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Growing up off the grid

  • Author: Kirsten Swann
  • Updated: May 18, 2016
  • Published May 2, 2016

Imagine a childhood off the road system, on the very edge of the map, hundreds of miles from the next big city. Imagine classrooms with just two or three students, and high school graduations that come only once every few years. Imagine growing up on the last frontier of the Last Frontier: This is what it looks like.

Welcome to Atka

High school hopes and future plans

At the windy tail end of the Aleutian Island Chain, somewhere between the Alaska and Kamchatka Peninsula, there's a rocky, rolling island buffeted by the Bering Sea and the North Pacific.

While the island of Atka is more than 400 square miles, the city is home to fewer than six dozen people. The Yakov E. Netsvetov School has just 11 pupils. The youngest has yet to reach kindergarten; the oldest is 16-year-old Mario Zaochney.

With no junior or senior students on the island, Mario's sophomore class will be the next to graduate.

"I already got it planned out," he said one February afternoon during a break between classes. "I'm going to college, then off to Seattle and the military."

He grew up in Atka, then spent some time in Anchorage, then returned to Atka just in time to celebrate his 16th birthday. The transition between urban hub and rural hamlet isn't easy.

Atka has no sports teams or shopping malls or movie theaters or recreation centers, or restaurants or skate parks or concert halls or arcades. There's no cell phone reception in this part of the world. Internet is limited. The island is so far from the mainland, it has its own time zone.

Most people are related, in one way or another. Everyone knows everyone. Atka Island is wide and wild and ripe for exploration, but when teenage boredom strikes out of nowhere, there's nowhere else to go.

Summer is Mario's favorite season: He spends time hunting and fishing and takes part in an Unungax culture camp where students learn the Unangam Tunuu language and traditional skills, like how to properly butcher the reindeer that roam the island. During the school year, the days are filled with classes, chores and homework. He shares a classroom with six other students in grades 5-10, including his younger brother, Timothy. Mario's desk sits at the back of the room, near the window that looks out at the low hill behind the school.

He talks about traveling away to join the U.S. Navy. The schoolhouse is just down the road from the town's gravel runway, where scheduled flights touch down three times per week—if the weather's right. When the weather turns bad, everyone waits. Only one air carrier comes out this far, and delays are a part of life. The island once went more than three weeks without seeing a plane, residents say.

Mario, like many of his classmates, has never been outside Alaska.

"But I want to," he says.

When the school bell rings, he throws on his jacket and heads back up the muddy gravel road toward home, another step closer to graduation.

Daily rhythms

Eddie Wood came to Atka on a Monday flight, hauling bulky cases of instruments in the back of the nine-seat twin-turboprop plane.

This would be no ordinary week at the Netsvetov School.

An artist from Homer who travels and teaches around the state, Wood flew out to the Aleutians to host a special performance workshop for Atka's youngest residents. On the first day, he assembled the students and lay his instruments at their feet: a cabasa, a cajón, a pair of agogos, a vibraslap,

a mbira, frame drums, tongue drums and shakers shaped like wild animals. The room fell quiet. Wood picked up the mbira and began to play.

The littlest girls wiggled with excitement. The oldest boys watched curiously. Maria Maly, 11, sat cross-legged on the carpet, transfixed.

By Tuesday, the artist had organized the students into a haphazard percussion ensemble, playing simple rhythms to a 4/4 beat. By Wednesday, they were practicing spontaneous solos. Maria played the vibraslap, learning to grip the metal neck and smack the wooden ball into the palm of her hand, weaving those sounds around Wood's steady "one-two-three-four" count. By Thursday, the students were ready for the show.

They performed under fluorescent lights in the Netsvetov School library after the last bell that afternoon, Maria standing between her younger brother and older classmate. The audience was small—no more than a dozen parents, neighbors, aunts and uncles—but the students' excitement was real. Occasions like this don't come around often.

At the school, days follow a familiar rhythm. The upper-grade boys arrive early to use the building's Wi-Fi signal to play Clash of Clans and surf the internet. They gather on the front porch in the dark, faces illuminated by glowing smartphone screens, sipping home-brewed coffee from to-go mugs until one of the teachers unlocks the front door sometime around 8 a.m.

The girls usually arrive a little later. Fifth-grade Maria, the youngest student in the upper-grade class, sits next to her cousin, seventh-grade Trinity. The mornings begin with language arts: They write in their journals and listen to the teacher read aloud from a classic book. At lunch, the school is emptied and locked. After classes, Maria and Trinity might go exploring along the river, up by the waterfall and the water tank, before coming home to a chili dog dinner at an auntie's home.

Maria enjoys visiting relatives in Anchorage: The big city is full of excitement, like urban moose, movie theaters, a water park and gas stations where you can buy tall cans of iced tea. Still, Atka is home. Maria loves eating the fish from the sea and walking on the gray sand beaches that ring the island.

"I've been here pretty much my whole life," she says, snacking on Pringles from a can on the front porch of the school one afternoon lunch hour.

Maria's seen a lot of people come to town on the little plane from Dutch Harbor. Most of them are neighbors or relatives. Ebullient performance artists bearing boxes of exotic-sounding percussion instruments don't come through often. Or, really, ever.

The students' Thursday show was a hit. They performed in unison, then one by one, stepping away from the group to improvise solos of their own, something they'd never done. When her turn came, Maria knocked the vibraslap against her palm—slow, then fast, a spin in the air, another quick rattle. Her solo ended and the beat resumed and she smiled as she played. At the end of the show, the few people in the audience broke into applause and all 11 students lay their instruments at their feet and took a bow.

The music teacher boarded a flight off the island the next afternoon, but he left a few of the instruments behind. He hoped the students would keep playing; he didn't know if they would.

Jayden’s last day

The calendar says Friday, February 26, but the kids at the Netsvetov School call it Jayden Day. This is the day they say goodbye to the only sixth-grade student in school.

Jayden Nika is moving again.

In a few days, his family will climb into the plane and head back to Unalaska, the Aleutian hub community some 300 miles to the east. People leave Atka for all kinds of reasons: They go away for medical appointments and family visits, when they lose jobs and when they find jobs. Teachers leave; classmates leave; entire families pack their bags and go. In 2000, 92 people lived in Atka, according to U.S. Census data. By 2010, there were 61.

To mark his last school day in Atka, Jayden's class is planning on spending the afternoon playing board games—his choice. It takes some figuring out. Monopoly isn't so easy to find in this remote place at the edge of the Bering Sea. Apples to Apples is the rarest prize of all; as far as the schoolkids can tell, there's only one set on the entire island.

Like most of the boys in Atka, Jayden loves games—particularly video games. Especially Skyrim, the wildly popular fantasy action role playing game. Someday, he says, he'd like to go to college to study video game design. Someday, he'd like to land a job at Bethesda Game Studios, the Maryland-based company that created Skyrim. For now, he plays the game in the little school district-owned house he shares with his mother and brother, right next to his teacher's house and the school, a ways down the muddy road from all the other kids in town.

Jayden first moved out to Atka about two years ago. He lived in Anchorage and Unalaska for most of his life, and pulling up those roots was painful at first. He missed his friends. There were ''so many," he said.

Then he began to adjust. The island is beautiful in the summer, blanketed in green and surrounded by blue. He has a soft spot for animals, and the community is full of cats and dogs who seem to roam at will. With so few students and just one upper-grade teacher, classes seemed easier in Atka, too. Everything feels smaller.

And now he's leaving, bound for another island, another new classroom, another change.

He wishes he could stay.

False Pass

The center of everything

On some afternoons, when the weather is clear and the water is calm, the oldest students at the False Pass School tug on their dry suits, slip into their kayaks and paddle out across Isanotski Strait, searching for an octopus in a trap far beneath the surface.

It's a difficult quest. While the fishermen of False Pass prize the animals for their meat, the teenagers hope to find one small enough to keep in their classroom aquarium. Most of the animals they find are all too big for the tank, or get eaten too quickly. But the students keep trying.

If the sea is the center of False Pass, the school is a close second.

The little community sits on the east end of Unimak Island at the beginning of the Aleutian chain, a handful of houses and unpaved roads nestled between the mountains and waves. There are about 50 year-round residents, and the ocean provides jobs for nearly everyone. Bering Pacific Seafoods is the biggest business in town. People here work on fishing boats or around fishing boats, and the school is filled with the children of fishermen.

But the school is not just a school. It's also an unofficial community center, a place for open gym after class, a hall for potlucks and celebrations and town gatherings. Ask anyone.

"The school is pretty much the center of the community," said Nikki Hoblet, False Pass mayor and community health aide. "I feel like the school just brings everyone together … Everyone here is like family. Everyone watches out for each other."

Hoblet grew up in a big False Pass family with deep ties to the sea. Many of them went to school here, and many of them still live here. These days, the classrooms buzz with Hoblet's children and their cousins: Six-year-olds Ellie and Hazel, Calum, Dayton and Regan. The sea brought them here. The school brings them together.

When it came time for the older kids to compete in the regional Battle of the Books competition, facing off against Akutan and Sand Point students via videoconference one February morning, the plastic chairs in the high school classroom filled with parents who came to watch. The local post office and health clinic temporarily shut their doors, because nearly half the town was at the school.

The next evening, the people of False Pass gathered back at the school for a potluck in the gym. They bowed their heads as Father Tepper blessed the meal in the Russian Orthodox way, then crowded around long folding tables to feast. Old fishermen sat next to young mothers; children sat next to grandparents; Aleut families sat next to teachers from Texas, all sharing plates full of salmon and halibut and juicy plump octopus and homemade desserts.

It's nights like these that make this place so special, they say.

"The school is just the center of village activity," said Kevin Barnett, who came to teach in False Pass about two years ago. "It's a sure thing: There's gonna be someone here, and it's just something to count on."

Past, present and future

As a boy, Jerimiah Balamoutoff's great-grandfather used to hike from his home in Ikatan to the store in False Pass, a four-hour walk across wild Unimak Island. Today, Jerimiah is a high school freshman and Ikatan is a ghost town.

False Pass—the easternmost community in the entire Aleutian chain—is surrounded by abandoned places like that.

It happens when businesses disappear, families move away and schools close their doors. Beaches where children once played now sit lonely and quiet, leaving behind only memories and toppled wooden buildings already fading back into the landscape. And it could happen again.

"I don't want to see the community die like what happened to Ikatan. Sanak. Morzhovoi," said False Pass native Tammy Shellikoff. "My parents' generation, they moved where the school was."

Ikatan was abandoned in the middle of last century after the cannery closed down and the school followed suit. Morzhovoi disappeared soon after. The Shellikoffs—the last family left behind—moved to False Pass in the 1960s.

Will False Pass face the same fate?

As the State of Alaska grapples with massive budget shortfalls and impending cuts, its most remote schools now face an uncertain future. If legislators decide to increase the minimum number of students required in state-funded classrooms, small schools might not survive. Parents and teachers buck the thought.

"The disenfranchisement alone is scary to think about, when you know how vulnerable people can be when their roots are all torn up like that," said False Pass School Principal Annette Barnett. "All [legislators] need to do is look at their history notes about this state; about what happens when you tell people they can't be who they are, and live where they want to live."

Like many rural Alaska classrooms, the False Pass School is tiny. There are only nine students; 11, if you count the curly-haired sons of the local Russian Orthodox priest, who are homeschooled except for a few hours every afternoon.

When Tammy Shellikoff received her diploma from the False Pass School in 1993, there were three teens in her graduating class, she said. These days, there are only two high school-age students in the entire school. One is preparing to move away for his senior year. But Jerimiah, finishing up his freshman year, hopes to graduate in False Pass, go off to college, then come back and become a commercial fisherman in the same waters his family has fished for generations.

The rest of the school is young. The majority of the students haven't yet reached sixth grade. The new village public safety officer brings children of his own, and there are a few babies in town, too. It gives residents hope for the future.

Shellikoff, who spends her days volunteering in her son's primary school class, plans to stay.

"This is where my daughter grew up. This is where I want John to grow up," she said.

"It's home."

A special publications journalist at Alaska Dispatch News, Kirsten Swann loves looking for fresh ways to share old stories. She enjoys writing about all the interesting people and places that make Alaska so wild, from the Arctic to the Aleutians to her hometown of Anchorage.

This article appeared in the April 2016 issue of 61°North, a publication of ADN's special content department. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

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