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You know, I promised myself before I left that I would journal every day I was here, but some days you’re just frustrated. We aren’t going to make it to Telida. I’m pretty disappointed. But I’ve had time to stomp around in the mud and throw a few internal tantrums, so here we are in front of my computer again. I’ve had some really lovely experiences since I last checked in, so let’s focus on those instead of fixating on the experiences I thought I was going to have.

Most of all, the people I’m around are wonderful. I’ve been on adventures before where I couldn’t stand my companions, and I’ve been on adventures where my companions were fine people but got on my nerves. This is one of those adventures where I’m just flat grateful for the relationships I’m cultivating, both with the group I arrived with and with the people I’ve met in Nikolai.

For one, among others, it’s been a treat getting to know Santosh and Sasha more. Santosh and I have worked together for years, but mostly over email, so it’s actually been valuable getting rained into a lodge where all we can do is talk to each other. He and Sasha have different but similarly understated senses of humor, which work together in a way that makes me belly laugh. It’s fun having an international group in the middle of a small Alaskan village; people here playfully call them “India” and “Russia.” When the five of us sit around the table to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I’m reminded of a comment that I made in a previous post, that Alaska is notable in that everybody you meet can be vastly different, but are each captivated by the place they’re in. Maybe it’s just the people I’ve come into contact with during my visits, but Santosh says he notices the same thing: people who aren’t emotionally connected to the state don’t tend to stay very long.

Of course, “Alaska” means different things to different people. Yesterday, Sam suggested fishing, and a manic little boy grin spread across Sasha’s face as he reached to the bag at his feet and produced a collapsible fishing rod. He didn’t even have to stand up to get it. Santosh, on the other hand, isn’t very “outdoorsy” (his words – by any standard other than an Alaskan’s, Santosh is outdoorsy). He knows he could advance his career by taking a job in the Lower 48, but it’s hard for him to imagine… it’s not Alaska.

Dr. Santosh Panda
Santosh in the outdoors. I made him pose for this portrait, and you would never know that he is getting absolutely swarmed by mosquitoes. He is wearing dress pants, though.

Myself, I keep trying to put my finger on why I get so happy whenever I’m here. I just love it. I have a lot of explanations I’ve tried to rationalize and I’ve had a lot of conversations about this over the past week, but none of them seem exactly to fit. It’s an emotional connection; it feels like infatuation. There are things you point out that you like, but they don’t describe the whole. If you have never been to Alaska and you ever get the chance, go.

Earlier today, Teresa, Sam, and I were having a conversation with the new teacher at the school. He was asking Teresa about Telida, and she explained that when the Telida school closed in the late ‘90s, it necessitated that people move down to Nikolai. A part of her job is keeping Telida running as a functioning village, so that when more people want to move back, it will be ready for them. The teacher then asked “why would people want to move back?”

She paused for the briefest moment. I couldn’t tell if she was taken aback or just deciding on her answer. “If you’d ever been there, you’d know.”

She went on to explain a lot of rational reasons: it hasn’t been hunted much, so there is a ton of food; Denali is close and magnificent; blueberries. The parts don’t add to the whole, though. “If you’d ever been there, you’d know.”

Yesterday, when we were still hoping that our pilot, Barney, would make it out, Stephanie Petruska saved us again from a day of frustration and boredom. She invited us to her house because she wanted to teach us some beadwork. Once we got there, though, and she pulled out her supplies, her grandmother Oline took the reins. She thought we could handle a small flower pattern. I asked how to start, and she snatched my needle from me, threaded five beads, stuck the needle back through them to form a circle, and pulled the thread all the way through so that a tiny piece was still sticking out the end. No knot. Flick, she snapped her lighter on and off to melt the string end down to a bump. Each movement was crisp, precise; she has done this a million times. Nikolai is home to people who have loved Alaska for much, much longer than I have.

Beadwork in Nikolai school
Display case at the school.

Beadwork in Nikolai
I'm thinking I'll make a barrette?

Beadwork in Nikolai
Stephanie gave these to Teresa.

This afternoon I had my rain jacket on and was leaving the village office to take a walk to the river, when I heard Teresa shouting my name. “Barney’s out!” she said. “He made it back to his home in Takotna.”

“So we get to go??!” I asked.

“Well, it’s not a sure thing, but it’s looking promising.”

I was STOKED. I practically skipped to the river. I went that direction because I’d heard the fish wheel was turning, and I wanted to see it work. I’ve seen these before on Alaskan rivers, but they’ve always been stationary. What you do is tie it to the bank, and there are paddles that make the wheel turn with the river’s current. While it turns, two massive nets scoop up fish and funnel them into a trough at the base of the wheel. Let it run for a day, and with Nikolai’s wheel, you can get five fish while you’re off doing whatever else you want to attend to.

Fish wheel
Fish wheel.

It can be kind of mesmerizing to look at. There’s an uneven, creaky rhythm to the rotation and the sound it makes. While I was standing there staring, a man rode up on a bicycle behind me. “I could just sit and watch that thing,” he told me. We introduced ourselves: his name is Bernie, and he’d come by to check for fish. I watched him climb down the bank and balance on a board across to the wheel. He looked down. “Two whitefish and a salmon,” he said. He held up a whitefish and grinned. “Dinner.”

Bernie with fish wheel
Bernie with his whitefish.

As he was climbing back up the bank, a woman named Balassa drove up in a pickup. She’d come to check the fish wheel because tomorrow is a potlatch, and she’s stocking up. Bernie offered his fish, but she told him to keep it.

Fish for potlatch
Fish for the potlatch.

“So you’re headed to Telida, then?” Bernie asked me.

“No,” Balassa answered. “I heard that Barney’s still weathered in at Takotna.”

Uh oh. I watched the fish wheel for a bit longer and then walked back. It was true: Barney had made it to Talkeetna, but it was a scary flight, and he didn’t want to risk another one. I agreed that I didn’t fancy dying in an airplane crash. So, no Telida this trip. Tomorrow would be too late, even if the weather clears (of course it will). [Edit from tomorrow: it absolutely did. It's sunny.]

I don’t know when or how yet, but I’m coming back, and I’m going to make it upriver. Teresa suggested I come for the Iditarod… that sounds like a fine plan to me.

Map of Upper Kuskokwim
The river we were supposed to travel.

After dinner, the five of us sat around laughing as Santosh quizzed us from a book he’s reading to improve his English vocabulary. It’s still raining outside, but I’m happy to be here.

Boats in Nikolai

Boat in Nikolai

Boxes outside store in Nikolai

Ground in Nikolai

Read Day 8

Read about permafrost

Weather Summary
Very rainy and very windy
50 F