MONMOUTH — Alaska calls to the young and romantic.
They dream of the aurora borealis and the midnight sun. They read the poems of Robert Service:
“It’s the great, big, broad land way up yonder. It’s the forests where silence has lease. It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder. It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”
So many young seekers come to the last frontier only to find themselves, like Christina Reagle of Monmouth, shivering under blankets without electricity or running water as the thermometer dips to temperatures that threaten to turn their toes black and numb with frostbite.
At 50 below, their spirits freeze faster than their feet. They rush back to the warm embrace of the Lower 48 where comfort waits at the push of a button. Not Reagle. She went to Alaska in 1972 to teach in its remote villages and stayed for the next 33 years.
“A lot of people didn’t last,” Reagle remembered. “They would go for, maybe, a year and leave. They had no idea what they were getting into. To be honest, we didn’t know what we were getting into either.”
Reagle has written a memoir about teaching and learning in Alaska. “Life at 50 Below” tells not only her story, but the story of Alaska at the moment when everything changed. In 1972, Alaska had a population of 300,000 people — roughly the size of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Fairbanks, the second largest metropolitan area in the state, was about the size of Dallas. Valdez — a city that would later be literally drenched in oil — was little more than a fishing village where television was something that happened to other people.
Then construction began on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1975. Silence in Alaska lost its lease. Populations exploded overnight, bringing some measure of prosperity, but also every manner of vice. Reagle and her ex-husband watched the drama unfold from the villages where they taught.
“Alaska paid the price and Alaska’s natives really paid a price,” she said. “The social changes experienced by Alaska Natives were immense, which created additional challenges difficult to easily remedy.”
Reagle grew up in a military family, graduating from high school in Hawaii. In some ways, despite their stark differences in their climates, Alaska and Hawaii share a sort of kinship. They both became states in 1959, and they both found their former tranquility disrupted by the rest of the country.
When she was growing up in Hawaii, Reagle said, tourism had yet to become an overwhelming force.
“I knew Hawaii when it really was a paradise,” she said.
After high school, she attended Mount San Antonio College, a community college in Walnut, California, before attending the University of California at Long Beach where she earned her teaching certificate. She taught for five years before she and her husband moved to Alaska.
“That gave me a big plus because I had experience teaching,” she said.
It also helped that she came as half of a couple. Married teachers were less likely to turn tail and run.
“They were always looking for teaching couples because that’s the only way they could make it the in the bush, if they worked together,” Reagle said. “We were of the ‘60s. We thought about going to the Third World, but to avoid the draft, as young men did back then, my ex-husband joined the National Guard, In Alaska, he could fulfill that commitment.”
Reagle wanted to experience the cultural diversity she relished growing up in Hawaii.
“I’ve always been extremely interested in other cultures, mainly because of growing up in Hawaii,” she said. “I was just accustomed to being around other people where I was a minority, so I really fit in a village. We had that interest in other cultures.”
The University of Alaska at Fairbanks helped by offering an orientation program for teachers headed for Alaska’s bush country.
“During the six weeks of the program, you went out to your village and you saw what you were getting into,” Reagle said. “It gave you a very good glimpse. There were no stores, no television, often no running water. Some people felt they were going into Third World.”
Of course, few people in the Third World contend with ice fog — fine ice crystals suspended in the air that can make drawing a deep breath an Olympic sport. In larger cities, ice fogs mixed with pollution to turn the air into a toxic snow cone.
Pipeline workers from the lower 48 were well-shielded from such deprivations. Reports of them dining on filet mignon in well-heated shelters along the North Slope, coupled with tales of exorbitant wages, provided some additional heat for Alaskan residents as their tempers flared.
Popular bumper stickers of the era included assertions that, “Happiness is a 1,000 Okies leaving the state with a Texans under each arm” and exhortations to “Let the [expletives] freeze in the dark.”
Meanwhile, Reagle said she just wanted to educate native children. That was hard to do when many villages didn’t offer anything resembling high school. Families were broken up when children hit 14 and were shipped off for high schools in Fairbanks and even such places as Chemawa Indian School in Salem.
That changed after 27 teenagers successfully sued the state of Alaska in the early ‘70s, claiming that Native American boarding schools were not only discriminatory and unjust but used as a tactic to assimilate Native students into white culture.
In Reagle’s world, the lawsuit (what became known as the Molly Hootch Case) was as great a seismic shift in Alaska’s political and social landscape as the construction of the pipeline.
“Every village in the state would get some kind of high school,” she remembered. “Sometimes they only had three or four students, but they had schools. I was there for some pretty amazing times.”
Part of her time was chronicled by the National Geographic Society. A 1975 edition of National Geographic magazine shows her inside her tent.
Reagle’s teaching experience was diverse.
“You’re not just teaching one grade and one subject when you’re teaching in Alaska in the bush,” she said.
After nine years in the interior of Alaska, she moved to the comparatively balmy southeast, splitting her time between Juneau and Anchorage. She eventually earned a master’s degree in cross-cultural education and a doctorate in educational leadership and change.
Life in Alaska never became cushy. She kept working with rural communities and more than a few times found herself stranded without airplanes.
“You have to be your own advocate every day when you’re living in that kind of environment,” she said. “It’s not like going to an airport.”
As her two sons grew up and left for the lower 48, Reagle said she knew it was time to leave the last frontier.
Her mother needed help, and she wanted to be closer to everyone in her family. She worked briefly at the Oregon Department of Education before taking a job with the Teaching Research Institute at Western Oregon University before retiring three years ago.
She has lived in Monmouth for 10 years.
“I seemed to do better in small town, even though I’m one of those flaming Democrats,” she said. “My thing was to walk through the village and talk to the people, even when it was cold.”
Reagle recently emerged from retirement to do some work for the Southern Oregon Educational Service District. She never strays too far from education, she said.
“Education will always have problems, but it’s a wonderful profession with wonderful people who try so hard to do what is right,” she said.
Even now, her thoughts often stray north. Leaving Alaska for those who can rise to its challenges is never easy.
“It was really bittersweet for me at the end leaving the state,” Reagle said. “I loved rural Alaska, but it was a difficult, difficult time. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience. I know it changed who I am, made me who I am.”
The transformative power of Alaska is hard to put into words, she said.
“Alaska was the catalyst that moved me from a childlike girl to a fully matured woman,” Reagle said. “Despite being 26 as I crossed the state line, I was very naïve. I knew little about surviving life with its twists and turns.”
She was as much a student as a teacher in Alaska, she added. Her greatest teachers were Native women.
“They varied in ages from 16 to 90-plus,” she said. “They helped me survive and be smart in the wilderness.”
The state had an equally profound effect on her two sons.
“Alaska bequeathed my sons the gift of nature as an innate part of their being,” Reagle said. “Both understand and take time for the quiet solitude of being outdoors.”
City dwellers sometimes talk about “nature deficit disorder.”
That’s not a problem in Reagle’s family.
“I doubt the three of us will ever experience that disorder,” she said. “I have dog mushed and hiked the Chilkoot Trail twice with my sons as well as had many other adventures.”
Reagle is proud to have been one of Alaska’s bohemian seekers and poetic-philosophical pioneers.
“Alaska has a mystique that draws many people into its Robert Service poetry landscapes and mystery,” she said. “Its fishing and hunting is many men’s dream come true and for anyone that likes wilderness and no boundaries it is like being in heaven.”
She understands why some people take their first step on the tundra and quickly retreat, but she’s glad she stuck it out.
“We stayed because we fell in love with the state,” she said. “It’s a very interesting state if you embrace it. I would never want to go back because it’s just too harsh, but I love the experiences I had. I feel so fortunate to have seen Alaska when it was raw and untamed.”
Reagle’s book is available through wildeagle.co and ingramspark.com.
It can also be ordered through local bookstores as well as on Amazon.