North to Alaska

by | Mar 1, 2009 | Features

Story by Jeannie Stone

Gene and Jennie Littleton of Dardanelle regard the stiff icicles encrusted on their bushes during the recent ice storm with a gentle humor, tingled with the memories of frigid wind chill factors of -100 degrees. The couple, after teaching in Arkansas for a total of 30 years, traded tenure for adventure and moved to Alaska in 1985 where they taught the Yup’ik-speaking Eskimos. They’ve seen snow.
“We were just sitting around the table talking about what we were going to do with the rest of our lives, and we both decided we needed a change,” Jennie said. “We wanted a different life, and we wanted to broaden our experiences.”
Their son Ronnie was in his second year of college, but the news came as a shock to everyone who knew them.
“Our (Booneville School District) superintendent didn’t want us to leave,” Gene said. The teachers hit the books and maps, undergoing a thorough regiment of study. They even subscribed to a newspaper in Anchorage and the Bethel Tundra Drums.
“We talked with anybody and everybody who’d ever been to Alaska,” Jennie said. “We went to the library, we called schools in Alaska requesting information, and we prayed.”
Because the state is so enormous, teachers register at a central job placement center located in Fairbanks.
“It was easier for superintendents to shop at one location rather than fly applicants around,” Jennie said. “Every day prospective teachers camped out at the center and checked the postings.”
“It was a little unnerving,” Gene said. “We hired on, completely sight unseen. We signed a contract without knowing exactly where we’d be living.”

The “where” was Mountain Village on the north side of the Yukon River 50 miles from the Bering Sea. The population was 600, and there was one road in town which connected the people to another village, St. Mary’s, 25 miles away.
“Villagers were federally supported or they worked in one of the very few stores,” Jennie said, “or they worked in the school district. One of the main sources of income was the permanent dividends the villagers received from the oil industry.
After eight years, the Littletons moved by boat down the river to Sheldon Point a more remote village of 125 where Jennie taught home economics to 6th graders all the way to young mothers.
“I started with hygiene,” Jennie said. “At Sheldon Point there was no running water. Each school is built for the students to bathe. I taught them how to melt snow, take a sponge bath and how to care for their skin and their hair.
“We had to cut our own hair,” she continued. Gene and I also had to make sure we took plenty of medicine. There was a time or two when I had to fly to Anchorage because of illness.”
Jennie also taught nutrition and was appalled that the Yu’pik did not know how to cook. “Everything is frozen,” she said, “so all they knew how to do was heat up things on their camp stoves and hot plates. Stores mostly carried frozen TV dinners.”
Even though berries, including cranberries, grew in the region, “they didn’t know how to make jelly,” Jennie said. Naturally, she taught them, and they also made cookbooks.
“It wasn’t uncommon for a parent to approach me and ask me to bake a birthday cake for their child. My apartment was the only place to cook because we had a stove.”

The main industry in the area is commercialfishing,especiallysalmon.The region supports a variety of berries and lucrative hunting opportunities particularly for fox, beaver, mink, moose, seal, and a ground bird known as a ptarmigan.
“Moose taste like extra rich beef,” Gene said. “It’s fork tender.”
More attention was directed toward maintaining a food supply.
“We ordered all our food from a Sam’s catalog,” Jennie said. “It generally took about three weeks for the groceries to come in to the closest airport.”
Anything could serve to disrupt scheduled deliveries, so the Littletons stocked six months’ worth of food in the pantry at all times.
“Flights were cancelled for volcanic eruptions, During Desert Storm we didn’t know how that would affect us,” Jennie said.
Alaska has several active volcanoes, part of the largest and most active range of volcanoes known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, in the world. The range gets its name because its volcanoes, oceanic trenches, volcanic belts, volcanic arcs and plate movements encircle the basin of the Pacific Ocean.
Because Gene was the only teacher for grades 8-12 and was the counselor, Jennie’s home economics and yearbook classes had to be conducted in the evenings often not ending until 10:30 or later.
“We also had regular gym times for different ages, and a teacher had to be present,” she said.
There was always work to be done, but because of the deep snow, the Littletons found that the children were out of shape because the only way to get around was to ride on snowmobiles.
Annual field trips to Anchorage further revealed the students’ physical weaknesses.
“We took thirteen 6th graders who had never purchased tickets, bought a drink from a Coke machine or ridden in an airplane. We took them to their native organization headquarters, the Social Security building, the zoo, toured the local newspaper, and even took them to McDonald’s for the first time. It was all new to them,” she said.
“Each student was given $100 to go shopping. We bought combs, soap, brushes, toothbrushes and duffel bags to contain their possessions,” Jennie said.
But the real shock to their system, according to Jennie, was the physical exertion required to play tourist.
“The Eskimos live in such quiet environments,” she said, “that being around a lot of people, getting in and out of cars and walking around were very stressful for them. They were not as strong as Gene or me.”
On the other hand, the Littletons were amazed at how the Yu’pik had learned to survive the extreme weather.

“They certainly know how to survive a white-out,” Jennie said. “You couldn’t even see during those. Gene and I carried survival clothes in a plastic bag on the snow machine, and he always told people where he was going. We also packed a gun. No telling when you might have to shoot an animal for food if you got stranded.”
One adventure almost didn’t have a happy ending during an outing to pick up a friend who was flying in to the local airport a mile away.
“The day started out sunny and beautiful,” she said. As usual, she took the snowmobile to the airport. During the short errand, however, the wind chill dropped to minus-100 degrees.
“I don’t know if we’d have made it if it weren’t for a villager who stopped with his truck already warmed up. I just wasn’t prepared for anything like that,” she said.
The Alaskan adventure was a rewarding experience for the couple. “We made really good friends with the natives,” Jennie said. One mother and child came back and visited. The mother was most impressed by fireflies at night and the chicken houses.
“You have to realize,” Gene said. “She had never seen a chicken that wasn’t frozen.”
“And the distance from the Ft. Smith airport to our former home in Booneville was the furthest she’d ever ridden in an automobile,” Jennie added.

“One day, we’d like to go back,” she said. “We’re about ready for another adventure.”

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