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Thursday, July 20, 2017

End of the earth - Alaka

“No,” I wrote a friend once while living in Alaska, “Hooper Bay is not at the end of the earth.”  I also recommended that he pay us a visit.

Hooper Bay,” I told him, “Is a Yup’ik Eskimo village of about 1200 Native Americans and 20 Gussicks.”  Gussick being the name given by the locals to any outsider.  The villagers say that the term is not derogatory, but the way it is used sometimes makes me wonder.

“Our village,” I continued, “Is 125 air miles and one hour northwest of Bethel and can only be reached by a propeller driven plane piloted by the last of the real flying daredevils, the Bush Pilot.  Bethel is 450 miles and a one hour flight by a modified commercial jet west of Anchorage and Anchorage is a three hour forty minute and a lot of miles from Seattle.

“When you reach Bethel be prepared to spend a night or two just in case the weather does not cooperate and flights to the bush are cancelled.  This happens more than one would like.  However once in the air, seldom does the pilot turn around and more than likely the trip will be uneventful.  Listen to the prerecorded safety instructions closely, just in case.

“About ten minutes out of Hooper Bay the pilot will call me on the local CB channel.
I will pick you up in the school truck, one of the three in the village.  If it is snowing have no fear the school owns a snow-go, one of a couple of hundred in the village, with a nice open air dog sled attached.

“We will only have to travel about a mile down the road if the snow drifts cooperate and if they don’t the snow-go will just cut across the tundra about three quarters of a mile to my place where you can thaw out.

“Don’t worry about bringing food or anything, we have plenty, buying supplies for three to nine months at a time depending on the item.  Don’t bring any alcohol however because it is against the law to drink, posses, or sell such.

“Once you have recuperated from the “trip in,” as we call it we might be able to go to the daily bingo game at the tribal council building.  Don’t plan on winning though, but if you do be prepared to make a donation back to the assembled group.  They don’t like outsiders, especially Gussicks to when ‘our money.’  “There may be a teacher’s potluck going on and later if we are real lucky we might be able to watch TV given a clear signal from an ever weakening satellite signal.

“Perhaps the next morning we can walk to the four stores in the village, via interconnecting boardwalks and let you check out the prices on some of the items.  Right after that we will have to go to the local clinic staffed by health aides and get an infusion of oxygen to help get over the price shock.  From there we can ride of walk, depending on the weather to the beach, stopping by the halibut processing plant which is temporally closed because there were no halibut caught last season.

“While standing on the almost black sand beach, I am sure you will be the first on your block to say you have seen the Bering Sea close up.  Some think the murky looking water and sand is unattractive but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the yellow foam churned up by the waves is not pollution they say.  After visiting we can walk along and between the dunes and head back stopping at the laundry mat and see how many washers and dryers are working.

“The post office is the most modern building in the village and if you want to I am sure they will let you sort packages in the backroom and if you sort and lift the big ones it will be appreciated, it usually is.(note to blog reader: now they have a new school and were preparing to build a new health clinic when I left and there could be more I am not sure.)

“We can then venture to the unkempt graveyard that is adorned by wooden crosses and again depending on the weather, we might find a casket resting above the groud because the tundra was too frozen to dig a suitable grave.  The village dump butts up to the graveyard and if we are real lucky we will see a child discard trash and human waste in black trash bags.

“To get a real feel for the village a short walking tour at this point will be in order regardless of the weather.  We will pass by clothes and fish drying on clothes lines or wooden fish racks.  There will be moose antlers and skulls lying on the ground or sitting on top of the plywood shacks the Eskimos call home.  Snotty nosed little children will follow us and want to be your friend, ask you where you are from, how long you are going to stay and if you have a dollar to give them.  There will be many inoperable snow-goes and four wheelers propped up on drift wood or sunk in the mud in front of many dwelling that you gaze upon.  You might see a half eaten walrus head next to a dog house, the remnants of a butchered seal, or a vertebra of a beluga whale resting near the boardwalk.

“We could stop by and visit the two churches, one Catholic one Protestant.  The priest is a Jesuit and pastors several other communities.  The Protestant church is served by a missionary from North Carolina whose wife comes from Mission Kansas.  He, his wife, and five children have been here seven years and don’t plan to leave soon.

“There would be more to see, the Octagon, once used as the community center and now for teen dances, the Village Police building with its one cell and dedicated men wanting to improve and protect their community, the bay where the fishing boats are tied and anchored and men go out daily to catch and then feed their families, but by then the plane will be due to land, depending on the weather of course, and we will have to hurry back to the landing strip.  Besides one day is enough for most visitors and I am sure you, like most outsiders, will be more than ready to leave and can’t wait to tell our friends back home that Hooper Bay may not be at the end of the earth "but you can see it from there.”

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