To see the real thing, you have to go beyond reality TV
Television producers have made millions, trying to bring the “real Alaska” to viewers the world over. They show fishermen on deadly seas; explorers out in the “wilderness,” competing to see who’s toughest; homesteaders, apparently living off the land while failing to mention that the grocery store is just a short drive away.
And we “real” Alaskans get a kick out of this.
The fact is, the real Alaska – the culture, self-sufficiency and independence for which its earliest inhabitants are known – is still here. Its boundary has retreated as the web of pavement and cell-phone coverage pushes it back toward the horizon. And you won’t likely see it on a television screen.
My definition of real Alaska has more to do with the people and the way they can still live unique lifestyles here on the Last Frontier. Over the years, as a reporter and photographer, I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of these people, whose lives are deeply intertwined with the places they live, firsthand. From Chirikof Island hermit John Garber to, centenarian and wooden boat builder Ed Opheim, to Charlie Hnilicka, the captain of the riverboat Ramona, who carries vital food and supplies to the people who live along the Tanana, Koyukuk and Yukon rivers, I’ve met and spent time with many memorable people living self-sufficient lives. Here are two of my favorites:
West and north of Anchorage, in the heart of the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta, a few Yupik Eskimo villages still cling to existence, populated by people who straddle the line between traditional and modern existence. The village of Kotlik is one of them, sitting on the banks of Kotlik Slough, just a short board ride from the main stem of the Yukon, and close to the big river’s bitter end on the coast of the Bering Sea.
There is no airport, just an airstrip and
neither hotel nor guesthouse offer accommodations. When I visited a few years ago, the school was the only public building and a small village store was the only place to buy food and fuel at greatly inflated rates due to the community’s remote location. Weathered skiffs lined the riverbank, most pulled up above the waterline, tied off to marooned logs buried in the bank. A few were anchored out, accessed by crude, floating docks, fashioned by lashing two or three logs together with rope or steel cable.
The residents of Kotlik enjoy electricity, running water and a sophisticated sewer system, they watch television and can access the Internet like the rest of us, but they also rely heavily on the harvest of wild foods like moose, duck, seal, beluga whale, sheefish and salmon for survival. It’s a place where the line between modern society and traditional lifestyle is fuzzy at best.
I went to Kotlik to document the use of the nuqoq or atlatl, an ancient spear throwing device used all over the world before the development of the bow and arrow, and still used today by Eskimo seal hunters. Indeed a walk down the riverbank revealed these modern power skiffs pulled up on the beach held rifles as well as spears and nuqoqs, used to hunt the seals and beluga whales that venture into the freshwater
of delta in pursuit of fish.
The reason the spear thrower is still the seal-hunting tool of choice on the YK delta has to do with the salinity of the water and the buoyancy of marine mammals. Elsewhere on Alaska’s coast, seal hunters harvest seals with rifles, retrieving their prey as their carcasses bob on the surface of the sea. On the delta, where the water is fresh and lacks the buoyancy of saltwater, dead seals sink immediately after being shot. So, while firearms are used for virtually all other hunting, the nuqoq is the most reliable and efficient tool available to hunt seal.
Spears thrown by nuqoq hunters have detachable heads that are attached to the spear shaft by twine. When the spearhead embeds in a seal’s body, the shaft rises to the surface to reveal the location of the submerged animal, allowing the hunter to retrieve the body.
I traveled with one nuqoq master Jimmy Okitkun, on an 18-hour hunting trip deep into the Y-K delta in pursuit of seal. His knowledge of the spider web of waterways that lace throughout the untracked delta was remarkable—if he had abandoned me I’d still be out there. His skill with the nuqoq was astounding. After several hours of tracking seals by following their almost imperceptible wakes, and a few near misses, he hit a seal with a spear from a hundred feet away as it briefly broke the surface to gulp air and dive again.
Later, as I watched Jimmy take an occasional bite of raw seal meat as he cleaned the carcass on the tundra-covered bank of the river, I couldn’t help but wonder how many times this scene had played out here over the past millennia and whether or not it would continue.
At the tip of the Cleveland Peninsula, just north of Ketchikan, near the southern boundary of Alaska’s panhandle, lies the hamlet of Meyer’s Chuck, an ethereal enclave of friendly, hearty, self-sufficient Alaskans who live by the sea. Here, homes and cabins are perched along the shore, on small islands and propped on rocky outcroppings, surrounded by water. Old boats, buoys, nets and rope decorate the weathered cottages and massive anchors peak from the water at low tide as if a Popeye cartoon has come to life. No roads connect Meyer’s Chuck to the mainland: A long boat ride, or a short floatplane flight are the only links to the outside. Once there, footpaths and short skiff rides link the homes that cluster around the natural harbor or chuck as it was called in the Chinook Jargon, a pidgin trading language used in Pacific Northwest during the 19th century.
The year-round residents are retired loggers and fishermen for the most part, people who can’t bring themselves to settle for the easy life among the crowds in the nearby town of Ketchikan, or elsewhere in Alaska. Longtime resident Greg Rice designed and built the water system using a chainsaw winch to haul plastic pipe to a lake a mile above town. He and his wife are known for their unique yellow cedar bowls turned from wood recovered from the slash of old logging activities.
During my visit I stayed with Steve and Cassie Peavey, longest-term residents of Meyer’s Chuck, and, at least in my opinion, some of the last of a sort of people who are disappearing from the region. Steve’s family came to Southeast Alaska after World War II and there his father made a living off of the forests of Southeast. Steve followed in his father’s footsteps, logging through the heyday of the industry.
Retired now, Steve is still powerfully built, with hands the size of baseball mitts. His size was eclipsed only by his outgoing personality and friendly nature. He clearly loves the land and described to me his logging days working cuts all over the region. Much of what he described to me was harvesting that the forest could sustain and economic activity that sustained the people of the region. His stories made me rethink my negative perceptions about the logging industry.
It’s hard to reach and there are few options for accommodations but Meyer’s Chuck is truly unique, even by Alaskan standards. Visit at your own risk, because if it touches you like it touched me, you’ll suffer for months with recurring daydreams of walking its rustic paths and beaches, and with long bouts of plotting how to get back and stay.