September 14, 2013
Late fall. Not often does mid-September come along—the autumnal equinox still a good week away, and the trees and shrubs are fully expressing their gold’s and red’s and giving some serious thought to dropping their leaves altogether, and I get to watch. Really, it has only happened once before.
Four years ago the spring breakup sent ice chunks, the size of houses down the Yukon River. Nothing new, the ice breaks up every spring on Alaskan rivers. That year though, ice got wedged downriver from Eagle, Alaska. The wedging caused a dam. The dam backed up the Yukon raising it well over thirty feet, which in turn flooded the community of Eagle. That year, Katherine and I joined other folk from the lower 48 rebuilding and repairing homes in Eagle and other similarly flooded communities along the Yukon. When we arrived, a tree here and there sported a few leaves of color. Three weeks later, days had lost an hour and three quarter of day light, every deciduous tree had moved from green to yellow, orange, gold, and red, and those trees who sported the leaves of color weeks before were now bare. For Katherine and I, that was a first. Now we are about to watch it again.
Disciples Volunteering is one many Faith-based groups asked to return to the Alaskan Yukon. Like before, last May’s ice didn’t flow well, bunched up, and flooded a number of communities. A message came a month ago that Galena needed a crew to help repair community buildings and homes. I had haying to get done and Katherine had a dissertation to complete, so when folk left on Labor Day we were sitting on a tractor and in front of a computer.
Then a call came saying a remote Alaskan native village on the Koyukuk River had been damaged as well, no repair work had been done and there were no available volunteers. FEMA asked Josh Baird of Disciples Volunteering if he might pull together one more crew who might be able to handle the stress of flying into community—that makes Eagle look like a city, and complete repairs. A few days later, sitting in the back seat of a three seat Cessna, I watched the landscape change from green to bright colors as a FEMA housing representative, the pilot, and I flew from Fairbanks to Hughes.
Bounded by the Koyukuk River to the north and a ridge to the south, I walked through Hughes a few hours later. There isn’t a whole lot of folk in Hughes to begin with and there were a lot fewer that day, after all, moose hunting season had just opened. For some, it might sound funny folk aren’t around when other folk show up to talk about home repair. But then, for many of us, we do not know what it means to be dependent on our winter food coming from having a moose hanging out back. Subsistence living has a way of creating its own set of priorities.
With Sandy’s help (Sandy takes care of community transportation), we spent the day looking at homes and trying to get a handle on the materials and tools needed. Later that day, as the plane bounded down the gravel runway, raised and banked to the south over the yellow leaf covered ridge, I seriously wondered if it was possible in the next four days to gather 10 volunteers willing to drop everything in their life within the next seven days; risk a plane ride over hundreds of miles of open unoccupied country into a community, where if anything goes wrong, they live with what an Emergency Medical Technician can provide for up to 48 hours until a plane can get them out; and spend the next two and a half weeks busting their butts helping folks have livable housing before the first winter snows made this work next to impossible.
I have worked with volunteers for fifteen summers now and they continue to amaze me. I figured if we could get just six volunteers that would be great. Instead, eleven folk (ten and one alternate) pulled their lives together in three short days, others have expressed an interest, and others still are asking how they can support the work! Now that is pretty cool.
So, on Monday, for the second time in our lives, Katherine and I will have the opportunity to watch leaves fall before the autumnal equinox. More so, we get to do this with folk, volunteers and locals, whom we have never watched leaves fall with before.
© David B. Bell 2013