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The Legends Tour

The Yukon River flows clear across the state of Alaska. It comes in from the east across the border from Yukon Territory, Canada, and empties into the Bering Sea on the western coast. The major parts of the river are generally referred to as the upper Yukon, the middle Yukon, and the lower Yukon.

I spent most of this week travelling among some of the villages of the middle Yukon area: Allakaket, Koyukuk, and Ruby. As part of a team of three evaluators, I worked for the Yukon-Koyukuk School District, doing site visits for their accreditation process through the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools. The other two guys on our team were retired Alaskan educators who arrived in the state when it was a very different place. These two old timers had no end to their tales about the way it once was.

On the way out, we flew on the middle Yukon milk run. The twin engine Piper Navajo left Fairbanks crammed full of freight, most of it consisting of cases of salty snacks, probably headed to the village store in Galena.

After unloading most the freight there, we stopped again in Nulato and Kaltag before arriving at our destination in Koyukuk where we were met by two locals on snowmachines.  They were there to collect whatever and whoever came off the plane. Each one pulled a long, heavy duty plastic sled used to haul freight. But one of these machines had an additional birch frame dog sled pulled behind the black plastic sled, like one of those double trailers pulled by a semi. The only space available was standing on the runners behind the dog sled, fifteen feet behind the snowmachine. And this is where I rode for the mile to the school, imagining I was running the Iditarod itself.

The school gave us further insight into life in bush Alaska. In addition to our team of three, there were also a team of two dental hygienists visiting there to serve the dental needs of the village. And of course the only practical place to set up was in the school. I couldn’t resist a quick picture of the dental set up in an extra classroom. Lay back. This won’t hurt a bit. 

After two days in the school in Koyukuk, we made he short hop from Koyukuk to Ruby which only took about fifteen minutes. As we descended toward the village, I was struck by the high bluffs that came right to the edge of the river. The short runway itself seemed perched on a hill.

Our plane was met by a weathered Ford Ranger driven by a weathered old man. As we stepped off the plane, he exchanged familiarities and mail bags with the pilot, and efficiently loaded up bags, boxes and us into his truck. As he was doing so, Fred, my travelling partner and accreditation teammate said to me, “Hey, that’s Emmitt Peters.” I responded with a blank expression, and he explained, “The Yukon Fox. He won the Iditarod.” During the ride to the school, Fred chatted Emmitt up, and when we arrived at the school, Emmitt Peter pulled out two post personalized postcards, signed them each, and gave them to us. It wasn’t until later that I googled his name and found out who he was that I realized what an honor it was to meet him.

Fred (the tall one) and the Yukon Fox, Emmitt Peters

One of the other guys on our accreditation team is an old time trapper and outdoorsman who was excited to come to Ruby for the chance to meet George Albert, an Athabascan craftsman renown for making handmade birch snowshoes and dog sleds. I first read about George Albert in an article in Alaska Airlines in-flight magazine. I knew he was famous in the state, so I was also eager to go visit him. One evening after dinner, we walked over to his house to visit with him while he stretched two beaver skins he had recently snared and talked to us about his life as a snowshoe maker. I knew right then what an honor it was to meet him. If I had the money to buy a pair of his snowshoes, I’d be torn between the conflicting desires to put them up on the wall as art or use them as the simple and elegant tools which they were intended to be. 

George Albert stretches two beaver skins

The community of Ruby is a great looking village. The houses and yards are neat and tidy. Each house seems to have an interesting if not breathtaking view of the mountains, the river, or the rest of the village. A lot of good things are happening at the school too, by the way. Kids are great, and it’s so much fun to see and share in their enthusiasm.

A vintage picture of kids with timeless expressions

One student's drawing of his village with the norther lights overhead

The third and final living legend I met on this trip was my teammate, Fred Van Wallinga. When he was 19 years old, Fred drove a battered pickup into Fairbanks. There were only three paved streets in the city at the time. On his first drive through downtown he drove down 2nd Avenue, lined with bars, when two guys ran out into the street in front of him and proceeded the beat the shit out of each other. He looked around and saw that all of the pedestrians were carrying guns openly, like a scene from a spaghetti western, and he was scared he’d be killed right then and there.   

From that auspicious beginning, Fred worked in many roles as an educator, impacting the lives of children across the state. We spent many hours over a few days talking, and he was a wealth of interesting stories and useful information. I learned much about interviewing and resumes, the duty of the principal to support teachers, high(er) quality administrative programs, and ways to make many of my goals as an educator become a reality. Fred is one of those truly decent human beings who can always find something good to say, who can deliver some constructively critical feedback without hesitation, and can tell some good stories about life along the way. I sincerely hope our paths in life cross again.

The community hall in Ruby

Posted on Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 09:43PM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell in | Comments3 Comments

Reader Comments (3)

Glad you get to meet all these nice people. Hope you took a lot more pictures.
April 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulius
What a great drawing of the Northern Lights.
April 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBud
Great pics. That village travel is addictive isn't it? You went to some beautiful places and you were a good choice to do that- you have insider knowledge.
April 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPat McDonald

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