In a village of 247 people and a school population of 100, where there is little to do during any season of the year, we arrived in awe of the small, arctic village of Point Lay.
We also hadn’t the slightest clue how many kids would arrive to each session.
If 25 arrived for the elementary group and 25 to the high school group, we’d be doing pretty well for ourselves at 50% of the school population (a commendable percentage at any school across the nation).
Well, as the starting time of 1:00pm hit for the first day of the elementary aged session, 4 kids trickled in. 15 minutes passed and a dad dropped off his two daughters and simultaneously tried to sell us some ivory hand carved rings.
At half past one, we gave up on waiting for any more kids and started with yes, a total of 8. An hour goes by and a few more kids trickle in, and by 3pm with an hour left in camp, the size had expanded to 18 kids.
Long story short, there is literally no concept of time up north where the sun never sets during the summer or rises in the winter.
It could be 1pm or 1am, and if you don’t have a watch there is no way of telling the difference. But if there’s one thing everyone knows in a village, it’s when something is going on.
What do they do?
I was very curious to learn about what life is like for these kids.
By the looks of it, there wasn’t much to do besides sit inside or bike from one end of the road to the other, which would take all of 10 minutes.
Point Lay, and many small villages like it, is classified as a “dry” village, essentially meaning alcohol is restricted due to modern day prohibition.
There are no malls, movie theaters, only one small convenience store, no paved road or runway.
The main attraction is the school, where kids gather not only to learn, but to partake in activities. The state of Alaska and each native region’s respective corporation (in the case of Point Lay, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, who in fact sponsored us to put on this camp) invests a lot of money into their schools and thus they are modern in a place that looks nothing from the present.
However unexciting the village may seem, for the kids, this also creates opportunities to be inventive. When asked what they do in their free time, four girls lit up with smiles and said they play a game after curfew called piqasaurak, in Inupiaq.
The one marshal in town will patrol streets after the village curfew, and the kids will give him something to do just as much as themselves by sneaking around and trying not to get caught. A grander version of hide and sneak, if you will.
Much like an urban city, what keeps the kids out of trouble and moving in a positive direction is activity, and the king of all activity in remote Alaska is one of the most accessible sports to play, basketball.
They are fully equipped here with round abouts of 40 basketballs, a gym, and even outdoor court.
How do they survive?
When asked about the harsh winters, the locals said that it’s common for temperatures to drop well below freezing (~average -18 degrees F), that pipes freeze for days at a time, forcing residents to use honey-buckets (yes an actual bucket) instead of toilets and to be okay without showering.
Blizzards will sometimes be so strong that if you are brave enough to leave the safety of your home, it is difficult to see past a hand length in front of you, giving a whole new meaning to what constitutes a snow day.
Tragedies do occasionally result due to the harsh temperatures and winter conditions, for example a few years back, a father and son were trapped inside their home because of the snow and froze to death.
Alaska truly may be the deadliest state of all.
For the Love of the Game
Despite how different their lifestyle is compared to the “normal” person, the villagers love where they live and are proud of it. They also love the game of basketball.
We have nothing in common with them, except for the game, and with it we were able to relate and see their personalities come to life. So far, this has been a highly rewarding experience for everyone involved.
The crazy travel and sleeping on airbeds in classrooms is totally worth it when you can see the difference it makes to these kids. We are grateful the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) requested we put this on!
Our next stop will be Point Hope, where I hope to learn even more about the amazing Inupiat people and their home, and share their way of life with you!