I was born in 1952 at Cutoff on the Koyukuk River, but our family soon moved to Huslia, 10 miles downstream. My dad, Peter Marks, born about 1904, a Yup'ik from near Bethel, was twice as old as my mom, Laura Ambrose Marks, an Athabascan. Dad met mom while he was piloting boats up the Koyukuk at Hughes. Mom's mother spotted Dad first and charged her daughter, "You marry him!"
Dad loved to tell stories about how he had been a marshal at Tanana and cut firewood for the steamboats at McGrath. Paralyzed the last seven years of his life, he pushed a white-gas (Blazo) wooden box for a walker, often singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers." He prayed often. When I was 12, I lost my father. Mom, also a devout Christian, tried to keep the family together.
Once when I was in Shageluk, Jean Demientieff, a powerful Episcopalian pastor, said to me, an unbeliever, "If I had a cloak" (as in Elijah transferring his mantle), "I would give it to you."
Nonetheless, I became deeply involved with alcohol. I lived in McGrath, and after years of chronic inebriation, I woke up one night in a Bethel jail in 1985. Holding onto an iron bed all night, I considered suicide as I shook with delirium.
A few days later, I read the Bible and "From Prison to Praise" by Merlin Carouthers. I committed to Christ.
After release from jail, I flew to a large Lower 48 city for the first time to attend a Maurice Cerrillo church service. I experienced deliverance, a freedom of worship and felt led to establish home fellowships. Coining the Native American acronym AIM (American Indian Movement) into American Indian Ministry, I stood for reconciliation between the First Nations people.
Dennette, a member of Open Door church in Fairbanks, soon became my wife. I became assistant pastor. Our congregation saved for five years to get a used Polaris 800 RMK for ministry to the Bush.
LONG TREK ON CRANKY MACHINE
On Jan. 21, 2004, I loaded my guitar, sound-system equipment, chain saw and extra gas cans on a toboggan pulled behind my snowmachine and began a 2,000-mile trek to Noorvik on the Kobuk River and then southeast to Selawik. Just outside Tanana, however, my engine began sputtering. I got help in the village and then continued 120 miles to Ruby.
As I turned up the Koyukuk, a 100-mph wind the previous week had stripped the snow cover and left an obstacle course of slick, craggy ice, interrupted by occasional 3-foot islands of snow. My toboggan took a beating, leaving two 5-gallon gas cans ruptured. As I headed toward Huslia, I could only go 5 to 8 mph. Crossing the Purcell Mountains in the dark, I searched for trail markers, hoping for the hot springs cabins in the pass.
Exhausted after many hours, I drank some hot coffee and ate some salmon strips. When I found the cabin, snow had blown the door open but the firewood box had enough split logs for one night. After stripping, I eased my beat-up body into the hot water, cribbed in long ago by both Inupiat and Athabascans.
The next morning, I awoke to minus 60 degrees. I could barely pull the accelerator cord. In that barren pass, I spotted two standing trees and could then keep the stove going through the second night. But by morning, it was even colder. I poured some hot water in Ziploc bags and nestled them around the engine. Still, it was very hard to pull the cord. ... But suddenly, the vehicle started. "I'm outta here!" I yelled. Forty-five miles from Shungnak on the Kobuk, I wasn't stopping again. The sun was shining when I got into the flats. Some caribou danced by as I zipped along at 40 to 50 mph.
When I arrived at Shungnak, the pastor's wife of the local church greeted me with "We were praying for someone to come!" After a couple of days, I pushed on to Selawik. One couple struggling with alcohol decided to quit drinking. The CB radio that was usually raucous with inebriation and abuse was peacefully quiet. Everywhere I went, I was treated like royalty, but I missed home and decided to return.
When I set out, I had to break trail again. Through blowing, pelting snow, I could barely see Ambler's airport light. Relieved to escape a whiteout, I pulled in for the night, held a service and, the next day, pressed on.
On my way to Tanana, I got stuck in overflow multiple times, almost hit a moose. Then my snowmachine sputtered and died miles from the village. I began walking generally toward Roy Folger's house. I sludged around the Yukon's long bends for five hours. Suddenly at 3 a.m., Roy's dogs began to bark. He appeared in the yard and called me in.
After a good night's sleep, I called my wife, who bought me a plane ticket home. I came home COD.
SAFE VOYAGE THROUGH STORM
For several years, I have used a small boat on my ministry trips down the Yukon. Through a committed Christian businessman, Ralph Seekins, as well as Reed's Marine, I got a new 20-foot-long, 7-foot-wide Alumacraft with a 115-horsepower Mercury four-stroke with propeller and wide windshield.
In July, Cynthia Mountainflower of Teller and Seattle, Ron Shoeman of Selawik and I made a rag-tight army from different walks. Joined at times by others, we set out for an 11-day journey down the Yukon and up the Koyukuk, holding meetings from Tanana to Allakaket with awesome worship, seeing people filled with the Holy Spirit.
(In former times only a football field apart, Allakaket was Athabascan and Alatna Inupiat. But today, many of the people are intermarried. I have a particular love for the Inupiat.)
Upstream from Hughes, I was concerned about our heavily laden boat pushing through the boulder-strewn, shallow Koyukuk. Fearing breaking a lower unit, we only hit twice lightly and then changed props.
Near Tanana, 10 miles below Roy Folger's, we hit a terrible thunderstorm. In whitecaps with heavy chop, we were surrounded by lightning strikes while the river was being pelted with rain. To my amazement, the big windshield protected us.
From Koyukuk to Allakaket, the fuel was $900. The entire trip cost $3,700.
I am now planning a snowmachine trip to Tanana and Ruby, followed in the spring with a longer trip to Kotzebue.
As usual, I have things I need: a new snowmachine and sleeping bag, a satellite telephone, two headlamps and a portable heater. Forty gallons of fuel gets me to each village, where restocking costs $200.
These trips only reinforce my burden for the small villages. In the remote places, people are the hungriest. Those, like myself, who are forgiven much may also love much.
Judy Ferguson is a publisher as well as a freelance columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. She is the author of Alaska histories "Parallel Destinies" and "Blue Hills" and the children's books "Alaska's Secret Door" and "Alaska's Little Chief." Her Web site is www.alaska-highway.org/delta/outpost.