Saturday, July 25, 2015

Eagle Alaska

God promised his people he wouldn't destroy the world by flood again, but for the residents of Eagle, Alaska, in 2009 and 2013, I'm sure they were questioning his eschaton as the Yukon River rose and ice blocks larger than houses collided with their homes, stores, and church. NOAA hydrologists   called the 2009 flood a 200-year event and the 2013 flood the second worst in recorded history. FEMA deployed to this tiny speck 170 miles from anywhere and 370 miles from my home in Fairbanks. They cordoned off homes and deemed many structures unsafe, helping residents establish hasty shelters, starting a rebuild that would take years and is still ongoing.

If you look on a map see you'll only one Eagle, when there is actually two: Eagle (City) and Eagle Village. Once separated roughly 3 miles apart, now they're situated about 7 miles from one another, the village inhabited by Alaska Natives--Athabascans of the Han subgroup. They've lived here for eons. Fishing for salmon in the rivers and hunting for caribou in the hills--both plentiful in the area--until a little over 100 years ago when gold was discovered. After first contact, approximately 4/5th's of their people died from measles. As one elder shared with me, "Our people moved throughout this land but lived on a creek near the bluffs [in Eagle City], though after the town grew we moved up river" [to what was the old village]. In the floods of '09 and '13 the village was totally scoured and washed away. Houses were pushed fifty feet or more from there foundations (see photographs hyperlinked in the news articles above). Relief agencies arrived and moved the community to a new location up river, closer to the Canadian border and situated at a higher elevation, further from the river and separated by a high cut bank. The process of rebuilding has been slow, I understand from talking with several elders, the population has dwindled from 200 to 20. Many people moved to Tok or Anchorage or Fairbanks after their homes were destroyed, one of the elders that remained is Ethel, she prays daily for her people and insists, "they will slowly return to their home."

I deployed to Eagle as part of a larger team of Lutheran missionaries from North Carolina and Minnesota, after hearing about the trip through Lutheran Indian Ministries, an organization my church supports. Including me, there were ten of us. Four team members ran a vacation bible school in the town of Eagle, four team members worked solely on the construction project, and two team members participated in both events. Our mission was to continue an ongoing effort to build a church for the villagers in Eagle. We weren't quite sure what we would find when we arrived. The construction boss had a lot of experience operating in Interior Alaska villages on projects and came prepared with three tough boxes full of tools. We quickly assessed the work in progress, checked-in with the village chief, and spoke on the phone with another missionary in Tok that recently worked on the church, deciding with our time and tools we could cut six windows (three on each side), cut a seventh window and install a stain glass, widen the entryway in preparation for double doors, grind and sand the entire exterior, and stain the logs. We accomplished everything in four full days of work.

During my time in Eagle I was inspired by some amazing woman, faithfully working to re-establish their community. The love they shared with us was nothing less than the love Jesus commands us to share with one another. They prepared our every meal, allowing plenty of time to work from morning to evening. The final day--our group circling the inside of the church--we prayed together, hand's grasped, and praised God for his faithfulness, lifting up the generations to come that will call this church home.


Chicken gold dredge

Trucks, motorcycles and RVs, a common sight on our summer highways



the Taylor Highway, somewhere near Chicken

the first of three caribou sightings, this was a small herd of about a dozen

second caribou sighting


final caribou sighting somewhere on or beyond a ridge near American Summit

The blue arrow is the new Eagle Village and the red arrow is the old Eagle Village. Eagle City is just a little further down river at the sharp bend before the river turns due North, the Eagle Bluffs a tan spot on the satellite image just further down river left. 

the front of the church before we began working

the right side of the church before we cut holes for the future windows

the left side of the church before we cut holes for the future windows

the freshly cut and framed gap for double doors

the church on a third day, we spent this day sanding and staining

the front of the church stained golden honey

new windows letting the light in


the seventh window front and center, roughly above where the alter will be

a stain glass window designed and created by members of St Peters Lutheran Church in Conover, NC


 a quiet road through the new village of Eagle, still heavily forested 

 a boat beached on the rock shore of the Yukon River at a site near the village

 a bed & breakfast in the city

 this sign was dozens of yards above and hundreds of yards away from the Yukon River glimmering at the top of the photograph

 nostalgia in the city



team members from Conover, NC ran this bible school which averaged about 10-15 kids throughout the week

the old public school in the city, now used as a checkpoint for the Yukon Quest sled dog race, was the site for vacation bible school

 Eagle Bluffs and Yukon River

 with the growth of the city of Eagle during the gold rush came the military who established Fort Egbert, guarding the community from the Canadian border maybe 9 miles away

 a photo of the old village hanging on the wall in the community hall, see how close they lived to the river's banks...

 this altar cross was recovered from the wreckage of the church after the flood, slightly bent, now a reminder of the resiliency of the Han people

 three granite stones recovered from the flood, once used as the church's baptismal font, they will soon be placed in the newly constructed St. John's Church of Eagle Village

 this is the community hall where the ten of us camped out on the floor for the week

 the teens from North Carolina decided to us our vehicles as billboards 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Fairbanks to Forest Grove

Some photographs from Fairbanks to Forest Grove, by bike. Hopefully an essay or trip narrative will follow. Stay tuned.