Part 1 – People
We land at the Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport (heretofore called “The Benny” because it’s an amazing name for any establishment, but especially an airport) around dinner time, locally; back home in Kentucky, the four hour difference puts the time at an hour at which my kids should in bed, but I know that in fact they will be fighting each other and their mother, desperately trying to squeeze every moment from the day, mostly so they can have a few more precious moments of screen time (the ever-evolving scourge of our family) – my wife is an absolute saint for allowing me this time away.
The time difference is the first of a few little tricks that nature will whip up to try to disorient and destabilize us. Really, the time change is a minor player in a larger scheme to confuse the mind and body, the major being the approximately twenty-two hours of daylight. “Sure, it’s four in the morning at home, midnight here, but what about that sunlight, friend?!” Nature whispers. “You sure you’re good?”
I think so?
If The Ali is a quaint airport, I’m not sure there’s an adequate way to describe The Benny, and I’ve been to some small airports around the world. Walk-off tarmac, single gate, single baggage claim, two rental car windows the size of a ticket booth at a small high school football field. I could turn in a 360° circle and literally take ten to fifteen steps in any direction to get to the rental car window, the restroom, the snack machine, the ticket agents, the security line to get back out onto the tarmac, or the luggage carousel.
Let me assure you, I don’t provide these details to mock it, but to express how much I like it. There is no question how to get around this airport/room, and my soul finds such peace in that.
We attempt to take our requisite ten steps toward the luggage carousel and quickly confirm what we really already knew, namely the crush of people who just walked off of our surprisingly large plane with us are all crowded around what I can just make out is a slowly rotating belt; this u-shaped belt looks like any other airport carousel, but is startlingly small. If my two travel mates and I were to lie down head to foot on the belt and rode it around, there would not be a moment when you wouldn’t see a man lying on a rotating belt.
The small carousel (or half of it, the other presumably on the other side) sits in the corner of the room, like it has disappointed its parents and has been put in time out. With all of the people on Flight 971 now facing the corner, it’s like a celebrity has been trapped and is signing autographs for his life. Standing in the back of this throng in this small room, if a bear comes through the front door, which is right behind me, I along with most of the other poor souls back here don’t stand a chance. On the other hand, if a bear rides through on the conveyor (or three of them lying head-to-foot), then those who were quick enough to make it the front on Carousel Corner are toast, and my fellow stragglers and I will likely be able to run for the beautiful hills quite comfortably.
“That’s all even after our recent airport renovation,” our host for the week later tells us.
As I’ll find out, this strange design flaw really does not represent the Kodiak people well, as they are extremely efficient people. Or maybe there is an efficiency here that I just can’t see.
Up until the past twenty-four hours or so, the only familiarity I had with Kodiak revolved around the titular bear and pancakes, a passing one with the former, all too much so with the latter. There was also a movie from the 90’s starring Anthony Hopkins that I THINK was set here, and I enjoyed it, as I recall. It involved a seaplane, a bear, and a love triangle. Didn’t go well for the humans or the bear.
As for Alaska the state, I had an idea of it, one born mostly of Hollywood tripe and adventure novels. It was pretty cold in some places, not so much in others (a statement that is true, I guess, for most of the rest of the world?). There were mountains, and good fishing, and . . . Eskimos? Were there seals? Surely there were seals. They plugged their cars in before it was trendy, and had moose roaming the streets. You could spit and it would freeze before it hit the ground! And most pertinent to the entertainment pursuits of my family in recent months, the real life cast of “Life Below Zero” lived SOMEWHERE up here (Team Sue, all the way). Man, Hollywood has shaped my perception about everything.
As is true most times I presume, especially when traveling, the reality rarely matches the presumption. At least that’s true this time.
Although the most obvious way to start an entry about the first encounter with this part of the world is to try to describe the natural beauty and the unique wildlife, I’m compelled to start with that oft-neglected natural wonder: people. My travel companions and I started talking about how we might describe the way of (human) life here, because it is hard to pin down. Although the American flag flies high, often from the bed of a jacked-up Dodge Ram or on a four story crane in the middle of some junk yard, the culture has an almost stubborn refusal to fit into a neat box. It’s certainly not the America I’m used to, which in many ways is a good thing.
Among other surprises, this island has a large Filipino population, owing to the long history of Filipinos coming here to work the mining industries and the fisheries. As someone who has been to the Philippines and who still has some familiar ties there, this is a nice surprise. As I type this on Day 2, we are preparing to go to a church pot-luck lunch, where we are promised some incredible Filipino fare from some of our brothers and sisters. (This invitation came with an admonition to NOT eat the chocolate meat – apparently not chocolate nor meat?)
But the difference to the America I’m most used to has little or nothing to do with the racial makeup, but everything to do with culture. There are no HOAs, apparently no zoning laws (as evidenced by Walmart that shares a parking lot with a cement factory, the latter’s gravel spilling into what in other parts of the world would be prime parking), and no impending sense that a spare boat engine or stack of rusting aluminum siding in the yard will get much notice from the neighbors (unless they are interested in buying or trading for it).
Since this is an island, it seems to operate much as a small town does, i.e. everyone knows just about everyone else. And as a glorified tourist, this knowledge gives us a leg up on the other suckers who are way overpaying for their vacations. As we sit around the breakfast table, we’re slightly shamed by our excellent hosts regarding our initial-if-forgivable instincts. Want a boat plane to Bear Island? I know a guy. Want a fly rod? No, don’t go to the marina store and buy that junk; I know a guy. Want a piercing through the bridge of your nose? I AM the guy (girl, in this case, our host being, among other things, a body piercer)!
Knowing someone here is critical, it seems.
And people know how to do things as well as they know other people. They know how to make a car that has literally broken in half last a few more miles (bungee cords and creative welding?), how to make a makeshift extended truck topper (plywood and a regular truck topper; automobile hacks are hot here) and how to cook down ferns to make a dish akin to steamed spinach (don’t know, don’t want to know).
Knowing how to do things is critical here, too. Maybe most critical.
As my companions and I continue to wonder how to describe the people and culture, the word that keeps coming to mind, besides words like “Hospitable” and “Warm” is “Practical”. And I mean that as a compliment.
The folks we are staying with are some of the most open and hospitable people I have ever met. Their home seems literally open to guests while there is daylight (so, about twenty-two hours a day). They foster, they minister, they work multiple jobs, and they dream big dreams. One current dream is to build a spiritual retreat on a piece of land they purchased on a small island here off the coast of Kodiak.
We are here to help, more on that later.
This seems a community full of people who know how to use what they have, and appreciate what they have. This is a people who can’t recycle metal because it costs too much to send off the island, which means that machines and automobiles largely must sit where they die until they find use again. This might be frowned upon ”back home,” wha with our abundant bone yards and recyclers who pay for our rusting junk. But on the flip side, folks here can fill their freezers with enough salmon and halibut to last the year, an amount of fish which would cost those “back home” thousands of dollars to buy “fresh” from the local store.
Who’s missing out here?
While I could never talk my warm-sun-loving family to come here permanently (understandably so), I also see how this environment could be such an adventure for a family, at least for a season of life. The guy at Walmart who sold me my fishing license – and who also happened to be the most friendly Walmart employee I’ve ever met – says that Kodiak is a great place to raise kids. We’ve seen this in the short time we’ve been here, as our hosts kids and grandkids roam around the lush greenery, exploring under the watchful eyes of their guardians.
Lush green trails wind around the woods behind the house we’re staying in, through the mossy spruce trees, across wooden bridges built by the community over cold and crystal streams running from the snow capped mountains in the distance. Our host’s daughter, who has been here since she was eight, leads us along these trails, past treehouses and remnants of treehouses to rock strewn beaches where, according to a couple of locals, we just miss whales cresting out in the harbor. Two bald eagles sat overhead and light in a spruce overlooking the ocean. I’ve paid to take my kids to see this scene in a zoo, those eagles trapped under nets, and here it is in the open and against a backdrop that is in itself hard to take in.
Again, who is missing out?
Tonight, on the eve of the Fourth, our neighbors are setting off fireworks, a mere ten feet from the window, and beyond that, at the beach, larger shells are exploding in a sky so brightened by the sun it resembles a Kentucky afternoon. It’s a celebration of an independence that we “back home” share with one of our youngest states. But being here, in a state that has only been part of our union for a little over sixty years, on an island whose inhabitants have exhibited such resilience and kindness and wise stewardship, I can’t help but feel the that the this is more about a larger freedom, a human freedom, brought to us from the ultimate granter of freedom, one not confined to geographical, cultural, political or even governmental borders, but open to all.
As is true with many of us humans, these kind people are rich in some resources, not so much in others, but in any case, they make it work, and the outcome is often incredible. It seems a walking illustration of Paul’s confession that he knew life with little, and he knew life with much.
It seems these islanders have figured the secret to live both at the same time.
Up next: Planting seeds.