Three weeks ago, we invited Alaskans to submit their life stories told in exactly six words. Over the last decade, six-word memoirs have become a popular form used across the country by teachers in classrooms from elementary to graduate school, radio contests, hospitals, prisons and on the Internet.
When we launched the project, we asked the question: Are Alaskans' lives so unique that our six words would be singular?
The answer came back from hundreds of people across the state: Yes.
Forty-two minutes after the call went out on the Alaska Dispatch News' website at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 4, the micro life stories started streaming in by email. And they haven't stopped, even weeks after the Oct. 11 deadline.
We received nearly 500 entries from Alaskans in 43 different communities — Bethel, Juneau, Nunam Iqua, Wrangell and so many other places in between. From them, a panel of judges picked three winners and a few dozen favorites. They and others are also published on the Alaska Dispatch News website.
Cold, darkness, fish, moose
Sixty-three of the submitted stories were about the cold and its cousins — snow, ice, and winter. Ten were fixated on darkness. Fish and fishing were the topic of 43 — clearly a significant result in this non-scientific survey on how Alaskans view their lives. Moose strode across 19 of these stories, and dogs were mentioned in seven. Hawaii was critical to four of these memoirs, and duct tape was the subject of one.
Entries from Kodiak seemed to focus on the sea; Juneau residents appeared obsessed with rain. A handful were about the particular exhilaration of having survived a bear mauling or a car crash involving a moose.
Joy ran through many of them: joy in harvesting wild foods, joy in fresh powder under sunny skies, joy in light returning.
READ MORE: Six-word memoir winners and favorites
And pride was at work, too; numerous stories revealed pride in the author's deep cultural roots in Alaska, pride in longevity in the state, in having been born and raised here, and in raising children here. Serendipity was at play as well; for many people, life in Alaska had not been the long-term plan.
Certainly lives here are influenced by factors that affect lives everywhere: love and love lost, work, family, illness and the other hardships life presents. But here, the snow and the sea; the daily sight of jagged mountains and blue glaciers; the presence of tundra and rivers; and the way the seasons dramatically alter how Alaskans live, work and play — these factors shape our home and in turn shape how we live and who we are.
Place matters in Alaska. Hundreds of the smallest stories about life in the largest state make this clear. Not fit to live anywhere else? Maybe. Either way, this is home.
The winning entries told life stories that seemed to echo beyond their six words, illuminating something about what it means to live in Alaska.
Jimmie Evak: No caribou fat. Used lard. Mistake.
Winning author Jimmie Evak, 60, was born in a house his father built at the edge of the sea in Kotzebue. Before the town's sea wall was built. Before pavement. Before plumbing.
An Inupiaq, Evak was one of 19 children, and much of his family's activities centered around subsistence. In the spring, they hunted beluga whales and seal. In the fall, caribou and moose. They set a net in front of their house for salmon and went upriver for Arctic char, which everyone, Evak said, referred to as "trout." They hauled snow and river ice for drinking water and washing.
Evak's family traveled between different berry camps, picking more than 90 gallons to bring home. At fish camp up the Noatak, they dug a ditch along a slough that forked off the river, trapping whitefish that swam into it. Evak's older brothers would walk off into the tundra behind Kotzebue for a few days in search of ducks.
Evak attended high school in Kotzebue and college in Sitka. Then he followed in the footsteps of his father, a union carpenter, and got his journeyman's license in Anchorage. Evak married and had five children, now in their teens and 20s.
Evak's story sprang from an experience when he was living in Anchorage and ate aqutuq — also known as Eskimo ice cream — that friends had made in which lard was substituted for caribou fat.
When Evak was a kid, making aqutuq was his father's job. Evak described aqutuq as a traditional traveling food, something to take on a trip to fish camp or out on a hunt, especially in cold weather. "It heats you up," he said.
Evak's father would melt caribou fat on the stove, pour in a little seal oil and then add berries, fish or meat to the mixture. Evak and his sisters and brothers would help by turning the crank on the grinder to process the fish or meat before they went into the mix. "I looked forward to it," Evak said. "It was something to do."
Evak explained that the word aqutuq comes from the Inupiaq word "to stir," and his father would sit with a bowl on the floor, blending the ingredients together with his hands.
But the modern version with lard, Evak said, is too greasy. "It coats your teeth." Caribou fat is more solid with a consistency similar to that of cheese, he explained.
It wasn't just that the substitution of lard — easy to find in the supermarket — made the mixture taste different from the aqutuq Evak preferred. "A lot of our highly processed foods are not as healthy as subsistence foods," Evak said. Lard, Evak added, is linked to arteriosclerosis and obesity.
Evak describes his own life as the "end of the transition years" between subsistence living and modern life. The family of Evak's mother were reindeer herders, and his parents grew up in a different world, he explained, one in which mushing was utilitarian, skin boats were the norm, and store-bought food was hard to come by.
These days, Evak said he doesn't get any caribou fat. He is too busy working to hunt and will fill his freezer this year with meat given away by sport hunters at the Kotzebue airport. But Evak thinks of the days when he helped his father make aqutuq. "I kind of miss it, I guess, because that was my childhood," he said.
Christine Kulcheski: It all began with a fish.
Christine Kulcheski got her first job in Alaska's fishing industry in 1992 when the owner of a large catcher-processer for gray cod was trolling the Homer Spit in his truck looking for people to fill two dozen deckhand jobs. She had come up to Alaska from Michigan for the first time three years earlier to work at a Denali lodge during her summer break from college. After graduating, Kulcheski, then 24, returned to Alaska by truck with a rider from Boulder, Colorado, who was on her way to Homer. "I just kind of got sucked in," she said about ending up in Homer herself, even though her plan was to return to Denali.
Kulcheski was camping on the Spit and met other campers who worked as deckhands on halibut charters. For campers known as "Spit Rats," those jobs were at the top of the food chain. Slime liners occupied the bottom.
READ MORE: Top six-word memoir student entries
"I had never been on a boat or touched a fish before," she said. But she decided then that even with no experience she wanted to work in the fishing industry. A month on the catcher-processor in the Bering Sea led to three more monthlong stints on the same vessel.
"From then on, I considered myself a professional deckhand," she said.
Kulcheski spent four summers seining for salmon and herring in Prince William Sound and four seasons in the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. She also worked in the halibut and black cod fisheries when they were managed as a derby in 1993. "I just got this fish fever," she said. Although Kulcheski didn't move to Alaska permanently until 1997, she returned summer after summer to work in the fishing industry.
Having grown up in a Midwest college town, "the thought had never crossed my mind that people made a living by taking fish out of the sea," she said. No work, no lifestyle could have been farther from what she knew. In her hometown, "everybody has a 4.0 and everybody goes to college." Heading to Alaska and diving into the fishing industry was a way to be different.
Like many Alaskans, Kulcheski's resume is varied. She has worked as a chef aboard an eco-tour boat in Prince William Sound. She has earned her captain's license, started a business and is now a registered nurse. In the midst of it, she got married and had a daughter, who is now 6.
Although her work uniform these days is scrubs, not bibs, her experience in Alaska's commercial fishing industry is deeply entwined with who Kulcheski is. "It helped me find my home," she said.
Bill Frey: Not fit to live anywhere else.
By his own admission, it's possible Bill Frey, 59, would have never strayed far from the Matanuska-Susitna area, where he was born and still lives, if he hadn't met and married his wife, Shonti Elder. Elder, an Alaska fiddling champion and music teacher with the Anchorage School District, was born in India to American parents and spent time there as a child.
It was Elder who encouraged Frey to travel, he explained. The couple has two children in their 20s, and together they've visited Nepal, Bali, Iceland, Ireland and beyond. For Frey, coming home to Alaska means coming back to the mountains.
Frey's Alaskan roots go back to homesteading days. His mother came from New Mexico in 1955 with her family. They brought 12 head of cattle and three horses to start a beef ranch. They settled in the Mat-Su, seeking land to homestead. His grandfather started the state's quarter horse association and brought horse racing to the Alaska State Fair.
Frey's father came to Alaska in 1946 from Pennsylvania with his brother and his brother's family in a passenger bus outfitted with bunk beds, a stove and a propane tank. The brothers mined gold near Valdez for a time before making their way to the Palmer-Butte area. Frey was born in Palmer's new hospital not long after it moved out of Quonset huts.
After attending Palmer High School and Matanuska-Susitna College, Frey started R & R Refrigeration and Appliance Repair. His business motto is "Keeping Alaska cold since 1984."
Perhaps it's not that Frey is not fit to live anywhere else, but that anywhere else won't fit him. Outside Alaska "there's not enough space," Frey said. He likes to fish, hunt, camp and get out into the wilderness. Frey has put away caribou, halibut, salmon and rockfish this year. He's got two full-sized freezers plus a walk-in cooler he built inside his garage. "I can always get more freezers," he joked.
Frey is looking forward to using his last caribou ticket for the winter hunt of the Nelchina herd. "I can't imagine moving anywhere else," he said.
Miranda Weiss is the author of "Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska." She writes about life in Homer in her weekly Northern Lights column on the website of The American Scholar.
Our judges and their 6-word stories
• Rich Chiappone is the author of "Water of an Undetermined Depth" and "Opening Days: A Flyfisherman Writes." Chiappone teaches creative writing for the University of Alaska. His third book will be released in the spring of 2016.
"I wish I hadn't done that."
• Erin Coughlin Hollowell is the author of the poetry collection "Pause, Traveler" and is the executive director of 49 Writers, a statewide organization dedicated to promoting a vibrant writing community in Alaska.
"My life a crumpled paper, smoothed."
• Mercedes O'Leary received her MFA from New England College and is finishing her first poetry collection. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Literary Mama and elsewhere.
"By crane, tide, birch: I write."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing