An Alaskan adventure: Tyrone area native teaches the Yupik on remote island in Bering Sea

Courtesy photo / Courtland Pannebaker of Bald Eagle is shown in a classroom in Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.

BALD EAGLE — Courtland Pannebaker can see Russia from his house. But the 2012 Tyrone Area High School graduate is far more interested in what happens on and around the island where he lives and works during the school year.

The 23-year-old Pannebaker just wrapped up his first academic year of teaching Eskimo children on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. His village of Gambell is less than 40 miles from the Siberian coast, even closer to the International Dateline, but nearly 200 miles from the closest airport on the Alaskan mainland in Nome.

“I loved it there,” said Pannebaker, who returned for the summer to his childhood home in California Hollow just north of here in May. “But it takes a special person because there’s no entertainment.”

Or trees, or a lot of comforts he has always known.

Pannebaker decided to explore Alaska while he’s young and single and he threw himself into the culture. He plans to return in August for at least one more school year for at least two reasons. He loves his pre-K and kindergarten students, who typically stay with the same teacher for two years, and there are a few more things he wants to do with his new friends, the Siberian Yupik people.

Tundra hunting

“They go out on the tundra and hunt, up to 70 miles out,” said Pannebaker, who grew up hunting deer and turkey on Pennsylvania State Gamelands. “I remained in the village for the most part,” but he hopes to change that when he goes back.

“My whole mindset was to eat the native food, learn the culture, learn to carve. … I never went out boating (to hunt), but I helped skin the whale,” he said. “I want to go next year.”

He wouldn’t buy satellite television for entertainment, even though there are no movie houses or bars in the dry village.

“I’d rather be outside, experiencing the culture and hunting” seals, whales and walruses, he said.

That isn’t easy, considering temperatures can dip to 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit with the wind chill factor. It never got warmer than 40 during the school year, although Pannebaker acknowledged he is missing the best weather this summer, when the highs hover in the 50s.

The permafrost prevents the growth of trees that would slow the wind from the Arctic.

“But I do live on the beach,” Pannebaker laughed.

While most native houses have only one or two rooms and lack running water, he lives in comfortable teacher housing. The school provides most of his food and the village has a market, stocked once every summer by barge. But that can be expensive.

“A green pepper at the market costs me $6,” he said.

The natives ferment a lot of their food by wrapping it in whale skin and dipping it in salt or soy sauce.

“I tried that once and gagged it down,” he said, with a laugh.

Varied diet

Pannebaker has tried seal livers and intestines, walrus heart soup and even clams removed from a harvested walrus stomach.

“I had seagull once,” he said. “It was fried, a little tougher than chicken, but it was good. Most of the meat is dark, I mean black.”

“Eww, I just couldn’t eat that,” said his mother, LeeAnn Pannebaker, looking at a photograph.

Meals are served family-style on a tray in the middle of the table. Instant potatoes are a luxury, and Shake and Bake is used a lot “to make the food more palatable,” Pannebaker said.

He was quick to explain that the Eskimos are allowed to hunt otherwise banned or highly regulated marine animals because they are considered “subsistence” hunters. Even then, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission limits how many whales they can even strike at.

“If someone gets a whale, it’s a community event,” he said. “The school shuts down.”

Once, Pannebaker spent 12 hours helping to harvest and skin a whale. With one fillet weighing as much as 200 pounds, it’s a team effort, he said.

The Yupik are quite spiritual about it, too.

“They believe the whales give themselves to the people,” he said.

What they don’t consume, they turn into art, and Pannebaker’s village is known worldwide for its carvings from bone and ivory. He tried, with mixed results, to carve a tiny facemask from a walrus tooth, but he is forbidden from carving walrus ivory because the law only allows natives to do that.

Even then, tagging and other rules must be followed, and the market can be iffy because most people assume that a ban on African elephant ivory makes all ivory illegal, Pannebaker said.

“But they have tribal rights to carve it and sell it,” he said.

“There are no jobs. They can’t grow their food. There are no trees, no moose, no vegetables, no fruit,” he continued. “They make their living by hunting subsistently and selling carvings. I am on their side. I didn’t know any of this going in.”

Teaching goals

Pannebaker was deep into his college education at Penn State Altoona, from which he received his bachelor’s degree in 2016, before he considered Alaska. He had known for years that he wanted to teach because “I enjoy working with kids, I have a lot of patience and I wanted to do something good,” he said.

He interned in the Bellwood-Antis Area School District, where first-grade teacher Jennel Miller became his mentor and relayed that one of her previous interns had taught in Alaska for a time. But at a job fair at Penn State Altoona, he headed to the tables with opportunities in the South.

“The lines were super long, and I just wanted to get some practice interviewing,” he said. So he stepped up to the short line at the Alaska table and practiced.

Several days later, he was offered a job. Officials told him it wasn’t a “favorable location” and that turnover is high. Teachers have been known to step off the plane, look around and get back on, he said. That is why he was offered a salary of more than $50,000, which is nearly $20,000 more than the starting average salary of teachers nationally. They also get bonuses for coming back after Christmas break and for a second year.

“At first, I didn’t believe him when he said he was going,” said LeeAnn. “I thought he was joking. But then I told him … now is the time to go on an adventure.”

An adventure

Just getting to St. Lawrence Island is an adventure. It takes two days from Pennsylvania, and the only way to get to it is by “bush plane” from Nome to the Gambell airport where crosswinds can make for dangerous landings on an unpaved strip 15 feet above sea level. That last leg alone costs $400, he said.

There are no cars or roads on the island, which is home to one other village 50 miles away. To reach Savoonga requires an all-terrain vehicle or snowmobile. And Pannebaker has never been there.

He was able to fly to mainland Alaska when, as coach, he took the high school’s biathlon team to competitions in the sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.

“I was a hunter growing up, so I knew how to shoot, but I have never skiied in my life,” he said, with another laugh, about his coaching experience.

Prior to those trips, some of his student-athletes had never seen a tree or eaten in a restaurant.

“I had to teach them how to read a menu and order,” he said.

Pannebaker said he loves teaching his 10 Head Start students and coaching the older ones. But he acknowledged that their long-term education plans are complicated.

Children are not encouraged to leave the village, but about every five years, one goes off for college or vocational training and almost always returns with a knowledge or skill beneficial to the community, he said.

Educating those other students can be complicated because algebra, for instance, is not going to help them learn to whale or undertake other Yupik traditions, he said. They all learn English and fewer are learning the native language, which can create for a generational divide.

“Some parents don’t want to send their kids to school,” he said, noting that the school is funded by revenues from the Alaskan Pipeline and the federal government, preempting the need for local taxes.

That emotion is mixed with their fear that their way of life will melt away as their winters seemingly get shorter — Pannebaker attributes it to climage change.

Long days/Long nights

The Yupik learned 2,000 or so years ago how to deal with the extreme lighting situation in the “Land of the Midnight Sun” where days can last 22 hours in the summer and nights can last that long in the winter. Pannebaker got a UV light to help stave off depression that comes with so much darkness. On the bright side, the peak viewing times to see Alaska’s Northern Lights, or the Aurora Borealis, are in the dead of the darkest winter night.

Pannebaker decided to return home this summer because he knew his parents wouldn’t make the difficult trip.

“It’s so remote; it’s not really my thing,” LeeAnn said. “There’s no Sheraton and there’s no Sheetz.”

But she’s happy for her son, as is the mentor who first suggested Pannebaker go to Alaska.

“Knowing Courtland’s personality and love of the outdoors and for adventure, I told him he should give it a shot,” said Miller. “It think it takes a unique skill set to isolate yourself like that.”

He clearly impressed the Yupiks to be so involved with their daily lives, she said, adding, “He really has been accepted by that culture.”

Pannebaker plans to give it one more year before, perhaps, moving on.

“I hear there’s a teacher shortage in Hawaii,” he said, smiling broadly.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.