The Bush Doctor’s Wife


(Excerpt from ) Chapter One


Making ice cream on the Yukon River, in front of Tanana

Ruby hugged her parka around herself, pulled the squirrel-fur mittens out of the pockets, opened the back door, and stepped outside. The rush of cold air made her eyes tear. Quickly, she leaned down and reached for the ice cream freezer crank. The handle barely moved. There was no need to top the bucket with ice. At 30ºF below zero, the mixture of milk, eggs, and sugar could freeze without assistance. Satisfied with the progress, she returned indoors and, despite fogged up glasses, made her way to the closet to hang her coat. The house was unusually quiet.  

It was mid-afternoon and Ruby was ready for a break from parenting. Mark, nearly age two, was destined to be a plumber and she’d extracted his busy hands out of the toilet – several times since breakfast. His two sisters, Naomi, age seven, and Ruth, age six, would soon be home from school, and a three-ring circus was possible. Just to know another adult would arrive later in the day would have been encouraging to Ruby. However, her husband, Elmer Gaede (GAY-dee), the only Public Health physician for twenty-two villages up and down the Yukon River, in Interior Alaska, would probably not be home for supper – or the entire evening.

The morning alarm had gone off at 7:15 a.m. Elmer had swung his legs over the edge of the bed and headed to the bathroom. Ruby silently got up and wrapped a robe around herself. By the time he had shaved and dressed, Ruby had hot oatmeal and homemade raisin bread toast waiting for him in the kitchen. As a physician, he had learned to eat quickly in case he was called out. Between bites of porridge, as Naomi called it, he and Ruby had exchanged a few words before he pulled on a heavy wool coat, and other sub-zero gear to walk the short distance to the Tanana (Ta-nuh-naw) Public Health hospital. Ruby crawled back into bed until it was time to wake children for school. 

After the sun had shyly peeked above the horizon, around 10:30 a.m., Elmer had returned to heat his Piper J-3 airplane’s oil on the kitchen stove, which otherwise congealed within the engine, and layer on long johns and wool pants in preparation to fly to a medical emergency downriver. 

“I don’t know if I’ll get back today,” he’d said on his way out the door.  The “I don’t know” was dependent on being able to stabilize the medical crisis before the sun retreated. The Tanana airstrip didn’t have landing lights, and, of course, the frozen river strip, which was often cleared for planes with skis, rather than wheels, didn’t either. There was no means to land if he returned after dark. Ruby felt the familiar uneasy tightness in her stomach that transferred to quick annoyance with the children’s normal, but very busy activity. “Not knowing” seemed to be a standard state of being for the bush doctor’s wife.  

One thing she did know was that after supper, when she brought in the ice cream freezer, pulled out the dasher in the middle, and placed it on a cookie sheet, her children would shove against each other to spoon up drops of ice cream, and ask, “When is Daddy coming home?” They knew he loved homemade ice cream for a bedtime snack. Once he finished with a bowl or two, they anticipated crowding onto the living room couch where he’d sit and read them bedtime stories. Of course, this would be after their mother reminded them to brush their teeth, and they’d have pulled on their flannel pajamas, warm slippers, and grabbed at least one, if not two, favorite stuffed animals. Each child would have a different book, and plead to have his or hers read first. “Not knowing” was all too familiar to the bush doctor’s children, too. 

But at this moment, Ruby stared outside at the fading sunrays on the angular pressure ridges in the frozen mile-wide river. Within moments, the 2:30 p.m. sun slipped down beyond the Yukon River and all that was left were shadows on the river and the reflection of her face on the frost-edged living room window. 

Back home, in the Kansas harvest-time humidity, Ruby’s dark brown hair, naturally highlighted with auburn, had responded with full, thick waves. Here, she used a Toni permanent kit to give it fullness. The straight line of her short bangs appeared as though someone had carefully marked a pencil-line – and then cut with precision. Her hazel eyes looked out from behind glasses that had dark upper frames and sparkles in the corners. Red lipstick brightened her winter-pale face, which, with more potent sunlight than Alaska offered, would have been olive-tanned. Oftentimes, she dabbed some of the lipstick on her checks and then blended it with her fingers – as a substitute for rouge. There was no Kansas heat to flush her face. 

A worn-soft bib apron shielded her from the cloud of flour she’d just worked into a pile of dough. Bread-making was usually a twice-weeklyroutine; except when company was invited for dinner or missionaries flew into the village and needed a place to stay for a weekend, or week or two; then she baked nearly daily and the yeasty aroma was prolonged within the house.

Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined herself in this setting: Tanana, Alaska, a village of approximately 300 people, mostly Athabascan (ath-uh-BASS-kun) Indians, along the renowned Yukon River, and in the heart of the Last Frontier. The location was poles away from her and Elmer’s heritage in the Mennonite farming settlement of Central Kansas, where she’d expected to perpetuate a lifestyle like that of her parents, and their parents – the Leppkes and Litkes. By no means had she anticipated that the ordinary farm boy, Elmer Gaede, with the mischievous grin, who had aspired to be a dairy farmer, would instead pursue medicine – in Alaska. Would she have married him if she’d known? Who knows? The girl off the Kansas farm was in love.

Ruby’s introduction to Alaska had been in Kansas City, at the Covenant Church where she and Elmer walked each Sunday during his family practice internship at Kansas University medical school. One afternoon at a ladies’ meeting, a missionary woman from Nome, Alaska, showed slides. When the Kansas-bred young woman had seen the pictures, her initial, and remaining thought was, “Dark and cold. Who on earth would want to go to Alaska?” During this same time, Elmer crossed paths with a nurse from Bethel, Alaska. She urged him to consider Alaska. “The Public Health Service’s pay is fantastic!” she said. “Physicians get $7,000 to $9,000 salary per year!” This was put in perspective with teachers earning $3,440 to $4,700. And, in the early 1950s, houses sold for $14,000, and cars for $2,000.  Another incentive for Elmer was that he would be able to fulfill his military obligation, which he had deferred by working on his parent’s farm. [2]

Ruby’s musings ended with the yowl of a half-grown kitten bursting into the room in front of a yelling chubby-legged preschooler. Mark lost his balance in the pursuit of the kitten and slipped on the floor. The kitten perched with arched back on the couch, and watched the boy scream until tears rolled down his cheeks. Before Ruby could respond, a blast of foggy, frozen air entered from the hallway door by the kitchen, signaling that school was out for Naomi and Ruth. The stomping of their feet on the back porch could never be heard with the padded silence of the moose-skin mukluks they wore. 

In synchronized motion, the grade-schoolers pushed back fox-fur ruffed red parka hoods and shook loose their tangled brown braids. Naomi’s short bangs mirrored her mother’s and her hair retained its morning neatness. In contrast, her younger sister’s hair was softened by wisped edges that pulled out and curled, or stood up in a cowlick wherever it pleased. 

“The handle won’t turn on the ice cream!” declared Naomi. Surprisingly she had not started the question with a “why.” Her first observation about nearly anything was not “what”, but “why.” In this situation, it wouldhave been appropriate to ask why ice cream was even being made, rather than hot cocoa dotted with bouncing marshmallows, or steaming chicken noodle soup with soggy crackers floating atop. 

Wintertime in Interior Alaska was certainlyan odd time to be making homemade ice cream; nevertheless, it was Ruby’s propensity to make ice cream with glacier ice, river ice, and this time, to curiously experiment with making it without any ice at all. Perhaps this ice-cream-making was a means of staying linked to her home place, where cousins, aunts, and uncles regularly took time on a Sunday afternoon from the hard work of carving life out of the prairie, and gather for the simple enjoyment of sharing chilly bowls of rich dessert, combined from the pure ingredients of farm eggs and milk from their own chickens and cows.

         Ruby cherished those memories. Oftentimes when she cranked the ice cream freezer, she talked softly to anyone around, about the way it was back then, intermittently giving a quick laugh of amusement or pleasure. Today, she was not cranking or reminiscing, and her experimental ice cream inclination may have been just one more way she found fun in the ordinary or difficult routines of life. She was often the instigator of celebrations and parties; not necessarily in spectacular dramas, but in spontaneous and homey ways, ways that made an observer or participant chuckle, “Who would ever think of that?” Making ice cream on a dark winter afternoon in the Last Frontier was one of those occasions.

“Mark, you leave my cat alone!” Ruth said in an unusually loud voice. More typically, she defended her little brother, and believed he could do no wrong. Furthermore, she did not like to draw attention to herself and often remained in the background. Obviously, she felt strongly about cat-torment, or at least the well-being of her gray and white kitten, Yukon.

Mark thrashed around on the floor in a temper tantrum, banging his reddish-brown curls on the square linoleum tiles; his blue eyes squeezed shut. 

Ruby walked down the hall toward the bedrooms to find a tissue to wipe Mark’s teary eyes and running nose. By the time she returned to the kitchen, Ruth had disappeared to the basement, where she was most likely rearranging the toy villages and farms around the electric train track. 

Chances are, the first-grader was crouched over, or sitting on the floor with legs spread beneath her like a “W,” beside the electric train track her father had carefully laid out and tacked to a large piece of quarter-inch plywood. She would be putting precisely the right amount of magical drops in the engine smokestack. There, in her serene after-school retreat, the electric train chugged around the track, past a herd of Guernsey cows and pen of pink pigs, puffing subtle but enchanting bursts of smoke. Who knows where the cat had fled.

Naomi plopped herself at the table, ready to report on every piece of trivia from the school day. It all seemed so astonishing and important to her, from the ice around the outhouse seat holes, to the government subsidized cheese[3]that so-and-so refused to eat, to her broken silver crayon that she had rationed for only very special pictures. “What will I ever do?” She asked anyone in hearing distance, of which there was only her mother. 

Ruby listened with only one ear because Mark, who had finally realized that flailing on the floor would not make the kitten cuddle with him, had climbed up inside the built-in Hi-Fi cabinets, where he scratchily started and stopped and restarted his record-player. She had had just about enough of “The Little Engine that Could,” who thought-he-could and thought-he-could. She really wished that that train could get itself up the hill and out of her hearing range.

Ruby Takes up Hunting


(Draft of “Ruby Takes up Hunting,” in the upcoming book, The Bush Doctor’s Wife.)

Dishwater gray skies with thin drizzle dimmed the memory of the high summer sun. Berry foliage darkened daily, from bright red to crimson and purple-burgundy. The grass around the lakes and swamps was rusty-orange. Chainsaws buzzed by woodpiles. A sense of urgency filled the air. Urgency to prepare for the swiftly approaching winter; even though it as only the middle of September. Urgency of bull moose to fight other bulls to mate the cow moose that were not certain they wanted the wild, dramatic seasonal attention of the bulls. Urgent hunters needing to provide for their families. Adrenalin. Testosterone.  Nervousness. Excitement.

Elmer loved nothing better than hunting, unless it was flying – or practicing medicine. Now he was ready for moose hunting. He had cleaned his .300 magnum and 30.06 rifles. His hunting knife was sharpened. His gear was sorted and ready. And, unlike most of the other people in the village, he had an airplane, which greatly increases the hunter’s success.

The Natives depended on moose meat for their winter grocery supply and hunting wasn’t for the thrill of the kill or for a trophy. In most cases, they had to walk into the woods to see what they could scare up. Elmer recognized their plight and was generous with his time and aviation gas to assist whenever he could.

First, he took out Pete Miller, the hospital maintenance man. It had been a terrible day with heavy rain and wind. “Can’t you wait to see if it will clear up tomorrow?” Ruby had asked, kneading the palms of her hands together and trying to catch his eye. “No,” he had replied without looking at her. “This is moose hunting season. They like this weather. They won’t be as cautious as usual. They will be out challenging each other and following the cows.”

Pete and Elmer brought back a moose before the day was over. Both men were soaked to the bone. Both men were as thrilled as little boys catching their first fish or shooting their first rabbit.

Next up was Roy Gronning. They took off into an unsettled, restless sky with low-hanging clouds and an undefined horizon. As soon as the Family Cruiser was in the air, clouds bunched against the windows with only fleeting patches of visibility below.  At only several hundred feet above the ground, Elmer circled back to the airstrip to land, meanwhile getting a dim bird’s eye view of everything beneath him. As he did, he spotted a moose three-fourth a mile off the end of the airstrip and near the road to the village dump. “Hey, Roy!” He yelled. “This could be easier than we expected.”

The men traded the airplane for the hospital dump truck and Ruby told the rest of the story in her family letter:

They drove the truck as far as they could go and then hiked into the woods and after awhile they listened and heard the moose come towards them, the wind in their favor when the moose got real close Rev. G plunked him with one shot, it was a 900 lb. bull. It took them all day to get it in and of course I did not know where they really were and so I always wonder if every thing is alright. This is the 3rdone he has helped get.”

In quick succession, there was another hunt and Ruby reported, “Elmer just informed me that he and Leonard Lane, the Eskimo who helped him get the polar bear, shot another moose.”


Elmer never spared details of his adventures, which were often shared over a bedtime snack with the children, who listened as they ate chocolate pudding, homemade ice cream, or a bowl of cold cereal at the table beside him. Ruby felt proud of her husband’s successes and that he helped other men. He was the hunter. She was the gatherer of wild berries and the vegetable garden.

Her hunter husband did what he could to get her to go with him, not only to accompany him, bur to shoot a moose herself. He dried dishes after supper. He tried to reason with her, reminding her what a strong farm girl she was. He solved the problem of what to do with the children if they flew out after work to hunt. “The new Mennonite nurse, Olga Neufeld, can watch Mark and Mishal, and then Anna and Harriet can come over after school is out and the girls come home.”

Finally, he wore down his wife with his good deeds, solutions to her obstacles, and his confidence in her ability to actually shoot a moose.

“Okay,” she said wearily one evening, following another pep talk by him. “I’ll go with you. Perhaps we should do some target shooting first.”

That they did after work the next day. She was a good shot. She kept her eyes open even though the tremendous boom of the rifle jarred her entire body. She braced herself well for the recoil and did not fall backward. After each shot, she inhaled the acrid smell of the gunpowder and observed the warmth of the gun barrel.  Her husband cleared his throat, patted her on the shoulder, and said, “You’re ready.”

By this time, Ruby was quite a savvy Alaskan woman and knew how to dress for the outdoors, which was really not that much different than for her chilly-day hot dog roasts or berry-picking. In this case, however, she needed better footgear. Between the two of them, they found boots that were waterproof and tall enough to manage at least some marshy terrain. Just like her husband, she had an army surplus coat, albeit a size too large. A green wool scarf, or muffler as she called it, was added to the assembly, not for fashion, but to keep the chill from traveling down her neck. The rosy pink lipstick? Well, that was standard for her, no matter the circumstance.

As could be expected, her letters home documented this new experience in the Last Frontier.

“We have been out nearly every night this week moose hunting. Last night we spotted two bulls l with large racks so we landed on a sand bar and started hiking through the woods.  It got dark on us and we got a bit confused as to direction but the Lord brought us out near the same place we had entered the woods. When we get to heaven I will ask the Lord why we did not get to the moose. I feel it was devine guidance, as Elmer has never gotten confused in the woods before. It scared me a bit and I hardly have the nerve to hunt moose again until I can get one on the sand bar, which is impossible.”

Remarkably, this initiation did not completely ground her from taking off for another hunt. Elmer most likely was amazed himself. He didn’t even have to dry more suppertime dishes. She just dried out her wet clothes and looked at him expectantly. Away they went.

Last Wednesday night he took me out and we spotted a bull just across the river from this village so we landed on a sandbar and found ourselves in a bit of soup as the sand was not dry enough but we ignored that and hiked to find the moose and to our dismay we could not cross a small stream of water so back to the plane we go and we pus it out of the soft sand on higher ground and take off to spot something better along the Yukon. 35 miles down river we spotted one on a sand bar, we flew low and sure enough he has a small rack, we landed and started firing, I always shoot first and Elmer after mine, I was so excited the gun did not even hurt my shoulder but my ears stopped up from all the noise, we hurt the mooses back leg and he took off faster than we would follow. We hunted for a while but couldn’t find a thing. Back to the plane we go, it is now 5:50 and as we started back for home and decided to see if the first bull was still in the original spot and he was!  Elmer looked for a better place to land so that we could cross the stream, he found a strip of sandbar that was good but it was such a long way to hike but hike we must! After I thought m legs would come off with woods to go through, high meadow grass (always hoping a bear was there taking a nap), swamp to cross, we finally got close to where we thought he should be, we smelled moose, Elmer called him by rubbing a small (piece of moose) rack across some trees and sure enough we hear the same type of noise a bit farther away (bulls act that way during rutting (mating) season) so we crept along the low brush along the meadow around another bend and then Elmer backed up (he always is the trail blazer) and says there he is and there he was all 900 lbs of him slowly meandering our way to see who was calling him. I says “Hope he doesn’t charge”, Elmer says “SHOOT, I was so tired I could not fully appreciate it all and it thrills me more as I recall the incident as I write this. There the monster was sprawled out. Elmer looked at his watch and it was 5:00 and not long till sunset. We not skin him since it was so late but Elmer just gutted him and left him on him on the ground for the nite in the freezing temperatures.

 Then we marked our trail back to the plane with toilet paper and we took a short cut from the way we came I and we had a 45 minute hike back to the plane and got home by 6:30. Boy, how hot coffee hit the spot. I wished I could do it over again when I wasn’t so tired.

The next morning Elmer got up at 6:00 and Rev. Gronning helped him skin, pack out and fly in the meat. It took them till 1:00 noon. The Leonard and Elmer went back to get the head and rack and if it is possible, we will have it mounted! Of all things, while they were working, what did they see but two more bulls so Leonard plunked one and they had to pack that one out, they scared the other one away as we just can not use any more moose meat. We plan to share some with the school teachers and probably furnish some for the Village Potlach at Christmas time.

Mom the Huntress

The Huntress

She had done it. Moose hunting season was over for her. Well, all except picking hair off the raw moose quarters, cutting up the meat, and determining what would be roasts, little minute steaks, or hamburger. She knew the process. In Anchorage, after Elmer’s first moose hunt, she had learned about packaging the meat tightly in slick, white freezer paper. The packages were labeled for an easy selection later. Was this process difficult? No. Tedious? A bit. However, it came with the satisfaction of standing beside her husband and working as a team; it was a rare and special occasion where her husband wasn’t off tending medical emergencies or pushing the limits of his curiosity.  She had him to herself. They recounted the hunt. They laughed. They wondered aloud what their families would think when they received her letter describing the event. Her emotional reservoir was filled with happiness.

After all was said and done, the meal provisions of her moose were stacked in the large hospital freezer, along with her husband’s.  Soon after, and many times after that, she would pull out a package of steaks, pound them for supper, dip them in flour, sprinkle on salt and pepper, fry them in oil until the outsides were crispy and the insides tender, and marvel at her amazing accomplishment. Her husband had been right: the bush doctor’s wife could shoot a moose.


The Northern Lights newspaper credited her husband for his successes but said nothing of hers. His write up demonstrated his virility as the bush doctor.


After shooting a moose and spending 4 hours packing the meat to a sandbar on which his plane was resting, Dr. Gaede spent the night in a sleeping bag only to get up the next morning and fly the meat to the airport and then haul it back and forth to the hospital. But the exercise didn’t hurt him for the next day he was to be found playing basketball.

Perhaps a write-up about the doctor’s wife would have been something like this:


After following her husband and wandering around in the woods, pushing through tall grass, stumbling across soggy marshes, surviving frightening landings and takeoffs on sandbars, and being overcome with fatigue, Ruby Gaede held her ground against a charging 900-pound bull moose, which she downed with her first shot. This was her first moose hunt. But the experience didn’t hurt her. The next week she was found making Christmas gifts of aluminum trays with Alaskan scenes sketched on them and the edges uniformly bent up and crimpled like a piecrust; as well as melting, tinting, and forming candles, complete with white whipped wax and adorned with sparkling sequins.  


Following this initial moose hunt, she did not volunteer to go hunting again in Tanana, by airplane; however, several years later, when the family relocated to another part of Alaska that was on the road system, she was more than willing to get up early or drive at dusk, with two guns between her husband and herself.


The Incredible Journey of the Moose Head

In the fall of 1959, the moose head mount was sent to Ruby’s parents, Solomon and Bertha (Litke) Leppke’s in Peabody, Kansas. Later, it was transferred to Elmer’s parents in Reedley, California. In a third move, it resided at Elmer’s brother, Harold Gaede’s, in Fresno, California.

Several years after Harold died (2011), his wife, Marianna, decided to move to a retirement community. The moose would not be moving with her. She and her family decided it should be returned to the Elmer and Ruby Gaede family on the Gaede-80 Homestead, outside Soldotna, Alaska.

The re-transplantation could not happen with a quick trip to UPS, a Large Priority mailing box, or Fed Ex; in fact, nothing about this reloction would be easy. The moose head was put into a custom-made wood box 57-inches wide, 65-inches tall, and 61-inches high, and took up space equivalent to one-and-a-half pallets. This Alaska-size box was loaded onto Wanda and Dan Doerksen’s 18-wheeler fruit truck, which for many summers had been driven up the Alaska-Canada (Alcan) Highway, with driving times of four to five days, to provide California fresh fruit to Alaskans, in particular, peaches.

On June 29, 2015, the truck headed north with Ruby’s moose head, surrounded by cherries, berries, oranges, and other fruit. On July 6, 2015, Elmer and Ruby’s son, Mark, met the truck in Anchorage, Alaska, loaded the crate onto his utility trailer, and hauled the moose two-and-a-half hours back to the Gaede homestead, outside Soldotna. Fifty-seven years later, the moose was back in its natural habitat, most likely needing to reacclimatize after being in warmer climes for decades.


(Do you have questions, comments, or suggestions for a rewrite of this chapter? Let me know. Thank you.)


Bread and Life



Ruby pulled open the oven door and lifted out golden-topped crescent rolls. The yeasty aroma filled the kitchen, and the burst of hot air fogged her glasses. She set the pan on top the stove and wiped her glasses with her well-worn apron.

At the table, Naomi and Ruth, her grade-school daughters, sat ready with small plates, a knife, oleo-margarine, and grape jelly. “I’m glad we’re having company tonight,” said Naomi, not that Ruby only baked when there were dinner guests.

Baking bread was in Ruby’s DNA. Her Mennonite ancestors had migrated across the ocean from South Russia with zwieback, double-decker rolls, packed into trunks. The zwieback, translated as “twice baked,” had been toasted, and the crisp, crunchy pieces had endured the days of travel, without molding. Even after her family had settled in to farm life in Central Kansas, and didn’t need to preserve food for such long-term sustenance, they would toast zwieback and crush the crispy crumbs them into a cup of milk, or hot Postum, a roasted-grain coffee substitute, created by Post Cereal founder C.W. Post in 1895.

Ruby also baked raisin, rye-graham, and molasses breads in two-pound Fleischmann’s yeast cans. The soft circular slices had no crust. Decades later, Naomi would treasure those same cans, and make cinnamon bread as well.

When Ruby’s physician husband, Elmer Gaede, accepted a position with Public Health Services in Tanana, Alaska, a remote Athabascan Indian village, she learned about Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, a 3-inch-round, thick cracker, which had come over with sailing ships in the mid-1800s. The flat, dry, saltless cracker became a staple in the Alaskan villages and continues to be so today. Whether zwieback or Pilot Boy Bread, the concept was the same: long shelf-life and basic nourishment.

In March 2020, flour and yeast flew off the shelves. What instigated the buying frenzy? What need was acute? What did “bread” mean on an emotional or physical level? Did it remind people of sitting as a child, in the safety and warmth of grandma’s kitchen, watching her knead dough on a floury pastry cloth, and anticipating the mouthwatering outcome? Or, did the first-time making of bread offer a sense of confidence that the newbie baker could take care and provide for him or herself? Was it touch therapy of massaging the pliable dough? Was it a womb-like experience of protection in a world where predictability of everyday life had been shattered? Whatever the reason, homemade bread took on a significant, primal meaning – and the ingredients flew off the store shelves.

Naomi-Sally Woods cookies Tanana jpg

Sally and Naomi baking in Tanana, Alaska

Every culture has a “bread,” whether tortillas, Naan, fry bread, Challah, baguettes, cornbread, flatbread, pita, lavash, pandesal, or injera. The Bible often speaks of bread. God sent bread down from heaven so the wandering Israelites would be fed. Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves of bread. Jesus broke bread with his disciples.  In John 6:35, Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me shall never hunger…” He understands our basic needs. He is our comfort and hope. He is good therapy. He is good bread. He is the warmth of grandma’s kitchen.


Just like my Mother?


When your friend said to you, “You’re just like your mother,” did you cringe? Smile ruefully? Laugh with pleasure? When she continued, “I don’t ever want to be like my mother,” did you pause before you responded, thinking how much the two were alike?

Over the decades, I’ve been in both places: not wanting to be like my mother, and now, holding tight the comments that I’m like her.

My mother, a Kansas farm girl who ended up in Alaska with her farmer-turned-physician husband, was known forhospitality. It was not unusual for six additional people to gather around our Sunday dinner table. Missionaries flew in from remote villages to have a baby, or get medical attention. They would walk into our house, inhale the yeasty smell of baking bread, and feel a hug of hospitality. Our playroom was turned into a guest room, and we often shared one bathroom. At least it was indoors.

I’ve kept missionaries for a week or two and had friends stay a month. I’ve filled my calendar with dinners for church and neighborhood newcomers, and shared cinnamon rolls with anyone within arm’s reach. As much as I try to have freshly baked bread for company’s breakfast, sometimes I’ve served Costco quiche and store-bought raisin bread. Yet, I could say I’m known for walk-right-in, sit-right-down hospitality.

My mother loved her grandchildren in a down-on-the-floor kind of way. She had tea parties with tiny china sets, put together a zillion puzzles, and patiently showed them how to make sizzling spudnut doughnuts, all the while laughing, embracing, and listening to their frustrations and dreams. Dusting could wait, peeling logs could wait, but building memories could not.


I like a tidy house. Should I wait until my grandboys no longer leave green and blue playdoh crumbles on the floor? Or no longer do face-plants against my glass storm door, where I rub off sticky imprints of excitement and glee? When they understand that “dump the sand out of you shoes,” means, outside, and not inside the house.

Waiting would be too late to learn their favorite color, stuffed animal, and games recess, and their best friends. I’m towed along in my mother’s grand-parenting wake.


My mother embodied hands-on compassion. Praying for the sick and lonely, and giving money to the needy wasn’t enough. She rode with my father to deliver babies when the nurse’s car wouldn’t start at 40 below zero. She cared for women who chose alcohol to manage dark, cold winter nights, and husbands working out-of-town. She cleaned them up, feed them, prayed with them, and loved them to Jesus, and to better ways of coping.

My visits to a friend with MS were both heartbreaking and inspiring. Those visits motivated me to train my dog for therapy work. Together, we go to nursing homes. And, just like my mother, I send care packages and encouraging cards to missionaries in Alaska. Shoveling snow for an older neighbor can be viewed as “compassion,” even though for me, it is a pleasure to be outdoors.


My mother had a passion for life. Who else would joyously sing Christmas carols in below zero temperatures? Make a campfire in the middle of the frozen Yukon River, because roasting hot dogs sounded tasty? Wonder if leaving a can of homemade ice cream mix outdoors, in a frigid winter, would eliminate the need for cranking it with salt and ice?

Ruby and children making icecream on Yukon 1959

I’ve scared myself silly ziplining and rappelling. I’ve giggled uncontrollably when my grandboy and I made Slime – and got stuck in it. I’ve soaked in an outdoor hot tub with snowflakes flurrying on my face, jumped out to roll in the snow, and shouting exuberantly with friends.

Zip - Naomi learns to soar

My mother seized the moments, knew the value of building relationships – no matter how inconvenient – and embraced the goodness in life. I want to live well. I want to be like my mother.


Ruby Leppke Gaede driving a snow machine on the Gaede-80 Homestead, Soldotna, Alaska

Swing with Me

N and R on tricycles KSCNaomi and Ruth

“Let’s swing,” said my sister, Ruth, in a soft voice.

It was a sunny, but cool afternoon in Alaska. Her husband had built a tall swing set for their grandchildren and situated it carefully in their manicured lawn, which was surrounded by a fence to keep out the moose. Ruth continually sought to tame the ever-encroaching wilderness and had cleared the underbrush between spruce trees she had left along the edges. The little trails beckoned me to morph into my little girl-self and run among the trees, play chase, and disappear.

Ruth and I started swinging when we were preschoolers in Kansas City, where our father was doing his medical residency. It had been a little metal-pipe swing set, just our size. We also had a tire swing. When it rained, a puddle formed beneath it.  On subsequent hot, humid summer days, we would giggle with glee, hang with our bottoms beneath the tire, and swing through the puddle.  Our undies were a muddy mess; all the same, our mother didn’t say a word. She brought out a bucket and we took turns trying to sit in it, wash off, and cool off.

A decade later, in Alaska when our parents were proving up our 80 acre homestead and clearing land, our father trimmed out, but left standing, two tall, close together spruce trees. Somehow he climbed to the top, fashioned a sturdy crosspiece, and attached two thick ropes for a swing. In the evenings of the Midnight Sun, on the longest swing ever, we stood on the flat wooden seat in our puffy Baby Doll pajamas, and took turns swinging high and wild, shouting and laughing, feeling the wind in our hair and dodging mosquitos.

A few years ago, I took my grandboy to Alaska. We went to Ruth’s place and pulled ourselves onto the two swings and started pumping. “Watch me,” I instructed him. I jumped off and turned around. He jumped, too, nearly yanking his arms off.

“Oh dear! Time for a lesson.” And so I taught him to pull his arms around to the inside before he jumped. “Now you won’t pull your arms out of your sockets!”

He rubbed his shoulders – and laughed – and tried it the way I had shown him. “That’s better, Nomi,” he said with a big smile.

And so it was last summer that Ruth said quietly, “Swing with me.” Silently, we pulled ourselves onto the swings, each in our own thoughts. My eyes teared up. I slipped back in time and thought of us as two little girls. I could see her beside me, her brown hair curling in ringlets around her face. When we were ages four and five, we were uprooted from our Kansas prairie and transplanted to the Alaska tundra.  Away from cousins and grandparents, we were there for each other.

Yes, my dear sister, I will swing with you, then, now, and into the sunset.

(First printed in the Kansas “Country Register,” April/May 2019 issue.)

  1. As child, where did you swing? Your backyard? A schoolyard? A park? Over a creek? On a tire?
  2. Do you swing now?
  3. With whom do you swing?
  4. How do you feel when you swing?


The 2019 Mining Season Begins

By Naomi Gaede Penner and Mark Gaede

My brother, Mark, and his buddy have gold claims near Hope, Alaska. They’ve had them since the 1970s. In case you want to know where they actually are, so you can get-rich-quick, let me clue you in, the two miners worked day-jobs for many years, and only recently have kinda stopped subsidizing and broken even; meaning, they make enough to pay for gas driving to/from the claims.

The end of March, they started up operations. The snow (measuring) post at Summit Lake was showing just over 3 feet of snow and temperatures had been near 40 degrees the past week. When they pulled into their road, it was cloudy with light drizzle. They figured the snow would be nasty. It was. Of course, they planned to wear snowshoes. Any of you who snowshoe, know what those temps and conditions mean: sticky, heavy, show clinging to the bottoms, and barely-catch-your-breath hard work.

The two miners, age-60-something, planned to haul in two dredge motors and 20 feet of new 5-inch hose. They secured this on a sled for a load of about 150 pounds.  In addition to the sled, Mark’s pack carried air hoses, diving masks, hand tools, and heavy rubber gloves, for a weight of around 30 pounds.

As anticipated, the going was rough. Their snowshoes sank about 10-12-inches into the wet, soggy snow. Occasionally, they would break through the next crusty layer and be up to their knees. Now they had to lift their snowshoes even higher: up out of the snow and then on top of the snow for another step.  Happily, for the most part, the sled pulled along just fine since the trek was down hill.STC_0658

Don’t go sneaking around Mark’s Mining operation.

Before going completely down to the creek, they stopped at the Tiny House to lite the propane furnace and to leave articles not needed at the creek.

Then their trudge continued. At one point, they thought it judicious to leave the trail for a more direct shot to the dredge site.  Given it was extremely steep, Mark’s buddy stayed up top with a 50-foot long tag line to keep the sled from running away. Mark remained with the sled and guided it down the slope.  All at once, Mark’s lead snowshoe fell through a pocket in the snow and hung up on an alder about 2 to 3 feet down. Mark did a face plant. If that wasn’t enough abuse, another alder slipped under his pack strap. This promptly pinned him in place. Furthermore, the sled slid up on his trailing snowshoe. There is wisdom in the buddy system. However, in this case, Mark’s buddy had also lost a snowshoe and was flailing around trying to keep the sled from completely running over Mark.

After getting a grip on his unexpected position, Mark wormed his way out of his pack and swam out from under the sled. Taking this all in stride, he reported, “It took a couple minutes to regroup and then we finished the trek to the creek.” All in a day’s work. On a more serious note, he added, “It just underscored how hazardous winter ops are and why it is not a solo event.”


Mark’s buddy resting at base camp.

Getting equipment in and out each season is always a lot of work. Nonetheless, they are undaunted. Decades of trial and error, along with modern advances, such as Gortex socks and everything else Gortex, has made a difference. So have hamburgers at Summit Lake Lodge and doughnuts at the Moose is Loose Bakery in Soldotna.

And so, the two miners, who have known each other since they were babies in the Bethany Baptist Church nursery in Anchorage, Alaska, are off and going for another season.



Alaska Statehood – January 3, 1959

1741    Russian navigators, Chirikov and Bering, discover Alaska

1784    First settlement on Kodiak Island

1867    Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7,200,000

1848-   1914 Gold strikes and rushes

1959    Statehood, January 3


(Setting: 1959, Tanana, village of 300 people along the Yukon River in Interior Alaska.

Main Character and speaker: Anna Bortel, head schoolteacher.

Adapted from “’A’ is for Alaska: Teacher to the Territory,” by Naomi Gaede Penner.)


“Let’s have a party!” I announced to Harriet and Herman, my two co-teachers.

With our tensions of trying to live and teach in Quonset huts that had no windows, round walls, insulation floating down and making students itch, no running water, floors that bounced when we walked across them, and heating oil that froze when the temperatures went below minus 40 degrees, we needed laughter – in large doses.

They agreed and I went to spread the good news to the Gaedes, Wally the Public Health lab technician, and our friend, Ethel.

Earlier in the day, I had reviewed with my students the history of Alaska and the story behind our state flag. Together we stood and sang the Alaska State Song. I was proud to be a part of this state and of history-in-the-making.

That evening, my friends and I celebrated in the old schoolhouse. When Herman had returned from the Christmas holidays, he had brought smoked salmon strips, and mentioned that sometime I should try putting salmon on pizza. When I pulled outsalmonpizza from the oven, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Along with this uniquely Alaskan pizza, I combined crushed blueberries and cranberries and made a statehood beverage.

Later, after viewing some slides several of us had taken, we turned to view the dirty dishes. Wally volunteered to carry the washable items back to his duplex, which was the other half of the Gaede’s building; therefore, practically next door. The following day, when Harriet and I went to reclaim our dishes, we found clean pots, pans, dishes, and water glasses stacked toward the ceiling in his kitchen – a balancing act and a work of art!

That was the grand finale of our Statehood celebration. It made us laugh. It warmed our hearts. Alas, it did not warm our Quonsets and we continued to set our alarms to take turns going outdoors and beating on the oil pipes to keep the oil flowing to our cookstove-heaters.

FH000005 (3)

School in Quonsets in Tanana

The New Year Starts with a Bang

(Adapted from the Naomi Gaede Penner’s new book manuscript,

“The Bush Doctor’s Wife.”)

The year was winding down, as were the many holiday festivities for which Ruby had planned and prepared. She had energetically entertained people, dealt with long dark nights with mere glimpses of sun during the day, and so far kept her children warm in the frozen Interior of Alaska. Last on the list was Mark’s second birthday, December 27.

The little kid was grumpy and for good enough reasons. He walked around crying and rubbing his ears, all the while coughing with a hacking croup. Ruby could not keep up with his runny nose. She herself was not feeling at her top mothering capability and was suffering from a head cold. Both mother and son felt miserable.

Ruby would have preferred to be in bed rather than preparing supper, and more so with Mark underfoot and whining. She could not take a step forward or backward without bumping into him. All the same, the macaroni and cheese casserole with toasted, buttered breadcrumbs on top needed to go into the oven. She shooed him back as she pulled down the oven door to lite the pilot light, which required turning on the gas and touching a lit match to the igniter. What happened next terrified them both. She wrote home:

“…as I was making supper I lite the oven and Mark was right there and shut it (gas) off so I reached down to light it right away again and we had an explosion. I think of the song, ‘some through the water some through the fire some through the blood.’ Well the Lord did help me through the fire. I was in the middle of the explosion it all happens so fast, Mark was beside me blown down on the floor and he was frightened and I felt as though I was on fire, I felt my hair and it was singed badly my face burned so badly, I’m glad the girls were at the table playing and I screamed for Naomi to run to the hospital for Elmer. He came and brought salve, Furacin (a topical cream for second and third degree burns), and we put it on all the burned places, my nose hurt so and my right hand. Elmer did such a good job of treating me, and the pain was gone the next day. I wore a glove over the Band-Aids on my right hand. This is the second of Jan. and my hand has nearly pealed, and my nose has a new layer of skin, my chin and neck are in the process and I have no scars, the burns weren’t deep. So we have much to be thankful for.

 Who knows if the casserole got baked or if she put it into the refrigerator for the following night’s supper; or if the scare shocked the croup out of Mark; or if Ruby figured the oven explosion was enough use of matches and didn’t want to light even two candles for Mark’s birthday, which would not actually be noticed since his “cake” was a cookie Christmas Tree she had made earlier. With Mark improvising his own, there was no need for fireworks or firecrackers to start the New Year.


No doubt, Mark kept her on her toes and she could never let down her guard.  A few days into the New Year, Ruby was stacking freshly washed towels in the bathroom linen closet when she heard the scratchy sound of a match being lit. She opened the bathroom door to find Mark sitting on the rug in the hallway with a tiny blaze in his hand. Seeing his mother and hearing her yell his name, he dropped the match on the rug. Ruby stomped out the small flame and shook her son by the shoulders until his teeth chattered. Over to his room she marched him and up went the gate. She thanked the good Lord she had been nearby and not down in the basement, and that she had managed to keep him alive for the first two years of his life.


Mark — when he was not setting fires inside the house. Mark with moose antlers


Alaska Earthquakes 1964 and 2018

Earthquakes in Alaska from January 1  to November 30, 2018


Alaska Earthquake, November  30, 2018

7.0 on the Richter scale

“This is the largest earthquake to strike near Anchorage since the 2016 M7.1 Iniskin earthquake. Because the quake was so much closer, the impacts to Anchorage and Mat-Su were far more severe and widespread.” .”

Alaska Earthquake,  March 27, 1964

9.2 on the Richter scale, the strongest earthquake recorded in North America.

Of the 10 largest U.S. earthquakes, 7 have taken place in Alaska.

Alaska has 52 percent of all earthquakes in the United States.

“The Day the Earth Fell Apart”

(adapted from Alaska Bush Pilot Doctor– as told by my father, Dr. Elmer Gaede)

THERE were no pressing medical needs on this Good Friday holiday, so Dr. Isaak and I decided not to hold clinic. Instead, I was working in the back woods of the homestead. It was a sloppy time of year when snow melted, yet the ground was frozen, resulting in mud during the day, and icy conditions at night and the early mornings. “Breakup,” we called it.


I looked up and saw Ruby coming toward me, trying to walk around the waterways in her black knee-high rubber boots.

“One of your O.B.s is on the phone.”

Within a few minutes of telephone conversation, Mrs. Smith gave me an experienced progress report on her condition. This was not her first baby, so without hesitation I told her I’d meet her at the clinic.

I changed my work clothes, singed from winter brush fire burning, and headed out the door to the Volkswagen bus.

“If this is the real thing, I won’t be back for supper,” I called to Ruby.

The VW skated on the water‑on‑ice Gas Well, to Kalifonsky Beach Road that met the Sterling Highway, and across the bridge that spanned the Kenai River. The bridge was the only one crossing the Kenai River and connected the lower Kenai Peninsula towns with the main part of the Peninsula.

Mrs. Smith met me in the clinic parking lot and took her muddy boots off at the door. She’d driven herself to. Chances were her husband was in the oilfield and a friend was home watching her other children.

She shook her head and held her stomach. “I didn’t plan on having a baby at breakup when the roads are so bad.”

She lay down on the examining table, which would most likely turn into a delivery table. I began my evaluation. Blood pressure normal. Fetal heart rate normal. The baby’s head was low. I needed to call a nurse right away.

Abruptly the room swayed. I grasped the examining table to steady myself. Was I dizzy? I sat down on the nearby tall stool. The movement continued, now with a distant rumble and a stronger force. I looked at Mrs. Smith. Our puzzled eyes met. “Earthquake!”

“Let’s go!” I shouted above the din and helped her off the table. I held on to her arm and we careened down the hallway to the emergency ramp door, which I deemed most solid.

The shaking intensified. As we stood looking out the open door, I saw tall spruce and aspen trees whip violently back and forth until their tops nearly touched the ground. Like the sound of surf, the roar became deafening. The barn across the street jumped alive and gyrated on the convulsing ground. The ground heaved up and down like ocean waves and cars lurched crazily on the road. I’d been in earth­quakes at Tanana, but never like this.

I stood horrified as a jagged crack appeared in front of a car. It opened about a foot wide and then suddenly clapped shut. The earth stretched apart and other fracture s appeared. The smell of sulfur filled the air. I was staggered by the force of nature.  The thunderous rolling continued and the ground groaned in agony. Will it never end?I wondered. How long can this last before everything is broken apart or sucked into the earth?

After four never-ending minutes, the nightmare stopped – or so I thought. Silence.

“I’m going home,” said Mrs. Smith in a trembling voice. “I don’t want to have my baby right now.”

She walked into the empty waiting room, stepped into her boots, carefully made her way down the front steps and out the front door to her car.

Back in my office, the large clock on the wall, hung crookedly. I pushed back the furniture in the waiting room that had danced out of place, and then tried calling Ruby. The phone was dead. I needed to get home.

Just as I opened the front door a state trooper pushed in. The usually self-assured man, who dealt with terrible accidents and Alaska catastrophes, was wild-eyed and uncertain.

“Doc, you’ve got to stay!” his command sounded more like a plea. “Emergencies will be coming in!”

I’d never seen him so frantic and wondered what he knew that I didn’t. This put me in a bind between medical obligations and my concern as a father and husband.  But, he’d given me no choice. I’d been ordered to stay at my post as a physician.


         Later Ruby told me of her experience. She and the children were sitting at the supper table when they heard a loud thud and then felt a jolt, as though something large had run into the house. They figured out it was an earthquake t and expected it would subside – as earthquakes before had done. When the shaking and noise increased, she feared the house would crumble.

“Let’s get out of here!” she had screamed.

She, Naomi, Ruth, Mark, and Mishal, had made their way drunkenly toward the front door. Mishal had fallen down the steps. Ruby pulled her up. The driveway was covered with snow. Unable to maintain their balance, they had collapsed onto the cold ground, without shoes or coats. Trees had swayed as if they were feathers. The ground had rumbled and split open, emitting swamp gas from the shallow fields beneath our homestead. After hour-long minutes, they had returned to the house, Ruby felt nauseated and as if she had been on a boat, churning in rough seas.

After the deafening roar and violent shaking had stopped, she inspected the house. The only damage she found was water sloshing out of her suds-saver tub in the laundry room and a fallen flowerpot. None of the china or fragile keepsakes had tumbled out of the shelves, nor had sugar bowls or syrup bottles.

When the evening shadows crept in, she had found candles.  Remarkably, after several hours, electricity was restored and she turned on the radio – to the shocking news from a Seattle station that no one knew what had happened to Anchorage, Alaska.


      In the clinic laboratory, I located a battery radio to learn about possible damage in other areas. I was surprised with the difficulty in finding stations. In their usual setting was just a lot of static.  Finally I tuned into a Seattle station. Grad­ually, and with jaw-dropping disbelief, I learned what had happened in Anchorage. The announcer­’s reports were so graphic and grim that I couldn’t comprehend them until I listened again, and heard the same message over and over. Houses and people swallowed up, bridges destroyed, entire streets dropping below the surface, and fires started. The broadcasts were without music and commercials. There was no lightheartedness to break the tension. The extent of the damage in Alaska had only begun to be assessed.

The Good Friday sun slipped away, edging the pink wisps of clouds with gold against the darkening sky. Darkness closed around us. Hour by hour, the night grew blacker and the reports became worse. Aftershocks added to everyone’s trepidation. The nightmare was not over.

A new report informed us that the earthquake had churned up a tidal wave. Our homestead was three miles from the beach;  even at that distance, we were close to sea level and a gigantic quake as we had experienced was powerful enough to propel itself inland. In the utter blackness, no one would be able to see if came, or have any chance of getting ahead of it.

Patients came and went during the night. The next day I was released to go home. This was not the same town I’d driven through the day before. Signs lay crumpled on the ground, buildings had slits down their sides, and streets were cracked. I was thankful to see the bridge across the Kenai River was still intact.

Two days later, on Easter, the Anchorage Daily Timesrolled out papers with preliminary lists of casualties in Anchorage and pictures of buckled downtown buildings, cars fallen into yawning pits, burst water mains, snapped power poles, and houses sloughed off the bluff down to the Cook Inlet.

The following day, the Times provided instructions for Anchorage residents regarding gasoline, food supplies, fuel oil, water and field toilets, mail delivery, typhoid shots, and schools. Casualty figures increased, although actual bodies could not be found for those swallowed up into the ground.

Unlike Anchorage and the coastal towns, Soldotna was in pretty good shape. There was no major structural damage, and because there was no city water or sewer, no main lines were broken. Within the week we would hear cargo planes overhead bringing food supplies to Kenai.

At Homer, only 80 miles away  from our homestead, the dock was ripped loose at Homer Spit, and boats littered the remaining waterway.  The land table had dropped nearly six feet, so with high tides coming in in only a few weeks, all the buildings near the dock would be flooded. The fragments of dangling dock were no longer useful at the lower elevation.

At Kodiak Island, the tidal waves heaped more damage upon earthquake destruction. Most of the boat harbor was gone and boats littered the beaches. Between 650 and 700 people who had been evacuated from other parts of the island were being fed by the Civil Defense agency at the Kodiak Naval Station.  Another 20 to 30 people were unaccounted for.

Reports of devastation continued. Most of the residents from Valdez were evacuated. Governor Egan said of his hometown, “There is no sign that there ever was a dock or boat area. This area has totally disappeared.” Fires added to the chaos and 34 people were known to be dead.


            Our Easter church service took on a new meaning as I thought of the 104 or more people killed in the quake and the grieving of those who had lost these loved ones.  I hoped they would find spiritual comfort on this day. I thought of the traditional Easter story, where an earthquake shook the enormous rock from the entrance of Jesus’ tomb. The guards attending this tomb were frightened and confused – and I could certainly under­stand why.


            I had to see for myself the bizarre turmoil resulting from the Good Friday Earthquake. My medical partner, Dr. Paul Isaak, and I flew to Seward to see the staggering confusion there. Although Seward was closed to outsiders, we were both members of the Civil Air Patrol; furthermore, we were on the hospital staff and granted special permissi­on to enter the area.

In reality, it didn’t take much to keep people out of Seward. The road was badly broken apart, and the main portion of the runway was unusable. There was no trace of the hangar we used, and the cross-runway where it had been was in shambles with heaps of gravel, trees and debris.

64 Earthquake Seward airstrp

As if the earthquake hadn’t rendered enough damage, a tidal wave had rolled in and crushed everything for about three-quarter of a mile from the bay. The mile‑long waterfront had collapsed into the ocean bay and docks, warehouses, offices, and storage tanks had vanished. Rails, train cars, and engines were melted together or tossed about as if an angry child had tired of play. In a lagoon a half-mile from Seward, two rails dipped up and down with the tide. Wrecked cars, twisted rails, crumbled houses made what had been just crowned an All American City look like a garbage dump.   The smoke had so obliterated the town that originally it was reported that the entire city had been wiped out by the quake and ensuing tidal wave.

64 earthquake Seward

64 Earthquake Seward railroad tracks


The eerie feeling intensified as we flew south of Seward.

“Didn’t there used to be a mountain peak over there?”  asked Paul.

“I thought we knew this area like the back of our hand, but something seems different.” I responded.

“Do you think an entire mountain could be swallowed up?”

I didn’t answer. That concept was too overwhelming. For some time we flew in silence.

After awhile, Paul pointed out the window, “Look! That lake is empty!”

I pushed the stick forward and we flew down for a closer look.

“The bottom must have cracked open and swallowed up the water!”  I couldn’t believe what all we were seeing.


 In my line of work, death and birth were a part of the circle of life. A week after the history-making phenomena, Mrs. Smith returned and the “Earth­quake Baby” didarrive. The child had truly arrived at “breakup” when the Alaskan world broke apart.


Unlike the bridge across the Kenai River,  141 of 204 in Southcentral Alaska were no longer intact.

The Office of Emergency Planning calculated damage to Alaska at approximately $537,600,000, of which around 60 percent was sustained by Anchorage.

104 or more people killed in Anchorage. More than 2,000 people were homeless in Anchorage.



Tucked in for Winter

(Adapted from Naomi’s upcoming book, “The Bush Doctor’s Wife.”)

Tanana, Alaska 1957

The bright colors on the hillsides had faded, and the sun rose lower and crept to the south. Ice cakes hurried down the Yukon River. Ruby had never seen the like. In the early stages of freeze-up, the river reminded her of thick, lumpy sherbet punch she made for ladies’ fancy events. Living adjacent a broad and turbulent waterway had been an adjustment for the Kansas prairie-land farm girl.

A month prior, the river barges had docked for the last time, bringing groceries, household goods, heating oil, mechanical supplies, and so on. They would not return until June.

barge docked one Yukon

Temperatures dipped consistently below freezing and daylight receded by more than six minutes per day. The fall foliage had dulled to a palette of pale cocoa, cloves, and maple frosting. Ruby no longer saw villagers picking cranberries and blueberries, or digging potatoes, carrots, or turnips from their gardens; neither were they fishing, or sitting on board benches along the riverbank.

Airplanes encountered increasingly bad weather and mail service became inconsistent. All in all, the village felt smaller with the absence of river barges, limited air traffic, and compressed days.

Ruby felt uneasy about the approaching winter. Certainly she had made it through two Alaska winters in Anchorage, yet there she’d had actual grocery stores, kids’ winter hand-me-down clothes from friends at church, a department store, and even the Army Surplus store. But here she was in an isolated village with meager and expensive supplies at the Northern Commercial store.

Part of preparing for winter meant tucking in things. If Ruby had lived in town, that could have meant cleaning a lawn mower, hanging up shovels, raking leaves, mulching outdoor shrubbery, and putting studded tires on a car. Here, she had none of those. Here, the item to tuck in was her husband, Elmer’s, J-3 airplane, which was still on floats by the river, with ice clustering around its bottom surfaces. He needed to put the plane on wheels and fly it to the village landing strip.J-3 sunset Yukon

(Once there was enough snow on the airstrip, he would change over to skis.)

On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, he found Ruby in the sewing room, mending corduroy jeans. Gradeschoolers, Ruth and Naomi, sat cross-legged on the heavy wood comforter trunk and played with buttons in a round tin box. Mark, almost age two, crawled at his mother’s feet, attempting to manipulate the sewing machine foot-pedal. Ruby alternated between pulling her persistent son out from beneath her legs and pushing the fabric underneath the moving needle.

Elmer rounded the doorway. Buttons grated beneath his shoe soles. He looked at Ruby. Her eyes didn’t leave her task and the sewing machine hummed steadily. Elmer cleared his throat.  “Ruby, I thought you might like to get some fresh air.”

“Just a minute,” she mumbled.

“I need to get the plane off the river.”

“Children, go find your coats,” she said, removing the straight pins from between her lips.

When the family stepped out the door, Ruby noticed the uncanny silence. Leaves no longer crackled beneath her footsteps, but were frozen together in layered mud-clumps. The sky was dull. Clouds were strewn like quilt batting. No sound of a motorboat running full pitch against the river current. At 4:15 p.m., the sun would soon slip behind the horizon.

The girls interrupted the stillness with their chatter. They were intrigued by the ice growing along the river’s edge and stamped on the thin shelves that were filled with water bubbles.

Ruby helped Elmer half carry and half drag the two-seater aircraft up and out of the reach of the river’s icy fingers. The metal floats pulled across the gravel screeched like fingernails on a chalkboard. Mark wanted to climb into his Daddy’s airplane and interfere with the work.

“Mark, come make the ice crack.” Ruth showed him where to place his stubby booted feet. As roly-poly as he looked, he wasn’t heavy enough and nothing happened. “Jump,” she instructed. He finally accomplished the task.  The children laughed hysterically. Their noise sounded extra loud in the otherwise quiet afternoon.

Yukon freeze up with N and R .jpg

Within a week, Ruby would write her parents, “Changing Elmer’s plane from floats to wheels is no more effort than changing a tire.” True. All he needed was someone to lift a wing so the axle could be placed on a block.

The bush doctor’s wife had gained a new skill. Seasonal demands were different from those in Kansas. The plane was tucked in. She was a hardy farm girl. She would keep her family secure and tucked in for the winter.