COLD BAY, Alaska — On a blustery afternoon in July, most of the residents of this town at the edge of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands showed up at the one-room airport for another goodbye.
This farewell was perhaps more significant than the many others that had taken place over the last few years — this time, it was the mayor who was moving away. Jorge Lopez and his 12-year-old twin sons Matt and Zenny were leaving the town of about 60 people.
Wake Kremer, a jolly, self-possessed 13-year-old with braces that require a two-day trip to Anchorage to adjust, was at the airport too. He was saying goodbye to the last two kids near his age in town.
Kremer and the Lopez twins made up three-quarters of the student body at Cold Bay School in the most recent school year.
With only four children attending, far under the state funding minimum of 10, the Aleutians East Borough School District closed the school in May.
Ever since, the town had been throwing farewell potlucks for families it couldn’t afford to lose.
Now, people are worried about the future of Cold Bay. The population looks like it will drop into the 20s by fall, by the count of locals.
The closure of village schools in Alaska is not a new phenomenon. Every year, a few schools shut their doors due to lack of enrollment. During the last state fiscal year, three schools closed, all in Southeast Alaska. But being routine at the statewide level makes it no less wrenching at a local one. Losing the school can have a profound impact, drawing the very engines of community — families with children — away, sometimes permanently. In regions already struggling with the difficult economics of life in rural Alaska, the closure of a school can feel like a death blow.
In nearby Nelson Lagoon, where the school had been closed for two years, there was no longer a single child under the age of 18.
Cold Bay now finds itself in an impossible situation, locals say. There are job openings, but how can it attract families to accept positions in a remote Alaska Peninsula town accessible only by air or the occasional ferry if there’s no operating school?
And without new children, how could it ever hope to reopen?
At least one family with children who had already accepted a job in Cold Bay backed out when it became clear there would be no school, said the new acting mayor, Candace Schaak.
Jorge Lopez had come, like almost everyone here, to work. He’d spent more than a decade with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, maintaining the 10,000-foot runway that is Cold Bay’s reason for being. His sons had enjoyed a freewheeling childhood with an endless backyard.
“We loved every minute of it,” he said.
But the boys needed to go to school, he said. They’re moving back to Lopez’s hometown in Northern California, a place with a population 100 times the size of Cold Bay’s.
It was time to board the plane to Anchorage. Lopez and his sons made their way through a gauntlet of hugs. An Izembek Refuge employee wiped tears away.
“Now, no bullshittin’ around down there, boys!” said a guy in Carhartts.
The twins’ mother, Sandra King, held her sons tightly, then returned to her post at the Grant Aviation ticket counter. She said she’d be joining them in California later.
The rest of the family went out to the tarmac.
Kremer was left leaning against an educational display detailing the natural wonders of the Izembek Lagoon.
“Well,” he said. “I guess I’m the last kid in Cold Bay.”
Cold Bay is a wild and stormy outpost at the western edge of the Alaska Peninsula surrounded by tundra lavish in mid-July with wildflowers and crowned by a volcano that strides into view when the fog lifts and the clouds part. The Izembek Wildlife Refuge starts north of town and goes all the way to a lagoon facing the Bering Sea.
Unlike other communities in the Eastern Aleutian region, Cold Bay is neither a historic Unangan permanent settlement nor the home of a commercial fishing fleet. The town exists largely because of its oversized airport runway, constructed as a U.S. Army airfield during World War II. The 2-mile-long runway is the fifth longest in the state.
It is a government town, and it has always been transient.
It’s also not the easiest place to live, even by Alaska standards. It claims the title of “most overcast town in America.” Some locals wryly refer to patches of clear weather as “blue clouds.” The wind plows through town at a steady average of 17 mph. On many days, it is blowing and pouring.
But the all-weather airport makes Cold Bay an important strategic air point, an emergency landing destination for jets and a crucial jumping-off point for flights to other communities in the region. Despite having fewer than 100 residents, Cold Bay is served by flights from Anchorage six days per week.
Because of its volatile weather, Cold Bay is also famous as a place to get stuck. The only hotel/bar/grocery store in town was long known as the World Famous Weathered Inn.
Beyond the airport, which is owned by the state and maintained by the Alaska DOT, Cold Bay is also the headquarters of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a 300,000-acre wilderness area that starts just outside town.
Like many communities in this part of Alaska, Cold Bay used to be bigger.
Back in the 1980s, when Alec McGlashan was going to school there, there were more than 30 students at the school. McGlashan, now an auto repair shop owner in Anchorage, recently visited Cold Bay for the first time in years to spread his mother’s ashes with other family members on the nearby mountain where she picked berries.
There was once a military airbase, which offered a movie theater and a bowling alley. People were always whizzing around on three-wheelers, and kids could test their luck screwing around with the buried World War II munitions that still dot the landscape. He remembers playing on actual World War II-era torpedoes abandoned on the beach.
But the military presence evaporated. Now, a single U.S. Air Force employee monitors the radar site locals call the “Golf Ball.” Reeve Aleutian Airways stopped serving the town, taking employees along. A hatchery closed.
There were fewer and fewer kids in school.
When the number of kids fell dangerously low, people started doing anything they could to increase the count to the minimum of 10, said Paige Kremer, Wake Kremer’s mother and a longtime Cold Bay resident who works for PenAir. Relatives from other towns came to attend school in Cold Bay — at least for the fall, when the state count happens.
As recently as 2011, the official state census put the school’s enrollment at 11.
When enrollment falls below 10, a school loses up-front state funding because of a provision in state law since 1998.
Districts can continue to operate schools, but they receive less funding, said Elizabeth Nudelman, the state Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s head of school finance. Since 1999, some 36 Alaska schools in places like Chistochina, Nikolski, Lime Village, Pitkas Point and Edna Bay have closed because they fell below the minimum enrollment, according to the state. About eight schools — like the Whale Pass School in the Southeast Island School District — have closed and then reopened when enrollment bounced back.
By last school year, Cold Bay’s youth population had shrunk to just a few teenagers, plus a handful of toddlers too young to be enrolled.
The decision to close the school came from district headquarters in Sand Point. The fallout has been ugly, with rumors that the money saved by closing Cold Bay would be used for a playground in Sand Point and, according to Aleutians East Borough School District superintendent Michael Seifert, personal attacks and “mistruths” circulating. Seifert denies the money for the new playground in Sand Point has anything to do with Cold Bay closing.
The populations of the other small schools in the district have been holding steady or increasing, Seifert said. About 250 students attend the remaining district schools in Sand Point, Akutan, False Pass and King Cove.
The bottom line, he said, is that like other school districts around the state, the Aleutians East Borough is confronting steep budget deficits. Cuts — such as classroom aides — have been necessary at every school in the district, he said.
The Cold Bay School’s operating budget was $211,000 with an official enrollment of only four children.
“Certainly no one kid is more important than another,” he said “But the expense we put toward a small number of kids just couldn’t be justified.”
Seifert said he didn’t sleep for two days before making the decision.
“The school board cried when they voted on this,” he said. “It’s sad as hell.”
People were especially upset when, after the school closed, almost all the supplies, furniture, books and equipment were removed from the building, one of the biggest and nicest in town. Some of the materials were transferred to other schools in the district. Some items were offered to locals. But other items — textbooks, overhead projectors, chemistry beakers and microscopes — were taken to the city landfill and burned or dumped, residents said.
Mary Martin, the voluble proprietor of the Cold Bay Lodge and a 15-year resident, was horrified. “You burned the books? Why did you have to burn the books?” she wondered aloud as she steered her truck around the dump one evening in July, amid darting red foxes and dunes covered in lupine and pushki.
She misses the days when children would build jumps for their dirt bikes in their backyards and ride their bikes furiously around the gravel streets. She fears the town is dying.
Without children, “the sound of life going on is missing,” she said.
In Nelson Lagoon, a commercial fishing village on a sandbar exposed to the Bering Sea, Angela Johnson has seen many of the changes that Martin fears. The school closed two years ago. Today there are no children in the village, Johnson said.
Without kids, the annual Halloween party is a kind of a drag. There are no trick-or-treaters.
Christmas, too, has changed. Nelson Lagoon used to have a pageant featuring Santa. Now “there’s no point to have Santa when there’s no kids around,” she said.
She worries for the future of the village where she’s spent her entire life.
“It kind of makes you feel helpless,” she said. “If there’s no younger generation, there’s no future.”
When Jorge Lopez announced he would be leaving Cold Bay, Candace Schaak became the acting mayor at age 23.
She was at the airport too when the Lopez family left, saying goodbye and boarding a flight to Anchorage to meet her new niece.
Schaak, who grew up between Nelson Lagoon and Cold Bay and attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School, is one of the town’s loudest boosters and most outspoken critics of the decision to close the school.
Partly she is worried for her own family. Schaak and her boyfriend have a 2-year-old daughter named Brooke, who will be one of only two young children in town after another family’s planned departure in August. The other is a 3-year-old boy.
She is trying to envision a future for herself in Cold Bay. She could homeschool Brooke. But if no more children come? Can she raise her child without peers?
“I really hate the thought of her growing up without any friends,” she said.
Cold Bay will endure — the airport and refuge ensure it must. But Schaak wonders, on pessimistic days, if it will become a shift-work place, like the industrial camps on Alaska’s North Slope.
She occasionally thinks of moving to King Cove, which has a population of nearly 1,000.
Her roots in Cold Bay run deep. Her parents are there. And she wants to give her daughter the lessons that life in this part of the world can impart.
“We live almost fully a subsistence lifestyle,” she said. “We fish and hunt. We’re putting up salmon.”
The night before, she and Brooke had gone berry picking.
“She was so excited every time she found a berry. I could have cried,” Schaak said. “I would hate to take that away from her.”
THE LAST KID IN COLD BAY
Then, one foggy day in July, Wake Kremer woke up as the only kid beyond preschool age left in Cold Bay.
The weather cleared, and Frosty Peak, the 6,299-foot volcano that looms over town, emerged.
On a summer day like this, he would normally be shooting bows, fishing, casually wandering through town with pellet guns, cutting down alder bushes to make forts, target shooting or making plans to jump off the ferry dock into the frigid, puffin-infested waters of Cold Bay.
But with Zenny and Matt gone, he instead went walking on the gravel roads around town with his mother and the family dog, Pixie.
“I kind of don’t know what to do,” he said.
His situation is temporary: In the fall, the 13-year-old will attend Mt. Edgecumbe boarding school in Sitka, a destination for many rural Alaska students.
Kremer said he was nervous but excited to go to Mt. Edgecumbe — excited to hang out with other kids his age, nervous about school work. When you’re in a school of four, the teacher always has plenty of time to help you.
But the big challenge would be school dances. There isn’t a girl his age in Cold Bay.
But he was heartened by the fact that most of the kids at the school come from villages, so he wouldn’t be alone in being far from home.
Kremer knows his childhood in Cold Bay has been different.
He had a business with a license and employees, hauling garbage to the town dump, before he was a teenager. He’s been driving for years.
“There’s a lot of freedoms you get here,” he said.
Getting into real trouble was hard. For example, if a teenager were to vandalize something in Cold Bay, “everyone would recognize your handwriting,” he said.
Kremer and his mother ended up near the school, a solid tan building with rust trim, wild strawberries sprouting from the ground and a hopeful tomato plant growing out back. The town hopes to keep the heat on in the building and continue using it for everything from community dinners to group workouts, plus as an emergency shelter for times when a jetliner has to stop in Cold Bay, as happened with a Delta flight from Tokyo a few years ago, Paige Kremer said.
For her, sending her son to boarding school means letting go four years early.
“We’re not done raising him yet,” she said.
ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES
Sunday brought a stiff wind, gray skies and the arrival of the M/V Tustumena, the Alaska State Marine Highway ferry that visits twice a month during the summer.
Wake Kremer drove to the dock in a pink pickup to unload his wares for one of his business pursuits. On ferry days, he sells Japanese glass fishing floats collected on the Bering Sea beaches near Cold Bay, a favorite family pastime.
Soon, he will be off to boarding school. Then maybe college.
Kremer, as sure as any teenager can be about what his future holds, said he will one day move back to Cold Bay.
“I love this place,” he said. “This is my home.”
What Cold Bay will be like when and if he returns for good is an open question. Maybe a new generation of families will arrive to take jobs. Maybe the school will reopen with new desks and chairs and a new teacher. Maybe kids will again race the gravel roads on their bikes and roam the tundra with pellet guns.
Those who remain here hope for that.
The ferry docked, bringing curious tourists bracing themselves against the wind to the dock. Happy Kremer, the airport manager and Wake Kremer’s father, stepped off the ship and gathered his son in a hug. Kremer got back to selling his glass floats, answering questions about the looming mountain.
The ferry sounded its horn and pushed off for the next port, another goodbye in a town with more departures than arrivals.
Information from: Alaska Dispatch News, http://www.adn.com