Friday, March 16, 2007

A Lovely Visit, Part 2

Note: I have written extensively about Pilot Station, Alaska, in several previous posts; see here and here for photos and descriptions of a summer visit.

In order to give my friend Susan the broadest experience possible of Yupik culture, I wanted to take her to Pilot Station for a few days. I knew she would love seeing how different the land is up there on the Yukon River, with its big trees and rolling hills. Pilot Station sits on a beautiful spot on the north side of the river. And she would love meeting the people there that I have come to know and love.

The week before Susan’s arrival, I spoke with the health aides and confirmed that we could stay in the clinic’s itinerant sleeping room. The plan was to fly up Thursday morning and return on Saturday morning. That would give us time to take steambaths with two groups of women in the village, and I hoped that the village’s Eskimo dance group would be practicing. Other than that, I had no plans for our time there, except to go around the village and visit with people.

The rule for winter bush travel in small airplanes is to dress like you’re going to crash—“dress to survive, not to arrive”. Susan and I took off for Pilot Station on Thursday morning looking like we were ready for the arctic. We both had Jeff King suits (Dutch and I have green ones), beaver hats, fleece gaiters, beaver mitts, and extreme footgear. We had packets of chemical hand warmers in our pockets and extra fleece in our bags. The health aides had warned us that it was twenty below there. And windy. Really cold.

The flight to Pilot takes thirty to forty minutes in a Cessna 206, depending on headwinds. It is not necessary to fly at much elevation—perhaps 2,000 feet—as the terrain is so very flat. The only mark of human habitation to be seen in the hundred or so miles between Bethel and Pilot is a few snowmachine trails. A million tiny lakes and ponds cover the land, which stretches flat and endless from horizon to horizon. Not far south of the Yukon River, fir trees begin to edge the lakes, becoming thick forests by river’s edge. Hills begin rolling, and the river cuts through them creating high bluffs which are visible from a long distance.

The village of Pilot Station sits between two of these bluffs, protected by the shoulders of the land. With its southern exposure, the afternoon and evening light is warm and beautiful. The gravel airstrip perches atop the downriver bluff, situated perpendicular to the river—which makes taking off something akin to racing off a cliff. Landing can be a bit dicey if the crosswinds are stiff, but we made it down with only a few bumps and thrills.

The air service’s agent met us at the airstrip in his old pick-up truck and gave us a ride down the hill in the back with our gear. From the top we could see the colorful houses of Pilot Station dotting the hillside, but at that point we were too cold to appreciate the individuality expressed in paint. It was twenty below zero. Fortunately, it is a short ride. He dropped us at the clinic and we were really glad to get inside and get warmed up.

When I travel to the village I take gifts to the people there. Susan and I had shopped the day before and had two cases of fresh California oranges, a large jar of salted nuts and some baked goods. The oranges were placed in the waiting room with a sign that said “Help Yourself” and people quickly did so. Any fresh produce is greatly appreciated in the village where very little is available. It was a delight to watch the kids’ eyes light up at the sight of the oranges. Many went out with pockets bulging to share with their friends.

One thing I need to arrange when I go to Pilot Station is the use of a vehicle. The clinic has a four-wheeler, but on my last four trips there, it has not been working. This trip was no different. I rented the clinic janitor’s Honda (generic village term for all four-wheelers) on my last trip, but it was also not working.

“OK,” said one of the health aides, “we’ll just put it out on the radio and somebody will show up.”

She picked up the VHF’s hand-held microphone and said “Public announcement to the village of Pilot Station! The village provider is here for a few days and she needs a vehicle. If you have a snowmachine or Honda she could use, call the clinic. She’ll pay you!” In less than a minute the phone started ringing. Five minutes later a teenager showed up with his new snowmachine, happy to let us use it, and happy to have some money. I was equally delighted; the village is quite spread out and very hilly.

Susan and I stashed our gear in the sleeping room and took off to explore. The first stop was the village store, as the snowmachine was sitting on Empty. Gas was $5.65/gallon and it took over $50 to fill it up; I knew the owner wouldn’t mind getting it back nearly full. Susan explored the store and walked up the hill to the Russian Orthodox cemetery for some photos while I waited for the attendant to take the snowmachine down to the fuel farm, fill it, and bring it back. I knew several people who happened to be in the store and we chatted about how they were doing while I waited.

With a full tank of gas, we drove up and down the narrow roads of the village, waving to people and stopping to talk. In our red and green Jeff King suits, we stood out, just as we had in Napaskiak. But most of the people here know me by sight, and recognition brought big smiles to their faces. With a quick stop at Agnes’s house, we confirmed that we were on for a steambath that night.

Back at the clinic, the work day was finished. The health aides were closing up and gave us the key to front door before they left. We had a quick supper from the cooler we brought with us; no commercial options—like a café—are available in the village. It is best to eat lightly before taking a steam, and to drink plenty of water. I have occasionally had post-steambath headaches from not hydrating adequately beforehand.

It was 10 pm before the bath was ready and Agnes called us. With a backpack full of towels and a small gift for Agnes, we fired up the pull-start snowmachine and cruised over. Smoke and sparks were pouring from the smokestack of the steambath’s woodstove. As cold as it was, that sight brought joy to my heart. I couldn’t wait to get inside and sweat.

Agnes’s steambath is luxuriously roomy; it easily holds six people, and she had invited three other women to join us. They might have been watching out their windows, they showed up so quickly after we went in. All were interested to meet Susan and happy to see me again. We quickly hung our clothes on nails in the dressing area and crawled naked through the short half-door into the smaller room where the wood stove was crackling.

The floor in the bath section was still cold, but the air was nice and warm, and getting hotter quickly. As soon as we were all settled on our towels, Agnes picked up the dipper, a soup can nailed to a three-foot-long stick, and began pouring hot water from the reservoir in front of the stove onto the rocks on top. Loud pops and hissing preceded waves of steam that almost instantly raised the temperature to a skin-sizzling level. I was quickly on my stomach with my lips close to the floor where the air was coolest. Susan was stretched out on her back, smiling with her eyes closed. Whether steambath or sweatlodge, she loves the heat.

The Yupik steambath is a social event, and between peaks of heat there was lots of talking, teasing, and storytelling. A number of small comments the women made here and there were windows into Yupik culture, and I made mental notes of them to discuss with Susan later. She listens attentively and misses very little detail; I knew she would want to know more about the importance of seemingly idle remarks.

It is difficult to crank a steambath up to really hot when the weather outside is twenty below, especially when the wind is blowing. Agnes is known for taking very hot steams, and she was somewhat apologetic about this one not being up to her standard. It was nicely hot, but not enough to push us out the door. For only a few brief moments was it too hot to talk, which is my favorite level of heat.

As the stove was cooling down, the ladies brought in their basins, shampoo, and washrags and proceeded to bathe and wash their hair. The beauty of this method of bathing is in how little water it takes to bathe after one is completely wet from sweating. In the frozen sub-arctic, water is a precious commodity.

By the time the bath was finished it was quite late. The village was sleeping as the snowmachine roared to life and loudly carried us back to our quarters; I hated the intrusion of noise and wished we had a good dog team instead.

After our late night, the following morning came too quickly as the health aides showed up at 9 am to open the clinic. I was thankful there had not been an emergency the night before to interrupt our slumber. We made coffee and took stock of the day. Agnes had mentioned that there would be a potlatch over the weekend in the next upriver village, Marshall. Pilot Station had been invited, along with the villages of St. Mary’s and Russian Mission. She said quite a few people were planning to attend. I had never been to a potlatch and asked what it would be like.

“Eskimo dancing and give-away. Maybe some feasting,” she said. My eyes lit up. I wanted Susan to see some Eskimo dancing, and the local group had not scheduled any practice sessions during our visit.

We discussed the possibility of going to Marshall over coffee. Most people were going by snowmachine, which we would not be able to do with all of our luggage. Scheduled air service does not go from Pilot to Marshall without going back to Bethel first. Once again, the health aide came to our rescue.

“Put it on the VHF. Maybe somebody has chartered a plane and has two extra seats.” Once again, it worked. Within a few minutes, one of the villagers called and said their charter was leaving at 3:30 and had two seats available. It would only cost us $58 each to fly over with them. We looked at each other and grinned. We were going to potlatch.

There were several hours left before we needed to be up at the airstrip, and we wanted to make the most of them. Susan wanted to climb up some of the steeper trails at the edge of the village where the snowmachine could not go, and she set off with camera ready. The health aides had asked me to see a patient who needed a steroid injection for her badly arthritic knees; anticipating this, I had brought supplies with me and was happy to save her a trip to Bethel.

I also wanted to stop in briefly to visit with Agnes’s mother, Maggie. She is a tiny and delightful octogenarian whose wrinkled face appears stern when she is not laughing, which is often. I wanted Susan to meet her.

In the end, we only had time for a short visit. We brought her the last three oranges, which she placed carefully on the table in the kitchen. No one was home with her at that moment, which was a significant disadvantage as she speaks almost no English. She called Agnes’s husband Andrew on the phone and told him in voluble Yupik to “come right now!”

They only live two houses down and were there in just a moment. Agnes and her sister had mentioned in the steambath that Maggie seems to be getting more crotchety and demanding in her old age, and the phone call was another example of it. She just smiled and shrugged a shoulder. That’s an elder’s privilege.

Our time was quickly up and we raced back to the clinic to get our luggage (sleeping bags, grub box, cooler, extra clothes, a dozen towels) moved out to the road where someone would pick us up and drive us to the airstrip. Hugs and good-byes all around for the health aides, and we were off. Next stop: Marshall.
All photos by Susan Rangitsch.
1. Approaching the Yukon River
2. The frozen Yukon
3. Sign at the airstrip
4. Colorful houses on the hillside
5. Steep roads, more houses
6. Russian Orthodox cemetary
7. Individual grave with lantern
8. Pilot Station beach with boats frozen in
9. Dressed up elder with beaded gloves
10. Elder leaving clinic
11. Maggie
12. Agnes and Andrew



Blogger Kyle said...

Great stories and pictures!

Friday, March 16, 2007 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger AK FNP said...

fantastic reading over a hot cup of tea this morning! thanks.

Saturday, March 17, 2007 10:09:00 AM  
Anonymous sex shop said...

To my mind one and all must go through this.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 9:34:00 AM  

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