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Alaska Life

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

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: February 18
  • Published February 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life and seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkness and light

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

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

I learned to see loss differently. In some of the darkest stories, there was good. Three winter travelers headed home by four-wheeler one December night on the frozen Kuskokwim River. Only they were drinking. Only the river wasn't all frozen.

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

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

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

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