MY FIRST WEEK IN NEWHALEN

Let me preface this post by saying that pictures and words cannot communicate the splendor of this place. I am so blown away by the sheer beauty of rural Alaska. I’ve never seen anything like it. I am so remote and so far-removed from anything I’ve ever known. There are hundreds of miles between me and the nearest metropolis. I am detached from everything I’ve ever known, and I am in love.
Newhalen is a small village situated on the shore of Lake Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska. Newhalen is home to one school, one store, two churches, a couple dozen ramblers, a couple dozen ATVs, lots of dogs, and about the prettiest scenery you’re bound to see anywhere. Right now, the tundra is this stunning fusion of greens, creams, reds, and lavenders. When you walk on it, it feels like you’re walking on a giant sponge bed.
The wildlife here is exciting and diverse. I went on a run on my second morning in the village and saw this brilliant red fox with a big, bushy tail running across the road carrying something black in its mouth. The next day, I saw a lone swan flying in the sky along the shore (see below). There are Grizzly Bears, Brown Bears (see how Alaskans usually distinguish between Grizzlies and Browns), Black Bears, caribou, moose, wolves, seals, otters, beavers, porcupine, rabbits, and many others I’m sure I’m forgetting and/or don’t know about yet.
And then there are the children. The children of Newhalen are always outside during summertime, screaming and running and free as birds. As I mentioned on the Live Teach Alaska Facebook page, I went to a village dance that followed a wedding on my second evening here. Picture this: dozens of people packed into a little square room (the local teen center), a live four-person band screaming country classics, chairs lining the walls for onlookers and those waiting to be asked to dance, and an energetic floor of shuffling feet. I sat close to the door and was soon overwhelmed with adorable children all wanting turns to sit on my lap. “Who are you? What’s yer name?” they all asked as they crowded the entryway. A few days ago, the merry little band you see in the picture below came to my apartment door with something to show me. Is there anything more lovable in this world than sweet children with puppies?
Another wonderful thing about this week is that I’ve finally been able to meet Kate and Bill, a couple I’ve been in contact with for the past couple of months. They’ve lived in Newhalen for the past seven years and teach at the high school level. Since yesterday was absolutely gorgeous, they invited me on a boat ride in the lake.
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When I first saw the lake waters, I exclaimed, “It looks like the Caribbean Sea, but much colder!” The water in Lake Iliamna is now this aquamarine-turquoise color that’s truly enchanting to look at. Bill motored us out away from the shore and stopped the boat so that we could survey the surrounding villages and mountains from the lake. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything so eerie in all my life. The silence was all-consuming. I felt like I was in a void. The richness of beauty in this place is too great to describe.
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After Bill explained the lay of the land, naming the bordering villages and mountain names, we set off for a good spot to pick berries. Kate and Bill’s dog, Remington, happily paced the length of the boat, perking his ears up every time he saw a bird in the water.
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About ten minutes later, we went ashore to survey more beauty of the land. Using the common protocol, Kate and Bill yelled, “Hey, bear! Woohoo!” to scare off any Grizzlies that may have been lurking on higher ground. Luckily, the wind was picking up, so the bugs weren’t swarming. We were able to walk around in search of a good patch of berries.
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Kate and Bill taught me all about the different kinds of wild berries. Most abundant this time of year are blackberries (different from Himalayan Blackberries I’m used to finding in Washington State), which aren’t really to my taste. There were bright red cranberries which will be sweeter in a couple of months, salmonberries (the local’s favorite), and blueberries (my favorite!).
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On our way back to the boat, we found a patch of high-bush blueberries that were abundant and ripe. The high-bush berries are much easier to pick because they grow off of the ground. Also, because they’re typically in damper areas, they’re big and juicy! Finally, we went down to the beach and headed back home.
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The best part about berry picking is, of course, eating them! This morning, I cooked myself a delicious bowl of oatmeal with my wild, fresh-picked Alaskan blueberries. I was deeply satisfied.
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This experience is already blowing my mind. I am absolutely positive that Alaska is where I am supposed to be right now. I am so happy!
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
-Henry David Thoreau

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