Alan Boraas: Dena'ina guides provided lesson in how to live in the north

Alan Boraas

On the morning of Feb. 11, 1861, eight Dena'ina men guided Father Nikolai, the Orthodox priest at Kenai, 90 miles into the interior of the Kenai Peninsula. There he would conduct the business of the church among the interior Dena'ina villages.

Off they went to do God's work. Each man was on snowshoes with a backpack, and each carried a walking stick useful for going through brush and getting over downed trees.

They set out across a swamp, probably the flats behind the Kenai airport the Dena'ina call Ken Ka'a, "Big Flats." As they traveled, the worst happened: The weather turned warm. Father Nikolai wrote their snowshoes "drowned in the deep snow," and "I felt as if I could go no further." But they pushed on until nine o'clock that night, well past dark, and made camp.

The Dena'ina dug a snow cave, lined it on the inside with alder branches and built a fire outside the entrance. They ate salted fish and the equivalent of Pilot Bread and drank tea. Father Nikolai wrote that "such a humble meal is more pleasant than the most luxurious dinner." Amen to that.

Traditionally, the Dena'ina made a sleeping bag of Dall sheepskin with the wool on the inside. We can hope someone made one for the priest as well. They slept in the snow cave that night.

The next morning they pushed on again in warm weather. Their route took them into heavy timber and rolling terrain. They "had to climb hill after hill," the priest wrote. The snow was still soft, yet they kept going all day and into the night. Near midnight the Dena'ina guides dropped down onto the frozen bank of the Kenai River where the first Dena'ina house of Stepanka's Village stood. The priest wrote the people welcomed them, warmed them and fed them.

The next morning they pushed into the mountains, still in warm, soft snow. The Dena'ina, the priest wrote, offered to carry him over the difficult places but he declined. When they camped that night, the weather turned cold. They kept a tea pot on the fire all night, drinking occasionally to stay warm.

Feb. 14 was another arduous day. The Dena'ina offered to go to the village, probably Skilantnu at Kenai Lake, and come back for the priest with a sled and haul him in. He declined. That evening they arrived in the village with the priest's dignity intact.

They stayed for three days. The priest baptized six infants, performed services, heard confessions and gave Communion to 75 Dena'ina.

On the fourth day the weather turned warm as the priest and his Dena'ina companions headed home to Kenai. They traveled via Skilak Lake, which had become a mirror of ice, and beyond it the heavy weight of soft snow turned their snowshoes to lead weights. Father Nikolai wrote that the snow-laden snowshoes made it almost impossible for him to step over even a hummock.

On the evening of the 20th they reached Stepanka's Village, where the next day the exhausted priest performed his duties. Two days later they continued in warm weather. The wet snow stuck to their snowshoes so they were dragging, the priest estimated, 20 pounds on each foot. The priest wrote, "everything around us is wet." Then it began to rain. As they crossed the swamps they were ankle deep in ice-cold water.

Finally, they reached Kenai. Father Nikolai wrote, "I don't know how, possibly by God's help, I hobbled to my house."

Through it all, Father Nikolai was astounded by the attitude of the Dena'ina. They did not become morose. They did not complain. They did not drag everyone down by incessant whining. They dealt with conditions as they encountered them. Father Nikolai wrote, "These Kenaitze are good to travel with ... no hardship makes them upset."

As I write this it has been over 40 degrees in Southcentral Alaska for a week. Everything is wet and icy. Some are practicing the noble art of grousing. But many are angrily complaining over what they cannot control.

In the card game of life, nature is the dealer. We don't get to deal, we only get to react. We can whine and complain, or, like the Dena'ina of old, we can accept the hand nature deals us and make the best of it. When that happens, we will have achieved a culture of the North like the indigenous people before us.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College. Father (Hegumen) Nikolai's account is translated by Andrei Znamenski in "Through Orthodox Eyes," pages 85-88.

Alan Boraas