Nearly 30 years ago, Cindy Lou Aillaud moved with her husband from Seattle to Alaska in search of a “great adventure.” They eventually landed in Delta Junction, about 300 miles below the Arctic Circle. At that latitude, winter means round-the-clock darkness, except for a few hours at midday when the sun peeks over the mountains, casting a dim light on the snow-covered landscape.
The natural impulse in such conditions is to hole up indoors—to shut out the season’s unrelenting cold and dark. But Aillaud, a physical education teacher at Delta Elementary, makes sure her students and their families resist that urge, even in subzero temperatures.
Aillaud’s students layer on snowsuits, hats, and mittens every day for recess and twice a week for half-hour gym classes, often in order to climb up and fly down the school’s sledding hill. Only when the mercury dips more than 20 degrees below zero do they stay indoors. “I cry when it’s too cold,” says an ebullient Aillaud, who chronicled her students’ wintry adventures in a book titled Recess at 20 Below.
“If I can encourage people to get out,” Aillaud says, “I think we’ll have a much healthier community.” That’s why she developed a walking program to supplement her gym classes. On “Walkin’ Wednesdays,” students spend recess walking around the playground and on the school’s new walking trail. On Fridays, Aillaud gets everyone in the school to walk for either the first or last half-hour of the day. Parents show up, and city officials also join in.
As they log miles on the trail, she tracks how much corresponding progress they’d be making along a path that’s significant to Alaskan history. This year, they’re “patrolling the pipeline”—seeing how many times they can cover the 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline, and learning about its history as they go.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Northern Exposure