten large fish a day, mostly salmon, but some whitefish, too. They give their catch to the elders and needy of the village.

Imagine depending entirely on the land for all your needs, a land given to short summers and severe winters. How does one solve the problems of making tools without tools, or sewing without thread and needle, or making nets without twine? The Athabascans are remarkable problem solvers – they did all this and more because their survival depended on it. I glimpsed a bit of that problem solving acumen as I watched Alfred teach the students how to ice fish with a net.

And how on earth would you figure out how to run a net under the ice for some serious fishing? If you are interested in how Athabascans do it, here is Alfred to teach you. Click on a picture to start a slideshow and read about it.

So what about those other problems that the Athabascans overcame? They made tanning tools and needles out of caribou bone, thread out of sinew, rope out of rawhide, and nets out of willow bark!

Yes, Your Feet’s Too Big

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Aren’t snowshoes wonderful inventions? – mathematical wonders, the trapper’s friend, even life savers.

And, of course, they are a wonderful source of fun! Here, some of our younger students race about on snowshoes. Each year we have a cultural week at school. Usually, an elder will be there to teach the youngsters how to make snowshoes of birch and hide, although the ones these students are wearing are store-bought.

I grew up in Texas. My only knowledge of snowshoes came from stories like White Fang, by Jack London:

In advance of the dogs, on wide snowshoes, toiled a man. At the rear of the sled toiled a second man. On the sled, in the box, lay a third man whose toil was over, – a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten down until he would never move nor struggle again.

…and from poems like The Call Of the Wild, by Robert William Service:

Have you known the Great White Silence, not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
(Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies.)
Have you broken trail on snowshoes? mushed your huskies up the river,
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?
Have you marked the map’s void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,
Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And though grim as hell the worst is, can you round it off with curses?
Then hearken to the Wild — it’s wanting you.

But (and I’m not embarrassed to admit it) the memory that first comes to my mind when I see snowshoes is that of a song made popular by Fats Waller back in 1939 – the laughter rousing Your Feet’t Too Big, by Fred Fisher and Ada Benson:

Who’s that walkin’ round here? Mercy
Sounds like baby patter
Baby elephant patter that’s what I calls it

Say up in Harlem at a table for two
There were four of us, me, your big feet and you
From your ankles up, I’d say you sure are sweet
From there down there’s just too much feet

Yes, your feet’s too big
Don’t want you, ’cause you feet’s too big
Can’t use you, ’cause you feet’s too big
I really hate you, ’cause you feet’s too big

Where did you get them?
Your girl she likes you, she thinks you’re nice
Got what it takes to be in paradise
She said likes your face, she likes your ray
Man oh man them things are too big

Oh, your feet’s too big
Don’t want you, ’cause you feet’s too big
Mad at you, ’cause your feet’s too big
I hate you, ’cause your feet’s too big

My Goodness! Gun the gunboats!
Ship, ship, ship

Oh your pedal extremities are colossal
To me you look just like a fossil
You got me walkin’, talkin’ and squawkin’
‘Cause your feet’s too big, yeah

Come on and walk that thing
Oh, I’ve never heard of such walkin’, mercy
Your, your pedal extremities really are obnoxious
One never knows, do one?

Please do yourself a favor, go watch and listen to Fats Waller sing Your Feet’s Too Big, then tell me if you don’t walk a little lighter on your feet the rest of the day!

Catkins & Chilly Fingers

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“Can we go out to take pictures today?”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked that! I’ve five rookie photographers in my class, so yesterday we did it. We bundled up, grabbed our Canons and went out stalking the elusive photograph.

“Hey, Dave, come see my picture!”

“Hey, Dave, check out this one!”

“Hey, Dave, how come my pictures look weird?”

There they go, scampering through the snow and it’s -20 ˚F. Some of us are wearing summer weight tennis shoes (yes, me too). We all left the school with gloves on, but in the excitement the young Ansels have torn them off and stuffed them into pockets. After all, who can take pictures with gloves on?

And besides, when you are on the hunt, little things like chilly fingers hardly seem to matter…

Art

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Each year we purchase 500 coho salmon eggs and raise them in our class. Silver salmon are indigenous to Alaskan waters and are a staple of the Athabascan diet. King salmon are more prized but also in short supply, so we were not allowed to catch them this year. When kings are abundant, silvers may be fed to the dogs, but this year they are on the dinner table.

Lots of science and art projects hatch from those eggs. This drawing of a baby salmon in the “alevin” stage is a favorite of mine. You can see its lateral line (a sensory organ that helps the salmon “hear”) and its yolk sac that we affectionately call the lunch bag. Alevin can’t swim so they wiggle around on the gravel bed where they can hide.

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Rochelle drew the gray wolf with black pastels and I wish you could see the wonderfully smooth shading of her original. It is estimated that there are about 160 gray wolves on the Yukon Flats, an area of some 10,000 square miles (6.5 million sq km). That is low, maybe because the moose upon which they prey are also in decline.

Moose are a vital part of the Athabascan diet and hunters have no intention of sharing their meal with the wolves. You can guess what that means for the wolf.

Rochelle no longer attends our school, much to our loss.

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Allison drew her wonderful impression of a hypothesis as part of our study on the scientific method. All that detailed shading in the background took her many, many student hours to complete. Allison is pictured on my last post. I am a big fan of her art.

We haven’t any art classes. We haven’t any art teachers. So we incorporate art into all our classes and do our amateurish best to turn our kids into famous illustrators. Sometimes they teach us! How are they doing?

Eye Of An Artist

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Aquinnah has the eye of an artist. No pun intended. She just framed the leaves she pressed for our science class. Well, “framed” is the wrong word. She composed her leaves; the result was pure art of a high order!

Aquinnah normally shies when a camera points her way but not this time. The pose is her own composition. The mind of an artist at work!

Looking For Their Moose

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Troy is one of my students. He is headed up the Yukon with his dad, looking to fill their winter cache with a moose. Boys learn to hunt at an early age. Most learn at the side of their father, a grandfather or an uncle, but sometimes the role of teacher falls to somebody who is not a relative. Some of the girls enjoy hunting, too.

Once taught, youngsters often hunt with friends and many of our students have sold us some of their catch. I have several students promising to bring me grouse. I hope they deliver because I have lived here more than three years without tasting one.

At Least We Outnumber the Grizzlies

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Minnie is one of my 11th grade students. Like many of the native youth, she makes jewelry. This is one of her necklaces. Beads come from the store. Claws come from the Yukon Flats.

So what kind of place is this, really? We are surrounded by 40,000 square miles of boreal forest which we share with 1700 people and 1300 grizzly bears. About 600 of those people live in Fort Yukon. Fortunately for us, none of the grizzlies do.

On Death, and Becoming a Man

photographs by Christopher and David

On October 13, 2013 the river claimed my friend and on that day, his son became a man.

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Mike on the river

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Inspecting the potato garden

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Six Mile – never go anywhere without a rifle, a knife and a fire starter

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Mike and Joey water the seed potatoes

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This is the greenhouse that Mike built

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Helping his devoted friend Keith build a fishwheel

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Mike and Chris on the river

Mike Jackson left home that Sunday morning to cut wood for the winter. The air temperature should have been well below freezing, but this day dawned unseasonably warm and the airport temperature topped at 39 degrees F (4C). I know the river temperature was about 41 degrees because my classes had measured it only days before. Mike traveled by boat, out past Four Mile, with Joey and his older daughter Tasha. On the way home something happened and the boat began to sink. The following is based on Tasha’s memory of that day.

After cutting wood and hauling it down to the river, Mike and his children carefully loaded it and headed home. The boat was not overloaded and Tasha does not remember hitting any underwater stumps. “It was a freak thing.” Joey was the first to notice they were taking on water, quickly. As the boat went under Mike, Tasha and Joey desperately swam for shore through the frigid waters.

They wore life preservers but the current was strong and moving in their heavy-laden Carhartts was very hard. Joey was the only one to reach the beach. Chilled to the bone and near exhaustion, he fought his way down that rocky shoreline strewn with driftwood and debris (sock-footed, having kicked off his shoes in the river) in pursuit of his sister.

As for Tasha, she recalls being caught in the current, unable to reach the shore and wanting to go to sleep. I believe she said she must have been in the water about 10 minutes. And then, somehow, Joey did the impossible. He reached his sister and dragged her out of the river. “I don’t know how he did that.  He pulled me all the way out of the water and up onto the beach.”

They could see Mike but he was caught in the current, too far out of reach. “I remember hearing Dad call out to Joey, ‘take care of your sister.'” Unable to help him, they stumbled and crawled for at least half an hour in search of help. “My clothes were stiff with cold, frozen to me; I could hardly move.” They could hear chainsaws in the distance but never reached them. Instead, my neighbor Bruce saw them from his boat and came to their aid. He immediately went for their dad, but Mike had already passed away and Bruce didn’t have the strength to lift him into the boat so he returned for Tasha and Joey and took them back to the village. Five of us went out and brought Mike home.

I had only come to know Mike well this year. I would like to think he counted me as a friend. I certainly counted him so. He often brought me fish and summer jams made by his wife Janet. But I am most indebted to him for befriending and mentoring my son Chris this past summer and introducing him to wilderness survival. Since his death I have learned that my family wasn’t the only recipient of Mike’s kindness. Many came forward at his memorial to tell stories about Mike dropping by with vegetables or fish or wood, or to help repair something. He filled our village with generosity.

I’m certain that if Mike could read this story he would say, “You’re getting this all wrong, this is Joey’s story.” And, of course, Mike would be right because on the day he died, he witnessed his son becoming a man.

Because in the face of death, Joey reached down deep into places of the heart and mind that simply don’t exist in a boy and found the indefatigable will, not only to endure, but to save his sister’s life.

Eleven days after his father’s memorial, Joey has already rejoined his 10th grade classmates. But my classroom isn’t the same anymore. It is a better place now. Everyday Joey enters the room and take his place just as before; only now when I look his way, I see him for what he has become…a man without equal among his peers.

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Joey at Six Mile

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Mike with his youngest child, Melissa