I put in a call to a client a few years back to arrange a trip into the village of Good News Bay, Alaska, where I would assess an adoptive situation and write a report for the courts either approving, or denying, the potential adoptive placement.
The young woman who answered the phone sought to adopt the three year old she’d been raising from birth and the State of Alaska wanted me to check it out. So I dialed the number.
It sounds like a broad statement when I say that Alaska Native people, in general, are people of few words. If you can make your point in three words, why bother making more words…there was work to be done, seemed to be their theory. And so my conversations were always interesting, as I am a turbo tongue…and never in my life have I conveyed a thought in less than three hundred words.
I explained the reason for my visit, told her my fly in date, and asked if she could pick me up at the airstrip.
“Yea, I might pick you up,” she said. “If my Honda will start.”
If? If her Honda will start, she might pick me up? If?
I pictured myself standing in the middle of the tundra, miles from anything, nothing but ice for as far as I could see…listening for the distant sound of a four-wheeler, putting my way. If it would start.
This was pretty much the end of the conversation. She might pick me up if her Honda would start.
So I packed my duffel with enough for an overnight stay and hoped to get in and out in one day. I flew via typical commercial flight from Kenai to Anchorage, then on to Bethel, a village of substantial size towards the western coast of Alaska.
From Bethel I climbed into a plane that held four, including the pilot, and buckled up for the ride. Some people can tell you what kind of plane I was in, but my dad has had an airplane my entire life and for a thousand bucks, I couldn’t tell you what kind it is. The plane I was in was small, and just like every other bush plane I’d ever ridden in, it was apparent the owner had been grossly overcharged…I’ve seen six year olds build model airplanes more stout. But alas, it was my only mode of transport…and I had a job to do.
Little is as intoxicating, despite the ill repair of the craft, as floating through the sky over Alaska’s desolate terrain. From Bethel, we flew for about an hour and a half. Once in a while the pilot would begin a decent and I’d search the white space below for some sign of life, suspecting we were about to land for no particular reason at all. I’d squint out the window and eventually spy a village, coated in snow, perched on the side of some winding, no name, piece of water in the midst of all the nothing. We’d land, hand a package or box of mail to some guy on a snow machine who appeared from nowhere across the frozen tundra, and then we’d take to the air once again. At one of the stops I asked if I could use a bathroom and the pilot, as well as the other passengers, just stared at me. And then I realized there were no buildings for probably hundreds of miles in either direction, just some guy buried inside a fur lined parka, loading his sled with canned goods and mail.
We landed in Good News Bay, population 250, and as it turned out the airstrip was really just the frozen bay and the village was literally sitting on the edge. I exited the plane to find that my client had indeed been able to start her Honda, and she waited, engine running. I climbed on behind her and we putted up the bank, into the village, and parked at her tiny house. I could have thrown my duffel bag from the airplane to the village edge, and realized she had gone to more trouble getting her Honda to start, than it would have been to just pull my hood around my face and walk up to her small home.
Village houses are more like shanty’s, for the most part. People who have never been to an Alaska village can’t possibly fathom the simplicity of life there. The housing, if not government provided for certain jobs, is often no more than a group of weathered shacks, huddled together, warding out the weather. The smaller the better, as there is no firewood with which to heat and heating fuel is upwards of six dollars a gallon. Often entire extended families will cram into a one bedroom house because that is, quite simply, all there is.
I immediately asked to use the bathroom, and she shyly showed me her bucket. I assured her I’d peed in many a bucket in my day, and she smiled, knowing I was lying. She told me that there used to be no sewer system in the town at all and that when she was growing up, the “honey bucket” was simply dumped outside after each use. In the winter time, she said, the urine and waste would literally run down the streets and freeze solid. Now, there was a better system in place. Using the bucket, I felt guilty for having drank so much water before my flight…knowing she would have to transport my urine after I left, for disposal.
We spent a few hours talking about her daughter. A formality, really, as she’d been raising the three year old from birth and nobody else in the village was waiting in line to take her in. We filled out the necessary papers and visited about life in the village. About half way through our interview a neighbor stopped by with a white bird he’d shot, asking if she needed some food. Excited, she plopped it right down on the kitchen floor, fresh blood still dripping from its wound, and began to pluck its feathers. I sat down with her and watched her prepare our lunch…fresh from the kill and onto our plates in less than an hour.
The same fellow that brought her the bird had invited me to stay over and head up the river with them to catch some fish that night. And though “up river” at night on a snowmachine in ten degrees below zero sounded like an adventure…and I’m not being sarcastic…I had to pass, as I had a series of flights to catch back home.
We loaded back on the Honda that afternoon, which did have a little trouble starting, and took a little tour of the village before heading down the embankment to the airplane. We rode to the top of a slight incline and looked down on the area. The cemetery perched above the people, as it does in most Native Alaska villages, as if they were keeping watch on the living. Too cold to explore further, we headed back to the edge of the bay just as the plane came in to pick me up. I climbed back into the same craft, buckled in, and waved goodbye to Good News Bay…glad I’d come, and hoping to one day return.