To the Editor:
(Editor’s Note: Following is a letter Lucille Weales of Vevay received from her former neighbors, Chris and Tina Fuller, from their new home in Alaska.)
Hello from Hoonah!
Chris’ and my spirits are soaring. Living in Alaska bush is a new experience every day. We have met many wonderful people who are living large. We are thankful that they have invited us to many of their activities. It is fun to dig clams, gather berries, fish, hunt, and boat. Everything you need here can be gathered from the forest or the ocean and many of the Tlingits do just that.
Hoonah is a cool little place. It is not large enough to support a newspaper, so it is interesting how news gets around. When we first got here, some of the people thought I was hired from the cruise boat. Teaching in the school means that more people know us than we do them. With only 800 people here you would think that you would know everyone right away, but we have only met one third of the people. Many go out hunting and fishing for months on end with their entire family. Eighty percent of the people are Tlingit with the remainder being Scandinavian, Hispanic, Russian and the lower 48.
The way you distinguish an islander from the tourist is if they are wearing a seat belt or not. It was not until we stopped wearing our seat belts that people started waving at us. Everyone here refers to the lower 48 as America, not because they do not feel a part of the U.S., but because living here has nothing in common with living in the main land. There is no fast time or slow time, only the tides and the ferry. Our village is situated on Port Fredrick Sound and even with 20 foot tides there are no waves hitting the beaches. The water simply goes up and down.
This is the largest Tlingit village left in Southeast Alaska. The Tlingit culture is obviously very new to us. They had no written language until Presbyterian missionaries came, so it is difficult to discern what exactly their culture is. Some of their culture is clear, however, like, they are gatherers, they live in clans, and they abide by certain rituals. There are two distinct clans, Eagles and Ravens, and there are subsets to the clans. They cannot marry within their own clan and when there is a death the opposite clan is responsible for the burial (a year later there is a pay off party). It makes your basketball teams have a bigger rival when one tribe (Tlingit) enslaved the other (Haida). The Tlingits were warriors and cannibals.
Our neighbors, Tom Tom and Angela are both Tlingits, newly married and in their late 20’s. Tom Tom is one of the gentlest people we have ever met. He lives a very content and humble life; Angela seems to be trying to embrace more of an Americanized life. We dearly adore both of them. Alice and Stan are also Tlingit neighbors of ours, who are quiet as church mice. In general, most Tlingits are very quiet and humble people, but a few have been lured into subsidized living and with all the time on their hands have wound up with the usual problems of destructive behaviors. Substance abuse, especially alcohol, really devastates the individual and their families and, of course, it is the children who pay the largest price. Chris and I have had the opportunity to work with some of the Tlingits. One of my assistants is a Tlingit native who is a very godly woman; she and I start the day off by praying for the children of Hoonah. Chris is working with two Tlingit brothers, who both are very big men. They are very hard workers, gentle in nature, and their love for each other is so genuine.
Two of the newest things for us are the different foods and the bears. It is not that we cannot get food here in Hoonah. There is a small grocery store, but some things are very expensive. So, we order three or four months worth of food from Costco and have it shipped from Juneau. With the abundance of food from the island and the ocean, all we really need is freezer bags. Here are some of the things that we have eaten already: four different kinds of mushrooms, beach asparagus (toothpick size), cockle clams, steamer clams, horse neck clams (size of a Nerf football), butter clams, Dungess crab, octopus, seal grease, Coho salmon (baked, chowder, spreads, salads, smoked, patties), Sitka deer (very tasty, almost like beef), Low bush cranberries, bog cranberries, High busy cranberries, huckleberries, blueberries, wild berry jams, spruce tip and fireweed honey, halibut (baked, fried, sauteed, canned, pizza, chowder), mountain goat sausage, and Canadian goose, all of which are so delicious. Some things aren’t so delicious like dried dog fish, salmon eggs in jelly, and dried seaweed. We look forward to trying moose, bird eggs, king crab, herring eggs, scallops, more berries, mushrooms, and seal. There is still so much more to discover.
Now about the bears. Chichagof (Chit-chi-cof) Island is 2,100 square miles with 1.7 bears per square mile. Yes, that is a lot of bears, and yes, they are all grizzly bears. They range in color from nearly black to light cinnamon. We have been very fortunate to have knowledgeable people to teach us how to live with the bears. We have learned for every bear we see there are about a dozen that we did not see. They prefer not to have contact with humans. The three big problems are cubs with protective mothers, bears protecting their food, and non hibernating males.
Here are a few of our bear experiences. While driving down the logging road we spotted a bear 40 yards away on the edge of a small bluff. We stopped and watched him for 45 minutes. He mostly just lay there sunning and scratching himself. It was quite comical. We were lucky to have our binoculars with us so we could see his claws and teeth. It was an awesome experience. So far, we have had one bear come onto our playground at school. Chris has had about a dozen close encounters. Upon arriving at work one morning, a juvenile bear came walking around the corner of the house. He is still not for sure who was more scared. Other encounters are usually when he has been fishing in the streams. He and my superintendent go fishing often. They go with a pole in one hand and a shotgun in the other. They usually have to move a bear out of their fishing hole. Once, while leaving they nearly stepped on a sleeping cub in the tall grass (Yikes). This has taught him a lot of what to expect of typical bear behavior. There was a lady who was mauled early in September. She is doing very well now. On Thanksgiving Day our friends Brian and his son Chris Bitz had to kill a charging bear. The bear was protecting its dead deer. It weighed well over 1,000 pounds. We find living with bears fascinating; we do not fear the bears but we never leave the village without a shotgun.
We have had many wonderful days on the island, what is a big adventure for us is just everyday life for the people of Hoonah. An eagle flying 10 feet in front of our Jeep as we travel on a logging road, humpback whales in the harbor, sea lions playing on the ocean rocks, salmon traveling up the streams to spawn, bears at the dump, halibut bigger than me, dungess crab that fill up an entire pot, 100 boats in the harbor with only a dozen pleasure boats, digging clams in the night by a giant bonfire, generous people sharing their meat and berries, ocean fishing or whale watching for the day, snow capped mountains, and ocean tides are all a part of living a big adventure here in Alaska.
Our favorite time of the week is Sunday evening when we gather for church. We have been very blessed to meet other like minded Christians. We meet in the home of Brian and Judy Bitz. On average there is somewhere between eight to 20 of us who gather for worship and fellowship. We begin service with hymns, we take time to discuss and take prayer requests, followed with listening to sermons on tape, since we do not have a minister at this time. We finish with another hymn and close with prayer. then we leave the living room for the kitchen. Judy has been preparing a meal for the church for nearly 20 years. they are some of the most faithful people we have ever been around. They are so easy to live and be in fellowship with that we thank God for them every day.
I found the school to be small but very updates. There are 160 students K-12 and 12 certified staff members. I am very blessed to work with two other elementary teachers who are both Christians. Our school has no bus service; everyone walks or rides their bike to school. The school has an Olympic size pool and my class swims for an hour every Friday. Our food service is very good. They make nearly everything from scratch including fresh bread every day. I have had to do some traveling for my job and this has allowed us to see other parts of Alaska. I really enjoy my little Hoonahmatadas. The superintendent’s office is located within our school. He is there most of the time unless he is out fishing with Chris.
Philippians 4:4-8 Rejoice in the Lord always.. I will say it again; Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the pace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think of such things.
May your celebration of our Lord Jesus’ birth be a great and glorious one; blessed with only the joy that He can provide.
Chris and Tina Fuller
(formerly of Vevay)
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