Alaska life, Alaska Native culture, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Slippery Pete’s Gambit by Colin Tass’aq McDonald

Colin Tass'aq McDonald's selfie at the 2019 Iditarod start in Willow.
Colin Tass’aq McDonald’s selfie at the 2019 Iditarod start in Willow.

My friend and colleague, Colin Tass’aq McDonald (Yup’ik), loves following the Iditarod. Each year, he shares his fun and humorous analysis with his personal network. His friends and family relied on his updates and often tagged and begged him for his daily updates. He had a lot of fun with nicknames and memes for the mushers. Tass’aq’s grew up dog mushing in Bethel, Alaska. He graciously agreed to share an update on Pete Kaiser’s win of the 2019 Iditarod. Pete is the first Yup’ik musher to win the Iditarod. Quyana for sharing, Tass’aq!

***

I just boarded the plane on my first leg on my journey to Egypt less than 24 hours after flying to Nome to watch Slippery Pete cross under the famed burled arch to become the first Yu’pik champion of the Iditarod. I wanted to share this post (below) from a few days back, because it was my favorite point of an amazing race!

In my opinion, ‘Pete’s Gambit’ out of Grayling is when he put himself into position to grab the belt as the ‘greatest musher in the world’! He put the pressure on the front runners Nic Le Lapin and Joar of The Hill people, and made them make decisions that compromised the speed of their teams down the trail. He eventually did what Slippery Pete does and slipped past both and into immortality.

The atmosphere in the chute last night was indescribable. I have been to about a dozen Iditarod finishes and I have never witnessed that kind of energy. John Baker’s finish came closest. Of course, I am being extremely biased, but it was distant in comparison. Nobody brings the energy like #KuskoNation!

I was so happy to be able to share the moment with my little cousin Ari (Pete’s son and my ticket into the chute…Quyana Ari!) as he got the ‘best seat in the house’ sitting on my shoulders as we soaked it all in. So many friends and family were there in the same state of awe as me. I was teary-eyed during the entire experience. I have grown up around and have participated in sports my entire life and have witnessed many moments that have left me floored, but I have never experienced an athletic feat that had such a personal and emotional effect on me and I’ll venture to guess that Pete’s first championship will never be bested in that regards.

In 2008, when Pete won the Bogus Creek 150, my Dad, John McDonald, said “Pete is going to win the Iditarod someday.” At the time, it seemed unfathomable, but to be there first hand to watch Pete achieve all his goals and dreams is something I will never forget.

This accomplishment has brought so much pride to his family, friends, community, region, state, and to the Yup’ik people and I am just so proud of my friend! I’m also proud of all the other Kusko Mushers this year. Richiero Su zuki, 2 quicklas Niklas Wikstrand, Jessica JR GRowling’ Klejka, and Victoria ‘The Frozen Candle’ Hardwick, ran and are continuing to run amazing races.

I also wanted to give a big Quyana for all the thank yous and encouragement on my posts throughout the race. I loved the people reaching out to tell me they had never really followed the race, but really got into it and excited reading my somewhat silly and irreverent ‘coverage’ this year.

Growing up with a dog team really gave me a great appreciation, love, and respect for all these mushers and dogs do. It really made me smile to get texts and posts from ‘racing legend’ Myron Angstman and the son of an Iditarod Champ, Isa Fredricks to “Update Us!” As I hope you can tell, I truly enjoyed posting them and I am so happy to play my small part in this amazing piece of our Alaskan Culture. Once again, Quyana, and we will see all you race fans next year!! Now off to the pyramids!! What an amazing week!

Tass’aq’s March 9th Analysis of the Point When He Believes Pete Kaiser Set Himself Up for Success

Slippery Pete’s Gambit – When Slippery Pete left Grayling in 3rd, I was sitting at my sister’s house with my parents, Beverly and John. I got the word on the Iditajunkie text thread and we all said, ‘Holy Shit’!! Everybody assumed he was there for his 8 hours [layover], since he had already been there for 6 hours.

But then after thinking about it, it became pretty clear that it’s the perfect move to make if you want to win a race like this. He is putting pressure on Joar of the Hill People and Nic Le Lapin now. He is going to take his 8 hours, but they are going to have to rest too and all that time is time he is catching up. And with the weather still coming in, the teams behind may have a tough trail to make up time. We will see if it works, but Ole’ Slippery is out there playing chess right now and has put himself in pretty good posish to make a run at this thing!

He has passed Nic and is 4 miles behind Joar at this moment. Rawhide Richie had a great run after taking his 8 hours. Pulled into Grayling in 7th at 7:15. I bet he gets back on the trail to start chasing down those leaders pretty soon. JK GRowling left Iditarod just a few minutes ago and Niklas Sixx pulled in there at 10:31. I was asked why I’m not posting about Victoria Hardwick…don’t really know her. 🤷🏼‍♂️ But she is grinding it out like a true Kuskokwim musher and deserves to get in these posts. ‘The Frozen Candle’ (Hardwick…get it?) is out of Ophir at 6:33 pm. Jessica and Vic still both have 14 dogs!! Word on the trail is that Hardwick’s dogs have amazing breath. Going to be up late tracking. May have some updates. Boy that was a long one!!

***

Enaa baasee’ Colin Tass’aq McDonald for the fun and exciting updates! Here are a couple other updates from Kaiser Racing Kennels and Indian Country Today.

Update from Kaiser Racing Kennels:

Check out the update from Indian Country Today – Yup’ik musher wins Iditarod! Pete Kaiser is first Yup’ik, fifth Alaska Native to win 998-mile race.

Indian Country Today provided a list of Alaska Native winners of the Iditarod:
2019: Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik, 9 days, 12 hours, 39 minutes, 6 seconds.
2011: John Baker, Iñupiaq, 8 days 18 hours 46 minutes 39 seconds.
1976: Gerald Riley, Athabascan, 18 days 22 hours 58 minutes 17 seconds.
1975: Emmitt Peters, Athabascan, 14 days 14 hours 43 minutes 45 seconds.
1974: Carl Huntington, Athabascan, 20 days 15 hours 2 minutes 7 seconds.

Link:  https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/news/yup-ik-musher-wins-iditarod-pete-kaiser-is-first-yup-ik-fifth-alaska-native-to-win-998-mile-race-LS9w67kz5kKFzesSEZKXXg/

 

Alaska life, Alaska Native culture, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan Mushers in the 2019 Fur Rondy OWC Race

There were four Athabascan dog mushers from interior Alaska in the Fur Rondy Open World Championship Race this year! Marvin Kokrine, Ricky Taylor, John Erhart and Courtney Agnes are all from interior Alaska. Overall, they were in the top 12. Check out the overall results on the Alaskan Sled Dog & Racing Association site. Congratulations to the mushers and their teams! Kudos to the families and friends who support dog mushing!

John Erhart on day 2 of the Fur Rondy Open World Championship Race. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
John Erhart on day 2 of the Fur Rondy Open World Championship Race. John was second place overall. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Here are some daily recap videos below. Enaa baasee’ to Marie Kokrine and Monica Moore for sharing on the Athabascan Woman Blog on the last day. It was an exciting three days watching the teams! Thanks for tuning in.

This year, the race was dedicated to late Lester Erhart of Tanana. It was great to see his son, John Erhart, place second. I heard one announcer say, he must be receiving some help from up above.

This year, the Fur Rondy race was dedicated to late Lester Erhart. Courtesy of the Fur Rondy OWC program guide

I love watching Fur Rondy, because my dad, Al Yatlin, Sr., loves it so much. He was a dog musher. When he was in Anchorage during Fur Rondy, we would watch the teams take off from downtown Anchorage, then run over to Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to watch them cross over the Tudor Road bridge. Then, we would head back downtown to watch them come back in. In the meantime, the radio would be on in the car announcing checkpoint times. He would be marking all of the checkpoint times down. I loved those times!

Dog mushing is a part of Alaska Native life in many villages. I am happy to see this tradition continuing today. I know it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to raise and train dogs. Good luck to all of the mushers in the spring mushing season!

Alaska life

November 30 Earthquake

Scott Waterman's clock fell and stopped when the earthquake hit at 8:29 am on November 30th.
Scott Waterman’s clock fell and stopped when the earthquake hit at 8:29 am on November 30th. Photo by Scott Waterman

The 7.0 earthquake on November 30 near Anchorage was terrifying. I took the day off, so I was beading when it hit. Our dog, Danny Boy, ran downstairs right away. It kept going and was shaking hard, so walked over to the balcony door. I put my hands on the door to hold myself up and prayed. It kept going and going and I heard the house shaking and things falling.

It finally stopped. I was shaking and started sending messages to check on my husband and girls. I went outside when the aftershock hit. Danny Boy and I just waited outside. I saw the neighbors outside too and asked if they were okay. One neighbor’s dog ran away when the earthquake hit, so I tried helping to them to catch her. I went back in the house and surveyed the damage. It was dark, scary and surreal.

My husband is a driver and was making deliveries. His big work truck moves a lot already, so he didn’t feel the earthquake. However, he saw trees swaying and a street light shaking hard. He also saw a flash of light toward the airport. It must have been when the electricity went out. When he went to make a delivery, he noticed lots of people evacuated from the building. That’s when he figured out something happened. When he got to a transportation company to do a pick up, the people there told him they were glad he was alive. People were scared and panicked when the aftershock hit. That time, he felt his truck moving side to side, which was scary. Then, it took him about two hours (usually 10-minute drive) to get home. Traffic was slow due to more people on the roads and traffic lights being out.

My oldest daughter works at a daycare. They had all of the kids go under tables. There were about 15 kids there. One child was really scared and clinging to her. In her scared voice, the girl asked, “What’s happening?!” And kept crying. Many parents came to pick up the kids right away, then they closed the center. It also took her a while to drive home because of the traffic.

My youngest daughter was at school. After the main earthquake, the alarm started going off. They evacuated the school. There was a lot of damage. Many of the long fluorescent lights were broken and hanging for the ceilings. It was really dusty in the school. Lots of kids were crying.

The streetlights were out and the traffic was slow near East High School after the 7.0 earthquake hit in Anchorage on November 30. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
The streetlights were out and the traffic was slow near East High School after the 7.0 earthquake hit in Anchorage on November 30. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

She said, “The main earthquake was during passing period, so people were still coming into class and people were in the bathrooms. At first, no one was taking it serious until the teacher yelled at us to get under the desks. There were people yelling and screaming in the hallways when the power went out. The power came back on and the alarm turned on. The teacher yelled at us to leave the school. There was dust everywhere in the classroom and the parts of the ceiling fell. I noticed that some of the lights had been hanging from the ceiling and everyone was rushing out of the building. Then, everyone was moved to the commons shortly after waiting outside for a little while. We were only able to go in from two doors and they had all the hallway doors closed. They were trying to shush everyone and had us all sit down. One of the principals was talking into a bullhorn, but no one could really hear. An aftershock happened, and many people stood up. Many people were talking and over the announcements they said the same message every couple of minutes that parents could pick their kids up on the northern lights side.”

Broken bathtub tiles in my home. Thankfully, we did not sustain major damage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Broken bathtub tiles in my home. Thankfully, we did not sustain major damage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

The power was out, and my car was in the garage. I had to walk over to pick her up, which thankfully is just down the street. Not having a car worked out though, because it would have taken longer if I drove. The street lights were out, and the traffic was really slow. The line to pick up kids was long and slow.

I was so thankful my family was okay and am grateful for the bonding with my neighbors, friends and family since then. A few things broke when they fell off shelves. Our house has some cracks in the drywall and bathtub tile but is thankfully okay overall. Some friends had much more extensive damage.

My friend, Ayyu Qassataq’s home, received much more damage and was recently declared a total loss. People have asked how they can help, and there are many ways to help with local non-profit agencies who are helping in the earthquake recovery. A Go Fund Me page has been set up to support Ayyu and her family.

Organizer Lena Jacobs, said “Our dear friend Ayyu and her children’s home was severely damaged during the 7.0 earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska on November 30, and was recently declared a total loss – the cost to tear down and rebuild is less than repairs would be. She is continuing to work with her home insurance company, but it will be quite a process – with deductibles of $45k for damage repairs and $9k for living expenses, donated funds will be used to help with immediate and long-term costs associated with moving and rebuilding.”

Ayyu’s friends are hosting a fundraiser dinner, dance and silent auction on Sunday, December 15 – “Ayyu Qassataq + Family Earthquake Relief Fundraiser Dinner/Dance“. They are seeking monetary, food and silent auction donations and volunteers. Check out the Facebook event page to get all of the latest details.

A fundraiser will be held for Ayyu Qassataq and her family on Sunday, December 16.
A fundraiser will be held for Ayyu Qassataq and her family on Sunday, December 16.

I asked my friends to share their reflections of the earthquake. My cousin, Rhonda Pitka, was at the 11th floor of the Hilton Hotel. She decided she’s not staying at anything higher than 3rd floor from now on.

My friend, Freddie R. Olin IV, said “What at first sounded like a steamroller going down Ambassador Drive on ANMC campus turned into a bit of a shaker – I coolly and calmly stooped under my desk, coffee in hand. I was not letting that mofo go. Nope. No can do.” Lol! I saw some memes about Alaskans and their coffee. Check out the social media images and memes are being collected by the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson. My friend, Beka, noticed how many people went home to check on their jarred fish. Alaskans have their priorities. 🙂

“It was beautiful to pray with my children and dog on our front lawn and reflect that Mother Earth was in charge that day. I think we all thanked Her for a week off of school and were spared any larger devastation like so many others have encountered. I was especially thankful our dog didn’t run away and to actually feel the earth move under my feet and witness nearby lamp posts and trees swish around for that brief time. I’m glad we all got to hug and enjoy the moment together prior to going to school and I’m kind of glad I didn’t have my phone nearby, so I could fully appreciate the experience.” – Donna Bach (Yup’ik)

“Angela, this is an event I will never want to repeat.” – Lina Mariscal

“A lady in Wasilla said ‘now that every shelf is cleared, it’s a good time to clean the house’.” – Linda Demientieff (Koyukon Athabascan)

“I was on the 12th floor of Westmark with Tina and Ernest. Bro and I were out on the balcony when it started. I screamed so hard and long that my voice is still not back to 100%. Thank God for my sister, she pulled me in and made me leave the building, running down all 12 flights of stairs. It’s been three days since my last nightmare. I am trying my best to get over it and not let it keep me from going back to Anchorage, but I must say-it will be awhile until then.” – Vanessa Edwards (Koyukon Athabascan)

“Many things broke in our house, and I don’t plan to replace any of it. I cut my hands cleaning up all the glass, from items fallen off of shelves, flying out of cupboards, and picture frames from walls. It was very loud from the noise of everything breaking, the dogs hid under the snow machine trailer for an hour. We heard the transformers behind our house blow, I’ve never heard electricity, but I immediately knew what it was. Then the noise of ambulance sirens. I will remember the sounds from that day above everything else. Although it was scary, it also made me feel really alive, made me reflect on life, and the earth… and all these crazy tectonic plates we live on. I didn’t have my glasses or contacts on that morning. I’m blind as a bat (-7.00), so it makes sense that the sounds are what stood out the most!!” – Jamie Kleas

“Extremely lucky today. I’m so glad I was not at home which really took a hit and I probably would have been screaming: couldn’t get in the front door, actual shelves flew off, glass shattered all over the living room, kitchen, and bath; drawers flew open and are filled with shattered glass from glasses falling out of cabinets. And my babies…..my books….all over the place! The lion my son brought back from Afghanistan lost his leg. It’s amazing the items unharmed….jar of salmon on top of fridge landed in the living room….on the other side of a bookshelf, intact!…. my pic of Grandma Holden in a Waterford frame flew off the entertainment center….not a scratch on her. A glass ornament I blew at a glass factory in Corning, NY right after 911 took a dive off the top shelf and only the top hook part broke off. Mother and Child that Grandma Marilyn Moody gave me dove off a shelf and landed underneath one….without a scratch on them. All those bookshelves had things all over the top of them, and look at them now. 🙁 going to be a long weekend.” – Marie Jeno

Books fell in Marie Jeno's home during the November 30th earthquake. Photo by Marie Jeno
Books fell in Marie Jeno’s home during the November 30th earthquake. Photo by Marie Jeno

My friend,, said, “Reflecting back: so glad I picked up my Bipsy Boo from school and brought her to her mom yesterday morning. Regret: drove across town (O’Malley to Muldoon) to check on my house and belongings instead of staying put with my sis and niece. My nerves were so shook that I barely did anything except stay still, and stay alert, lol. After putting a backpack and back up in the car together I basically cleaned up a small mess and just sat on my couch with my coat and purse on. So thankful for today. So thankful everyone is OK. So much love to everyone who experienced this earthquake. This is all the more reason why we must always respect our lands and waters. Recycle if you can, use less if you can, consume less if you can, and utilize water and food wisely (no wasting). #PartLandPartWater #AlwaysNative” – Ella Sassuuk Tonuchuk (Yup’ik)

Enaa baasee’ to my friends and family who have shared their stories and to those assisting with the fundraiser for Ayyu Qassataq and her family. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has a list of resources available. Don’t be afraid to seek help as you are coping after the natural disaster. Doing things I love, like beading, has helped me to stay calm since the earthquake. I’m relieved the aftershocks seem to be subsiding.

Wigi Tozzi shared this photo of earthquake damage near Jewel Lake and Raspberry. The land there subsided about four feet. Photo by Wigi Tozzi
Wigi Tozzi shared this photo of earthquake damage near Jewel Lake and Raspberry. The land there subsided about four feet. Photo by Wigi Tozzi
Koyukuk River by Eleanor Yatlin
Alaska life

Dear Koyukuk River

I grew up on the Koyukuk River in Huslia and Bettles/Evansville. I have lots of memories of being in fish camp in the summer and taking rides in the fall. In November, Che Wilson (Māori) spoke at the Tribal Governance Symposium in Fairbanks. He described the river near his homelands and said, “I am the river, and the river is me.” Since then, I’ve been thinking about what the Koyukuk River means to me.

Dear Koyukuk River,

I float on top of you. I land on your sand bars and cut banks. Sometimes it’s easy, and I hop out and start walking. Sometimes it’s hard and I am immediately start climbing up the bank. Sometimes I carefully walk through drift wood to avoid tripping.

You are my Zen. My spirit goes to you when I need to getaway. I imagine driving along you on a warm summer day. A warm breeze offers relief from the heat and mosquitoes. I sometimes imagine relaxing on the sand bar or swimming in streams, and it is better than any tropical beach. I carry you in my heart, always.

For 1,000s of years, you have given and sustaining life to animals, plants and humans. You are a tributary of the mighty Yukon River and it feeds you, bringing fish from the sea. You, in turn, feed other rivers, streams and creeks. You turn into a superhighway in the summer.

My dad, uncles and brothers read and remember your channels to navigate. We fish, hunt and gather up and down. You connect us to your brothers from the north and sisters of the south.

You rise and fall with changing weather patterns. Huge ice chunks push up onto the shore during breakup.

Memories are eternal. Dad speeding around with his young kids. Or speeding up the sand bar so we could wash the boat. Mom pulling fish from the net and carefully washing fish before gutting them. Grandma dipping her T-shirt in the cold water and putting it on to get some relief from the hot sun. Watching sunrises and sunsets from the banks. Getting water to bring up the steep cut bank. Washing my hair. Driving little driftwood boats along the shore. Running my hands through the water. Swimming and spending time with my siblings and cousins. Checking the fish net and pulling out fish. Watching fish jump or a beaver tails flapping. Running down the bank when we hear a boat around the bend.

-Angela Gonzalez

P.S. I love you.

***
I could keep on going with memories and stories from the Koyukuk River. However, I thought I would ask my friends and relatives to share their love of the Koyukuk River through words and photos. They describe their love of the K-River a lot better than I can!

Nouyak Hamilton of Alatna/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk river, because it is home to my soul!!! There is no better feeling than being on the river, but when I’m home….it’s a completely different feeling. It makes my heart smile, and I feel it in my skin.”

The Koyukuk River by plane in winter. Photo by Doreen David
The Koyukuk River by plane in winter. Photo by Doreen David

Doreen David of Huslia said, “I love the Koyukuk River and the area around Huslia because I was blessed to have been born and raised here. Our parents instilled the love of the land and animals into us. Not only to respect our traditions, who we are, but to take care of and nurture the areas around us. That we shouldn’t be scared of nature, our land, the cold or dark, but should learn to live and survive in it. Dad and Mom traveled by boat and snow machines up river almost every summer and winter with me and my siblings while we were growing up. First by hand made boats and wrapped in animal skins in snow machine sleds. We traveled by snow machine in all directions around us, enjoying stories of dad traveling by dog teams to the areas we were at, and to this day I love traveling by snow machine. I love the knowledge that our parents passed on to us from their parents, and knowing that was passed on from generations to us. It’s like a book that me and Russell get to keep adding to and get to pass on to Jakob, JesCynthia, and Jordan. I am, and always have been, very proud to be a Koyukon Athabascan because our parents showed us where we come from, how strong we are, and how to survive. I really hope there is no roads into, or around Huslia, for a LONG, LONG, LONG time. I believe this will ruin the most important things we need to survive here.”

Linda Demientieff of Allakaket/Fairbanks said, “I love the river because I could see the bottom and look at the rocks. One of my favorite memory is lying face down on the ice and watching the fish swimming by.”

Ryan McCarty of Hughes/Fairbanks said, “My favorite thing about the Koyukuk River is the annual salmon run. If the water is low, you can see them swim by. My favorite memory is probably from the fish camp. My late older brothers made a bench on top of the bank. So, every night at sunset we can sit and watch it. My dad would say, ‘When the sun sets at a certain point we will move back to town.’ He used a tree across the river on the hill far away as the marking point.”

Koyukuk River near Hughes. Photo by Ryan McCarty
Koyukuk River near Hughes. Photo by Ryan McCarty

George Carlson Yaska, Jr. of Huslia/Fairbanks shared a memory. He said, “One of my favorite memories was eating the first chum salmon of the season at Grandma’s fish camp, which she had allowed us to use for a few years. I can still taste it after these so many decades later.”

Michelle Moses of Alatna said, “I love the Koyukuk River because we can still drink it. I love Grandma Kitty. She’s the one who showed me that said, ‘Yes, this river will not harm us just by drinking it.’ And without the ‘Ambler Road’, we will be able to continue drinking the Koyukuk River water.”

Russell Moses with Russ Jr. and Cece. Photo by Michelle Moses
Russell Moses with Russ Jr. and Cece. Photo by Michelle Moses

Til Beetus of Hughes/Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory on the Koyukuk River is of the love you feel among all the people. Also, because it is the best to float down to Hughes on a hot summer day. Finally, if you float long enough you end up in Huslia and they have the best dances!!”

Wanda Moses of Galena/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it would sustain our needs every fall growing up we spent two weeks living off the river and if we were lucky we would hang and smoke our catch. We would eat fish, grouse, ducks, porcupine. I can just smell the fall high bush berries and see the wind dropping the leaves…”

April Williams of Koyukuk/Galena said, “I love the Koyukuk River because she provides for us and allows us to continue our traditional way of life, that we will continue to teach our children.”

John Williams teaching his son, JJ, to fish along the Koyukuk River. Photo by April Williams
John Williams teaching his son, JJ, to fish along the Koyukuk River. Photo by April Williams

Tina Albert of Tanana said, “I love the Koyukuk River. When I was prego with my oldest, I was up Alatna River picking blueberries and hunting up mom Kitty’s land in Southfork. Moose hunting down Old Man [slough], geese hunting back Chalatna [creek], beaver trapping, fish camp. Enjoying it. Across from fish camp traveling 100 miles round trip marten trapping back in the day. It reminds me of Tanana River. I grew up visiting Manley, Cosna, back Island Lake moose hunting, Cosjacket, Old Cillage, fall time, Harper’s Bend, fish lake,16-mile Yukon River fish camp. Hay Slough picking lowbush cranberry, and dipnetting for white fish. My dad trapped, also Bertha loved trapping marten and rabbits behind the house.”

Sheryl Meierotto of Evansville/Two Rivers said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is home. One of my favorite memories is sitting with my late brother, Brett Stevens, on his bench watching the river flow by.”

A bench at the Koyukuk River at Evansville. Photo by Sheryl Meierotto
A bench at the Koyukuk River at Evansville. Photo by Sheryl Meierotto

Alisha Vent of Huslia said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is one of the few places left untouched, we feel truly peaceful on it. I don’t know about my favorite but most memorable is going back to Huslia in fall time and it got too late and cold. Late Uncle Albert and a bunch of us stopped by a bank and started preparing grass? ‘We’ll sleep here for the night.’ I was young and thought he was joking. Woke in morning from our sleeping bags in the grass field with frost all over. My only experience siwashing out.”

Shirley Lee of Evansville/Fairbanks said, “I love the serenity of our little river. I have fond memories of swimming in it, boating to Oscar Slough to visit the beavers and picnic, ice fishing with Mom and Aunt Dora (Tobuk), watching the ice go out in the spring…”

Sharon McConnell of Evansville/Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory of the Koyukuk River is laying on the bough of our boat as a youngster gazing for hours at the clear river water and listening to the birds chirping and bees buzzing overhead. I have a large rock collection too from the many walks I took along the river bank. Truly heaven on earth.”

Justine Attla of Huslia/Anchorage, said “I love our Koyukuk River because it’s where I was born and raised. It’s HOME and it’s ours. Late aunty Angeline said it was so. My fave memory is in ole fish camp across from mouth of Huslia, with great grampa Olin and 3-4 families. There used to be lots of little blue birds, little red birds. Story: each spring, our elders used go out to the river bank, pray about the river, for good fishing, for safety. There was tea made, little lunch, poeples visiting, how exciting, then nights, there was volleyball right on top of bank, extra exciting, mostly adults played. But us kids watch and didn’t mind, because it was so, so exciting. Everyone hollering, laughing, etc. We played marbles and hopscotch off the side…nightly gathering…no TV, phone or internet, so our poeples used to really be able to visit…TELL STORIES to each other, another fave past time…”

Dorothy Williams of Huslia shared a picture of her driving a boat. Her dad is behind her in the photo. She said, “It was fun! This was a few summers ago, my mom, grandma, my dad and Brandon were floating really far down river looking for my late grandpa Alvin.”

Dorothy Williams and her dad, Joey Williams driving along the Koyukuk River. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Williams.
Dorothy Williams and her dad, Joey Williams driving along the Koyukuk River. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Williams.

Pearl Henry of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is our water of which is our Livelihood for Ts’aateyhdenaake Kk’oonh Denh (Huslia) and all who are connected to it. All of our grandparents and great-grandparents told stories of the many traditions. This amazing river kept our elders alive: Great-grandpa Chief Henry, Great-grandma Bessie Henry, Grandpa Mathew, Grandma Daisy, Grandma Alda, Grandpa Sidney, Grandma Angeline, Grandpa Richard, Grandma Eliza, Grandma Big Sophie, Grandma Anne, Grandma Sophie, Grandpa Billy, Grandma Emily, Grandpa Tony, Grandma Rose, Grandma Catherine, Grandpa Steven, Grandma Madeline, Grandpa Cue, Grandma Edith, Grandpa Johnson, Grandma Bertha, Grandpa Lloyd, Grandma Amelia, Mom (Darlene), Dad (Thomas), Aunt Selina, Uncle Hudson and many more. With all the love and knowledge that flowed through these Elders and our Aunts and Uncles that were and are here today… We have a few Elders that are still with us and we really need to visit them, keep them cared for as we do so very well and soak up all the knowledge that we can. The water and land surrounding the Koyukuk River flows through our veins and is embedded in our hearts. We love and cherish this incredible river and all beautiful people for the good memories. No one is perfect, we are all equals, and we have to stick together to do good and be good to our children, so they will continue to thrive. Living healthy and respecting one another is valuable. May the Great Spirit of this beautiful Koyukuk River and the nature of Alaska flow through us all forever=).”

Rose Albert's painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert
Rose Albert’s painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert

Solo Yatlin of Huslia/North Pole said he loved going to Ring Beach near Bettles/Evansville. He also said, “Loved grayling fishing at Wild River.”

My mom, Eleanor Yatlin of Huslia, said “Staying in our camp here in Huslee and staying in that cool camp below Bettles, traveling on the River between Bettles and here by boat and sno-go.”

Darlene Bifelt of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “I remember spending summers in fish camp. Dad would leave to work on the barge as a River Boat Captain for the summer. Mom took the family including all of our sled dogs to camp to go fishing. Our family worked together every day checking the fish net twice a day. Even though it was hard work we made it fun. While the older siblings checked the net breakfast and later lunch was prepared. When the tubs of fish were brought to camp, we guessed how many fish there was, this made it fun & interesting! Our youngest sister was about two or three years old and her job was to hang the fish backbones. One day when we were winding down she asked, ‘Where’s all the back bone around here?’ Every now and then we’d see a black bear across the river and we felt safe because our dogs were tied up on the beach. We had one or two tied in the woods behind our tents. Even after working all day taking care of fish, in the evening we would use sticks, fish line and hooks to catch white fish. It was fun to scale and learn how to cut them. Mom and my oldest sister, Char, would cut the good eating fish and everyone else worked on fish for the dogs. It was super easy to care for the dogs too because they were on the beach. It was quick to cook up fish for them with the water and fish being in close proximity. Same for giving them water every day. It was a treat to get visitors in the evening from a neighboring camp. What a great memory, I wish my kids and now grandchildren could experience that peaceful, hardworking way of life.

Johnnie Yatlin of Huslia/North Pole said, “One time we were going down to south fork from Bettles. The kicker stopped, so Harvey was working on the motor. Anyways it was late fall so the water was kind of high and I was paddling so we would stay away from the sweepers on the bank. I was unable to get away from one. I grabbed it. It almost pushed me into the river. I let go of it and it hit a cage we had it was full of chickens. Harvey dodged the sweeper. The chickens were sinking. Harvey was like, ‘Oh my chickens nooo.’ I looked at him and said, ‘F* your stupid chickens,’ and I almost got thrown in the river. Hahahahaha he just laughed and so did I.”

Rose Albert's painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert
Rose Albert’s painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert. Photo by Jeff Schultz

Family gathered for a swim on Lydz' beach down river from Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Family gathered for a swim on Lydz’ beach down river from Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My niece, Lydia Yatlin of Huslia/Fairbanks, said, “My favorite memories are when I was about 8 or 10 and we were on Lydz’ beach and it started raining. Grandpa said, ‘Come Lydz, get on my lap’. He covered me and he and we saw lightening it was cool. Here’s another one. I was about 6 and we were on Lydz’ beach again and Vanessa’s kids were there and Jojo’s kids were there and your kids were there. All the kids were swimming in the little tide pools. We all had fun.”

Tanya Yatlin of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “Sitting at the riverbank in camp in the evening while it’s quiet and calm. Little breeze blowing by, birds chirping here and there. How the weather can change in a second. Once mom and dad, Mae, Lydz and I were all in Lydz’ Beach checking the fishnet and relaxing. One minute it was sunny and warm and the next second, it was pouring rain. Dad and Lydz were sitting on a camp chair converted with a life jacket, mom was sitting in another chair with her extra shirt over her. Mae and I had to stand there for a few minutes getting soaked. Our fronts were soaked but our backs were still dry. It lasted only a few minutes and we didn’t have time to run for cover. Growing up swimming down the bend from camp…before it caved and broke through. We would swim a lot while keeping cool. We would tip the boat and splash it with the water to clean the fish slime off.”

Esther McCarty of Ruby said, “I love the Koyukuk River because that is where I was born and raised. That is where the white fish taste sweet and the moose meat taste sweet from the fresh river water that runs over the gravel bars. It you stay up early in the mornings, you can see the sun come up and hit the tops of the hills. You can see the beautiful sunsets in the evenings. You can feel how peaceful it is and be content just by sitting on the river bank watching the river flow by. The sense of peace is overwhelming and the silence. That is where I get regrounded when I’ve been away for too long. The Native language that I speak with family and friends is food for the soul, the traditional memorial potlatches are very much a big part of healing when you have loved ones who have passed. I can go on and on, but the Koyukuk River is where I can do just about anything from renewed energy and spirit.”

Hazel Beatus of Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory was when late Uncle plowed the river side of the field. I went for a walk, about where the path to the bar, there were flowers. By the time I got to town, I could barely stretch my arms and only picking one of each variety and they were big! Our table was covered, Mom was little surprised.”

Enaa baasee’ to everyone who shared their memories and stories! It is a blessing to grow up on the Koyukuk River and on the land. It can be blissful and unforgiving, but it sustains so much life. You can learn so much about life and survival, and be connected to ancestors at the same time.