Going upriver to Akiak

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loading the boat to go upriver on the Kuskokwim to Akiak

I got to go to Akiak on Wednesday! My first river trip, my first village, and the first time I drove in Bethel! And a quick fyi-I’ll be doing some updating tomorrow, to link the photos to my Flickr account. Done!

The big occasion was to take two musicians to entertain and visit with the villagers in Akiak. Mike Stevens, a world class harmonica player (best in the world. really.), and Raymond McLain were in Fairbanks for the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, and Terese Kaptur, the director, had the great idea to share some of the artists with outlying communities. That’s how they got to Bethel. Mike requested a trip to a village, and that’s how I got to go to Akiak.

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Sally Russell

My supervisor, Sally Russell, was the head honcho for all the festival activities in Bethel, and when I heard she was taking the musicians to Akiak, I asked if she needed any help. She was happy to have me come along, mostly so I could visit a village and see first-hand some of the difficulties of living there.

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Ron Kaiser

Ron Kaiser, the KuC maintenance man, was our guide and boat captain on the way to Akiak. He’s a very experienced boatman and fisherman, and I learned a lot about the river from him. He packed the boat for us and did a great job of guiding. It was a little damp on the way up; the weather was cool and cloudy, and there was occasional mist, but still a good trip. The river is quite a bit different than the Tanana and Chatanika Rivers that I’m familiar with. Sandy muddy beaches with lots of alder and willow. We didn’t see any spruce til we got close to Akiak, and then it was only the occasional tree sticking out above the alders and willows.

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Mike Williams

Mike Williams, one of the village leaders, was our contact in Akiak. He picked us up from the boat and hauled all the gear to the community center. He was happy to let me and Todd Paris, the official UAF photographer, take photos of the performance, the audience, and Akiak.

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Broken Record, the band that Steve and Raymond played with

I didn’t get the band members’ names, but the group is called Broken Record, a misnomer. They’re excellent musicians, and worked well with Mike and Raymond. I couldn’t tell that they’d never practiced with Mike and Raymond! It was a wonderful concert; I love bluegrass music and it was fantastic to be in the front row listening to these guys!

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Simon Goldstein

We were also graced with an accordian player, Simon Goldstein. You can listen to him at Soundcloud. Simon is working at Meyers Farm this summer, and I’m not quite sure how he hooked up with us, but he came along to help with the sound system. He’s a young man with a lot of energy; he’s going to be starting a farm of his own to supply Alaska with fresh vegies.

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Dancing in Akiak

I spent most of my time in Akiak listening, and enjoying watching the dancers. Boy, there are some dancers in Akiak! I have never seen a group of people that could dance so well. Even the youngsters could dance. I really wanted to dance, but was a little shy about getting out there on the floor. I don’t step near as nicely as these folks do!

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Julie and Friend

The kids in Akiak were a hoot! They were so friendly and polite and loved the cameras. Todd and I both had fun playing with them, taking pictures, and just interacting with them. I was brave enough to let them play with my camera for a little bit, and they took some really good pictures! I’d love to see them get to do some photojournalism, and document village activities and their own lives.

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community center parking lot

I also spent a little time walking around Akiak, just to see what it was like. I was very impressed; it’s much cleaner and neater than Bethel. Someone works hard to keep this community in good shape. Seemed like most everyone has a four wheeler instead of a car or pickup, judging by the number of them parked outside the community center. Not too many dogs either; a couple of small village dogs running around, but I didn’t see any sled teams and only a couple of tethered dogs. Pretty late in the season for drying salmon, but there was a rack hanging down by the river.

The afternoon was concluded with a snack of dried salmon and dried hooligan (or smelt), crackers and cookies, and some spaghetti. Mike Williams spoke a little bit about the difficulties of suicide, and then asked several of the elders to give some advice to the young people. Mike Stevens then talked briefly about an experience he had in a village in Labrador, Canada, when he saw some kids sniffing gas. It changed his life, and he started a program to bring musical instruments to the villages. Earlier in the afternoon, Mike Stevens shared harmonicas with the kids in the village. Lastly, we handed out some door prizes.

The door prizes were really fun! I got to be the announcer, because I had my glasses with me and could read the tickets. We had berry buckets, tee shirts, vegies, I donated one of my small quilts, and there was an iPad mini to give out. I really got into it, and was making little silly comments about the prizes. Like the vegies-I expressed the hope that some single guy would get them and he could fix a dinner for his sweetheart.

We all had a great time! Mike and Ray are very personable, very down to earth. They are both world class musicians and we were very lucky that they were willing to essentially donate their talent to the people of Bethel and Akiak. They hove to when we were loading and unloading the boat, and were incredibly friendly and easy to talk to. And oh yes, my first time to drive in Bethel was to take them to lunch a couple of days after our Akiak trip.

Mike Williams took us all back to Bethel, and in contrast to our dampish trip upriver, going home was sunny and warm. We unloaded the boat and headed to the River Cafe for dinner, and then home to bed. Mike and Ray must have an incredible amount of energy; they were so busy in Bethel and Akiak, and never had an afternoon to just hang and rest up. After leaving Bethel, they were both off to more traveling. I don’t know how they do it!

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