Jori Grant (’11) Shares A Slice of Life on Little Diomede (Polar Bears Included)

EL alum Jori Grant reports, “I graduated from Whitworth in 2011, found the job in Alaska before I had graduated, and spent the summer after graduation buying snowpants and ski masks. This summer I have been rather nomadic, traveling around to take in all the socialization and sun I missed for nine months.”

Check out her blog. Jori submitted the photos, including this one below of “a view from my front porch in December looking out towards the southern Bering Strait.”

Whitworth English

Little Diomede, also known as Inaliq or Dio, is located south of the Arctic Circle, east of Siberia, west of Alaska, and north of everywhere else.  It has been home for the past year and will be home for at least this coming year.  Books have been written on it and documentaries have been made, most of which have faded into obscurity. Life there can’t be explained or fully comprehended through words or even pictures, but I’ll try my best to help you to understand why I love this little piece of nowhere.

Whitworth English

My house is the right half of the duplex.

Day 1

I stepped off the helicopter, looked around and saw a mob of kids standing off to the side. Kids so young they still stumbled rather than walked right next to middle school students. They moved like the tide, surging forward and then pulling back until they couldn’t stop themselves. One girl, Destiny, ran forward and threw her arms around me. And with that a dam broke. Suddenly I was at the nucleus of life on Diomede. Kids were everywhere, grabbing my hands, hugging me, trying to grab my attention.

“Hey, hey what you teach?”

“Miss, I know where you going, follow me!”

“Hey you, I’m in fourth grade, you my teacher?

I glanced back and felt my bag slide off my shoulder. When I turned around, I found a four year old awkwardly dragging and pushing my computer bag to an unknown destination. Relieved of everything I had brought with me, I allowed two girls to lead me by the hand down the hill, through the mid-construction school, and up 70ish steps to a blue duplex. I reached the duplex only to find that I couldn’t touch the door because of the students jammed in front of me, behind me, beside me and often climbing the rocks instead of the stairs in order to get to my new house. Finally, I opened the door to the duplex and to even more chaos.

Miss! Miss! Where you want this?!

Miss, where you staying, which room yours?!

Can we visit?

I have to potty. Can you help me?

Hey! Your dresser is broken.

I fixed it!

Hey, where you want this?

Oh!! I remember this from Miss. Beck!

Can we visit?

I was exhausted, bewildered, and I will never be able to express the energy and excitement I felt coming off the students.  It was intoxicating.

Whitworth English

I’m playing on the helicopter pad with one of the preschoolers.

Day 125

Polar bears are a fact of life on Diomede, but they carry more than the feeling of awe that most people down states feel toward them.  There is legitimate fear towards the bears, excitement about bear stew, joy for the money the hide will bring, and pride for the hunter that shot such a beast.

The second polar bear that was killed on Dio this year was a ten-foot bear.  One front paw was bigger than my head. The kill happened in Russian territory, too far away for me to see it with my eyes. What I did watch was a group of men all working together to skin the hide and divide the meat.  It was gruesome and it was divine.

There is a pervasive sense of isolation on Diomede, even between lifelong Diomeders and family members. However, the tone of the village instantly changes when there is a downed polar bear. This, more than any other time, is when the men come alive. It was like the air was electric. Kids were everywhere, laughing and joking, trying to get as close as they could to the bear. Daring boys kicked the bear, much to the chagrin of me, the politically correct and animal rights aware teacher.

Completely ignoring said children were the men, who focused solely on cutting up the bear as quickly as possible.  They took the bear apart, from living breathing animal to skinned, gutted, and chopped up meat to divide between the helpers within two hours.  I had fully expected the process to take all night long.  Ron Jr., One-one, Ron Sr. and Henry were incredibly efficient, working with minimal talking and excessive smiles.  All the while the changing audience of at least ten people commented and laughed.

“Man Jr.  you sure picked a white one!”

“Yeah, he been dipped in bleach, he so white.”

“Ha, yah.  He going to be good eating.”

By the end Ron looked up and exposed the frost covering his face. His eyelashes were crystallized and snow was stuck to his cheeks, he looked completely in his element.

Whitworth English

This is a bear skull from last year.

Day 200

Crabbing field trip. Best day of the year. It means a half-day of work for the students, half the planning for me, and double the fun for everyone.

To start we send the students home to dress with strict orders not to return unless they have a hat, gloves, snow boots, snow pants, a parka and a gun.  Perhaps the gun is a bit of an exaggeration. We only send a few middle school kids home to grab a gun to protect us in case of a polar bear. While we wait for a gun to come back, I can feel my heart race in anticipation. I’ve been waiting for this Friday for about a month, and I know that the students are just as excited. My high school girl who hardly ever smiles is beaming.  She can’t wait to ride the back of the sled, set up crab lines, and take in the sun on the ice. Charlie, my seventh grader, is sitting on the seat of the snow machine, begging to drive.

“Please MizzG? I’m better driver than you!  I’ve been drivin’ longer.  You even own snowmachine?

“No, but I’ve driven a car before. They are not that different. Plus I practiced yesterday.”

“Cah, come on Mizg!  I’ll drive back?

“No.”

So he proceeds to sit on the seat.

“Get off, Charlie. I said I was driving and I’m driving, even if I have to push you off.”

At this point he growls and makes an ogre face at me, nose scrunched, eyes crossed, tongue sticking out the side of his mouth. But I don’t even care. I’m elated. I have a snowmachine with a sled filled with at least nine students.  Of course a bit of the elation dies down when I tip over the snowmachine within thirty seconds of taking off. For a moment my heart stops, thinking that I might be in trouble for hurting someone.  Not an issue. It’s Diomede, so there is nothing but laughter heard from the back of the sled where the kids have been dumped out. Two seconds later Charlie is at my side pulling the snowmachine up and gunning the gas all while running along side the beast.  I pause to think for a second that perhaps I should let him drive, but quickly decide it’s too much fun to give up.

Back on the machine and out on the frozen Bering Sea, I’m driving at what I consider to be a reasonable and safe speed for a teacher responsible for nine students.  However, the students don’t agree. They think I’m a pansy who can’t drive.  I hear a unanimous cry to go faster.  So faster I go.  Faster and faster and faster until the wind is forcing tears to fall from my eyes.  I can hear the giggles and excitement in the sled as we bounce over uneven ice.  Then out of nowhere Matthew, my 8th grader, roars by on his family’s snowmachine.  I gun my machine, giving it all I’ve got. My shouts of “It’s not fair! I’ve got extra weight on this machine” are lost in the midst of the engines’ competing roars. If I’ve ever been happier than at this moment, I can’t remember it.

Whitworth English

Here’s a 1st grade student with our first crab of the day.

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