Wednesday, July 30, 2008
To Shageluk and Back
Yesterday, I was back on the river, this time to the other village the diocese asked me to visit. Shageluk is about 10 miles east of Anvik, which means that in air miles it is not far away at all, but it was not just I who wanted to go. Laura Chapman Rico and Chris Cochren, my friends from Anvik, were eager to get to Shageluk before heading home, and so once again, T. offered his boat. We six piled in along with the puppy Princess and left Graying at about 3 in the afternoon. Although Shageluk lies to the south, you have to go north before you can go south again, so we began by heading north up the Yukon as far as the Yukon Slough. At the slough, you hang a U and twist and turn for 29 bends. The Yukon Slough then branches into two, the Holikichuk and the Shageluk sloughs, each of which twists and turns some more before emptying into the Innoko River on the way to Shageluk. To fly to Shageluk take about a half hour. To go by boat takes about 5 hours. It is worth it to go by boat.
Shortly after turning down the slough, we saw a black bear, but it did not linger long enough for me to get a picture. Hearing the motor, it turned and fled, reminding me that animals are hunted here. So I saw the animals as one on the early stages of a hunt would see them, as tracks, trails, nests and lodges. The place was full of life, but it demanded you look for it.
We stopped for a snack on a sand bank at the end of Yukon Slough. There were very fresh moose tracks, cut deep into the sand, as if the moose had been making some speed before leaping into the water. A wolf track beside it may have been the reason. We built a fire on the bank and ate bananas and pilot bread spread with peanut butter. After our stop, T. took us to see the remains of Holikichuk village.
Many of the people in Grayling originally lived there, but left after great floods in the mid 1960’s. They still return, however, to visit the old graveyard and remember. Only the shells of two buildings still stand. But where there is death, there is also birth, and T. took our little boat down a slough that was in the process of infilling and creating new land. The very shallow rivulet was thick with goose grass, which gave way to bright meadows with willow and silver cottonwood that looked like pasture country, except that no one lived there, no farm, no cow, only a river that was becoming a meadow that would one day become a forest.
The Innoko watershed is one of the least visited places in the United States. It is all Indian land and isolated refuge, roadless, too wild and fragile for cities, just miles and miles of trees and sandbanks, exposed roots, berry thickets, hidden places where animals live, mostly flat, but a few distant, purple hills, radiant clouds, one abandoned cabin, the hum of the motor, the company inside the boat, the little puppy Princess asleep beside me. We talked of many things in this emptiness that wasn’t empty at all, of God and growing up along the Yukon, the names of things and the story of the people. We arrived in Shageluk at 9 p.m. By 9:30 we were a congregation at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
St. Luke’s is under the exquisite care of Jeanette Dementi. She leads morning prayer and runs a vacation Bible school each year. The walls of the church are covered with children’s artwork and the words to hymns. Chalice, paten and lectionary inserts were all waiting for us. I lit the candles, donned my stole and Maddie rang the bell. Fourteen of us shared the sacrament.
After that, we were invited to the IRA office to break bread and spend the night. My bed was a pair of sleeping bags and my camp pillow nested in a cozy alcove. As I was settling down for my rest, I was surprised to hear sirens screeching through the northern night. No, they were not sirens, it was howling. And so, serenaded by wolves, I fell asleep.
Like many of the villages, Shageluk is shrinking. The cost of fuel and equipment make it hard to maintain life. There is no running water in many of its buildings. The people who live there are welcoming and smiling and care very much to preserve their home and their traditions. The school currently has 12 students and 2 teachers. I see much that is good and beautiful and I said I’ll be praying.
We returned via the Holikichuk slough, past ducks, a northern hawk and a little tiny mouse swimming in the river. Mouse may be small, but her presence, both in life and story, is persistent. Mouse is a most decent creature, and she teaches children about values. T. laughed with delight when he saw her, as did I.