Alaska life

Fighting Bugs in Alaska – Gnat Hats, Punk and Summer Parka

Cutter insect repellent - aka Alaskan perfume. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Cutter insect repellent – aka Alaskan perfume. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Mosquitos and gnats are really bad in the northern interior, and really all over. They constantly pester and bite you. Gnats get stuck in ears, eyes and nostrils. People in the interior burn mosquito coils and use mosquito repellent daily. Mosquito repellent becomes your summer Alaskan perfume.

Alex DeMarban of recently wrote an article about the topic for the Alaska Dispatch, called Bloodletting worsens during Alaska’s legendary mosquito infestation.

Laurel Andrews of the Alaska Dispatch did a the crazy swarms on Alaska’s North Slope.

The summer parkas are a great way to combat mosquitoes and gnats when you are picking berries or doing anything outside. I recently contributed to the Athabascan Word of the Week in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The Koyukon Athabascan translation for summer parka is bets’egh hoolaanee.

Punk is a common tree fungus in Alaska. Many rural Alaskans slowly burn punk. The smoke keeps the mosquitoes, gnats, no-see-ums and other bugs away. Koyukon Athabascans call the smoky fire a smutch (sp?). Smutch is a Koyukon Athabascan word. Berry pickers sometimes carry a smutch with them when they are out.

Mosquito head nets and jackets are also a great way to keep the bugs away. The only downside is that it can sometimes be difficult to see when the sun is shining on it. I’ve improvised with this method before by sewing mosquito netting onto a cap.

Sewing mosquito net material on a cap is a great way to keep the bugs out of your face and neck. Here is one I made a few years ago.
Sewing mosquito net material on a cap is a great way to keep the bugs out of your face and neck. Here is one I made a few years ago.
Tanya's daughter, Lydia, models a new bonnet to keep the gnats away. Photo by Tanya Yatlin
Tanya’s daughter, Lydia, models a new bonnet to keep the gnats away. Photo by Tanya Yatlin

Another great way to keep mosquitoes off of young children is to have a bonnet. It’s not a new idea, but one that is effective in Alaska. My sister, Tanya, makes them and takes orders for them in the summer time. The gnats are out in full-force in August. She gets requests from parents for their young children. She uses calico fabric. Girls get ruffles and floral fabrics. The boys usually get solid colors without ruffles.

Many people sleep under mosquito nets, and make their own with pretty fabrics and mosquito netting. For the past couple of years, my parents have been using a bug repellent dispenser that sprays a mist about every 30 minutes in their home. It seems to be pretty effective for them.

Each year, I hear about different techniques to combat the bugs, including many natural and organic options. Tanya uses lavender or sometimes vanilla instead of using so much bug spray. When I’m home, I always look forward to being in the boat when the wind blows all the bugs away. Some people find themselves staying inside a lot more than they hoped for. After all, summer is our shortest season, and Alaskans should get out and enjoy to the fullest.

What are your tried and true techniques for combating mosquitoes and gnats during the summer?

My daughter enjoys a boat ride along the Koyukuk River. The mosquitoes blow away in the wind. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My daughter enjoys a boat ride along the Koyukuk River. The mosquitoes blow away in the wind. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska life, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Molissa Bifelt – Rebuilding After the Yukon River Flood

Debris from flooding is gathered for dumping. Photo by Molissa Bifelt
Debris from flooding is gathered for dumping. Photo by Molissa Bifelt

Molissa Bifelt and her partner, David Wightman, live in Galena, which flooded severely in late May. Molissa has taught math in Galena for the past seven years for high school students at the Sidney Huntington School students and Galena Interior Learning Academy (GILA). David is a vocational teacher with carpentry skills. Molissa, David, and David’s son, Koby, were on vacation when Galena flooded.

Read a June 23 story by the Alaska Dispatch: A month after devastating flood, Galena races to rebuild.

On May 27, they kept track of the water levels of the Yukon River from status updates and pictures from friends on Facebook. Molissa said, “I was sitting in the airport in Phoenix praying for the water to recede as I was waiting for my flight.” Although they were out of harms way while Galena flooded, they worried about their black lab, named Coal.

Evan Buchanan, a high school student, was taking care of Coal. Evan canoed to the to Molissa’s house to rescue Coal. Before Evan was evacuated from Galena, he dropped off Coal to the Sidney Huntington School. Many woman, elders and children were evacuated as the town flooded. Molissa and David asked a friend to get Coal to make sure he was fed and cared for.

“Sitting in Fairbanks waiting to hear about our house and town was excruciating. We weren’t able to sleep well thinking about all the ‘what ifs’. We were concerned about the dike breaching and the welfare of our friends that remained behind.” – Molissa Bifelt

Molissa and David's garage flooded. Photo by Molissa Bifelt
Molissa and David’s garage flooded. Photo by Molissa Bifelt

As you may have read, Galena sustained damages/loss of about 90% of its homes and buildings. According to Molissa, there are varying degrees of damage to homes in Galena. She said, “Some people’s homes are completely destroyed or unlivable, while others only got water in their floor insulation.” Molissa and David’s home and separate garage sustained water damage, but there home is structurally sound to be repaired.

David and another teacher were able to return to Galena once waters from the Yukon River receded on June 1st. They worked together to tear out the insulation in the floors, then focused on clearing out the first floor of the homes to get to the wall insulation. In both homes, they had to remove everything on the first floor to dry the place out properly.

Molissa returned to Galena on June 5th to help with the work in their home. Their house is just a shell right now. According to Molissa, the people in Galena are keeping their hopes up so far. She says, “We have a ton of hard workers in this town that are doing everything in their power to get their homes livable and to also focus on the rebuilding of the public facilities. We know as a community that we need to get the infrastructure back up so our families can return for the school year and the upcoming winter.”

Molissa and David's home in Galena. Photo by Molissa Bifelt
Molissa and David’s home in Galena. Photo by Molissa Bifelt

Molissa and David are working hard to rebuild their home by the end of August. They have already purchased material and are currently mudding and taping the house. Once that is complete, they will repaint the rooms. After that, they will repair the flooring, electrical, and finally plumbing. Molissa is grateful that David is a skilled carpenter who has built three homes and two garages in Galena. He knows what he is doing and is capable of getting their house winter ready and livable before school starts.

Molissa noted that their situation is much different than most people in Galena, because they have the resources and skills to rebuild on our own. According to Molissa, there are a lot of families here who need help with the rebuilding process. Molissa says, “There is a sense of urgency for the local residents because we know that the building season is so short and it is hard to get materials into Galena in a timely fashion.” She also says the expense of getting materials in is also very daunting.

Molissa is a teacher who is still under contract, so is going to teach this winter. The community is working to repair Sidney Huntington School, which got water in the insulation and its utilidor was heavily damaged. Located on the base, GILA is fully functional and is currently serving the community of displaced residents and workers. If the Sidney Huntington School is not repaired before school starts, then classes will be relocated to GILA for the winter. Molissa is uncertain of what the school year will look like at this point. The administrators, superintendent and school board are working diligently toward a plan for the school year.

Molissa is impressed with the amount of love and pride she has seen in the community of Galena. She has seen neighbors looking out for each other and are doing their best to salvage their way of life and homes. Molissa says, “We are making the best of this terrible situation and trying to go about this rebuilding process with smiles on our faces and with good humor. There is still a lot to be thankful for despite the situation and severity of the flood damage.”

The Catholic Church was heavily damaged, but they are still carrying on Sunday service at the GILA auditorium. The Bible Church is also carrying on regular service at their church. Molissa says, “It’s nice to know that we are all praying for the same thing, the strength and ability to rebuild our town.”

Molissa and her family in Arizona. Courtesy photo
Molissa and her family in Arizona. Courtesy photo

Molissa and David consider themselves lucky to be at home and working diligently to repair their home. Molissa knows how worried residents are about their homes and most are still displaced to Fairbanks, Anchorage and other places. Molissa says, “We are a family and youth orientated town and it will be nice to get our kids back to Galena. Galena seems so different without our children.” Molissa wants to reassure displaced residents that they are doing their best to get things back together for their return. She is also concerned about elders and families that have no homes. Molissa is looking forward to the first Galena get together as residents return. Koby, who is visiting family, is set to return in early September. They are working hard to have their home fully repaired by then.

Even seeing and hearing stories from the flood, it is hard for me to imagine what the homeowners and residents are going through right now. I am impressed see how Alaskans and others across the US are pulling together to support the community of Galena. Despite the stresses of rebuilding, Molissa and David are fishing when they can and trying to enjoy their summer.

There are still ways to support the Yukon River flood relief efforts.

Alaska life

Summer Fish Camp

Huslia men help put my dad's boat in the water in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Huslia men help put my dad’s boat in the water in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My dad got the boat in the water yesterday with help from the community. Going on the first boat ride of the summer always gives me the best feeling. My parents are getting ready to go to camp.

Camp is hard work, but it has wondrous rewards. Going up and down the bank is hard, but you get a workout. Being healthy makes you live longer.

The views during the day and night are spectacular. It is quiet and after a while you start to hear and discern the sounds of different birds. You hear loons. You hear occasional howls. You also hear sticks breaking in the woods, and it could be moose walking around. The mosquitoes are buzzing and sometimes drive you crazy. Bug spray is key. We also keep a smutch (Koyukon Athabascan), where we burn punk. Mosquitoes don’t like the smoke from punk.

My nephews, Marvin Jr. and Brandon, collect mountain water along the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My nephews, Marvin Jr. and Brandon, collect mountain water along the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Camp coffee and tea are the bomb, especially if you get mountain water from up and around the bend. Camp food is delicious, and you really enjoy it after working in camp. I love mom’s cooking. We ration the food until we go to town to get more food.

You have to communicate because it is important for your safety. It is like a team and the adults always know where the kids are at all times.

My parents teach the kids how to play card games, like rummy. You sip on tea in the evening and sit around after a long day.

My parents will set a fish net, and check it twice a day. They have a raft in down the bank from camp and they cut fish on it. They have a smoke house on top of the bank where they dry and smoke fish.

Rainbow over smokehouse in the fall of 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Rainbow over smokehouse in the fall of 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

We have to keep the smoke going and use dead cottonwood. The smoke gives it a good taste and also keeps the flies away. It also keeps animals away, because they avoid smoke.

My dad likes to listen to the radio at night. He listens to news, talk shows and music. It kind of drowns out the sounds you hear at night.

We also read books and magazines. There is nearly 24 hours of light in the middle of summer so you have light to to read. We read by lamp or flashlight when it gets too dark. Now, we have e-readers with lighted backgrounds, but the battery eventually dies.

I won’t be going to camp until September when we go home to Huslia. I do plan on camping in Southcentral Alaska though. I’ll have to figure out how to get out on a boat ride before then. I love summer fish camp along the Koyukuk River!

Dorothy, Al Sr., Ermelina, River and Princess on a boat ride on the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Dorothy, Al Sr., Ermelina, River and Princess on a boat ride on the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska life

Spring Break-Up in Rural Alaska

Denali South View area along the Parks Highway by Angela Gonzalez
Denali South View area along the Parks Highway by Angela Gonzalez

A friend from the Lower 48 once asked me why I was so excited about break-up. It is an exciting time around Alaska. Rivers are the highways in rural Alaska. It means freedom. You can go fishing, camping, hunting, boat rides, and just enjoy the great outdoors. You can do that in the winter too, but just on a snow machine. It will be about another month until most rural Alaskans will be able to get out on the waters. Right now, many people are thinking about hunting geese by snow machine or four-wheeler.

Spring was an exciting thing for me growing up in rural Alaska. We searched around for rubber boots and lighter jackets and played out all evening after school. We played in puddles and in the little tributaries created by water. We made boats and things to float around in the bigger puddles. I remember my cousins used a large oblong bath tub to float in a puddle. They were the coolest! A lot of us used Styrofoam to create little rafts and pushed ourselves around in the puddles.

There were patches of ground that grew bigger each day as the snow melted. We dared each other to see run around the house barefoot. Then, as more snow melted, we would dare each other to see who could go the furthest. We had to run fast through the snow to the next dry patch of ground. I remember having super cold feet. It was fun though!

Many people start putting in their gardens in May. My aunt Dorothy had the greatest garden. She planted a lot of vegetables and created a little greenhouse around some of them. We had to work hard to put in our own garden and everyone contributed.

The days start getting longer and we stayed up later and later. We enjoyed the time outside without too many mosquitoes. The mosquitoes come in earnest around late May to early June.

Ermelina, on top of a ice chunk at Susitna River in southcentral Alaska by Angela Gonzalez
Ermelina, on top of a ice chunk at Susitna River in southcentral Alaska by Angela Gonzalez

We wait for ice to start melting and moving. Each evening, we wait by the cut bank by the river to watch and enjoy the nice evening. We would hear news from up and down the river to see where there was open and moving water. If the ice started moving in a village down river from us, then we know to expect the ice to go out in our village within 24-48 hours. Then, more and more people were along the banks.

One year in Bettles, the ice began moving. Huge ice chunks about 2-5 feet washed up on the beaches. We played on the ice chunks and would hit them with a stick. They are like thousands of crystals connected and shattering them made the coolest sounds. Some kids hop on the ice in the river, but that is one activity I avoided because of the danger. Playing on the beach on the ice was good enough for me.

Ermelina by a huge ice chunk along the Susitna River by Angela Gonzalez
Ermelina by a huge ice chunk along the Susitna River by Angela Gonzalez

People sit on benches along the river bank or bring their own chairs to sit and relax. They watch the ice flowing and watch out for eroding banks. Watching the river bank erode is like watching glaciers calving.

It is an exciting time and we dream about being on the river again. People start thinking about what they need to put their boats in the water. They might need new parts for their motors or to buy a new one. They order food for upcoming camping trips.

Happy spring break-up!