What is it like living in a community that is only accessible by plane and where hunting and fishing are vital for survival? Residents of a remote Alaska Native village share their stories.
Flora points to a wooden stick that her family places over the door of the house at night as a precaution against bears.
The 65-year-old’s village is situated amid a network of rivers and creeks that feed into Lake Iliamna, home to the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. During the summertime, the fish fight their way upriver to their natal streams, and villagers net the salmon to dry on wooden racks, smoke in their smokehouses, and pressure cook in jars and cans.
Outside, her daughter stands in rubber boots on a pole of their fish rack and adjusts the bright salmon fillets that hang higher up. Next to her is the smokehouse, to which she will move the fillets when they have dripped away their slime.
The enclosed porch of Flora’s daughter’s house is the centre of salmon activities this summer, and Flora leans over a wooden table working, her purple glasses and graying hair held back by a bandana.
Her latex glove puckers and folds as she arranges chunks of fresh salmon into quart-sized jars. Behind her stands an enormous pressure cooker – “one of the biggest in Iliamna,” she jokes – which will seal the jar lids and cook the fish.
Storing salmon is a staple practice in the remote area, and dealing with bears is another.
“The other day, there was one right on the island,” she says, referring to an area a few hundred metres from their house. Her voice lilts energetically as she talks. “Big, humongous bear.”
Bears will range down to the banks to feed on sockeye and pack on weight for their winter hibernation, but the residents’ fish racks offer a ready-made meal.
“The bears around here are used to people. They don’t run but we chase them away because they are used to people and they are used to eating stuff that we put … up,” she says, adding salmon to a half-filled jar.
They can break into smokehouses – sometimes tearing window screens or wood panelling to reach the salmon fillets hanging inside.
Residents rely on electric fences to ward them off, or “bear dogs” that will bark when a bear is near. When residents are working outside or walking in the tundra without the protection of their trucks, they sometimes carry guns to shoot in the air to scare away the bears.
It’s a relationship defined by caution and respect.
Bear is not as popular to eat among locals as moose or caribou – the meat is strong and nearly black, and fewer hunting permits are available throughout the year – but the fat is rendered out and jarred to use as an oil in cooking.
Sports hunters also pass through the area for trophy hunting.
“I had so many friends give us bear spray. But I’m old so I just set it down, I think I will put it in a safe place and I can’t find it,” Flora says with a laugh.
She counts the jars sitting on the table – 18 in total – and takes off her glove. Here, salmon and other wild foods make up 80 percent of residents’ protein intake.
Flora finishes her work by cleaning the edges of the jars with a damp paper towel, making sure to wipe away the fish slime and scales.
They will put some of their salmon in a freezer whole, some will be pickled or smoked – and much of it will be stored away safely in jars for eating later in the year.
Eight-year-old Ava holds a clod of dirt in her hands and lifts it away from a snuffling stray dog.
Rain patters on the roof of her godmother’s house in the remote Alaskan village of Iliamna as water drips from the hood of Ava’s rain jacket.
The house is at the top of a slope of tundra that descends to the banks of Roadhouse Creek, a winding waterway that runs through the village to Lake Iliamna in Alaska’s southern interior. The creek will soon be full of red sockeye salmon and brown bears will range down in search of food to eat, but it is not that time of year just yet.
Ava notices me struggling with the garden hose, and offers her hand. “Let me see?” she says, and switches on a valve so that water sprays out.
She squats over a stove pot filled with soil and her purple rain boots crunch on the gravel.
She has made mud pies many times before; the high-pressure hose softens the soil and mulch in the pot and she pushes the stray dog – which she decides to name Socks because of its white feet – out of the way.
She stands up and balances the hose on its spigot. Her shoulders hunch in the chilly summer air, and she shakes the cold water off her hands. She spots me trying to make the mud less watery.
“It’s how I like it though,” she says with a toothy smile.
She pulls her sleeves away from her muddy hands as she decides what to make.
“We use mud, leaves,” she pauses to looks at me as she thinks, “and fireweed – the flowers – to make leaf pizza.”
Together, we search for the ingredients.
The tundra is more fragrant in the rain and gives off earthy tones as the creek swells nearby. The tundra contains spruce trees, mosses, spiders, berries, willows, wildflowers, squirrels, buried bones, porcupines, and more – it is a world of its own.
Ava knows this hill well and runs down it, breathing harder than she needs to, with Socks running back and forth at her heels. She looks up and smiles when she finds something, the search itself becoming the game.
“Look! What can these be for?” she says, bending over a patch of horsetails as her feet sink in the soft ground. The plants are green and cylindrical. “Pickles?” she says with a laugh, and adds them to her collection of ingredients.
We pick blue flowers and leaves that will be garnish, blackberries that will be peppercorns, caribou moss – stringy and white – that will be cheese.
“Mushroom!” she says, spotting a beige cap nestled near the ground, but she doesn’t bend down to get it. “We might not want to pick it yet because it’s not ripe and I don’t know if it’s poison or not,” she explains as she continues onwards.
On the house patio, she dumps the mud onto a flat rock that she levels with a smaller stone, and begins the assembly process. She adds the flowers, leaves and berries to make a colourful mosaic on the mud. Nearby, the stray dog wags his tail and sniffs the patio.
“We are making a pizza here, Socks, why can’t you just get away?” she says jokingly, and turns back to the pizza. “Now, we need to put on the cheddar popcorn pops,” she giggles.
Her fingers are dotted with soil and wet leaves. She stands near the house and lets the rainwater that drips from the edge of the roof wash them. Her hood has fallen down and her short damp hair hangs close to her round face.
One day, Ava would like to compete on a cooking show and sing on America’s Got Talent, she explains. She owns a toy karaoke machine, a guitar, two ukuleles, and wants to learn how to play the keyboard. She likes eating real pizza, as well as fried fish and rice, and for a snack, she enjoys dry meat – caribou or moose meat, dried into a jerky – with seal oil.
Before school starts, her family will catch sockeye salmon to eat throughout the year. She will help clean the fish, but she’ll also run off to play with her cousin by their smokehouse. They’ll tie salmon eggs onto a string and lower them into the water to attract stickleback fish, which wriggle and prod in cupped hands.
In the coming months, the blackberries and blueberries will ripen, and cranberries will carpet the tundra. Residents will make jams out of them, as well as from fireweed, one of the flowers on Ava’s mud pizza.
Later, she will lift the hose off its spigot and drag it across the gravel, washing the pizza, the mud and the flowers from the grey cement. But until then, there is still mud left to use, and more things to create.
“OK. Next step is the pie.”
A television plays quietly in the background as 68-year-old Jim Lamont prepares soup at his kitchen table. He opens a can of spam and cuts its contents into precise cubes, drains a can of corn and slices an onion.
Along with the soup, he boils a porcupine. Jim likes the taste of the meat but doesn’t like burning the quills off to clean it because it smells like burned hair and that, as well as the scent of the nearby swamps and boggy tundra in Alaska’s southern interior, reminds him of Vietnam.
“Vietnam was a living hell,” he says. “That’s all I will say about that.”
Jim has lived in the remote Alaskan village of Newhalen for 40 years. Here, he has worked in law enforcement and, later, as a van driver for a mining company. Here, he has built a house for himself and his wife. And here, he drives his tan and brown Ford Club Wagon to the village store, ferrying older residents who don’t have cars of their own.
But before Newhalen, the chronology of his memories shift a little with each telling, the dates and times sometimes colliding.
I was happy to come home, but everyone turned their backs on us
What is clear, however, is that he grew up in Emmonak, a remote Yup’ik village along the Yukon River Delta hundreds of kilometres northwest of Newhalen; one of a family of 22.
He says he was 16 when he signed up for the army – two years younger than the minimum age – and recalls his sister helping him lie about how old he was.
He was, he says, “young, dumb and wild”.
“I wanted to go into the army and get it over with when I was young,” he later explains by telephone.
The kitchen walls are painted sky blue and a small Russian Orthodox icon sits above the kitchen table beside a photo of Jim’s granddaughter. Beyond the window, the grassy banks of Newhalen River are just metres away.
The lines around Jim’s mouth deepen when he talks and laughs. He’s known in the village for his stories and the booming voice in which he tells them. But when the topic of the war comes up, his eyes narrow; the bad times in Vietnam, when he saw men with missing jaws and limbs, he prefers not to talk about.
“I don’t think anyone wants to,” he says. “Because it was a war we should have never been in.”
Jim says he was deployed in the demilitarised zone, a stretch of land between North and South Vietnam that became a battleground during the war.
The fighting was chaotic. Air Force pilots would be ordered to bomb an area, with ground troops supposedly coming in afterwards to sweep it. But the planes would show up hours late and start bombing their own army. Jim is convinced that 90 percent of the combat he saw was under friendly fire.
As he talks, his best friend, Bob, walks in. The two men are physically opposite – Jim is stocky with grey hair that darkens to black on the crown of his head, while Bob has white hair, a narrow face and lean frame – but they arrived in Newhalen at around the same time; Bob working as a teacher and basketball coach at the local school.
It took a while to get over my flashbacks
The two men exchange jokes and swear at one another. When Bob hears the topic of conversation, he jokingly refers to Jim by a derogatory term used for the Vietnamese during the war, before settling down at the table for a game of Solitaire.
Returning home from the war brought new battles for Jim.
“I was happy to come home, but everyone turned their backs on us,” he says. “They had nothing to do with us.”
In Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, he felt that people looked down at him. But, back at home with his family, he felt loved, he says.
Still, he remembers, “It took a while to get over my flashbacks.”
They eventually faded but one thing has stuck with him, he says. “I get mad easy … I hold stuff in.”
Bob nods knowingly – this isn’t news to him.
Jim stayed in the military for several years after Vietnam, working as a drill instructor before he grew tired of the regimented life and decided to leave.
He recalls a time after the war when he drank heavily and how, upon seeing some state troopers one day, he decided to give up the drink and pursue a career in law enforcement.
“[I] drunk myself until I was sober,” he laughs.
So, he started working for the Alaska Department of Public Safety and was posted to Newhalen. Later, when he was asked to move to another community, he resigned. He knew he wanted to stay.
Jim will be moving out of this house soon. He has built another next door with funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal government body looking after Native American interests. His old house, he will give to Bob.
“He’s my buddy,” says Jim. “Maybe I would have been lonesome if Bob wasn’t around here.”
“When there’s too much water sometime the salmon eggs don’t prosper too much”
Seagulls float near the swollen banks of Newhalen River, their high-pitched calls carrying across the water. Rain dampens the feathered tips of the tall grasses that grow along the waterside. A trail for four-wheelers winds down to the river, ending at a clearing where a tall birch tree grows.
Anecia’s breath fogs in the chilly air as she bends over a tote box in the clearing, her maroon sleeves pushed into thick rubber gloves. Her hood is tied tight around her face and a fleece headband keeps her hair out of her eyes. A boat is tied to the bank nearby, and a table for filleting fish is turned upside down in the water. Like many residents of Newhalen, a remote village in the southwestern interior of Alaska, the 65-year-old is spending her summer processing fish.
She holds up a fillet, flips it over from its sleek silver skin to the soft red meat and traces along it with her gloved finger. “I noticed sometimes they have like a pus,” she says, looking up. “It looks fine on the outside, but sometimes, there’s like a pus in the meat. So, you’ve really got to look at it when you cut it.”
She believes this pus is present more often now than it was when she was growing up. Many things feel different now, she reflects – the rain, the river, the salmon, the summer.
Behind her is a cluster of single-storey houses, among them her own and those of her relatives. The village rests at the mouth of Newhalen River, which runs deep and silent in some parts, reflecting the dark green of the spruce trees on its forested banks, and quickens into rapids in others. It feeds into Lake Iliamna, which extends for miles towards craggy mountains in the distance.
Occasionally, a bear wanders out into the river, searching for salmon, and on the lakeshore bald eagles swoop for fish scraps left by working villagers.
Anecia wakes early, works a shift as a cook for a mining company that is doing permitting work in the area, before returning home to begin her day’s work of cleaning and filleting the fish.
The water is unusually high this summer. There is barely any beach left on the shores where residents fillet their salmon, and the winding network of creeks and rivers in the area – the natal streams for the sockeye that swim upriver each year – run quickly.
“The old people say when there’s too much water sometimes the salmon eggs don’t prosper too much because they kind of wash away,” Anecia explains as she waits for the fish to finish brining in salty water. “It’s better if they are kind of shallow and they kind of get embedded underneath the rocks.”
The weather is not the same as when Anecia was growing up. The winters are getting warmer and the ice on the lake melts earlier each year. Last year, the water levels reached the opposite extreme – they were so low that land once submerged sat above water and gravel beaches extended far.
She has noticed fewer salmon than when she was growing up – which is true of her area even though surveys find that the salmon run is productive and healthy overall. She knows that they come and go in cycles, and that there will always be fish.
She recalls a story she heard about the weather changing. “My mother-in-law she is … one of the elderly peoples of the village, she used to tell me that someday the fish probably won’t come but they’ll come in very few which is happening now. Then, she said maybe one of these days we wouldn’t have summer. And I said ‘Why?’ She said that you know, like global warming, where the winter stays a long time in the summer then people will be fishing in through the ice. And I said, ‘Please don’t let that happen. I don’t want to see ice in the summer,'” Anecia shivers. “She said, ‘Even if you don’t want to do, someday, it’ll happen.’ And I said, ‘I hope not.'”
The patter of rain is louder under the tarpaulin that protects the fish rack, where her salmon now hang. The brine and fish slime drip from the fillets as they swing gently in the wind. Over the coming days, they will first feel slick, then tacky, before drying completely.
“I told her that we always had dance and it was part of us”
Father David’s voice lilts gently over the telephone line, with the hint of a cold and an early morning wake-up.
He is in Pilot Station, a remote Alaskan village on the Yukon River, almost 500km from where I am near Newhalen, his year-round residence. He and Mother – a title of respect given to the wife of the priest – are subsistence fishing in their own Native villages.
Sitting on top of a hill overlooking the river, Newhalen’s Russian Orthodox church with its golden cupolas and three-barred crosses is quiet when they are away. The church bell, which rings on Sundays to call residents to worship, is still. Below, villagers subsistence fish, setting out their nets and tending to their smokehouses. Others have travelled for seasonal work elsewhere.
As the season passes and residents return, women will attend services in skirts – sometimes worn over snow pants and shoe packs in the winter – and men in regular clothes. Late-comers will hold a finger over one ear as they pass the ringing bell on their way into the church.
Inside, they will venerate three icons by crossing themselves, kissing the icon and then crossing themselves again before taking their place; women stand on the left, and men on the right.
The woody smell of incense will waft through the room as everyone stands in a respectful silence.
Father David oversees Saturday liturgy services, Sunday communion, holiday services, weddings, and funerals in the church, in which he carved much of the intricate woodwork himself.
His voice remains soft as his sermons address problems in the village or request a change to bad habits with a gentle, “We need to …”.
Russian Orthodoxy has been a part of the state for more than two centuries: Russian trappers began traversing the land in around 1741, and their religion soon followed, with the establishment of the first mission in Alaska in 1794.
Father David thinks that the first church in Newhalen was built much later, sometime in the early 1900s.
Older generations recall one priest who banned traditional Yup’ik dance, which was typically performed at village gatherings and used to tell stories, describe hunting practices, teach survival lessons and perform comedy, among other things.
But these dances have since faded from memory in Newhalen, passing away with the elders who once knew them.
Father David had a different experience in Russian Mission, his home village. “Here in the Yukon, they never took away the culture and dance, but enhanced it,” he says.
He remembers his mother taking him to dance practise, and performances at village carnivals and during the dark winter months. They would only refrain during Lent and certain holidays.
Some missionaries in Alaska would use translators and offer Yup’ik-language Bibles and church services, he explains. “So, instead of having them stop their language, they came and they learned it … and applied it to the Church.”
Father David is fluent in Yup’ik, and taught it when he moved to Newhalen. His two daughters work with another resident to revive Yup’ik dance, asking permission from other villages to adopt their songs. They teach it at schools and in the community, and performances are creeping back into winter festivities.
But the priest remembers how, when he first came to Newhalen, he encountered one resident who didn’t want dance in the village.
“There was an elder lady that told us that it was evil, that it was bad, and I told her that we always had dance and it was part of us,” Father David recalls. “I was thinking that that was their way that they thought before. But we try to let them know that it was OK.”
“The newer generation nowadays, you don’t see too many of them doing fish”
Smoke billows from Alice’s red smokehouse as she opens the door.
“I should get some of the smoke out of there,” she says, opening screen windows to let the air circulate.
It’s a rainy day in Iliamna, a remote village in southwestern Alaska, and Alice is wearing a muted green jacket and rain boots. But inside the smokehouse, it is hazy and warm.
Salmon fillets hang from wooden racks, their flesh neatly scored. A fire smoulders beneath a tin sheet that prevents it from flaring.
Alice examines the fish through her glasses.
For this batch of salmon, she is doing a “hard smoke,” which means the fish will stay in for 10 to 12 days, oils dripping from them as they turn deep maroon and jerky-like. The process is labour-intensive; if the smokehouse gets too warm the fillets will bake instead of cure, and if the fire goes out the salmon can sour. To regulate the temperature, Alice adjusts the fire cover, adding or removing rocks on holes in the tin sheet. She will have to check it late at night and early in the morning.
Most of the fillets are sockeye salmon, but there is a lone king salmon among them. The species occasionally fights its way upstream to this region, but Alice thinks its meat is too rich and villagers joke that all fish, including trout and other species of salmon, are inferior to sockeye. Iliamna sits on the largest sockeye salmon run in the world, and the fish is central to local culture.
Summertime brings communities together as they process fish to store – in jars, freezers or totes – for the coming year. Families talk and joke as they clean their catch in the sun or hunker down in the cold and rain.
It takes a lot of time and it’s a lot of work to get good fish, you know, to prepare it to eat.
Growing up, Alice’s family would process thousands of fish each summer in order to feed themselves and their dogs. Dog teams – consisting of up to a dozen dogs harnessed to a sled – were used as transport and pack animals. Without running water or motorised vehicles, her father would use them to carry wood or water from the lake. “If we had 10 dogs, we probably needed 1,500 fish,” she says. “I mean, we used everything; the eggs, the fins. There was no wasting there.”
Now the villages have trucks, heating and running water, and Alice has prepared only about 200 salmon this summer.
And while salmon remains a staple part of villagers’ diets – as flying groceries out from the nearest city, 300km away, can double the price of food – Alice believes it is a way of life that is dying out.
“The newer generation nowadays you don’t see too many of them doing fish,” she reflects. “It seems like … they’re just interested in all these store-bought food.”
Households have grown more dependent on groceries, either using air cargo services to fly them from the city of Anchorage or buying them from one of the two stores in the area.
And as a shortage of jobs pushes more young people out of the villages and into cities, many do not develop the skills and knowledge needed to process fish well. A fillet cut too thick will never cure, a brine with too much salt will overpower, a smokehouse left unattended will turn sour.
“They don’t know how to do fish real good,” Alice says. “It takes a lot of time and it’s a lot of work to get good fish, you know, to prepare it to eat.”
She has seen fishing knowledge lessen with each generation; the adults knowing a little less than the elders, the youth knowing less than the adults, and the interest in learning waning.
“Then, it will probably just kind of fade away,” she says.
Alice’s home sits above a small lake where floatplanes take off throughout the day, their drone carrying across the winding creeks and marshy tundra. Inside, cases of jarred salmon sit on a table. Alice plans to send them to her daughter, mother and some friends in other towns.
Her two grandsons are visiting, and the muffled sounds of children playing drifts through the wood-panelled walls.
Her oldest grandson, who is 10 years old, helped clean her fish this summer and both grandchildren love to eat them. But the dozen or so days it takes for the fish to cure in the smokehouse can test their patience and they beg their grandmother to bake the partially smoked fillets.
“They come … in the springtime, after school is out and when they were kids, they remind me of our little puppies running around with fish, running around with fish in their hand, playing and stop every once in a while to eat fish. ‘Grandma, can we have fish?’ ‘Yeah, you can have fish’,” Alice laughs.
She massages her hands. “Yeah, they sure like their fish,” she says.
“The language is gone”
Alexis strokes the air with her hands, her movements strong and sure.
She is demonstrating traditional Yup’ik dance as her eight-year-old niece, Ava, and baby nephew look on.
They are in the community centre of the remote Alaskan village of Newhalen, where plastic tables and collapsible chairs sit in rows beneath wide windows and an unlit scoreboard awaits the village’s bingo nights.
Ava joins the dancing for a song called the Reindeer Herding Song. Together, aunt and niece stand with their palms open and their fingers flat, their arms shaping the air. They turn and take steps backwards and forwards before pausing, bringing their hands behind their backs, and drawing their heads upwards. Ava keeps watch on Alexis from the corner of her eye to make sure she is following her aunt correctly.
Alexis first tried “yuraq”, or Yup’ik dance, when she was eight years old and a teacher taught some classes at the local school. But it was only in the final year of high school that she began to learn it in earnest.
She hesitates to explain why she was drawn to it. “I don’t really know, it’s just a thing that I like to do sometimes,” she says. “It just makes me happy to do yuraq with the younger kids.”
The songs and dances take their inspiration from aspects of traditional rural life – identifying animals, sharing hunting stories and connecting spiritually among the themes. A seal-hunting song, for example, will demonstrate oaring, looking for a catch and putting up a blind to cover the hunters.
In a full performance, like those at village gatherings, drummers sit behind the dancers, keeping a steady tempo; men kneel in front, holding fans made from bird feathers, while women stand behind holding fans made from grasses and caribou fur.
We barely have any elders around here now so it’s just time for us younger ones … to learn and teach these dances.
Alexis didn’t learn traditional dance from people in her village because there was no one to teach her.
The oldest villagers recall that a Russian Orthodox priest – the first Russian Orthodox mission was established in Alaska in 1794 after Russian fur traders reached the state decades earlier – forbade the practice. While some missionaries absorbed elements of Native culture into the church, others banned Native practices.
It was Alexis’s mother, an elder in the community, who explained that history to her. “It was actually pretty hard to hear,” she says. “It made me … really, really shocked.”
Alexis’s mother attended a federally operated grade school that forced Native children to stop speaking Yup’ik, often punishing them if they did so, and while she still speaks the language, she is one of few in the community to do so.
“The language is gone,” Alexis says shaking her head. “We barely know any words.”
Now 25 years old, Alexis is helping to bring some of that knowledge back. Along with two other women, she requests permission to borrow dances from other Native villages and then teaches them to a dozen or so children, most of them preschool age, at the local school.
As they sing along to the words, the language also starts to come back.
“I learn [Yup’ik] from some of the elders around here but [with] the dances that we do it’s pretty easy for me to just get the language just like that,” Alexis explains.
“We barely have any elders around here now so it’s just time for us younger ones … to learn and teach these dances.”
Soon, she says it will be up to her niece’s and nephew’s generation to keep it up, although she maintains that she only wants that if they do. “It’s up to those kids, not us,” she says. “I just hope that some of the culture will be around still.”
“The population in the school itself is bigger than Newhalen”
Fifteen-year-old Thomas gently lifts his 10-year-old brother, guiding him away from the front door and towards the living room couch.
“Come, sit down,” he says quietly.
But instead, Darren slips under his brother’s arm and heads towards the kitchen. Thomas lets him go but keeps watch from the couch.
The house is warm and sunlight filters through the peach-coloured curtains as raindrops land on the window panes. Outside, low-lying clouds make the vast landscape feel smaller; they blanket its spruce trees and tall grasses, spongy tundra and miles of mountain.
Thomas is from Newhalen, a remote village of 180 residents in Alaska’s southern interior. A single road runs through town, passing by the community centre – where bingo nights are held and youngsters play basketball, the rows of single-storey houses, the tribal government office, and the local school.
The school gym is a gathering place for the community. Thomas plays basketball there on a court painted in the school’s colours: blue and white. On the walls, a mural depicts the surrounding lake area; travelling across its snowy terrain is a team of malamutes – the school mascot – pulling a sled. Black ravens circle the scoreboard, and silhouettes of athletes are painted at eye-level.
In the colder months, residents sit on blue bleachers to cheer on their children; there are so few students that almost everyone has to compete in order to fill the teams. In the last academic year, the school had 67 students enrolled from pre-Kindergarten to 12th grade.
On the couch, Thomas fidgets with the seam of his jeans before letting his hands settle on his lap. He explains that this past year he wanted to try something new. He left the village for Mt Edgecumbe, a boarding school 1,100km away in the city of Sitka, for ninth grade. But within a month, he says, he knew he wanted to return.
He shakes his head and smiles. “I didn’t like it.”
The school had more than 400 students and Thomas shared a room with five other boys.
“The population in the school itself is bigger than Newhalen,” he explains, fidgeting.
Everything felt cramped, he says.
Most of the students were from rural areas like his, but few knew anything about his village or understood just how quiet and small it was. He played basketball, made friends and enjoyed some of the classes, including culinary arts which he wants to pursue in college, but he didn’t get along with everyone.
“Some of them were obnoxious,” he says, but doesn’t elaborate.
Last summer, his mother had spoken to me in the same room as she’d applied ointment to a wart on Darren’s finger. She is the quiet centre of the home, grounding her two sons with their widely different personalities. Thomas had asked her if he could go to boarding school and she had agreed that it would be good for him. He was into video games and technology, she’d reasoned, and could only find opportunities in those fields elsewhere.
She also thought it would be good to distance him from the care he provides for Darren, who has Down syndrome and requires around-the-clock attention.
“He’s been the biggest help,” she’d said then. “I’ll be scared when he goes. But I don’t want him to stay here watching his brother.”
While the village was good for her and Darren, with a community that felt like family and would help out in any way it could, she wanted something different for Thomas.
“I hope he’ll move on. Just go. I don’t want him living here. I want him to go out and see the world,” she’d reflected.
But when he was feeling particularly homesick at the boarding school, Thomas would think about his mother and brother, who is now curled up on the couch beside him, wearing a faded yellow t-shirt that reads “Born to fish”.
I ask Thomas what it is like growing up in Newhalen.
“It feels normal for me,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
What did he miss about it, I ask?
“Everything,” he says.