Life in the bush
Finding tightknit, resourceful, hurting communities amid the stunning Alaska landscape
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HUSLIA & KOBUK, Alaska—‘We were five puny human beings stuffed inside an aluminum box with white wings, just a pale dot in a watercolor-blue sky. As the 1998 Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft trembled against the air masses, causing my head to repeatedly bump its roof and window, I gazed down at the fields of velvet greens, ribbons of inky pools, and snowcapped mountains, and sighed with wonder: What a sight!
Few experiences are as humbling and awe-inspiring as flying over the vast, untouched landscape of Alaska in a six-seater aircraft. I had my moment of hanging jaw and boggled eyes during a three-week reporting trip to Alaska to learn about Alaska Natives (see “Way up north,”” Oct. 1, 2016). One clear-skied morning, I joined four members from SEND North, an Anchorage-based evangelical mission organization that serves remote areas in Alaska and northwest Canada, on a 2½-hour flight from Anchorage to Huslia, an Athabaskan village in central Alaska.
As we soared over hundreds of miles of pristine land, I tried to imagine what this state must have looked like thousands of years ago. It probably looked little different from now, with its jagged silhouettes of mountain ranges blanketed with trackless snow—and not a single human figure in sight. We passed acre after acre with no power lines, no asphalt, no trash, no trucks or cars. The territory looked lush and blooming and spotless, yet lined and grooved with ancient dunes and shorelines.
And then, all of a sudden, we found human civilization, Huslia, where families who have for generations called Alaska home continue to live. After staring at all that unsubdued nature, the contrast felt jarring. Among the woods lay a 4,000-foot gravel runway that forms the Huslia Airport. Dirt roads pockmarked with vehicle tracks and footprints connect the airport to the neighborhood where government-built, light-blue houses sit in neat rows. Satellite dishes poke out of roofs; ATVs and snow machines park outside every porch. As our plane descended, little figures perched on ATVs tilted their blurred faces toward us and waved. I waved back, even though they couldn’t see me.
The first thing we saw after stepping out of the aircraft, head still spinning and ears popping, was Don Ernst standing by his four-wheeler with a mock-stern expression. “You’re in my country now,” the 66-year-old pastor told us, wagging one finger. “Here, I’m boss!” When I sniggered, he set his blue eyes on me and warned me that the chicken coop behind his log house is always ready for miscreants.
All jokes aside, Ernst is serious about his pastoral ministry, which he and his wife Brenda started in 1990 in this village of about 300 Athabaskan Indians. A lean, 5-foot-10 dynamic leader, Ernst was content as a self-employed homebuilder in Colorado until God called him to something he had sworn he’d never do: plant and pastor a church—in a foreign culture, no less.
Sometimes Ernst wonders why God picked him and his family for mission work in the bush (a term used in Alaska for any region that’s off the North American road system). After all, he’s an all-American white guy who considers cheeseburgers the greatest edible invention of mankind, and both he and Brenda detest seafood in a place where its people eagerly prepare backyard smokehouses for salmon season. He’s a chronic teaser and joker among a typically reserved community that values solemnity and silence. But after a few rocky years, the Ernsts gradually found their nook in the community.
The Ernsts’ three children grew up attending public schools in the village. Their only daughter, Jess, married the village hunk Wes Henry, a stoic, copper-skinned Indian with shoulders so strong that he regularly breaks his chainsaws. One of the rare times this hardy hunter-fisher broke into cold sweat was when he sat in the Ernsts’ living room to ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage. As someone who grew up in a broken family, Henry said, he was initially attracted to the Ernsts for their solid and godly marriage. Today Wes and Jess Henry live with their five children in a two-story log cabin, a five-minute stroll from the Ernsts’ home.
One Thursday night after dinner, the Henrys invited me to go pike fishing with them. We piled into Henry’s truck and drove 15 minutes out to the Koyukuk River. Then we climbed into a boat the family had built using plywood scraps from the school. When we reached a small channel, Henry thrust a heavy tree branch into the riverbank, tied one end of his giant fishnet to the branch, then dropped the net into the river. Weights kept the bottom of the net down, while empty milk jugs buoyed the top.
The following night (the summer sun never sets in Huslia), we went back to the channel to collect the trapped fish. It was not pike season yet, so our catch was meager. White fluffs of cotton had only just started dotting the air, and you know it’s fishing season when the cotton’s flying wild, Henry taught me—the same way his grandfather once taught him. Everything Henry knows about the land, he learned from his grandfather while hunting and fishing. During peak season, the Henrys net about 30 pikes per day, which they either deep-fry, feed the dogs, or mash into “Indian ice cream”—a sweet, creamy, fatty concoction whipped from dried fish, fresh berries, and Crisco.
After untangling pikes from the nets, we drifted by the riverbanks to fish for more. While Henry’s oldest son, Trevor, flung out his fishing hook, I strung up my hoodie and flailed my leggings-covered legs against the swarm of mosquitoes. Summertime in Alaska is gorgeous, but mosquitoes are ever present—so much so that some Alaskans joke that they should be the state bird. Once the gnats crawl out to party, Alaskans are begging for the relief of negative-30-degree winter.
By the time we got home at 11 p.m. with our bucket of flopping pikes, itchy red bumps polka-dotted my face and ankles. The bites were worth it, though, when Henry immediately filleted the plumpest pike, dipped the chunks in an egg-milk mixture, breaded them, and dunked them into the deep fryer. Soon we were feasting on deep-fried pike slathered with ketchup-mayonnaise—the tastiest hot, crispy, flaky midnight treat I’ve ever had.
What I loved about Huslia is its tightknit community: Walk about a half-mile to “downtown”—a tree-edged clearing with a basketball court, post office, a couple of small shops, the community center, and playground—and you bump into familiar people who flick their palms up in greeting. Here in Huslia, like most other native cultures in Alaska, the community takes care of its own. Nobody goes hungry, because everybody shares and gives. It’s easy to meet people, but quite another matter to make friends: Though the villagers are polite and friendly, not all are open to outsiders, and it takes a while to earn their trust. It took the Ernsts years.
Nonetheless, I made it a personal mission to make at least one friend in Huslia. When I heard that the elders’ center provides daily meals to its senior citizens, I trekked over one evening. One by one, Huslia elders entered the room and greeted one another with quiet smiles as they served themselves strong black coffee and cornbread muffins. Each week, a community member volunteers to cook the meals. That night, the elders got a special treat: crisp iceberg lettuce salad, which, like all other fresh produce, is ridiculously expensive in the bush.
I stood out in the crowd with my 28-year-old face and my awkward, hopeful, outsider smile. The elders sipped their coffee, slurped moose chili, and ignored me until I pulled a chair beside a woman with beautiful, waist-length gray hair and a freckled nose. I asked, “Can I sit here?” and she glanced up at me for a few seconds, looking neither friendly nor hostile, then shrugged and muttered, “If you want to.” I plopped down and started sharing details about myself—and soon enough, the woman reciprocated. Vina Bilow was born on May 25, 1947, to Steven and Catherine Attla, and she was one of only four of the 10 babies born that year to survive. She was the first of the Attlas’ nine children. After high school, Bilow enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps and served as a medical specialist for three years, during which she experienced the comfortable life of the Outside (what Alaskans call the lower 48 states) but realized “Huslia will always be home.”
Today, as she walks back home from dinner, Bilow watches the village children pedal and crash and perform stunts on colorful bikes in the same courtyard in which she used to play. That evening, I walked back with Bilow to her birch-shaded home. We sat next to a rumbling washing machine, and I listened to her read out one of her numerous personal essays, a 14-page memoir about her 30-year battle with depression and suicide. “Programs and agencies have not worked, although a number of people and agencies came to stop the suicides [in Huslia],” she wrote. “But it is still happening, it is still going on.”
Because the village is so intimately connected, the whole community grieves for every death and tragedy. One recent season, Huslia mourned eight deaths: three suicides, one suspected suicide, two in house fires, two from cancer. Throughout the years, the Ernsts have conducted too many funerals, joined too many body searches, and comforted too many widows. This fall, after 26 years in Huslia, the Ernsts are passing on their ministry to a younger family from SEND North and transitioning into a different ministry role in Fairbanks.
Some villagers teared up as they talked about having to say farewell to the Ernsts. “They’re like my lifelong friends,” said Cesa Agnes, dabbing her red eyes. The 47-year-old tribal justice worker and lifelong Huslia resident said it was through the Ernsts that she first learned to study the Bible and save her alcoholism-poisoned marriage.
Programs and agencies have not worked, although a number of people and agencies came to stop the suicides. … But it is still happening, it is still going on.’ —Vina Bilow
Like many other Alaska Natives, Agnes has no desire to leave her isolated, rural hometown. She remembers with fondness camping 20 miles down the river with her family every summer as a child, waking up to the sizzle of pancakes and bacon, swimming and fishing in the afternoon, and learning how to cut and smoke that day’s catch from her parents. That’s why it devastates her to see how alcohol and drugs have stolen such childhood memories from today’s younger generation. Both Agnes and her husband once abused alcohol—she for 20 years, he longer—and their now grown-up kids bear the scars.
Today, it grieves Agnes when she receives a call in the middle of the night to rescue a child from another alcohol-induced abusive situation, but it saddens her just as much to see the same parent laugh as he teaches his daughter how to ride a bike. “The hardest thing is seeing what could happen when people are sober,” she said. “Oh my goodness, if there were no alcohol or drugs, our people would be building houses, fishing and camping, doing so much!”
I saw that same dualism in Kobuk, an Inuit village of 150 in northwestern Alaska. From Huslia, Don Ernst and I flew a Cessna 206 into Kobuk, about a two-hour flight—and by “flew” I mean Ernst let me steer the plane after takeoff. As I gripped the wheel and gritted my teeth through the turbulence, Ernst, being his classic self, regaled me with tales of near-death piloting experiences. We touched down in Kobuk with all our limbs intact.
The first sight I saw in Kobuk was a father walking along the river with his toddler daughter straddling his neck, her little fingers clutching his ear and hair. It was a tender introduction to Kobuk that later drooped with the broader facts of abuse and dysfunction in the village. Here’s just one example: The Kobuk post office hasn’t opened in months—a grave issue, since everything from food to toiletries arrives in the mail by air. The post office shut down because the last three postmasters were charged with mismanagement of finances, and no one in the village could pass the background checks to fill that position.
My second cheery sight in Kobuk was Sarah Stewart and her two young daughters, 8-year-old Desert-rose (or Dessie) and 3-year-old Quya (short for “thank you” in Iñupiaq), zipping over in an old ATV to greet me. I hopped on, and we bumpety-bumped back over gravel and rocks to the Stewarts’ cozy two-level house. Stewart’s two other children—Isaak and Shoshana—were in Kotzebue with their father Luke for a mission report. The Stewarts’ fifth child kicked inside Sarah Stewart’s then-six-month-pregnant belly.
The Stewarts have been living in Kobuk for eight years as pastors of the village Baptist church. They live on a tight budget, with their one luxury being Luke Stewart’s favorite Peet’s coffee. Luke Stewart hunts and fishes when he can, and the children love berry-picking in the fall. However, sometimes the food supply runs so low that the Stewarts don’t know where they’ll get their next meal. But someone in the village always notices and shows up at the doorstep with hunted meat, dried fish, peanut butter, and pasta. Sarah Stewart told me their lack of resources is a blessing: It softened the hearts of villagers to see that the Stewarts aren’t blue-blooded fixer-uppers but community investors not too proud to receive the generosity of their neighbors.
I also benefited from the villagers’ charity. The first night, we had a traditional Iñupiat dinner: Sticks of dried fish soaked in seal oil and slivers of raw whale blubber doused in soy sauce. The next morning, I woke up to view a half-frozen, half-plucked duck and two geese thawing next to the morning coffee. That’s lunch, Sarah Stewart informed me, and we spent the morning hacking away the head, wings, and webbed feet with a traditional Eskimo knife, plucking and singeing off the feathers, wrenching out the innards, and stuffing the birds with onions, garlic, and herbs before popping them in the oven to bake. It was delicious, and we boiled the leftover meat into soup for dinner.
The next day, the rest of the Stewart family joined us from Kotzebue, and we had moose meat and bear ribs roasted with homemade barbecue sauce—a thoroughly enjoyable meal of game, fat, and marrow. Except for the onion (which cost $2.40), most of the food came from the generosity of Kobuk residents and their land.
That’s why the Stewarts bristle when well-meaning Christians from the Outside come on short-term mission trips bringing material gifts, tutting and tsking about the “poor, deprived Eskimos.” Life in the bush has its own unique challenges, but the people are proud of their rich land and resources and subsistence lifestyle.
On our last day together, the Stewarts took me on an ATV ride to a hill they call “The Lookout,” where in the fall you can see massive herds of caribou teeming in pastures bursting with shades of green, auburn, sienna, and gold. As I breathed in the minty pine air, Sarah Stewart walked up next to me and gazed at the boundless nature before us. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world,” she said. I, a born-and-bred urbanite, almost agreed.
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