Photo courtesy of the Methow Valley Community School
Students from the Methow Valley Community School and their new friends in a native village north of the Arctic Circle shared lessons about the environment, recycling and Iñupiat language and traditions.

By Marcy Stamper

“I didn’t notice till we were about to land that there was a little clump of houses in what appeared to be a giant, snowy blizzard,” said William Halpin. That was Halpin’s first impression as he and three classmates from the Methow Valley Community School flew into a native Iñupiat village north of the Arctic Circle.

Although in many ways the lives of the 330 residents of Anaktuvuk Pass aren’t that different from their ancestors’, today almost everyone there — including kids as young as 5 — has a snowmobile and cell phone. Kids talk about making videos for YouTube, said Halpin, a sixth-grader at the school.

“I thought there would be a lot more traditional ways. I didn’t expect snowmobiles, powerlines from a generator, and wells. It was more like this life than I expected,” said sixth-grader Ila Newman. Nevertheless, seeing another part of the world had a big impact on her. “They’re still in our country, but it’s so far from our culture that it was a lot like going to another country,” she said.

Because it’s common for an Iñupiat family to have five or six kids, one-third of the population in the village is under 18, said Community School teacher Michaela Precourt, who organized the trip in conjunction with a program she founded called Down to Earth Expeditions.

The fourth- through sixth-grade Community School students shared lessons with a combined fourth/fifth-grade class of about 15 kids at Nunamiut School. In addition to getting to know one another, the students had group lessons in ecology and recycling. The school, with classes from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, is a community hub that opens its gym and swimming pool to everyone in town until 11 at night.

The Iñupiat were nomadic until about 1950 and still follow many of the same traditions. For food, they rely largely on hunting caribou, ptarmigan, hare and Dall’s sheep, supplemented by ice fishing and trading with coastal peoples for whale. Although farming isn’t a traditional part of Iñupiat culture, school cafeteria staff grow cucumbers and hydroponic lettuce in a tent.

During their six days in the village, the Community School students sampled local foods, including whale. “It was really salty — and really chewy,” said school director Allison Ciancibelli, who joined them on the trip.

No cars, high prices

Because there are virtually no roads in the village — other than one that leads a few miles out of town to the landfill — snowmobiles are the main transportation other than walking. The main vehicle fleet consists of a garbage truck and a school bus. The Iñupiat traditionally got around by dogsled, but the villagers are now learning cross-country skiing from a group of traveling ski instructors.

In a world where everything has to be flown in, food and basic needs tend to be very expensive. The Methow students were stunned to find that half a gallon of milk cost $12.85 and a six-pack of soda was almost $30. It costs $1.88 per pound to fly in supplies, and 80 cents per pound to fly things out, said Ciancibelli.

To Methow kids used to recycling and reuse, the practices in the Arctic were an eye-opener. “My biggest surprise on the first day was at lunch, when I looked everywhere for compost and found all this food thrown away,” said sixth-grader Meaghan Robinson. The trip “makes me thankful for what I have. I’m more oriented to recycling and composting after seeing their life,” she said.

Because the isolation makes it especially difficult to deal with trash, everything, including plastic and metals, is burned. “It was pretty much the foulest smoke I’ve ever smelled,” said Ciancibelli. Elders believe the smoke has altered the caribous’ migration route, keeping the animals far from the village. Students also learned about the impact the smoke has on water quality.

The two schools also joined in activities to build awareness about trash. They created reusable tote bags from T-shirts and turned plastic bags, cardboard, aluminum foil and Styrofoam into a caribou, a snowy owl, and a ptarmigan wearing a top hat.

The Community School kids also joined the local students for their lessons in the Iñupiat language and learned traditional games. They experimented with an Eskimo yo-yo, a contraption made from two strings or sinew with weighted balls that’s used for bird-hunting as well as for games.

Although the weather was extremely cold, with temperatures from 20 to 60-below zero, kids in the village walked around in sweatshirts and flip-flops with socks, said Ciancibelli.

In that climate, there are almost no trees, except for arctic willows along the river. In fact, in the brilliant Arctic light (there were already 14 hours of daylight when they were there in April), there are few landmarks to provide perspective on the landscape. The towering peaks of the Brooks Range appeared to be right outside the village, although they’re actually several miles away, said Robinson. Anaktuvuk Pass is within the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

Arctic lesson planning

The Down to Earth program runs annual expeditions for teams of educators, filmmakers and photographers in arctic regions, where the teachers develop lessons that can be used by any school around the world.

Precourt, four teachers and a filmmaker took an 11-day backcountry ski trek before the Community School students arrived. The educators each led several lessons in the field for the other teachers on topics such as animal behavior, the geology of Alaska’s Brooks Range, climate change, and patterns in nature. Along with winter tents and gear, to maintain their energy in the frigid conditions the expedition team consumed 16 pounds of butter in 11 days, said Precourt.

“The idea of Down to Earth is for teachers to go out into the world and gain a sense of place and bring lessons back to the classroom,” said Precourt. The 10 lesson plans will be available for free in June for teachers around the world at downtoearthexp.org under the Education tab and then Alaska. Video lessons will be on the website in August.

Planning is underway for the Iñupiat kids to come to the Community School in the fall. And many of the Community School kids are scheming to get back up to Alaska. “It’s such a kind, caring community,” said Halpin. “Seeing a different culture helps wipe away inner prejudice and breaks stereotypes.”

People can learn more about the student exchange at a slide show on the Anaktuvuk Pass trip at the Community School expedition night on Wednesday, May 16, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Methow Valley Community Center gym.

A film about the backcountry expedition should be completed in July.