(Adapted excerpts from Naomi Gaede Penner’s “The Bush Doctor’s Wife.”
Up in the Air
Elmer Gaede offered his wife Ruby a new opportunity. For her, it would be an opportunity to visit missionaries. For him, it would be an adventure to fly a great distance down the Yukon River. The tone of Ruby’s letter to her parents was excited, even though it involved flying — with Elmer, which frightened her, given his non-stop stories of emergency landings.
April 9 “It was beautiful weather this month so we flew as a family to Russian Mission, downriver, about 400 miles, to visit with the Mennonite lay missionaries Stolfus and family and Eddie Hooley the school teacher. It was a 3 day trip. Russian Mission is an eskimo village of about 120 people. It isn’t very far from the ocean.
Ruby and Elmer had met Mahlon and Hilda Stoltzfus when they had come down the Yukon River, in a small outboard-motor boat with their three children. Elmer considered them great trailblazers and an inspiration to everyone. He couldn’t wait to see their endeavors. Ruby saw a need to encourage another missionary woman in an isolated Alaska village.
Ruby rolled up her sleeves for food preparation to take to the missionaries; among those things were butterscotch chip cookies and round raisin bread. She hated to use up the missionaries’ meager food supply by her own family’s eating, so added a box of oatmeal and powdered milk for her family’s breakfast. Elmer was a stickler on weight-and-balance in the plane, and she knew she couldn’t take much.
The village, approximately 450 air miles downriver from Tanana, was located where a fur trading post of the Russian-American Company had been established in 1842. Russian Orthodox missionaries built a log chapel shortly after that time. Following the sale of Alaska, from the Russians to the United States, in 1867, the village was called Russian Mission.
Naomi (9) and Ruth (7) snuggled into army mummy bags in the backseat of their fathers’ Piper PA-14. Mark (3) was sandwiched between his mother and the front seat instrument panel, beside his daddy, and within full view of how flying took place. “I can help Daddy,” he said with a grin. “We can fly the plane…let’s go, Daddy!”
We followed the Yukon river in general but made a few short cuts where the river curved off coarse Even though it was clear we didn’t see Russian Mission until we were right over it since it was hidden behind a hill and kind of tucked into a canyon that opened down to the river. The Stolfuses and half the eskimos in the village met us when we landed on the frozen river by the village.
Foot traffic had worn down single-track snow trails throughout the village, and the procession followed in a line to the Stoltzfus’s rough-hewn two-story house, which backed into a steep hill. Snowbanks pushed up to the windowsills.
The Stolfuses own the village store which is combined with their living quarters. They treated us royally and were so happy to visit with fellow Believer and Mennonites. We also visited with the Mennonite school teacher Eddie Hooley.
The school was a sturdy building with four-side logs and corrugated tin roof. A dark-green lean-to served as Eddie’s living quarters, as well as a kind of arctic entry. A tall flagpole in front could be seen from most of the village.
The fellowship was all very wonderful and we were sorry to have to say farewell. By 9:00 AM we were again airborne and starting home. It was again clear and warm (18 degrees) We were glad to arrive home by dusk after having an unusual beautiful, smooth, and safe trip. We had flown about 10 hours covering over 900 miles.
Ruby had had no complaints about flying – to see the missionaries.
Authors’ Notes: I thought I’d found all the newspaper clippings about my parents, which my Gaede grandmother had saved, and which were returned to my parents, and which I unearthed in my parent’s filing cabinet after they died. HOWEVER, below is a treasure I discovered two weeks ago!