On Alaska’s western coast, life is harsh and unforgiving.
In the winter, punishingly low temperatures freeze the mighty Yukon River solid and make a breath of fresh air feel like swallowing needles. Come spring and summer, flash floods swamp the permafrost, and local residents swap snow machines for boats to get around.
And yet, as she sought her life’s second act, surviving one of Earth’s most unrelenting climates seemed like nothing less than a gift to Katie Kressin.
Upon moving to Clark County in 1996, Kressin focused on raising her children and teaching at schools on both sides of the Columbia River. Once her children graduated from high school and moved on with their lives, Kressin felt an urgency to change her life. It was at a Seattle job fair in 2011 that a calling jumped out to her — all the way from Alakanuk, Alaska.
“It was an adventure. I just came because they wanted me,” Kressin said.
Soon after meeting the representatives from the Lower Yukon School District, Kressin hopped on a plane to Anchorage — then a smaller plane and a smaller plane. Her husband, Louis, joined her, followed by their dog and cat.
A different kind of living
Alakanuk is home to just over 700 people, a majority of whom belong to the native Yup’ik tribes. The school, the center of the community, serves an estimated 230 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Kressin began as a third-grade teacher but now teaches fifth grade — meaning she teaches just about every subject.
Without large class sizes or closer oversight from a large school district, she finds that her conversations with students become much more personal and practical; she learns about the challenges students face in getting to school and what support looks like at home.
Despite those challenges, however, students are still able to participate in basketball, volleyball and wrestling tournaments with schools elsewhere in the region like they would in Southwest Washington — though with perhaps a bit more travel-related complications.
“When the other teams come to compete, they bring their sleeping bags and spend nights at the school here for a couple days,” Kressin said. “It’s really fun for everyone.”
Lots of the town’s food and supplies arrive via small cargo planes. Medicine is in short supply, and in the case of a serious illness or injury, patients need an emergency airlift to the not-so-nearby town of Bethel, more than 100 miles away.
The challenge of a life starkly different than in suburban Southwest Washington was fascinating to Kressin, who has now taught at the Alakanuk School for 12 years. Replacing the noise of community politics is the simplicity of survival, she said.
“Flooding, for example, is something you guys would freak out about, but it’s just something that happens here,” Kressin said. “People are used to it.”
Houses in Alakanuk are built about 5 feet off the ground because the Yukon River floods annually. The school year is scheduled to finish just before the flood season, with the understanding that several of the school’s students will be unable to travel into town.
Despite temperatures as low as 65 degrees below zero, Kressin said, the winter is much easier, as families are able to quite literally walk or drive snow machines across the river and smaller sloughs north of town to get to school.
However, climate change makes the ever-unpredictable elements in Alakanuk grow only more unpredictable — and the school calendar becomes harder to plan. In turn, the already low graduation rate suffers, as families are forced to focus on survival first, she said.
“If people don’t believe in global warming, they should come up here. It’s very evident,” Kressin said, adding that a near-disappearance of salmon in the river in recent years is further limiting the local economy.
Kressin said she faced more than her fair share of obstacles in adapting to her new life.
At one point, what she thought was just a bout with asthma turned out to be a pulmonary embolism that required a flight to the hospital, where she stayed for four days. Another time, she fell on ice and broke her arm. In 2013, her husband suffered his first of two strokes. Just last year, Louis died from COVID-19 complications.
“I’ve done a lot of praying,” Kressin said. “But they really take care of teachers here. I’ve become so attached to the children and families here, they call me Grandma Katie.”
Kressin plans to retire in the coming years but will finish her career in Alakanuk. What turned into a somewhat impulsive passion to restart a career as a teacher changed her priorities and how she approaches each day.
“People are surprised when they hear I’ve been here 12 years, but you really get immersed in the culture of the community,” Kressin said. “I just wanted to teach. It’s a different culture, a different climate, but it has its own beauty here.”