Mark's Alaskan Adventures Episode 3

Wed, 19 Jan 2000

Four minutes and sixteen seconds more sunlight today, and we noticed! This dramatic increase brings our grand total of daylight to 6 hours and 41 minutes for Wednesday, January 19, 2000. We’ve been steadily increasing since the winter solstice (Dec. 22) when our day was brightened with around 5 hours (10:30AM to 3:30PM). The extremes of Alaska certainly make you appreciate things like warmth and light. The difference between pitch darkness and a little smidgeon of dusk when I leave work means everything, these are the little graces in a year spent devoted to experience.

The Jesuit Volunteer Corps calls my six community mates and I to live simply, among other things. We try to rely on public transportation, carpool with vehicles and combine trips. It came as a great joke to us in early December when a 1989 Saab was donated to our house. I dubbed it the "Simplicity Saab" complete with sunroof. I didn’t really feel comfortable parking my Saab at the soup kitchen after all. My roommate Teddy had arranged for this car to be donated to us, but he wanted to wait until Christmas to tell us, (wrapping the license plates and putting them under then tree.) He told us he was borrowing the car from one of his clients, and we could drive it in the meantime. Poor Teddy, his great surprise was broken by a wary officer of the Anchorage Police Department who pulled me over for driving without license plates. With a equal helping of Matlock and Mulder and Scully (and our name on the registration), I was able to piece it all together!! Well, our sporty lifestyle has come to an end as our Saab sits in the shop with a hefty bill to even get it running.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were beautiful at Bean’s Café (the soup kitchen where I work). The people I serve are part of my community just as my roommates are. We walk through this year together, taking turns in each others’ shoes, listening and acting, laughing and crying, speaking up and being quiet. It’s remarkable how comfortable I feel with the people I have been getting to know this year. The most important thing I’ve learned this year is that my clients, the hungry and homeless, they are no different than me. We are all deserving of dignity and respect, no matter if we are native or white, addicted to drugs, mentally ill or chronically imprisoned.

If you expected a crazy Y2K story about survivalist militias and craziness like the bomb scare in downtown Anchorage, you won’t find it here. (I’d mention technological difficulties, but this IS Alaska after all). We spent new years in Bethel, Alaska, a bizarre town of about 4,000 people on the frozen tundra. Bethel is the hub for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Western Alaska. We had been saving money and doing odd jobs for months to save money for the plane flight to visit the jesuit volunteers there. As far removed from Times Square as one could be, Bethel is flat, treeless, windy, cold and all snow. It was stunning, you wouldn’t believe you were still in the US. Life on the tundra has a slower pace and a timeless feel. Seasons are marked by bird migrations, salmon runs and the freezing of the Kuskowim River. Now that it’s frozen, it becomes a highway for a few months, for there are no roads to other villages over the spongy, moist tundra. There are two stores in Bethel and one hospital. These serve a vast area, more than many states in the lower 48. Prices are obviously astronomical. The cost of life here is multiplied when you realize that everything from materials to build a house to cars and trucks is either flown in or floated up on a barge in the brief summer. Primary transportation in the winter is by snowmachine (what we call snowmobiles). We took an every so brief ride on snowmachines out on the frozen tundra on a brisk -30F day (around -60 with wind chill). A 20 minute ride chilled me to the bone, fogged up my snow goggles and froze my gloves to the handle grips. At one point, my roommate Dave and I were last in the line of snow machines. Within about a minute we lost the group with the low winter sun in our eyes, fogged up goggles and trails leading everywhere. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get lost on a flat featureless terrain. People circled back and refreshed our memory within a few minutes, but this was enough to prove the imminent danger of living in an extreme environment. Lucky they came back for us, Dave and I thought we’d have to split open a caribou and curl up inside to keep warm ;) Bethel was a place I couldn’t imagine and I had a time I will never forget.

Alaska has been very, very good to me. Each day brings new beauties and graces. I got up today on my day off and scanned the Anchorage Daily News. The front page had a picture of a Dall sheep (like a mountain goat) not far South of the city. A few of my housemates and I decided to take a mystery ride, so we headed south. Within a half hour, we were looking at a flock of Dall sheep next to the Seward Highway, carefully scraping the snow with their hooves, uncovering vegetation and a little bit of road salt. A bald eagle flew over to boot, somebody call the Discovery Channel, this place is something else.

Eluscius doc chicana (or something like that means "very Merry Christmas" in Y’upik Eskimo)

stay warm and treasure the daylight,

        Pax et bonum
Bean's Cafe