Friday, November 30, 2007

Arctic Mirage

Early Thursday morning, as I left for school, I glanced across the lake and noticed a familiar twinkling on the western horizon. Some seventy miles away the lights of Wainwright, radiating through the icy air, flickered like tongues of fire against the dark, velvety sky. In spite of the distance, details of that neighboring village were clearly visible. The pulsating signal from the airport, numerous streetlights, and even headlights from moving vehicles, were easily identified. Although it sounds like a hallucination, I was actually seeing what I believe can be described as an Arctic mirage.

I searched the internet for information and, more importantly, photographs of the phenomenon. My initial Google search yielded 35,400 results. Yikes! I sifted through about twenty sites, searching for photos that accurately depict what I have actually seen over the years. So far, I haven’t found anything that even comes close. The biggest difference seems to be our lack of sunlight. None of the photos that I’ve encountered were taken at night. However, I did find some interesting facts and explanations, so I’ve included some related links in the sidebar to the left of this posting for those who are inclined to delve deeper. And here is a nifty little diagram that I will definitely be using with my students in the future.

Arctic Mirage

Since childhood, my only concept of mirage has been an eerily fluid image (usually an oasis) floating above the burning sands of a stifling desert. In movies, mirages are usually figments of the imagination that inevitably evaporate with increased proximity to reality. But the phenomenon that I’m describing isn’t a work of the imagination. I’ve heard it said that truth is stranger than fiction. That definitely seems to apply here. The scientific explanation just makes the occurrence of Arctic mirage that much more intriguing. The basic principle is that various factors work together to allow one to see things that actually do exist beyond the horizon. I read about explorers and other sailors who used the mirages to help navigate toward known geographical locations. How amazing is that?

Both literally and figuratively, how cool would it be to have the ability to see beyond the edge…around the corner…or over the next hill? I’m not talking about psychic phenomenon or fortune-telling or even a desire to know the future. I’m more interested in the idea of being visionary. There are those who, for whatever reason, have the ability to see beyond the horizon and encourage others toward it. They don’t know every detail of the journey, but they are certain of the destination because they’ve "seen" it. Maybe we all have visionary moments at different points in our lives, fleeting but helpful glimpses of what lies ahead that keep us moving in the right direction. I like that idea. It’s something I hope to remember every time I see the lights of a neighboring village flickering through the darkness…and especially during the times when I don’t.


Monday, November 26, 2007


Three on a sled and one hanging on

If necessity is the mother of invention...convenience must be the mother of ingenuity...or at least its distant cousin. No one really needs a sliding hill, but when it's dark all day, having a nice steep loading ramp at your disposal is certainly convenient. The ramp behind the school is a perfect hill-substitute and a favorite "sliding" spot for local kids, especially right after school. It's about fifteen feet high, very steep, and slick, slick, slick. Some kids slide down on their feet while holding onto the rail. Most prefer to fly down on a plastic sled or cardboard box, hoping to "ramp" on the snow at the bottom and become airborne before crashing. The thrill of taking flight appears to overcome the fear of pain associated with hitting the pavement of packed snow and ice. Throughout my youth, I was always dying to try this. These days I'm pretty sure if I tried this, I would die!
Crashing is a big part of the they say. :)


Have box...will travel!

Box full of fun

I'm okay

Cold? Who could be cold when we're having so much fun?

Cold-Who's Cold

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Utility Pole

I wore my big parka today…first time this year. It wasn’t really cold enough, but over the last few days the wind has been hurling snow at about twenty-five to thirty-five miles per hour and there’s nothing better than fur to keep a sharp wind from cutting through the bones.

Drifts have been building up across the roads and beside houses. I’ve had to dig out the doghouse five times. I guess that’s pretty much what you would expect this time of year. Without the sun to keep it company, the wind seems to spend a lot of time racing itself across the tundra, swirling snow from the sky with snow on the ground in a frantic, turbulent sort of dance.

But, about a week ago, there was no wind. In its absence, an unusual stretch of calm settled in like a down comforter quietly unfolding across the land. Moist air lingered for a few days and wrapped itself around every solid surface until the whole village was transformed into a wonderland of frost.

Frost has always fascinated me. Growing up in southern states, I think it served as a substitute for the snow that I always hoped to, yet didn’t, experience very often. But, I don’t remember seeing frost like we had here last week. After a few days without wind, layers of feathery crystals began to build up like a sculpture being created in reverse. Ordinary objects, wrapped in a fuzzy disguise, appeared more interesting and fun. Mundane structures…like fences or handrails…seemed delicate, even beautiful. Hard lines all around the village softened. Battle scars from clashes with the elements were temporarily concealed by the elegant, shimmering mantle of ice.

Of course, the wind never stays gone for long and when it finally did return the frost was quickly sheared away. But, while it lasted, it was exquisite…and kind of fun. Tinged by the pale yellow glow of streetlights, the sight of our frost-covered village almost made me feel warm and fuzzy during my early morning treks to school. Considering the climate, that’s not an easy thing to do.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture the glittery, shimmering effect of the frost in my photos. Either the camera I'm using can't do it...or I just don't know how. But, I do think you can see how thick the frost was. This looks a lot like latticework, but is actually a chain link fence.


Playground one playing on it these days.



This silly picture is the sock that I use to cover my doorknob. If I don't keep the knob covered, it will collect moisture, frost, or snow inside the keyhole and will freeze up. A frozen doorknob is very bad news...especially with a half-mile walk back to town. I also have to keep it covered during windy weather in the summertime because the dust blowing off the road causes a similar problem (even worse). A sock is a simple, yet fairly effective, solution!


Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Who knew that Monday morning would usher in yet another arctic anomaly? I certainly had no clue! As you can probably imagine, unexpected changes in daily routine often present more than a few challenges within a classroom. I'm not big on surprises when it comes to keeping my kids on track. However, this departure from the typically lockstep morning schedule proved to be a rabbit worth chasing.

With a name like Pamyua (pronounced BUM-yo-ah) you'd think this would have something to do with Inupiat culture or language, right? Well, almost. Pamyua is actually the name of a Nordic indigenous band originally formed by two brothers, Stephen and Phillip Blanchett, who are of Yup'ik Eskimo and African American decent. Sound like an interesting combination? Just wait. It gets better! The female vocalist of the group is a Greenlandic Inuit and Pamyua's musical style is largely inspired by gospel, R & B, funk, and jazz! Whew! While that may sound a bit schizophrenic, it was actually lots of fun.

In 2003, Pamyua was chosen to represent Native American music at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards. Following that performance, their third album, Caught in the Act, won Record of the Year at the Native American Music Awards! And here they were...performing in our little the middle of the arctic tundra!

Lead vocalists are (from left) Ossie Kairaiuak, Stephen Blanchett, Karina Moeller, and Phillip Blanchett.

Pamyua Singers

Phillip Blanchett dances a traditional Yup'ik Eskimo dance...very expressive and comical! The drums being played by Ossie and Stephen are identical, as far as I can tell, to drums used by Inupiat Eskimo culture. The only difference is that Yup'ik Eskimos beat the top of the drum while Inupiats hit the skin from underneath.

Yup'ik Eskimo Dance-Phillip Blanchett

At first, I think the kids were basically stunned. Their faces tell the story better than I ever could.


But it didn't take long before the music found its way into their souls...or at least their arms...and they were fearlessly swaying and clapping and laughing. It was truly a beautiful thing.

Raise Your Hands2

If your curiosity is stronger than your aversion to download time...take a quick peek at Pamyua...during their limited (Monday morning) engagement at the Arctic Cotton Club. :)

Monday, November 5, 2007

Puuqtaluk Past

Would you dance alone in front of an audience...all eyes on you?

1 (8%)...No way! They don't make a good enough costume for that!
9 (75%)...Maybe, if I could wear a disguise.
2 (16%)...No problem! Who needs a costume?

A few friends and relatives have asked about the year that I participated in Puuqtaluk. I have to admit that I could never have done it without the disguise. I envy those two brave individuals who indicated in the poll that they wouldn't even need a costume to dance in front of a crowd. All I can say to that is...yikes! My enthusiasm for personal humiliation falls squarely with the majority...maybe even toward the lower end of the scale.

For me, doing Puuqtaluk was a stretch. But, I have to admit, the whole experience was a total blast. From finding over-sized men's clothes at a thrift store in applying brown eye shadow over my entire face to hide my was all one big hilarious challenge. I stuffed three (or was it four?) pillows in the shirt and pants. And I wore three shirts (one a turtle neck) and muscle-man padding that I'd found with the discounted Halloween costumes. That added several inches to my arms, chest, and stomach (muscular inches...don't you think?) and helped to round out the overall physique. I had to stuff about forty plastic grocery bags into the size 11 men's work boots, in both the feet and the legs, just to keep them on. Men's gloves and a 52 inch belt finished off the ensemble. It was important to find the largest belt possible because I had noticed at previous Puuqtaluk competitions that contestants often stuffed their clothes with pillows, but used a small belt which made their identity easier to guess. So, I was sneaky. I kept stuffing and stuffing until I felt like Old West Santa...much harder to identify.

It took a while, but I finally found the photos. Some of you have already seen these. As I warned back then...I'll warn again...brace yourself! Puuqtaluk costumes, in general, are not for the faint of heart and mine was no exception. I think the thing that made my disguise rather unsettling was that it was somewhat realistic. People did a lot of double-takes as they looked my way. Children stared from a distance, unsure if I was Puuqtaluk-ing or actually a strange man lurking in the corner. Even adults steered clear as they walked past me, avoiding eye contact. At the end, when I pulled off the mask, there was a loud, "Aathaaa!" which, loosely translated, is Eskimo for, "Holy cow!" My students were amazed and exceedingly proud that their teacher had danced in public, fooled everyone, and even won second place. They were also more than a little interested in my prize money!

I took these photos at my principal's house on the way to the community center that night. My principal was sitting on the couch and kept stealing glances at me and then looking away. He said, "I know it's you because I recognize your voice, but that get-up is just creeping me out!"

Cowboy Close Up

Go ahead, admit it. You know you're jealous of my natural beauty!

Cowboy Dancing

His daughter was a little braver...too funny!

Cowboy with Principal's Daughter

Friday, November 2, 2007

Puuqtaluk Arrives!

Puuqtaluk is a night of silliness and laughter. Sometimes it's the costume that is humorously absurd. Sometimes it's the dancing. Sometimes the contestants actually interact with the audience (or one another) in some ridiculous way. But, no matter the age or dancing ability of the participant, the objective is always to make people laugh.

However, there is another objective to the competition that is almost as important as the humor. The identities of the participants are always kept secret. Part of the fun, for the audience, is trying to guess who is dancing in spite of the disguise that is worn. Contestants often wear several layers of clothing stuffed with pillows in addition to a mask. They may wear mismatched gloves, over-sized shoes, or even walk in an unusual way all in an effort to prevent anyone from guessing who they are. The ultimate accomplishment for a Puuqtaluk participant is to have tricked the audience, to have remained anonymous to the end. How exhilarating it must be to receive cheers of astonishment from the crowd as the mask is lifted revealing the dancer's true identity!

And, of course, receiving a hefty prize check isn't too bad either.

Okay, I forgot to mention that the baby division doesn't really follow the same rules. They pretty much just toddle around and look cute. This little sweetheart won first prize in that age group. She even beat out her older brother who became shy at the sight of the audience.

The Youngest Winner2

I'm not sure what baby-boy-left is trying to do to baby-boy-right, but it sure looks like he's determined to do it, whatever it is. These two have more in common than being adorable in their costumes. They were born on the same the same hospital!

Let Me Adjust That For You

This is one of my students. He's pretty excited to have won first prize and is standing at the table waiting for his check. I took this photo right after he revealed his identity. You'll notice he's still sweaty from doing all that dancing dressed up in a heavy disguise.

First Place Winner

These three were contestants in the 14-17 year old division.

Puuqtaluk Contestants

Here the participants from that same division (14-17 yrs.) are dancing as a group.
Each is also required to dance alone. That's the part where the mask is really handy! How frightening!

Puuqtaluk Dancers

These nasty looking characters were contestants in the adult division. The one in the middle actually won first place.

Nasty Looking Characters

Believe it or not, this ominous figure is actually a rather slender and attractive mother of SIX! All of her children, ages 2 to 8, were in the audience watching mommy dance.

Puuqtaluk Dancer

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Quest For Candy

Trick-or-treating began early this year...around three o'clock in the afternoon! I didn't get home until 4:30, but within minutes heard a knock at the door and the familiar chant, "trick or treat!" As I opened my front door, armed with both candy bowl and camera, these were the faces that greeted me. Almost as sweet as the treats, don't you think?

Notice that some of the children were toting pillow cases instead of traditional Halloween bags. A pillow case full of candy? Was that child-like optimism or seasoned realism at work? I'm almost afraid to ask! As a teacher, sugar overload seems a lot more frightening than any Halloween ghost or goblin. I'm sure there are plenty of teachers out there, as well as parents, who would agree.


Click on any photo for a larger image or to see more...

First Trick or Treaters

This trick-or-treater, a student in my class, happily rode alone. He suggested that being on his own might increase the amount of candy he'd receive! I forgot to ask him how it worked out.

Lone Trick or Treater2

And then, sometimes they arrived in bundles...full of giggles and smiles and just a little bit frosty.

Candy Quest

Trick or Treat Transportation