Kuskokwim Reflections: How I found myself working as a deck-hand on a tug-boat delivering fuel to Native Alaskans on the Kuskokwim river

 

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I have always loved Alaska since my first trip up here back in 1984 when I was just fourteen. My father and mother divorced when I was three, and my grandfather (and then father) moved to Alaska to live and work at the petroleum processing facilities up North on the “slope” coming on-line after the “steel-snake” of a pipeline was constructed clear across Alaska. I immediately took to the fresh cold air, the wide-open spaces, and the adventure! On my first Alaskan job at the age of fifteen, they flew me out on a little Cesna prop-plane across the Cook Inlet to the base of “Sleeping Lady” (a well-known Mountain range on the other side of the Inlet from Anchorage), and then told me we were going to be landing out on the tundra when I asked “where are we landing?” I commercial fished out on the Cook Inlet for a 26 hour period, sleeping on top of the nets, using the cork-line as a pillow, and at one point I was awakened by a pod of fifty to sixty pale white Baluga Whales swimming by our boat! Since then, I have worked in Alaska in the oil fields numerous times at temperatures 45 or 50 below zero, on the “slime-line” filleting fish in Seward after I received my Masters Degree in Political Science, and have even been a banker in the “Alaskan Bush.” So let’s just say, I was “caught” by the “Alaskan freedom fever” early on in my life.
Perhaps this can help to explain why I found it so easy to leave Texas back in September of 2004, to finally move to Alaska. After the two week drive from Houston to Anchorage (via Denver and San Francisco) I started out as a bouncer at one of the local drinking establishments in Anchorage (mainly to look after my little sister who was tending bar). After I was able to find a real job with Wells Fargo as a management trainee I found myself being sent out to King Salmon, Alaska to help at that branch. This experience gave me my first taste of living out in the “bush” – a.k.a. rural Alaska. Rural Alaska is a bit different than rural America, because it requires a whole other level of survival skills. I enjoy testing myself, and seeing what I can handle, and not having someone “riding my back,” so the Alaskan bush suited me well.
After working for Wells Fargo a while, I got a better higher paying job with their competition back in town. But then “the slope” and “big oil” called me back to work for them for “the big bucks!” So I went from managing tellers and personal bankers at a “McBank,” to getting off the plane on the slope, driving 150 miles down the “Hull Road” to pump station III at the Northern base of the Brooks Range, and then once they had me trapped, they handed me my shovel and said “get to work!” A year later, beaten-up physically and a little worse for wear mentally, with $20,000.00 in my banking account, I left the slope and started substitute teaching again in Anchorage. After a semester of doing that, I decided I wanted to try my hand at working at sea (or on an Alaskan river) to see more of the state. So I hooked-up with Crowley, and was offered a job working as a deck-hand on a tug-boat around the same time I was offered a job working for a rural Alaskan  school district made-up of 14 schools spread out over an area roughly the size of West Virginia. Since I had already taken the physical, and had paid for the Ordinary Seaman’s credentials, I decided to wait on the teaching job. Thus, by doing so, I was able to see a very rural and pristine part of Alaska on the “corporate dime,” and after the season was over (and the rivers all froze), I got a job teaching Junior High and High School native kids on the “Aleutian Chain.”
By delivering fuel to the Native villages out on the Kuskokwim river I was able to learn far more about multiculturalism and Native culture and customs than I could ever learn out of a book, and it has helped me to better relate with my students and have interesting things to talk about. My native crew members, the villagers in tiny villages like Nikoli, and the incredible untouched beauty of the region filled me with wonder and a sense of happiness and freedom that one cannot find anywhere else in the world. But I guess the real reason I found myself out there, was because, like the fictional character Captain John Dunbar on the movie “Dances with Wolves,” I had to go out and see the “last frontier” before it was gone!
The last vestiges of the old west and the last frontier can still be located out on the Kuskokwim or Yukon rivers running through the heart of Alaska, but it is disappearing at an alarmingly fast rate. Just like the village I now teach in, the culture of these people is dieing with each elder who doesn’t pass on his / her knowledge to the next generation. I find myself trying to teach native kids how to cope in a modern American society to ensure “no kid is left behind,” rather than finding vast numbers of native elders preserving their unique cultures by being teachers of their children themselves. The “white man’s burden” seems to still be driving the process up here, and if you look carefully, you can still see the influence of the philosophy of “Manifest Destiny” at work.
I’m just afraid when I gaze out onto the beauty of the river (and these wild lands) that they will one day be tamed, and that the Kuskokwim river will be as modern as Mark Twain’s Old Mississippi river seems now. It is already happening, with every gas and diesel powered truck or flat-screen TV barged up the river, the “life-blood of progress” fuels the way towards the “easy life.” Unfortunately, once a people are introduced to an easier way of doing something, they seldom wish to go back to the “old-ways.” So four wheelers and snow machines replace dog-mushing teams, but then fuel prices go through the roof, and people can no longer afford to live in the bush! So instead of returning to traditional customs to solve modern economic dilemmas, urbanization runs rampant, Anchorage gets bigger, infrastructure develops, and the native villages die. This is what we call “American progress,” and it is killing-off the last truly wild places on this continent.
But where do we draw the line in the earth, and say enough is enough? When do we recognize that we must preserve more of the old ways and the natural places before they (and it) are all gone? I ponder these questions from the bow of our barge as we tow 150,000 gallons of diesel heating fuel, unleaded gasoline, and aviation fuel up-river towards “progress.” Basically, I am on-board a potentially giant ecological and environmental fuel bomb, but the native people living in the villages along this river “need” this precious cargo this winter, and my bills are getting paid as I work six hours on (and six hours off), 24 hours a day during this summer season. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I am doing anyone any favors while I am doing it, but then again, it’s cheaper than having it flown in at $7.00 or $8.00 a gallon!
Now that the season is over, and I am teaching again (in an isolated and very rural part of the Alaskan Peninsula), I can reflect on my experiences on the Kuskokwim river, and I know it was an experience of a life-time to tell my grand children about one day. However, I can’t help but feel a tinge of remorse, because I know the pristine beauty of that region of our world will not remain the same. The freedom and adventure I have chased in my youth will subside with age, the river banks of the Kuskokwim will be damned and bridged, and new roads will be built. Afterwards, cities will arise from the ashes of the Native villages formed along this river long before the arrival of the first Russian “gussaqs” – white men. The white Russian Orthodox crosses atop the highest points of these tiny beautiful river villages attests to the continued influence and change which has occurred in this region, and the half-empty outboard motors attached to every aluminum skiff docked alongside these same villages reminds me of my own part in this process of change. Petroleum may be the “life-blood of progress” out here, but it is also a viscous reminder of why we must preserve our natural wonders before we find ourselves wondering what has happened to them all.

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