Ozark County residents Duane and Debbie Grigg remember 17 years spent in the Alaskan wilderness (2022)

Duane Grigg was feeling restless.

It was 1979, and he had been teaching school and coaching at Mountain Home (Arkansas) Junior High School for six years and was yearning for a change.

“The need for adventure was consuming me –it had been all my life,” he said.

Soon Duane and his wife Debbie would find enough adventures to fill a book during their 17-year stint living and teaching school in the wilderness of Alaska.

The couple is now living near Lick Creek between Howard’s Ridge and Mammoth.

Duane and Debbie retired from the Alaskan school district, and Debbie finished her career serving eight years in the Gainesville School District after then-principal Bill Looney recruited her to teach high school English.

Yearning for adventure

As a boy growing up in nearby Whiteville, Arkansas, Duane had dreams of moving out west - maybe to Wyoming or some other place in the wilderness where he could quench his thirst for outdoor adventure. Then he met Gary Lambert, a fellow coach in the Mountain Home School District who had been to Alaska and had decided to go back there to teach.

“I corresponded with Gary all through the ‘78-79 school year,” Duane said.

That summer, Duane got on an airplane for the very first time in his life and flew into Kodiak, where he and Gary boarded a ferry. Gary, who had been teaching in Kodiak, was headed to a small village called Aniak in “the bush,” 400 air miles west of Anchorage. Duane traveled on to a tiny place called Soldotna, 150 miles south of Anchorage, where he stayed on the Kenai River for three weeks and was able to schedule an interview with the Aniak school superintendent.

“Back then, there were no cell phones, no internet and no roads,” Duane said. “There was nothing, and it was just really hard to communicate. Soldotna was a nowhere place. I was getting my mail by general delivery.”

Duane got a ride with a couple of men in a 2-ton truck to travel the 150 miles to Anchorage, where he was interviewed in the lobby of the Captain Cook Hotel. Duane’s young wife Debbie, a seventh-grade English teacher at Mountain Home, was interviewed over the phone.

“They hired us,” Duane said. “Debbie was a little reluctant, but fortunately, she went with me.”

“I threatened not to,” Debbie said with a smile.

The adventure begins

As a last hurrah in the lower 48 states, Duane went to a coaches’ clinic in Little Rock, Arkansas; Debbie took their 6-month-old son Cole to Dallas, Texas, to visit a friend. “Because we didn’t know when we were coming home again,” Debbie said.

Duane’s sister, who was watering the plants at the Griggs’ house in Mountain Home while they were away, took a call from the Aniak superintendent. “She told me the superintendent said he was ‘moving you all to Chuathbaluk, and you would know why when you get here,’” Duane said. “So we went.”

The Griggs arrived in Aniak late at night after a long flight. Unbeknownst to them, they had been flying with a fellow teacher and his wife who were also headed to Chuathbaluk School. Members of the school district met them and made introductions.

“The school was going to put us up at Aniak School that night,” Duane said. “There were no other places to sleep other than on the floor at the school. The teacher we met on the plane was going on up to Chuathbaluk by boat, so we went with him instead. Chuathbaluk was on the other side of the river and didn’t have an air strip at the time, so going by boat was the only option to get there.”

An awakening

“We spent the night at the teacher’s home, and the next morning, we walked out of his house and saw where we were going to live,” Duane said. “It was an awakening.”

“If I’d have had any money, I’d have been on the next flight out,” Debbie said.

The Griggs’ new school district consisted of 220 miles along the Kuskokwim River – the second largest river in Alaska, next to the Yukon. There were five very small schools and two larger ones in the entire district and just four teachers in Chuathbaluk - two elementary teachers and two high school teachers. About 125 people lived in the Chuathbaluk village, with 25-30 kids in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“We stayed in a little two-room apartment in the back of the one general store in the village until March of that first year,” Duane said. “We had no running water or electricity. We used a Coleman lantern for light. Debbie had planned on doing cloth diapers for our baby. She gave up that idea pretty quickly.”

Chuathbaluk School had its own generator and its own well. The Griggs took their showers at the school and, like everyone else in the village, got all their water from a hydrant on the outside of the elementary school.

Their time in the tiny apartment behind the general store was tough, and sleep was often hard to come by.

“The natives didn’t pay any attention to time because the winters were mostly dark and the summers were mostly light, and most of them didn’t work,” Duane said. At all hours of the night, the Griggs could hear people sitting on the front steps of the store talking and laughing. Four-wheelers and snow machines roared by.

“There was a guy across the river who had a sawmill, and he had started building a house for teachers but had quit because there had only been one other set of teachers in that village for the past three years. I told him, ‘Get that house built. We will rent it.’ He had it finished by March, and we moved into it.”

An electric line was run from the school to the house, so the Griggs finally had power, but it was five more years before the family had running water. “I’d haul drinking and cooking water from the school. We’d take our showers at the school,” Duane said. “And on Saturday night, I’d haul hot water from there and let Debbie take a bath.”

The Griggs were the first teachers in a brand-new high school. “The new school was the result of a lawsuit filed by an Alaskan high school girl who had sued to be able to go to high school in her own village,” Duane said. “Before that, [students] all had to go to boarding school if they wanted to go on to high school. After eighth grade, students had to leave and sometimes had to go to the lower 48 states to attend high school because there was only one boarding school in Alaska. Some of them went to Oklahoma, some to Oregon. That girl sued and won three years before we got there. The state was required to build a high school where there were eight or more high school students, and they had the money to do it because the oil pipeline has just been completed.”

Big changes

In the first three years that the Griggs lived in Chuathbaluk, they witnessed some big changes. Electricity, telephones and an air strip arrived at the village and made life a bit easier. And they added a daughter, Cynthia, to their family.

“That first year was the hardest,” Debbie said. “We didn’t have telephones. Mail was very sporadic. Sometimes we went two or three weeks at a time without mail.”

“During those three years, there was only one telephone in the village. It was a satellite phone on the wall in one of the natives’ houses,” Duane said. “You had to pay a dollar to use it. And there might be a party going on while you were there. You just used it in an emergency.”

That one satellite phone in the village was battery operated so that home had a generator provided by the state to charge the phone. “When we say phones came to the village three years later, actually the state put a phone in each school and did away with the satellite phones,” Debbie said. “It was a few more years before personal phones were an option. We didn’t have a phone for 12 years but would go to school on Sunday afternoon and call home.”

In October of the Griggs’ first year in Alaska, Duane was summoned to what he was told was an emergency call. The little house where the only phone was located was filled with people who were partying. Duane made his way through the crowd and took the call. Barely able to hear over the crush of party-goers’ voices in the background, Duane got the sad news that his grandmother had passed away.

“After that, I went down to the beach by the river and cried for awhile,” he said. “It was pretty tough.”

The air strip was built in the Griggs’ third year in Chuathbaluk. Before that, during freeze up and break up on the Kuskokwim River, the National Guard had to fly a helicopter into the village to respond to medical emergencies. That was the only way out during those times, so “you tried to be real careful and not get hurt,” Debbie said. During the rest of the year, transportation in and out of the village was mostly by boat or on float planes in the summer and three wheeler, snow machines and planes with skis in the winter, once the river was frozen solid.

Back then –Duane said it’s different now because the weather has changed –the Kuskokwim River would start running ice the first of October and be totally frozen by Halloween. “Then we’d travel on the frozen river,” he said. “They’d start getting trucks out on ice roads on the river to run between the villages. That ice would get 4 feet thick, and they’d take a grader out there and plow the road.”

One day, Duane got to see a huge C-130 cargo jet land on the frozen river to deliver the generator that would supply the village’s electricity.

So cold

Duane and Debbie made plans to come home for Christmas to visit their parents the first year they lived in Alaska. “We had always had Christmas with our parents,” Duane said. “It was 45 below, and we rode snow machines on the river for 10 miles to Aniak to catch our plane. I remember when we landed in Dallas, it was 45 above there. We get home, and Dad and I were sitting out in his yard. It was about 50 degrees, and I said, ‘Boy, this weather’s nice.’ And Dad said, ‘Well, that wind’s a little sharp.’ I said, ‘Dad, I’ll show you some sharp wind - come and see me.’”

“It’s warmer up there now,” Duane said. “But we had spells in the early 1980s and ‘90s where it would get to 30 below and stay that way for six to eight weeks. When it warmed up to zero, you’d go out in your shirtsleeves, and it would feel so good!”

One winter, temperatures were recorded at 40 below or colder for two consecutive weeks. On two days during that time, it dropped to 70 to 80 below, the Griggs said.

“Those were the only two days –coldest on record in Alaska - that we called off school,” Duane said. “We had a really well-insulated house, a log house with a foot of insulation, but those two days we sat by the oil stove just to keep warm. You could pull a chair away from the wall, and there would be frost on the wall there inside the house.”

“I was going to try and make spaghetti, but I could not boil water because it was so cold inside the house,” Debbie said. “We put Cole and Cynthia in bed with us - they were still little. We all slept with our snow pants and our coats on. I got up the next morning and put a thermometer on my pillow, and it was 34 degrees in our bedroom with the heat on. We heard of someone in a nearby village who had a military grade thermometer that broke at 88 degrees below zero.”

After that, Duane said the school district set 60 degrees below zero as the cutoff for having school. “When I left the Mountain Home school district, 32 degrees above zero was the cutoff for letting kids go out for recess,” Duane said. “That first winter in Alaska, we walked down to the elementary school for lunch one day when it was 32 below, and I heard the elementary teacher saying, ‘Now you kids get your coats on and go outside for awhile! You don’t have to stay long, but you’re going to get some fresh air!’ I thought, ‘Wow, what a difference.’”

So many crazy experiences

The first September before the river froze, Duane went down to the river’s edge to check the moored boats and found a fellow elementary school teacher who said, “Duane, I need your help this morning. There’s a body floating out there.”

“I got in his boat with him, and we went out in the middle of the river, put a rope on the guy and towed him to the beach,” Duane said. “One of the natives came and said he’d sit with the body until the troopers got there. The guy had drowned in the river 150 miles upstream 30 days earlier.”

That wasn’t the only time Duane helped with a body the river had claimed.

“When the river freezes up, there are sometimes these open holes where the water is swifter,” he said. “During October one year, some people were coming up from Aniak on three-wheelers. A man, a woman and teenage girl went into one of those holes. The man and the teenager got out, but the woman went under the ice. The next morning, I saw all the activity at the river below my house. I went down there, and they told me what had happened. I had a metal detector and started sweeping the ice. About 50 yards below that open hole, I got one little beep. The guys came over with their ice picks and started chopping the ice and found the three-wheeler. They didn’t find the woman’s body until the next May about 100 miles down the river after the breakup.

“There were so many crazy experiences like that.”

Basketball weekends

The five little schools in the district all joined together to play co-ed basketball, but even then, there weren’t enough kids to have a boys team and a girls team. “We would fly on a Friday - weather permitting - all those kids in those five schools to one site,” Duane said. “And we’d play continuous basketball from Friday night until Sunday. Then everybody went home - weather permitting.”

“The teachers would cook and help referee the ball game,” Debbie said. “The kids would sleep in classrooms or in the gym. We’d divide up the girls and the boys - usually the boys in the gym and the girls in a classroom. The kids just loved it because they didn’t get to see kids from the other villages very often.”

After 12 years in Chuathbaluk, Cynthia and Cole were entering junior high, and the Griggs moved to Aniak, where the kids would be in a larger school with more social opportunities. Duane coached Cole’s basketball team during his senior year in high school. “We went 23-4 and took fifth place in the state,” Duane said. “We got to go to Anchorage and compete in the state tournament, which was a lot of fun.”

The main transportation in Alaska was Cessna 207 planes, which held the pilot and six passengers, so “they’d take two or three of those and fly the boys team somewhere, maybe 200 miles away, drop them off and pick up that school’s girls team and bring them back to our school,” Duane said.

Duane remembers one heart-stopping moment during the season when the team was traveling home in two planes. “I could see the plane my son was in out my window. All of a sudden, I see it drop out of the sky,” he said. “My heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe. I was looking down, and I saw it level off way down there. After awhile, it climbed back up. We got back on land, and I asked the pilot what was going on. He said, ‘Well, there was a herd of caribou that we wanted to look at.’ That pilot and I had a good talk about that. I told him, ‘If you ever do that again, you tell our pilot on the radio what’s going on so I’ll know.’”

Their son, Cole, graduated from Aniak High School in a class of eight seniors. After 17 years in Alaska, when their daughter, Cynthia, was a junior in high school, the Grigg family left Alaska and returned to the Ozarks. Cole graduated from Arkansas State University with a criminal justice degree and returned to Alaska, where he is an Anchorage police officer. Cynthia is a social worker at Hospice of the Ozarks in Mountain Home.

“We had originally planned on moving to property that joined my parents’ farm just north of Gassville (Arkansas), but Baxter County had grown so much,” Duane said. “We were used to living 400 air miles from the nearest road up there, and we had gotten really used to isolation, so we wanted a place more rural. Ozark County was the answer.”

***

In the conclusion of the Griggs’ story to be published in next week’s Times, Duane explains how his love of adventure and Alaskan fry bread triggered a passion for ultra-running.

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