On Top of the World at the 60th Parallel
By Lisa Brandon, Director of Media Relations
“If you ever want to really get to know someone, move to rural Alaska in a 250-square-foot house and live with them,” Emily (Williams) Hall ’13 wrote in her blog, “The Halls Day-to-Day in AK” at http://emilyrhall.blogspot.com. She and her husband, Joshua Hall ’13, took a 4,000 mile leap of faith to leave behind everything and everyone they knew in the “lower 48” and begin married life in a remote corner of Alaska.
When Emily and Joshua met during their first year at McKendree University, they shared a dream: to live in Alaska someday. “The mountains, snow, and all the wild game seemed to be the most appealing,” Emily said. “When we got engaged, we knew it had to be our first year of marriage.”
Decisions replaced dreams last February, when they met an Alaskan school district representative at a teachers’ fair. “Hearing him describe this kind of lifestyle as ‘primitive’ and ‘hunting and gathering’ scared me to death,” Emily admitted. Joshua, an outdoorsman, was in at the word “hunt.”
Accessible only by small plane, it lies on the Ninglick River, 15 miles from the Bering Sea. The village has no roads ...
A teaching position was open in Newtok, an isolated village on the southwestern coast. The school principal suggested the couple speak to a few local teachers about the challenges they would face in “bush Alaska.” Relieved to learn that some Newtok’s teachers had been there several years, Emily accepted a job with the Lower Kuskokwim School District - a district the size of Ohio.
In May they graduated from McKendree, Joshua with a degree in sociology-criminal justice and Emily with a degree in elementary education. Two weeks later, they were married in Emily’s hometown of Mt. Carmel, Ill. The newlyweds put most of their wedding gifts in storage, sold Joshua’s truck, and shipped a crockpot, coffeemaker and some clothes to their new address.
In August, Emily and Joshua arrived in Newtok, an isolated tribal community of 350 residents, 95 percent of whom are native Yupik. Accessible only by small plane, it lies on the Ninglick River, 15 miles from the Bering Sea. The village has no roads; boardwalks connect the school, health clinic, post office, police station, two small stores, steam houses, church and community center. Many residents get around on four wheelers or snow machines.
The nearest doctor, fast food restaurant, typical grocery store or gas station (at nearly $7 a gallon) is a 45-minute flight away. Anchorage is 500 miles east as the eagle flies. (Russia, across the Bering Strait, is 130 miles nearer.) Scientists predict Newtok will be underwater in four years, as melting permafrost erodes 90 feet of shoreline each year. The townspeople have been called America’s first “climate refugees” and some have begun evacuating to an island nine miles away.
The Halls’ first home was a tiny two-room trailer behind the school. They adapted to life without indoor plumbing, taking showers at the school, and hauling water in buckets and jugs for cooking and washing. A waste-burning “incinolet room” similar to an airplane restroom is attached to the small bedroom.
“It is surprisingly amazing how used to something you can get if you have the right mindset,” said Emily, with characteristic optimism. “We really are fortunate though, in having one of these in our place so we don’t have to go to the school every time we need to use the restroom.”
She teaches fifth and sixth grade math, reading, writing, and junior high reading at Newtok Ayaprun K-12, a dual language school where English is not her students’ first language. “The morning message is always in Yupik,” Emily said. “I have no idea what the message is. It is amazing to still see their native language being spoken and incorporated every day at school since half of their day is spoken in Yupik.”
With its access to running water and internet connectivity, the school is an extension of home, she explained. “In our house, we do not have internet or satellite or cable TV. We do have a television that we watch movies on. To get internet, we have to go to the school and use their Wi-Fi. Sometimes it is an inconvenience. You start to feel like you are always at the school. On weekends, we try to stay away as much as possible, excluding the times our family wants to Skype.” The school also hosts movie nights, open gym sessions, bingo and basketball games, and an annual Native Youth Olympics.
Joshua’s preferred recreation is hunting, trapping and fishing. He was invited to accompany six other men and a boy on a weeklong moose hunt camping trip. “I have dreamt of going moose hunting since I was a little boy and it did not disappoint,” he said. The hunters performed a spiritual ritual that helped them get two small bulls and a cow. After 12 hours of butchering and meat grinding, Emily and Joshua filled their “arctic room” freezer with 25 quart-size bags of ground moose, as well as steaks, roasts, enormous ribs and backstraps.
“Moose is fantastic! It is one of the leanest meats you will ever taste,” Emily said. “If I had to live off moose instead of beef for the rest of my life, I would be okay with it. In fact, this year I doubt we will buy beef again!” Emily and Joshua have also enjoyed freshly caught salmon and the wild berries that grew in abundance in summer. Neither have acquired a taste for akutaq (berries and Crisco, known as “Eskimo ice cream”); stink fish (raw fish packed in a box between layers of moss and left to age); or bird soup (head, talons and all).
Emily and Joshua respect the Yupiks’ custom of using every bit of an animal they hunt or trap. “They will not waste any part of it,” Emily said. “They will eat anything that the animal provides. The bone marrow is one of their favorite parts. My principal’s favorite part of the salmon is the eyeball.”
Thriftiness is important because life in bush Alaska is pricey. An $18 frozen pizza or a $15 package of string cheese is a rare splurge. Care packages of snacks and card games sent by the Halls’ Illinois families help sustain the couple’s spirits when the thermometer dips to well below zero and the sun doesn’t rise until late morning.
“When your dreams become your reality, you know you are where you are supposed to be.”
Emily and Joshua choose to focus on life’s small pleasures rather than what they don’t have. “The most rewarding thing is really understanding that we do not need everything. We are learning how to survive in one of the toughest areas of America,” Emily reflected. “I am teaching wonderful students who are so different than the students down states. They are teaching me more than I ever thought possible. Joshua is hunting and trapping as much as he can and wants.
“Our perspective on life has definitely changed. Sure, we may not have everything we used to, but we have what counts. This experience already has taught us so many things about each other that if we were anywhere else, I do not know that we would have realized yet.”
The couple faced another challenge in December, when Joshua was hired as a correctional officer at the maximum security Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, more than 500 miles away. Emily is eager to join him there, in a new house with all the amenities, after the spring semester ends in May.
“When your dreams become your reality, you know you are where you are supposed to be,” she said. “Moving up here definitely took a leap of faith. Faith that people would welcome us, faith that we could survive, faith that we would actually like it here. That was our biggest fear; that we would move all this way and end up hating our lives.
“It is, in fact, the complete opposite of that. We thank God every day that he gave us the awesome disposition on life to take it as it comes and to enjoy the life we are given. We believe that we did not choose this life; God already knew where we would end up together. We just have to believe we were sent here for a reason and enjoy it while it lasts!”