The Kuskokwim River is getting too close to the Napakiak school. Currently the river is frozen and sits about 150 feet from the school fuel tanks and less than 200 feet from the school building itself. School district officials expect the water to reach the structures before new ones can be built. KYUK traveled to Napakiak to find out how the local school staff is approaching the issue.
While riding on the back of her uncle’s four-wheeler, fifth grader Emma Ayaprun watched a chunk of riverbank fall into the Kuskokwim River.
“We found out the mud was falling on the river,” Ayaprun described. “And then he [her uncle] told me not to play on there or else it will drag us away.”
Ayaprun tells this story while filling out a math packet in her fifth grade classroom. Her classmates say that they’ve been given the same warning: "Don’t play on the riverbank. You might fall in." That riverbank is getting closer to Ayaprun’s classroom.
“So when you go out, like say you go out the end of the building, when you go out the door here, you’re pretty much at the river right now,” Valentino Jimmy explained while sitting at a lunch table in the Napakiak school gym. Jimmy grew up in Napakiak and has been working as a school custodian for five years.
When asked if there been discussion among school staff about what to do when the river reaches the school or its fuel tanks, Jimmy responded, “There’s definitely been talk, but I just don’t know which things I’ve heard that are supposed to be true.”
Other school staff give a similar reply. No one seems to know what the plan is regarding the erosion, and no one could remember any formal meetings among staff to develop a plan. However, there were consistent rumors.
“They were talking about relocating this school,” Jimmy said. “Another thing I heard was they got approved for a site past the church and triplex for building a new school. And I remember even growing up they were talking about relocating to the bluffs, but I have no idea what is going to happen.”
According to school district officials, the Napakiak school is too big and too old to move. The community site near the triplex is a little further inland, and there are no set plans to relocate the school there. The bluffs are a high area of land near Napakiak where some people predict the entire community might one day relocate. One reason for the lack of planning could be the high turnover in school leadership. The last site administrator, or principal, was only in Napakiak for three years. Current Site Administrator Drew Inman arrived this fall semester.
“I am from South Alabama. Roll Tide,” Inman said, laughing in his office that connects to the school gym.
Inman had never been to Alaska until a few months ago. Neither had his two high-school-aged daughters. The family moved to Napakiak in early August. Inman says that the Lower Kuskokwim School District did not mention the encroaching river when they hired him. “But the community informed me pretty quick once I got there that we’ve got a problem,” Inman explained.
The person who alerted KYUK to this problem was Napakiak teacher Andrew West. He’s in his third year at Napakiak, which makes him the longest-serving teacher currently working at the school. West moved up with his family from Las Vegas. He calls Napakiak home and plans to stay a long time. West has been tracking the erosion since he arrived.
“Part of my college training was in geology, and so it's always been a particular interest to me,” West said.
West also could not recall the school staff ever meeting to develop a plan regarding the erosion, but he has participated in school flooding evacuation drills.
“Where we did go was over next to the old armory building,” West explained. “Because at the time when I started, that was one of the easiest places for a helicopter to land. And now that's no longer the case.”
In May, a major storm wiped out the riverbank in that area, washing away 30 feet of riverbank overnight.
Part of West’s concern is what will happen to the community as a whole if the school is destroyed. As is the case in many rural Alaska villages, the school serves as the village center. It hosts community events, funerals, and potlucks. And it’s where elders receive lunch.
West says that he has folded erosion calculations and mitigation into his science curriculum.
“What became my outside calculation of seven years became closer to two or three,” West said. “And so students who were freshmen were going to have to think about a new school within their school lifetimes."
Whatever happens, he wants his students to have a voice in what comes next.
This story is part two in a four-part series on erosion in Napakiak.