Alaska Native culture

Break-up Poem by Martha Demoski

Thank you to Martha Demoski for sharing her writing and poem on the Athabascan Woman blog. Martha Demoski (Koyukon Athabascan) is a retired teacher who is originally from Nulato. This poem also appeared in the TCC Council Newsletter. Here is here story and poem about spring break-up.

Nulato, Alaska. Photo by Martha Demoski
Nulato, Alaska. Photo by Martha Demoski

Nulato moved back to the new site to be above the flood plain level. It is a relief to be out of reach of the destruction that the river can cause. Although it is a relief, there are some people living in that area who go through tremendous stress. We want a good break up for them. The ice that drift downriver is softer than the huge chunks of the past. I remember hearing crushing, bumping noises from the ice as it was moving and breaking. Years ago, Nulato was a crowded little village and to send out the alert someone would shout in a loud voice…”Ice is moving!” And everyone would be out at the riverbank. People would become very busy moving items higher in their log cabins or to the side of the cemetery hill.

A view of the Yukon River by Nulato. Break-up will soon occur. Photo by Martha Demoski
A view of the Yukon River by Nulato. Break-up will soon occur. Photo by Martha Demoski

The worst flood I’ve been in was in the early 60’s. I remember moving up on the cemetery hill with all the other families. Tents were everywhere. It was fun to be around all the other children. There was hardly any privacy. We had to walk through thick brush, trudging through soft, wet ground to use the toilet. If you did not own rubber boots, your feet would be soaking wet and cold by the time you returned to the tent.

The Airforce provided c-rations. There’s only so much of it you can eat when you are so used to food caught locally. I remember feeling so miserable having eaten something that disagreed with me. People appreciated their help with food, water, blankets and other needs.

A hill overlooks the Yukon River at Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
A hill overlooks the Yukon River at Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

People sat on the side of the hill helplessly watching the ones who owned boats maneuver around big chunks of ice and in the current to rescue people’s belongings and sled dogs. Families didn’t have much in those days but whatever they had was important to save. My auntie cried out as she watched her log cabin begin shifting around on its foundation. It was a miracle that it did not float out to the river. Everything was floating, boards with little furry creatures clinging, caches, outhouses, and barrels, etc.

After the waters receded, there was a mess. Mud was shoveled off the floors and wiped off everything else. Furniture, clothes, bedding and anything that could be reasonably salvaged were cleaned and dried out for days. I never thought about the contamination. People had wood stoves, in comparison to now, most people use oil. So at least oil and gas did not seep into homes. The ground is always wet during the spring and it was made worst with all the silt.

Hopefully, this year there will be an easy break-up for all the villages along the Alaskan Rivers. I wrote this poem last year before break-up, never knowing what Galena was going to experience. They had so much devastation and loss. It changed many residents’ lives.

Break-up by Martha Demoski

Smoke
embraced me
wove into my clothing
as I
slipped into a jovial circle
on a solar ray

warmth of a campfire on my cheeks
flying sparks like merry souls
dance and settle
smoldering with anticipation
during the river watch

fish strips with golden oil slick
is nourishment for the conversation
buttered Sailor-boy pilot bread
tea steamed compatible words
vaporized with excitement

river of wonder…
break-up, water shoving ice
uprooted trees…and earth
in the current
enrapturing the moment

– Martha Demoski

A fish wheel sits in the frozen Yukon River by Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
A fish wheel sits in the frozen Yukon River by Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
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!