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Kicking It – More about our 49th state


Last updated 10/15/2021 at 6:40pm

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal

Special to The Village News

Alaska is called the “last frontier” for good reason. The people living there have a hearty spirit, solid sense of personal freedom, and a “don’t even think about gun control” attitude across the population. Guns are used as they were intended. Finding food and self-protection as it turns out, often from that food source. Remember, September is moose season.

A fan of shopping at local markets, the only reason I go to Alaska is to visit my daughter. She now lives in McGrath, Alaska. For those who do not know, she is a physician assistant at their village clinic.

The fully appointed clinic is the nearest treatment center in the zone I call “kingdom come.” Remember roads do not exist between villages. No doubt, it’s difficult to recruit medical staffers from warmer climates to trek into the wilds of Alaska’s interior.

Patients living in seclusion away from town often come by boat on the river although if it’s a serious medical condition would need to be airlifted out by helicopter. For now, indigenous people have free airlift service. Everyone else needs to purchase annual airlift insurance for around $250 a household which seems like a fair price because each trip on a medevac flight can cost upwards of $40,000 per.

A typical day at the clinic can be like this recent 18-hour Saturday. The call came in that a hunter was being airlifted in. He had collapsed while stalking a moose. Fortunately, most remote villages have asphalt landing strips in lieu of connecting roads which allowed his companions to fly him over in their chartered jet for treatment.

Advising the emergency staff at an Anchorage hospital about her patient’s diagnosis (a severe heart condition), she stabilized him and coordinated to have an ambulance meet him at the executive airport to transport him to the hospital ICU.

Another lucky break for this particular hunter, was their chartered jet allowed him fast arrival for his life-saving surgery. For instance, had he had to wait to be airlifted from the woods in the outback to McGrath to Anchorage, he possibly would not have survived.

And isn’t it human nature that the first thing he did when he woke up was to wibble about losing his life-long chance to bag a moose in Alaska? Well, the flip side is he lived. While sans moose meat, hopefully, his hunting pals invited him for a BBQ.

McGrath was founded in 1907 on the Kuskokwim River. Their rural village life is so far removed from anything in the lower-48, it truly seems like a remote foreign country.

McGrath’s general population runs a bit over 300 residents increasing drastically during September which is moose season in the area. The employment profile is a cross section of all races from the lower-48. They perform the majority of the higher-earning professional jobs. Meanwhile, the Athabaskan residents native to the area all too frequently rely on their government subsidies, wild game hunting, and subsistence fishing. Jobs are not abundant and are hard to come by.

I was informed by the local docent at the McGrath Museum, that only Alaskan natives living along the ocean are called Eskimos. Nevertheless, labels don’t matter when every native person I have ever met across the state has the same gentle brown eyes and aura of warm kindness about them.

The shy villagers in McGrath help their neighbors and always offer a friendly wave to everyone they pass along the well maintained bulldozed-dirt roads. Locals usually walk or get around on ATVs until the weather changes, then they switch over to snow mobiles and dogsleds. There are very few enclosed vehicles in the village even though the temperature can dip as low as minus 70 degrees.

Volunteering at their annual Bluegrass Festival last August, I met one young mother of distinction. Tall for a native, she is recognized by her neighbors for two things. First for her small exquisitely handcrafted, round birchwood jewelry boxes. The box I saw was a finely formed round one shaped from thin pieces of dried strips of birchwood veneer. It is covered with tanned moose hide (yes, she tanned that too) encircled with pinched porcupine quills (which she collected) in a drumhead design around the edge. She added multi-colored glass beads of Myosotis flowers (the Alaska state flower) before topping off the lid with purple-tinted tuffs of black bear fur (and she harvested the bear fur too).

The boxes are of the finest quality workmanship and sell for upwards of $350 each. Her claim to fame happened a few years ago. Selling her native art at a craft fair in Anchorage, former President Obama purchased one during his visit to the state.

The second thing this young woman is known for is hunting black bears. Since they are dangerous to the children in the village, this doe-eyed mama is a crack shot keeping a keen eye out for the marauding scavengers.

Like other food sourced around the village, once she skins the bear, (amazing to think she does this, isn’t it), she then gives the meat to any one of the mushers in the village. I know because one such recipient is my daughter’s beau. He has 26 sled dogs and they eat a lot.

The hardest thing for me to wrap my mind around after all of my numerous trips to the state is the number of families uprooting their young children to live in this remote-rugged frontier. Alaska is unforgiving. Still these parents willingly choose to live away from conveniences in the lower 48. Some even live outside the villages to experience living off-the-grid without running water, indoor plumbing, or central heat, preferring to chop wood. Really? Is this just to avoid video games?

I repeat, the only reason I go to Alaska is to visit my kid. Rarely in her new job does she get a break long enough to travel further than Anchorage. Well, all I can say is, “ Yu-kon have it”

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal can be reached at [email protected]


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