“We just put our winter boots away…bring your mud boots.” That was my last phone conversation with someone in Galena, a village of 500 people, along the Yukon River in Interior Alaska. That was mid-April, 2012. I was to arrive on April 25, during breakup.
Galena, located 270 air miles west of Fairbanks, and accessible only by air or the Yukon River, is the largest Yukon-Koyukon village. In the early 1900s, Galena was established near an Athabascan Indian fish camp and became a supply point for nearby mines. In 1941-42, during WWII, Galena Air Force Station was built.
Why was I going to Galena? I’d spent two impressionable grade school years upriver in Tanana, a village which at that time had 300 people (today around 100.) I was curious about the other villages. I wanted to touch my past, reach back to those nostalgically remembered years, and see what was there now.
My father, the Medical Officer in Charge (MOC) of the Tanana Public Health hospital had flown his J-3 and PA-14 Family Cruiser to make housecalls and medical field trips up and down the river, as well as to other parts of Interior Alaska. I’d listened to his stories, seen his Kodak pictures, watched his 8 mm movies, and delighted in souvenirs and gifts made of beads, woven grass, leather, and fur that he’d brought back from the Native people. He and my mother had a heart for the isolation and cultural adjustments of the missionary families. They’d pack us three kids into Dad’s plane and flown downriver to bring conversation, freshly baked cinnamon rolls, a book they’d just read, a puzzle or toy for the children, news from Outside (anywhere “outside” Alaska), and a listening ear. In those years, no one in Interior Alaska had a TV or telephone, much less internet connection. Communication was via one-way or two-way radio (often a single radio within a village, although additional possible contact if there was a CAA/FAA station in the village. The radio operators were usually the teacher, missionary, or innkeeper), mailed letter, a static-plagued radio station, a dog musher from another village, a bush pilot bringing a verbal account –or perhaps a newspaper or magazine.
Why had I specifically chosen Galena? I’d marketed my Alaska Unit Study Guide to Interior Distance Education o Alaska (IDEA) homeschoolers. IDEA was based in Galena, but served all of Alaska. I’d been to IDEA curriculum fairs in Soldotna, Kodiak, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. I’d called the office in Galena regarding invoices and purchase orders. Along the way, I learned about the Galena Interior Learning Academy (GILA) boarding school in Galena, which was one of three high school boarding schools in Alaska. Since I’d been sent to a boarding school when I was 15, I had empathy for boarding school students – oh – and knew the fun, too! The distinguishing characteristic of GILA is the vo-tech program which provides students the opportunity to graduate with a skill: cosmetology, auto mechanics, culinary, or aviation. Since my Alaska Study Guide is based on my father’s stories in the book Prescription or Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor (4th edition: Alaska Bush Pilot Doctor), which is filled with hunting drama, and medical emergencies, and flying mishaps, I recognized that the Guide would be a perfect fit for many of the students.
All in all, my reasons were the lures of exploring more of Alaska, stepping into mirages of my little girl world, marketing, and deliberate moving out of my comfort zone.
My Comfort Zone: neat, tidy, clean, warm, predictable, known, advance planning, adults versus kids, an amount of control over my environment, discussed expectations when teaching/speaking/presenting.
I was headed for adventure all right. This was breakup time: a time when snow melts but the ground is still frozen; a time when daytime temperatures are warm and mud puddles enlarge by the minute. When night temperatures freeze and a layer of bubbled or rippled ice forms on these new lakes. Messy.
Advance planning? My emails had been blocked by the school internet security. The one phone call with a staff member had been disconnected. Why? Perhaps it bounced off the satellite the wrong way. I hadn’t made contact with the school until a week before I was to fly in.
Prepared? I had my tall, black rubber boots and thick gray woolie socks.
(To be continued)