Leaving the city behind for village life

khopkins@adn.comDecember 1, 2012 

KWETHLUK -- When Eunice Schaefer moved back to the village after more than a decade of city living, relatives often appeared at her doorstep with food. They had caught extra fish or killed extra birds, they would say. Did she want some?

These members of her extended family, some of whom she barely knew, didn't really have food to spare, she understood.

"Moving from Anchorage to a village, or any city to a village, you're used to things not costing as much. It's harder to budget. And you know my pride kept me from asking for help when we first got here," said Schaefer, a 32-year-old mother of seven.

"I'd rather go without and a lot people knew that. They'd just bring things over," she said.

I met Schaefer in late September at the Kwethluk Native Store, where she works as a clerk. As her young family toughens to life on the Lower Kuskokwim River, they are among the hundreds of Alaskans who have moved from Anchorage to villages in the past two years, many trading city "luxuries" like indoor plumbing and big box stores for the backyard salmon streams and berry fields of Bush Alaska.

An exodus of villagers to Alaska cities -- an urban migration -- grabbed headlines over the past decade. But the river flows both ways as many rural residents return to hometowns across the state.

For the first time since 2000, the Bethel census area actually gained more people from Anchorage in 2010 than it lost, according to the state Labor Department. "We don't expect that to be a long term trend. But it can happen just because we have these huge numbers going to and from each year," said state demographer Eddie Hunsinger.

For Schaefer and her kids, the trip has been a homecoming, a return to the web of familial support and unbidden open-handedness that defines Bush Alaska, and a departure from the anonymity and low-cost softness of city living.



Schaefer grew up in the Inupiat village of Point Hope but has family roots in Kwethluk. The sprawling, riverside medley of boxy homes, Russian churches and steamhouses is her mother's hometown. Schaefer lived here at times as a girl.

When her aunt died around New Year's Day in 2011, Schaefer visited for the funeral. Everyone was so welcoming, she said. They brought food and prayed for her aunt to make it heaven and helped with chores.

"They said, 'This is where you come from. We're your family, even if you don't really know us," Schaefer said.

By the end of the month, she'd moved to the village.

It hasn't always been easy. She lives here with her boyfriend and four of her children, ages 4 to 11. Another boy, 15, lives in Anchorage with family. "He has friends there," Schaefer said. "I think he likes taking a shower."

Family members adopted two of her other children. Schaefer was young when she had them, she said. "I didn't want my kids to go without."

Her one-room house is smaller than an Anchorage garage and home to six people. Schaefer pays just $1,500 a year to live here, she said, but hopes to someday build her own house, far away from the eroding riverbank. Her bathroom, a honeybucket, is on the porch. No water means her children bathe in a large Tupperware tub, using rain collected in a 10-gallon bucket.

Schaefer talked about her move one afternoon this fall as her 4-year-old daughter, Makyla, played with a Barbie DVD case on the peeling linoleum floor. The kids miss Anchorage parks and playgrounds, she said.

The family had spent a recent day in Bethel, a half-hour boat ride downriver, where they ate at a restaurant. "I remember these!" her daughter said.



Schaefer and I recently spoke again by phone as her family prepared for Thanksgiving dinner: caribou donated by a cousin, plus a whole chum salmon. Being in the village means being thankful for different things, she said.

In Anchorage, she was grateful for her car, a Saturn bought from a cousin for $50. Kwethluk has no paved roads and Schaefer walks to her job at the tribal-owned store. During her lunch break, she sometimes carries home a few pieces of wood left over from trees cleared for a multimillion-dollar water and sewer project beginning in the village.

She's grateful this winter that someone must have seen her collecting wood. A neighbor recently knocked on her door with a wheelbarrow packed with chopped logs.

"I never really knew anything about wood," Schaefer said. "For me it's a big deal to have my kids be able to go out and get wood and cut it themselves, and burn it, and know that they heated the house for that day."

She's grateful for the neighbor who gave her son a pair of shoes this summer, when he lost his playing on the tundra. She's thankful for the small Danby top-load washing machine the family bought in the village. It runs on rainwater and saves trips to the washeteria, where cleaning two loads of clothes cost $24.

Plus, people watch out for her kids in Kwethluk, she said. They invite the family to holiday meals and compliment the children on their new jackets. They tell her son he has the makings of a fine hunter. Her children are named after deceased relatives, and sometimes people in the village tell them stories about their namesakes.

"It lets them know that they're really special and they're cared for and wanted," Schaefer said.

Sometimes, during the long, muddy walk to work, Schaefer thinks of moving back to the city. Or maybe to Bethel. All told, and at least for now, she's glad to be back.

Sometimes she hears her kids practicing to count in Yup'ik, reciting lessons learned at school. Instructors taught them to make akutaq and find rabbit holes. Her daughter learned to pluck and cut a duck.

Now that the river has frozen, the children can go ice fishing a few steps from the house.

"My kids had always wanted fish before moving here, and it was something that they didn't get too often," Schaefer said. "We'd buy it from Costco, more often than not."




Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at adn.com/thevillage. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.