Fish eggs with smashed cranberries — good. Seal oil — bad. Forty below zero — cold. Authentic beaver hat — what cold weather?
Michelle Stephens ’17 had a few adjustments to make when she moved from Western North Carolina to Selawik, Alaska, three years ago to teach elementary school. But they weren’t anything a good day of ice fishing couldn’t fix.
“I’m in my dream job,” said Stephens, who teaches second and third grade students in the Northwest Arctic borough of about 800 people, where take-out food and groceries are delivered by bush plane. On this day, March 19, 2021, the temperature is minus 15 and daylight has recently returned after three months of nearly 21 hours of darkness.
“I’m 46 years old. I’ve always lived in North Carolina, so being away from home for the first time, living away from home for the first time was probably the biggest challenge. Adjusting to the weather here was another big one. In the winter, we get to about minus 40, sometimes minus 60, with windchill, and when you’re not used to that, you have to learn how to adapt to it, how to dress for it,” she said.
Her most prized possession is a leather and beaver fur hat, made locally by a native family. “There is no amount of cold and wind that will penetrate it. It’s wonderful,” she said.
Traveling was an issue early on for Stephens because her village has no road system. It sits on three riverbanks linked by bridges at the mouth of the Selawik River near the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge and is about 90 miles east of Kotzebue, the borough seat. “When you want to go out, you have to book a bush flight, and sometimes that can be tricky to work around,” she said, and stressful. Stephens has rheumatoid arthritis and often needs to leave the village to see a doctor.
And shopping for groceries? She buys a few supplies locally, but primarily orders from an online supplier, which can take two weeks for a delivery.
To help prepare for life in the Northwest Arctic, Stephens was required to attend “culture camp” her first year in Selawik to learn how the native people live. One of her favorite experiences was ice fishing. “They drilled holes in the ice and they put the nets down through the hole and then brought them up through the other side, like a giant sewing machine. That’s how they catch fish in the wintertime.”
While Stephens may be teaching, she also is a student. “I think the most important thing I’ve learned is I have a culture, too, we all do, and I never thought about that until I moved here,” she said. “I’ve also learned that the people I live with here, the Inupiat people, are not any different than I am and my family. They’re working, they take care of their children. Their elderly often live with their families. Despite our cultural differences and behaviors and how we’re raised, we are all basically the same.”
Stephens said she’s doubtful she’ll leave Alaska anytime soon; she just signed a contract for her fourth year. “I really feel like the work here is meaningful. I enjoy it a lot. I love Alaska.”
Even the fish eggs with smashed cranberries? “Tastes like parfait,” she said.