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Wakaa from Woolnough

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"Hello" in Yup’ik

The last time I cried was when my first grandchild was born. At least that was the last time until this morning. This morning I left Sandpoint and moved to Bethel, Alaska. I didn’t cry because Bethel is 2,000 miles away and seems like a different country. I cried because I left my wife and my home and my friends and a community I had grown to love. I cried because I left unfinished business behind. I cried because I’m off on one of life’s grand adventures—full of the unknown and full of challenges. There were tears of joy mixed with tears of sadness.

To describe my feelings, I was tempted to use the analogy of a lizard shedding its skin. [I once lived in the desert for twelve years.] Instead, I’ll use something more Alaskan as my symbol: the king crab. When a crab sheds its shell, it is both highly vulnerable and embarking on a new phase of life. As Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

So here I sit in the Anchorage airport waiting for the last leg of my journey—or is merely the next step? I’m so overwhelmed, I can only notice and remember small details. I notice the dust and the temporary walls and the construction noises. I wonder, "is every airport everywhere is being re-built and enlarged and improved?" I guess my 7th grade science teacher was right; the planet is 75% covered in water and clouds cover most of everything. Much of what I saw out the little window of the jet was clouds or occasional glimpses of gray ocean.

Then, Alaska reared up and roared up and bit me. I began to experience and live Alaska. Although I spent a week in Anchorage two years ago, I saw mostly clouds, snow, rain and lots of dogs. Today, in contrast, as the jet descended into Anchorage, the clouds parted and I got my first sight of Denali—what we lower 48er’s named Mt. McKinley. To the Athabascan natives, Denali is sacred and imbued with spirits.

As a cheechako, or newcomer to Alaska, I need to learn more about the mountain and native cultures. Nevertheless, I can assure you that the mountain is indeed alive, and, with one sighting, it can and does invade one’s very being.

Over the next few weeks and months, I hope to share with you my thoughts, perspectives, emotions and experiences as I acclimate to my new home, job and community. Upcoming topics include native culture and language, the flatness of the tundra, what Bethelites (or is that Bethelians or Bethelonians?) do for excitement, fishing the Kuskokwim and sled dog racing. One of the big qualifying races for the Iditarod is the Kuskokwim 300 that starts and finishes in Bethel.

In the meantime, as I sit in one of the most uncomfortable seats ever made, I contemplate the unknown. (I also wonder if airport furniture is designed by masochists.) I’ve never been to Bethel; I’ve never met my new colleagues other than by telephone; I don’t even know how many students attend the school where I’ll be an assistant site administrator. I have a gazillion questions and few answers. 

And you know what? It’s exciting as can be!

Once I landed in Bethel, I walked through the terminal and learned my first word of Yup’ik: anarvik. Yep, that’s the native Eskimo word for bathroom.

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AC Woolnough

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