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When Costco is 1,000 Miles Away

How do you get by in rural Alaska? Plan ahead and buy in bulk.

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Working in Bethel, Alaska—a community perched closer to Russia than to Seattle and only is accessible by air or river—means unique challenges for those who call it home. In Real Challenges, Virtual Solutions, we talk about how virtual teaching is helping educators grapple with the unique obstacles they face in reaching rural Alaska’s students. But the rest of their day brings unique situations, too. In their own words. educators  there share some of the difficulties and logistical headaches of living in a place where temperatures can dip to 40 below and the twice-yearly arrival of the barge carrying food and other supplies is a very big deal.

On the food prices and the daily commute
“It’s not uncommon for places to run out of milk. If you want vegetables, you’re going to pay high prices. A box of veggies runs $40 to $50. When folks go to Anchorage for vacation they know that’s when you buy [what’s needed.] My wife and I spent $3,000 last fall for two pallets of groceries. They’ll last us six months. We came back from a trip to Anchorage with 100 pounds of meat.

“You can drive on the river here from November to March. It’s totally frozen. It’s nothing to have three or four inches of packed snow and ice on the road.”

—Chip Hagedorn
In-school suspension instructor

On the social life
“You miss the day-to-day social interactions that you have in other places. Here, you get creative at making fun—board games, murder mystery games.”

—Julie McWilliams
In-service instructor

On the the quality of life
“I much prefer living here [to the Lower 48.] I like Alaska very much. You have the opportunity to take on challenges. The Yup’ik people are wonderful to work with. People are very thoughtful here.

“You really have to plan what you’re going to do [for entertainment.] Basketball is the thing here. Schools will be open until way into the night on game days. [Because of the extensive travel distances, towns often host a visiting team for the entire weekend, letting them bunk in the school gymnasium.] We also have the Eskimo Olympics. [LINK TO] You almost have to see them to believe it.”

—Sandra Cott

On the shopping
“Learning how to shop is the trickiest thing. I use Span Alaska (an online retailer that aggregates multiple shopping services) because I am still not savvy enough to pick the individual vendors yet. When it’s spring, people all have their eye on the river, waiting for it to melt so the barge can come. Even once it gets here, it takes a month to unload.”

—Andrea Pokrzywinski
High school biology teacher

On what it takes to thrive
“Teaching up here is very different, being in a small, isolated place. If a person’s not really able to adjust to that they’re probably not going to stay here long. You need to get your supplies, as much as possible, for the whole year. They’ve got to anticipate. This area is for a person if they like to hunt and fish and go berry picking in their free time. I like the challenges. It’s unique.”

—Marc Leinberger
High school applied mathematics teacher

Alaska certainly isn’t the only spot in the country with unique teaching environments. In our NEA Today series, “Where We Teach” we’ve featured member teachers and support professionals working in jails, military bases, and two-room schoolhouses out on the plains. What makes your environment unique? Are you at the edge of a Northwest rainforest or in a concrete jungle? Talk to your peers about the challenges in your school on our discussion forum.

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  • anc_dyn_linksOctober | November 2009
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