The last few days of our trip came to an end in the village of Point Hope, Alaska where we were fortunate to get a glimpse of the Inupiaq (northern-most Alaskan natives) way of life.
Between salmonberry picking with an elder, a camper showing us a home video of some of the villagers harpooning a whale, walking/driving around the village, and sharing stories with the kids and their parents, we were marveled by their lives.
We frequented the one restaurant in town almost twice a day, as the coolers of food that we had packed and shipped 4 days prior had spoiled due to mishandling by the airline we sent it on.
The average price of a typical meal here repeatedly gave me sticker shock, coming out to about $22 per person.
If we wanted a pizza, that would gouge us for $39 for just a standard size.
The store was no better, where a necessity like ice cream cost nearly $14.
A Kid's Life
Watch out folks, this is the type of player who shows up at a Division I program with an incredible childhood story (think Kamaka Hepa of Barrow or Ruthy Hebard of Fairbanks).
It's amazing to see basketball light up someones day or even change someones life. It gives kids who grow up in a tough, remote part of the world, opportunities they otherwise might not have.
It could be their way into college, and their way out of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, or all the other realities that come with growing up in a small place. #thankful
It's a strange feeling when you climb into an airplane fuselage that's smaller than a suburban.
You start to question whether or not this is a good idea, and imagine a scene similar to Final Destination where the airplane propeller that is an arms length away from you outside, just randomly dislodges and slices through the side of the plane and your body in one fell swoop.
I know, that was a bit graphic so I apologize.
Big & His Small Plane
Our pilot, Big, who I think is about as old as me (but confidently states that he was born and raised flying) picked us up in a single prop coffin, I mean plane, with a little hole in the window.
My skepticism for the safety of our lives continued to grow. The plane engine revved up, while Alysha prayed for our lives in the back, and we took flight.
I was relieved that we didn't immediately crash or the wings of the plane fall off from our weight, and the stress of the trip was slowly replaced by the amazing landscape we were flying over.
The Arctic coast I'm sure has a totally different look about it in the winter, but during the summer it is a beautiful cascade of greens.
We flew so low over some of the mountains I felt like I could reach out and high five a mountain goat, while other mountains looked like ocean waves that had been frozen in time.
The water to our right was endless, and incredible to think that the only thing beyond that was ice.
Once we landed in Point Hope (thank the Lord), we clambered out of the plane like clowns. The gal picking us up immediately laughed, because it looked so unrealistic that 6 oversized people could fit into that small space.
She drove us down a paved road (yes, paved!) and through the village to the house the boys would be staying at.
The place looked like a normal house, with sofas, a TV, plenty of food and other household items. A sweet set up for a village of 692.
She then proceeded to take us girls to our house. When we opened the door, we heard the buzzing sound of 20 flies taking off, smelt a mustiness that indicated the place hadn't been aired out in awhile, and when we flipped on the light saw an empty room with two dusty sofas and dead flies littering the floor.
I immediately let comparison steal my joy and tried very hard to see the positives. Shaina remarked, "Well I haven't been camping yet this year," and we couldn't help but laugh.
Might I mention, I also felt pretty guilty, because the girls were with me in this little, unloved house because of my dog allergies (the "mansion" was also home to a large German Sheppard named Duke). Ugh.
Anyway, living arrangement aside, this little place is so dang cool.
It is its own little world out in the middle of no where, but the people we've encountered have been so kind and hospitable.
An elder and one of the gals who works for ASRC took us on a four-wheeler ride down the coast where we passed two beached whales, a dead fox, and were warned we could pass the body of a young man who capsized in his kayak a year back. The Arctic is cruel.
We eventually arrived to an area where we could pick low bush salmonberries (high bush grow in the southern regions of Alaska).
We all felt very Alaskan in that moment, even Garry who is from Washington D.C. and hesitates to share any of our experience with his fiancé until we've arrived where we are going, safely.
We are all curious to see the turn out of kids in a village that is 3 times the size of the last, and has a reputation for loving basketball. In fact, their girls team came to the UAA Team Camp and there were quite a few ballers on their little squad!
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!