Sunday, August 23, 2015

Adak Alaska, Some Photographs

Gretchen and I spent a week on Adak Island. Here are some photographs. I hope to share stories and additional photographs in a few weeks.

There are two flights a week to Adak Island--Thursday and Sunday. It's about a three hour flight from Anchorage, Alaska, on a 737-400 "Combi." 

Adak was for many decades, from World War Two, until the end of the Cold War, a Naval Air Station as well as an early warning site. I don't know what percentage of the houses in the above photograph are inhabited, but I would guess maybe 10%. Currently about 100 people live on the island. At its peak over 6,000 thousand sailors and seamen, pilots, and their families lived on Adak. 

Our hosts treated us to smoked salmon our first night visiting, a very plentiful fish caught in the open ocean as well as swimming up the creeks trickling from the islands hills. 

When the base shutdown and the Navy left in 1997, most of the structures became open spaces to explore. Many places are marked "Do Not Enter" due to asbestos construction still present. Some places, like the newer chapel were boarded up and restricted, but most of the barracks, housing complexes, schools, hangers, galleys, rec centers, armories, fallout shelters, and work depos were left open to explore.

In the last ice age all of the trees were scoured from the island, leaving it covered in a variety of grasses, but then in the 60's the Navy decided to try growing a couple evergreens to boost morale.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Bound for Adak Alaska

I have a week left living in Alaska, though it feels as if these final days I won't even be in the same state that I've called home the past nine years. We're flying to Adak to visit a friend that has temporarily retired out there. While still technically Alaska, the island situated near the end of the Aleutian chain, is a three hour flight from Anchorage, 1400 miles from Fairbanks, about 500 miles from landfall in Russia, about 1900 miles from Cape Soya (northern most of the four largest of Japan's main islands), and 2400 miles from Oahu. Adak sits at 51N, about the same latitude as Vancouver, British Columbia, and 176W, about the same longitude as the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific.

In the 1940's, during WWII, it was pivotal in turning the tide of the Pacific campaign against the Japanesse and used as a staging area for 90,000 soldiers positioned to retake Kiska and Attu from the only enemy to invade American soil since the War of 1812. During the Cold War the Navy remained and the base had several thousand seamen and aviators stationed there. My uncle, an Annapolis graduate and Navy helocopter pilot lived on Adak with my aunt for over two years. In 1976 my grandmother flew all the way from Buffalo, NY, to spend time with her newly born grandbaby, my cousin.

Today, Alaska Airlines flies to Adak twice a week. A couple hundred people still live out there. Situated within a maritime wildlife refuge, it sees thousands of birds each season and a swarm of bird watchers that follow them with cameras and binos and identification guidebooks. State residents travel to the island to hunt the invasive caribou herd, 10,000 strong, from which you can kill ten a day. Fisherman stage there for halibut, cod, and crab. And afficienados of apocalyptic landscapes come to crawl through the hundreds of abandon buildings and huts left behind when the military finally pulled out and shut the base.

We brought camping gear and hiking gear. Maps. Cameras. Food. Wine. The usual kit for a week long adventure. Members of Club 49,  Alaska Airlines lets us check three bags, up to 50lbs each, for free. Our friends will be happy to unpack fresh groceries.

For now, waiting in the Anchorage airport, boarding in an hour, we're just hoping the fog and 30 knot winds clear so our flight doesn't have to circle the Bering Sea too many times.

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