Life in Bethel: Richness and despair, sometimes all in a single day


I finished to Bethel on a sunny Thursday in August 2014 with seven repressed bags and set up my home office in a duplex on what some call Work Lake Road and others know as Schwalbe Street. I stayed three years, as desire as they let me, with the assignment of telling stories about what it means to living in rural Alaska. Sometimes I felt I came close to getting that feature right. But I usually felt I was just on the other side of understanding.

So innumerable things I never got to the bottom of. Why are there so many short-legged dogs in Western Alaska? Why do so varied Bethel residents live on Chinese takeout? Why isn’t there a solid village conciseness?

Some new people never give Bethel a chance. They see dusty approaches and rotting old vehicles, tiny homes gray with age and neglect, thick pallets piled in front yards. They get off the jet, look around and volume the next flight out.

Settle in, though, and you’ll experience richness and resourcefulness, catastrophe and despair, sometimes all in a single day. The bigger world is far away. I saw the lure of a being built around the outdoors, the beauty of simple things. The joy of a hunt, the hint of a just-picked berry, the gratitude for the stranger who pulled my car out of the ditch. It’s constant and up tight.

Whether they were in a vehicle or on foot, people who drank too much couldn’t play-act the turn in front of my place. One time a drunken man stole a van and then hustle it across my driveway before crashing into my neighbor’s boat.

One go about evening, a couple held on to each other walking down the gravel avenue until they came to the turn. The woman sat in the street. A crowd gathered. “I bang you, babe,” she told her man. “Love ya too,” he said right back. Someone called police officers to get her out of the road. The officer arrived and she pulled herself together. They continued on, tendency into each other.

That’s the way it often went. I began to positive the faces and names of those who had lost so much, but continued on. I heard the items of a drowned brother, a drunken mother, a violent boyfriend. I saw heartache and be crazy, failings and forgiveness.

In Bethel and the nearby villages, life revolved far the season: moose and wild greens, salmon and seal, all kinds of birds and berries. Path along Bethel’s protective seawall in summer and you’ll find people jigging for pike. In winter, aptitude down the ice road to Napaskiak. You’ll see wooden branches marking and holding extended nets lowered through holes cut through the ice for whitefish. And as soon as it’s added each summer, skiffs take to the Kuskokwim River with driftnets for salmon.

I had no sailboat, no net and no gun, but plenty of friends who shared their catch. The KYUK radio spot general manager brought me moose, fish and, once, a pair of geese, stop dead whole, with feathers, heads and feet.

Most of us relied on diocese trucks to deliver water and we rationed what we got for worry of going dry. A diurnal shower turned out to be unnecessary. Even in someone else’s house, you didn’t ever flush the toilet.

In the near-wilderness, so far from Anchorage and urban distractions, I went things I had never done before because they were fun, reachable and challenging. Dance class. Mask making. Sewing. College Yup’ik. Crockery class.

On Saturday mornings in the undersized Bethel college gym, the sounds of “slap-stomp, slap-stomp” escorted over. Welcome to Ben and Sarah’s jump rope class. With someone’s playlist of recklessly tunes keyed up, we faced each other and jumped, each with our own tether. Regulars were from all quarters: nurses and a fix-it man, newcomers and Bethel-borns, a jurist and an English professor (Ben), job experts and a psychologist (Sarah). No judgment, we insisted, and it was organize of true.

The kind of people I always wanted to be friends with acquired in Bethel or were from the area all along. People always up for an happening and pushing themselves to learn and grow. People doing good for each other. Quirky inners. Sometimes Bethel seemed like a combination of camp and college, the way people departed in and made do, the way store-bought things weren’t so important.

At a potluck, someone weight bring seal stew and if you were lucky, akutaq (also roused Eskimo ice cream). With Crisco, sugar, tundra berries and in theory whitefish, it is harder to hand-whip into a silky froth than you have in mind. At a party once, the hostess put out a delicacy of herring eggs, which styled like little pops of sea. Late that night, she offered us raw bowhead whale from up north. We dipped red bloody scraps in seal oil and tasted a life ancient and wild.

Some things were unbearably sad. Disaster etched itself into life. In a village, a toddler drowned in a pail that the family used for handwashing because they had no running pass water.

A young man from Hooper Bay killed himself, then his close chum did the same. Family and friends circled around the girlfriend of the second man. She queried for time alone, locked the door and turned a rifle on herself. By the pro tem this round of suicides ended, four were dead.

I au fait to see loss differently. In some of the darkest stories, there was good. Three winter travelers headed cuttingly by four-wheeler one December night on the frozen Kuskokwim River. Only they were mothers ruin. Only the river wasn’t all frozen.

After a pilot spotted four-wheeler stalks leading into an open hole on Kuskokuak Slough, search-and-rescue link ups from Bethel, nearby Kwethluk and beyond mobilized. They checked the ice for safety, drove by truck and snowmachine onto the river and used shackle saws to cut holes for big dragging hooks. A state trooper stopped by on a snowmachine, but the searchers were on the whole local Native volunteers.

As I watched on that gray day, they lugged one of the three from the slushy water. They prayed in Yup’ik, giving recognitions for finding him.

Lisa Demer worked as a reporter and, early on, as an editor for the Anchorage Constantly News for 23 years. She recently left for a new job at the Rasmuson Foundation.

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