March 2006

written by Kathy Sarns Irwin ~ photos by Kathy and Pat Irwin

11.Smiling Kids and Hurricane winds

The next 3 days were filled with energy and activity of ski classes organized by Marcy so every single child would get to ski at least twice. Somewhere between 125 and 150 children. This was a village of only 450 people total. We stayed at the school and we never met any adults except the ones working at the school. My memory of Buckland will always be of the children smiling and laughing.

The children were so excited to ski and so full of energy it was overwhelming. They welcomed us whole heartedly and we thank them for this.

Pat and I bought lunch at the cafeteria and were mauled by enthusiastic kids.They all wanted their picture taken and had 100s of questions for us. Some of them had never been outside the village, and some of them had. One boy said that when he grew up he might marry a white woman if he had to, because he said it doesn't matter what race you are. One child told me that her 19 year old uncle shot himself this year. A very sad but true reality. There is a high rate of depression and suicide in rural Alaska. This ski program is another effort to give the kids more things to do and look forward to. They also have basketball out here, which is a BIG deal. Folks travel 100s of miles on snow machine to see or be in basketball games!

Birthdays are REAL important out here, every kid told us about their birthdays and all of their aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers birthdays.They all knew about Elephant Point and said they went there in summer time to fish and hunt. They took a boat there.

When we asked them what else they did in the summer they would unanimously yell "Swim!"

We then ask "Where?"

"In the river!" they would shout.

It was hard to imagine in about 2 months they would be swimming in the now frozen solid Buckland River!

We would then ask is it cold?

They would shout even louder,


Altogether this was the nicest most enthusiastic bunch of children we had ever met.

This was just our small glimpse of a very small village in the middle of remote Alaska. I have no idea what it would be like to live there everyday. But it would be very different from our life in Anchorage. I have high respect for the folks that make a life work out there.

Another friend we made was Gary who worked at the cafeteria and worked with search and rescue. He loaned us his VHF radio and trusted we would return it when we got done with our trip.

He also was the one to tell us to check the weather web site before we left to continue our trip. We had gotten up early after all the ski lessons were done and Marcy and the gang had left the day before. It was a clear blue sunny day, as we got ready to ride to Koyuk. Gary stopped by and said you better look at something. We followed him to the principle's office and looked over his shoulder. The sunny faces ended that day and showed high winds and ground blizzards starting the next day.

A couple of locals had died recently traveling from Buckland to Koyuk when the weather got bad. We had also heard about folks who had driven into overflow and froze to death from Kotzebue to Buckland the week before we came through. It is harsh unforgiving country with nowhere to hide from the weather, and it was insane to consider going into a storm. It's not like our home area where you can hide in the trees -there are no trees out here. The day before the weather forecast had looked very good on the screen and we would not have checked that morning. Another very novice mistake on our part. So Gary may have saved our lives. Thank you Gary!

It was very hard to stay put on that beautiful day. But the next day was howling, white out, and horrible and we thanked Gary (and God) again. We let teachers know we could ski with them again but the only kids to dare go out in 70 mph winds was Mrs. Budge's brave sixth grade class. We had a blast -literally! We did not have enough ski poles so we went without and the wind was blowing kids all over. Some of them made their own poles from willow trees. There was one girl that was such a natural gifted skier that if given the chance she would definitely be national caliber. Rural cap ski group leaves about 60-80 skis at each village -and then it is up to the teachers to help the kids keep skiing. Unless there are adults that are motivated, the skis will just collect dust. We really hope the kids in Buckland are using those skis!

After 2 days the winds subsided barely enough that we could fly out. As we bumped along in the wind, headed towards Nome, Buckland disappeared into the white blowing snow. We sat on the plane and read all the thank you notes written by the children. We were glad we stayed in Buckland to help with the ski lessons. Even though we lost our good weather window for our "planned trip", we knew we can always "plan" another trip and SEE what happens next time. Life is fun that way.

That is the end for now. The next chapter 12 is about our gear and details of what we had and wished we had out there.