This post originally appeared on National Geographic Explorer’s Journal.
By Jon Waterhouse
We’re back on the Yukon River – this time in St. Mary’s, Alaska where the Healing Journey was born! My wife, Mary and I arrived here late yesterday evening just as the lights of this lovely village were twinkling to life. Perched on the sloping banks of the Yukon River in Western Alaska, St. Mary’s will serve as our base camp for the next 10 days. Since we flew the nearly 500 air miles from Anchorage in a Cessna 206, we feel pretty fortunate that the weather was beautiful and the 3+ hour flight was smooth. Of course, that’s thanks to our uber capable pilot, David – who is also the CFO of the YRITWC, the non-profit org that I direct. (Only in Alaska, right?) The temperature here now is a whopping zero degrees F, but the sky is filled with dancing green northern lights – the upside to a cold night in the Far North!
We’ll be spending our time here in western Alaska visiting friends in Emmonak, Pilot’s Station, Kotlik, Scammon Bay, Russian Mission, Shageluk and Chevak – all of which are small villages located on or near the lower Yukon River.
There are no roads between these locations and though we will mostly be flying from one community to the next, we have snowmachines here for shorter trips between the villages within a reasonable distance of one another (less than 50 miles apart? Is that reasonable?) We’ll be collecting snow and ice samples from various points on the river – a first for us on the Yukon as so far our sampling season has been limited to summer.
Another exciting aspect of this trip is that next week we will connect via Skype with our good buddy, Dr. John Francis, aka: the Planetwalker (read his earlier blog posts) as he walks with a group of college students across part of Indiana and Ohio. Each year, around Earth Day, John retraces a cross-country protest walk he took in the 70s after witnessing an oil spill in San Francisco Bay. The walk from one coast to the other took him 7 years – but he stopped riding in motorized vehicles for an incredible 22! We are looking forward to connecting with John and his trekkers via Skype from the rural Alaska classrooms we’ll be visiting while here.
I’m calling this trip a recon mission as we are preparing for next winter’s Healing Journey – a 1000+ mile journey on the frozen Yukon by snowmachine. Not only will we be speaking to Elders and Tribal leaders about the upcoming trip, sharing info about Native water rights and our upcoming tribal summit, we’ll also be connecting with young children in their classrooms, spreading the message of environmental stewardship. I feel a special connection to the people and land here – especially the kids – because this region is where the request was made of me to “go out and take the pulse of the river”. The children here have made a substantial impact on their environment by promoting the banning of plastic bags, and they have never backed down from a challenge when the future well-being of their natural environment is in question.
I am truly inspired to be here. Mary has lived in Alaska since 1975 but has never visited this part of the state. We have many friends here and are both thrilled for the opportunity to connect to a place and people that have essentially changed the direction of our own lives in such a positive way.
We’ll keep you posted as we continue west toward the coast of Alaska! Thanks for reading
Jon Waterhouse is the executive director of the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council and a 2012 honoree for the Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award.