Home Education Magazine
November-December 1999 - Articles
Growing up in the Land of the Midnight Sun - Mary Mullett
On a typical winter morning, Josh Kumher, 14, rolls out of bed at 7:30 and dresses by the light of a kerosene lamp. He bundles up and goes outside - into a beautiful, moonlit snowscape. It is very cold. Josh's family burns wood to heat the house and cook their food, and it's his job to keep the wood boxes filled. The wood is already cut into chunks. He did that yesterday afternoon - in daylight. He knows exactly where he stacked it, and he works quickly.
Most Alaskans live clustered together in the cities and towns, leaving vast stretches of territory with no people at all. Greg and Carol Kumher, their son, Josh, and daughter, Rosida, 10, are somewhere in between. They live in a rural area 35 miles east of the tiny village of Tok, near the Canadian border. Albert and Ada Mullett, Carol's parents, live close by, but the next nearest neighbor is a mile down the road.
The Kumher-Mullett family moved here from Ohio in 1991. They built a home for the grandparents first, using materials from an old abandoned lodge on their property. The extended family lived together for a while in the grandparents' home. By the time Dad and Grandpa got around to starting a separate house for the Kumhers, Josh was old enough to help put up the logs to build walls - and to build shelves inside the house by himself.
The new home doesn't have water or electricity yet. Such conveniences don't come cheap in rural Alaska. The Kumhers will need an electric generator. And they will need a deep well, which must be dug by a professional well driller. Then they face another challenge: Ground water in the area is so full of sand and minerals from melted glaciers that an efficient filtering system is a necessity. Fortunately Grandpa Albert, a former plumbing contractor, has already designed and built such a system for his own home next door, so the know-how is available. For now the Kumhers continue to shower at Grandpa and Gramma's and carry buckets of water home to use in their kitchen and bathrooms, but better days are coming.
Greg and Josh hunt moose and caribou for food, not sport. Normally they try to bag two caribou per season, one to provide meat for themselves and one for the grandparents. One memorable hunting trip, they were waiting at the edge of the woods near a river bank just before dawn when a large male caribou with an enormous rack of antlers came up over the bank and headed for the trees.
Josh shot the animal behind the shoulder. "A beautiful shot," he said. But the caribou was only wounded - and dangerous. "It went down in the trees," he said, "and then it jumped out and charged Dad. And he was standing next to the bank and couldn't go anywhere. He shot from the hip with his 7mm (gun) and hit the caribou. It went by him about three feet and fell right there at his feet. It was very scary. I thought it was coming at me for a little while, and my gun didn't want to shoot!"
Most mornings are less exciting. Josh and Rosida go to school right after breakfast - at the kitchen table. School takes about four hours a day. Their teacher is Carol, their mom, an arrangement much to Rosida's liking. "We have a good teacher every year," she said, "besides not having to go out in the cold." Rosida studies reading, arithmetic, spelling, art, and Bible, and is learning to play the dulcimer, a hand-made wooden instrument with wire strings. Her favorite school subjects are art and reading.
Josh studies history, algebra, writing, science, government, and Bible. His favorite subject is algebra, with history in second place. He enjoys being homeschooled, because, he said, "I can have Mom here to explain things I don't know. And you get some breaks in between. Like, if they have a job for you to do outside you get a break."
Carol misses having a good library nearby as a resource for teaching her children. "There's a tiny, tiny one in Tok," she said, "but we usually go to Fairbanks. And even that one isn't as good as we were used to back in Ohio. But we have a pretty good library right now right here at home, including reference books. I order books from catalogs, the ones that don't charge too much to ship to Alaska."
She continued, "I know Greg and I are missing out on some things here, and the children are missing out on some things too, but our life here has compensations. For example, there's no zoo here, but Josh and Rosida see animals in their habitat. And we're living like pioneers, doing things for our family, so we have that satisfaction, too."
After school, Josh fills the wood boxes again. Then, during the November to May trapping season he goes out by snowmobile to check his trap lines. He has trapped and sold furs from marten, weasel, lynx, fox, and rabbit. Once he nearly caught a wolf, but, he said, "Wolves are smart and hard to catch." The animal apparently walked partway into the trap, but then became suspicious and backed out. Rosida has traps of her own this year for the first time - three of them - but so far hers are all pretty close to home.
Next comes chore time. There's a refrigerator in the kitchen, but no electricity to keep it cold. What to do? No problem - it's winter. Josh gets clean snow and packs it into the refrigerator alongside the food. He feeds the goats, rabbits, chickens, dogs, and cat, then splits and stacks wood for the next day. Rosida takes the two goats for a walk, milks the mother goat, washes dishes, helps her mother clean the house and bakes bread.
Winter evenings, Josh said, "I fill the wood boxes again. I work on the science project Ma has me doing for school, a battery-powered motor. It's supposed to really work after I'm done with it. And then we go in and eat supper. Then Ma reads to us - from the Bible, from all kinds of books - and we might put together a puzzle. Sometimes Dad reads too. Later I read - mostly history books and adventure stories. After I go to bed, I read until they tell me to turn off the light, usually about 11:30 or 12."
Rosida does knitting, embroidery, and needlepoint in the evening. Sometimes she makes glitter ornaments to sell at the annual Tok Bazaar in November. "Last year I sold a lot of them," she said.
The nearest movie theater is 260 miles away, and no TV channel reaches the area. But Grandma and Grandpa have a TV and VCR, and both families own a lot of videos - mostly acquired as highly favored presents for Christmas and birthdays. Twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, the Kumhers go next door and watch movies with Grandpa and Grandma. Saturday evenings are extra special - Rosida bakes a pizza for everyone to share.
The whole family loves the scenic beauty of rural Alaska, but the youngsters do miss having friends their own age nearby. Rosida lives about 50 miles from her two best friends, Amanda and Casey. The girls see each other just once a week, when they go to church. Even at the church, there aren't any other boys Josh's age. He considers two men, Rick and Andy, who live about a mile away, to be his close friends. Andy was homeschooled through high school and is now a student at Fairbanks University. Rick is Andy's father.
In summer, Josh and Rosida ride their bikes, play basketball, and roller blade on the old Alaska Highway near their home. Sometimes they accompany other family members to their salmon wheel on the Copper River, 95 miles away, and help harvest salmon for a day or two. Some of the fish is cooked and eaten right away, but most of it goes into one of Grandma Ada's two large freezers, ready for next winter.
Everyone pitches in with the summer gardening. Josh and Rosida help their parents weed and water crops. Rosida also grew a good crop of Brussels sprouts by herself last year. And Josh helps his dad make hay for the goats, and spreads manure as fertilizer.
At summer solstice, the sun sets after midnight and rises again before 1:00 a.m. Of course, the growing season is short this far north, but the Kumhers and Mulletts have found that some crops, including strawberries, buckwheat, carrots, beets, cabbages, potatoes, broccoli, squash, parsnips, cauliflower, onions, leeks, and peas, grow rapidly in the long hours of daylight - sometimes to enormous sizes. Tomatoes and peppers are grown in their greenhouse.
Every fourth of July there's a parade in Tok, with a fireworks truck. But fireworks aren't much fun when it's light all night. The Kumhers save theirs, reserving some to celebrate the winter solstice, December 21, and some to celebrate New Year's Eve.
In December it's dark most of the time, and fireworks make a spectacular display. It may be 40 degrees below zero, but Josh and Rosida don't mind. Their world is beautiful - never more so than when moonlight shines on the snow. They bundle up and go outside to enjoy the fireworks with their parents and grandparents.
©1999, Mary Mullett
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