We were blown away by the variety of landscapes in Northwest Arctic. Buckland is located on treeless tundra impressive for the vast expanse of land and water around it. Shungnak is 75 miles up the Kobuk River in mountainous country dotted with tall spruce. We are grateful to Teck Red Dog Mine, Maniilaq and NANA for allowing us to experience this remarkably diverse part of our state.
Even before our plane landed, we could see the snow machines and ATVs waiting to transport us from the airstrip to Shungnak School. Principal Roger Franklin greeted us wearing a jacket emblazoned with the cryptic slogan, “It’s a We.” We didn’t know exactly what that meant, but were eager to find out.
We had already heard a lot about Shungnak, population 250. We knew it used to be a small community with a large alcohol problem until a new high school principal, who turned out to be none other than Roger Franklin, worked with a group of junior high and high school students to turn things around. (“The Boys of Winter,” Arctic Sounder, April, 2016.)
On the short but bumpy ride from airstrip to school, our gear shared sled space with a carton of watermelons. When we arrived at the school, Principal Franklin gifted us with one, a rare treat in this remote village.
When we started exploring the halls and classrooms of the school, we discovered “It’s a We” slogans everywhere.
We put up the set in the gym that Friday evening so we could have a chance to sleep in on Saturday morning. Schools are kind enough to provide us with lodging, which is great, except that we have to be up, dressed, sleeping gear packed up and out of the classrooms before teachers and students arrive for the day. They arrive early – except on the weekends.
The next day, a Saturday, we got to sleep in, have a leisurely brunch and still have time to walk out into the beautiful landscape A few of us even got to drive snow machines! We enjoyed the new experience of making VHF announcements, which netted us just over 20 kids for our workshops.
Part of a community’s pay-off for hosting The Winter Bear, is an increase in enthusiasm for preventing suicide. That’s just what happened in Shungnak when Tanya Kirk, a member of Maniilaq’s Wellness Team, facilitated a “Healing Circle” to find out what the people of Shungnak wanted to do to to prevent suicides and how Maniilaq could assist them. It was a lively meeting that generated lots of good ideas. Many people were eager to sign up to help organize a local Wellness Committee in Shungnak.
More excitement when about 15 people arrived just in time for the potluck from the village of Ambler, an hour and a half snow machine ride from Shungnak.
After everyone ate more than their fill at the potluck, we all walked down the hill together to the school for the show. It was a sunny evening and an attentive audience. When the children swooped in after the show for pictures and autographs, we began to feel like part of the “We.”
The next day when we packed up to leave for Kotzebue (and eventually Nome) we were proudly wearing our new yellow “It’s a We” Shungnak sweatshirts. As we watched the tiny village fade into the vast landscape, we finally understood. It does indeed take a “We” to make a community.
Thank you Shungnak. Now on to Nome where the Iditarod ends and our adventure continues!