DILLINGHAM — One blustery afternoon near Snag Point here, Lyle Smith, pointing to the low hills and open tundra across the mouth of the Wood River, told me he was born in a small cabin there more than 80 years ago. He leaned on the ski pole he used for a walking stick, watched his old dog sniff the ditch-side grass along C Street, and recalled the rigors of an early life with few luxuries but plenty of outdoor adventure — fishing, hunting, trapping, boating to school, hauling drinking water up the slick path from the river.
Lyle is one of many older residents born and raised in Dillingham, or elsewhere in the Bristol Bay region — across the Nushagak in Clark's Point, for instance, or upriver in New Stuyahok or Ekwok — but who have lived all or most of their lives in or near their birthplace. I hail from Soldotna, which didn't even exist as a community prior to 1947.
I appreciate the long history that people like Lyle share with their home. Lyle was born more than a decade before the first Soldotna homesteader staked out land.
For some folks in Dillingham, the roots of history stretch even deeper into the soil of the past, in some cases for more generations than we may ever know. Although not everyone values his or her own historical relationship — for some, the past seems unimportant; only now matters — many cannot picture themselves living anywhere else. They cannot imagine life without the bay and the confluence of rivers, without the lake systems and the tundra, without the season of the salmon.
The Bristol Bay watershed pulses with the plasma of their lives.
A special bond
Although later arrivals — government workers, employees of Kanakanak Hospital or the school districts — may embrace their new home and become every bit as Alaskan as anyone else in Dillingham, those born in this region, those with generational ties to the land, the water and the people, have a special bond.
I have lived nowhere else in Alaska inhabited by such a high percentage of people my age (58) and older who were born there. In the outlying villages, I believe the percentage of lifetime Alaskans is much higher.
On the Kenai Peninsula, it was practically a given that anyone much older than me had been born out of state. With the exception of local Kenaitze tribe members and a few old-time families, it was difficult to find native Alaskans on the road system.
When I attended Soldotna Elementary School, most students and teachers I knew were born outside the state. Even in my first-grade class, few of us were actually born here. Most were recent arrivals. In fact, early Soldotna residents had been arriving from the Lower 48 in waves — homesteaders in the late 1940s and early 1950s, followed by Alaska Road Commission workers, oil and natural gas industry employees, and so on.
So almost everyone came from someplace else. Almost everyone, including my parents, had family Outside.
My parents were the products of generations of Hoosiers, mostly farmers. My father came to Alaska as an Army dentist stationed in Whittier in 1957. My mother followed shortly thereafter, and I was born in the Elmendorf Air Force Base hospital the next year. After Dad's military obligation concluded, my parents moved into Burton Carver's trailer court in Soldotna, and a year or so later they learned that a man named Stan Nelson, who had been injured building a road to his homestead above the Kenai River, had relinquished his claim to the land. Benefiting from Nelson's misfortune, we filed the requisite paperwork, made the necessary payments and assumed title. The family still owns about 100 acres of the original parcel.
My father died in 2007, having no desire to live anywhere but Alaska. My mother has moved off the homestead but not out of the state; she has three children in Alaska, and three grandchildren — all born in this state.
When I was a child and we traveled to Indiana to visit relatives, I found something I lacked back home — personal family history. In the cemeteries of northcentral Indiana were headstones of my ancestors. Some family farms had been owned and plowed for several generations. My grandparents lived down the road from their children and their grandchildren.
Blood in the soil
Back home on the Kenai, I had no extended family until my uncle moved here in the 1970s. On the Peninsula, we've spent most of my life building such a history, while in Bristol Bay, that history is rich and strong.
Most central Kenai Peninsula residents of my parents' generation were born elsewhere, and many of the ones who lived and worked, sometimes for decades, on the Peninsula left the state when they retired. They went "home," back to Michigan or Oregon or Oklahoma or wherever they'd been born. They left to rejoin family, to care for aging parents, to follow their offspring, to build retirement homes someplace warmer and less expensive. It can be difficult to stay when so much history, so much family, dangles like a lure so far across the water.
In the Bristol Bay region, sometimes even the Alaskans born there, pack up and move when they retire or when they get a career offer they can't bypass in the face of a flagging economy. Still, most stay. Their blood, like their ancestors', is in the soil.
When I subbed for the sixth-grade class at Dillingham Middle School earlier this year, I asked the nearly 30 students how many of them were born in Alaska. All but three or four raised their hands. Most of the Alaska-born kids had drawn their first breaths at Kanakanak Hospital a few miles down the road. In many cases, their parents had been born in Dillingham, too, and their grandparents as well.
These kids may not choose to stay in Dillingham, maybe not in the Bristol Bay region, perhaps not in Alaska at all. But the odds are good that they will.
Lyle Smith was once like those kids, on the cusp on his teens, with a world of possibilities before him. Although he traveled the world, he returned to Dillingham. His home is there. His family is there. The bay is there. And his heart is there.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan who also spent several years in Dillingham.