2019 Tour – #6 Saint Paul, April 16-18

Since we had hours to wait in Anchorage, we ventured into the city for an urban refresh returning to the airport in plenty of time to check in with our charter for St. Paul Island only to be told that strong headwinds made it necessary for us to shed 500 pounds of weight so they could take on more fuel.

We sat on the floor at Ace Air cargo and began unpacking, repacking and haggling about what was essential. We’d just about finished dropping the 500 pounds when we were told we had to drop 200 more pounds more if we wanted to take off that day. (There were no more scheduled flights to St. Paul for a week.)

Mac Mandregan who took great care of us in St. Paul

At this point, our Tour Manager Joshua had the great(?) idea to drop our food, which conveniently weighed about 200 pounds. “We’ve seen what communities can do,” he challenged us when we looked dubiously at him. “We have to trust the community to provide.”

With that he sent our food on to Unalaska, our last stop. As if the Universe heard him, at that very moment the St. Paul School Superintendent, called with a problem. The St. Paul School’s fifth grade class trip to Florida was in peril because their scheduled flight from St. Paul to Anchorage had been cancelled. It didn’t take the two of them long to come up with a win-win deal: If St. Paul could feed us for three days, we could give them the return portion of our charter out there.

Three loud, small plane hours later we found ourselves flying over a tiny, treeless, relatively young volcanic island in the middle of endless ocean. Once we landed, we were welcomed as heroes by fifth graders and their parents anxious to board our plane for the first leg of their trip of a lifetime.

Village of St. Paul from the beach (Joshua Midgett photo)

We found St. Paul much more magical than Disneyworld. It had foxes, craters, cinder cones, seal rookeries, woolly mammoth fossils, and unusual birds like crested auklets and tufted puffins. We were literally blown away by the weather, a battleground of stormy, sunny, gentle, wild and foggy all at the same time.

All kinds of weather all at once

We unloaded into our private wing of the school dined sumptuously on lasagna and ice cream. Thank you generous people of St. Paul for indulging us in our favorite foods. The next day we led workshops with all 50 or so kids from K-12 (except the Florida-bound fifth graders). We worked out the kinks of our bare bones set and even borrowed a few items from around town. The show didn’t seem to suffer. In fact the words seemed stronger echoing in the Sea Parrots’ gym while the wind howled outside.

Sea Parrot power
Jason Bourdukofsky, Vice City Mayor of St. Paul & our tour guide

Before leaving the next day Jason Bourdukofsky gave us a tour of the Aleut Heritage Museum adjacent to Sts. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church. Many of the artifacts in the Museum had some connection to Jason’s family. It was riveting to hear the island’s history from a person whose family had lived there for generations through the fur-sealing epoch and the internment camp in Funter Bay during WWII.

As we boarded our same Ace Cargo charter plane to head to Unalaska, we all had regrets about leaving this rugged but insanely beautiful place. We made promises to ourselves and each other to return to these 40 square miles of Pribilof Isle not only for the stunning scenery and the seals but also – and most of all – for the warm and generous Unangan people who fed us so well and showed us their island.

2019 Tour – #5 Nome, April 14-16

We had a nanosecond of apprehension as we arrived in the “big city” of Nome (pop. 3,841) after two small villages. What if they forgot us? Then we saw two enthusiastic young ladies, holding up a “Welcome Winter Bear” sign. They didn’t forget us! In fact we couldn’t have had a more gleeful welcome if we were a victorious sports team returning home.

Aries & Andrea welcome us to Nome (Nome Arts Council photo)

Alice Bioff who came to meet us with her daughter Aries, and friend Andrea Irrigoo orchestrated all this. Alice’s husband John was there too with his big truck. (We love big, wide-bodied trucks for all our odd-shaped stuff.)

As in every location, it takes a whole community to host The Winter Bear.  Carol Gales and Alice Bioff, both members of the Nome Arts Council, worked with Perseverance Theatre’s Development Director Erika Stone to bring together a coalition of funders including Sitnasauk Native Corporation, our major Nome funder, Kawerak, the Nome Arts Council, Norton Sound Health Corporation and King Island Native Corporation. Nome City School District provided venues for the potluck and show at Nome Elementary School. The National Park Service provided housing at their Nome Bunkhouse. Couches, kitchens, grocery stores, and beds – oh my!

After setting up the show in the gym at Nome Elementary on Tuesday night and repairing to our sumptuous digs at the NPS Bunkhouse, we celebrated the halfway mark of our tour with sparkling cider and ice cream sandwiches – such decadence. 

Group discussion at Anvil Mountain Correctional Center

The cast and crew took the next morning to explore Nome in between workshops at the Elementary, Junior and Senior High Schools, and the Science Academy. We must confess many selfies were taken next to the ‘End of the Iditarod” sign. Meanwhile Playwright Anne Hanley and actors Brían Wescott (Sidney Huntington) and Skyler Ray-Benson Davis (Duane) paid a visit to Anvil Mountain Correctional Facility where the two actors did selected scenes from The Winter Bear. Even though time for dialogue with the inmates was short, there was recognition of shared brotherhood between the actors, both Alaska Natives, and the men in yellow, most of whom were also Alaska Native.  It was a moving experience for all of us. We hope to come back someday and do the whole show for those responsive young men.

Skyler talking to inmates at Anvil Mountain Correctional Center
Halibut & salmon at the potluck, more tubs under the table!

The Bering Sea Lions Club and a number of other community organizations worked together to make that evening’s pre-show potluck a true community feast. A big crowd turned out to enjoy all-you-could-eat salmon and halibut donated by the Norton Sound Health Corporation. But it was the Dessert Table that won The Winter Bear’s heart: Mountains of fry bread, along with a dazzling array of blueberry desserts, all homemade by members of local youth organizations. The potluck also provided an opportunity for people from a number of the social service agencies in Nome to talk about what they were doing to prevent suicides.

Fry bread & blueberry delights at the potluck
The Winter Bear at Nome Elementary School, April 15, 2019 (Nome Arts Council photo)

Almost 200 people crowded into the gym for the show. After it was over, a number of people came forward to share their stories. One “survivor,” a mother of three, told us how grateful she is to be alive to watch her children grow up.  It always gives us a boost to hear such stories since we hear so many sad ones from people grieving loved ones who died by suicide.

After we packed up the set, we packed ourselves a large doggie box of leftover fry bread, perfect for a midnight snack at the bunkhouse.

Fortunately we arrived at the Nome Airport early Tuesday morning because we had to spend a good deal of time with the Alaska Airlines luggage Team, who were both amused and aghast to behold our plastic bins, odd-shaped pieces of Styrofoam ©, ski bags full of rods for our set frames, and costume duffels. When we finally reached a rapprochement between their regulations and our desperate need to get all our stuff to Anchorage, they awarded our Tour Manager Joshua a Junior TSA Officer badge. Unfortunately we had to forfeit our doggie box of fry bread as part of the deal.

2019 Tour – #4 Shungnak, April 12 – 14

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.

Shungnak School Principal Roger Franklin

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.

Tanya Kirk, a member of Maniilaq’s Wellness Team

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!

School Counselor Andie Zink bringing the crew back to the airstrip.