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  • Ken Ilgunas


After hitchhiking 600 miles and thirteen hours with a sheet metal worker from Deadhorse (who was en route to Wasilla down south), I was dropped off in the middle of the night in Ferry, Alaska—which is not so much a town, or a village, but a scattering of cabin-esque homesteads about 100 miles south of Fairbanks near the northeastern corner of Denali National Park.

Where I was going mattered little. I was running from work and chasing after someone. This someone had traveled to Ferry to visit with friends—a family of four living a mostly subsistent lifestyle in the woods. Within driving distance of town, they have some modern amenities like electricty, internet, and cell phone service, but for the most part it’s a DIY lifestyle: growing vegetables, chopping wood, making jams from berries, and hunting animals for meat. I’d spend the next ten days with these strangers.

I stayed in their Arctic Oven, which is a 7-foot-tall, 9-foot-sided tent. It’s ideal for cold weather habitation and costs in the vicinity of $1,500. It comes with a wood stove that connects to a pipe that pops out of the roof. Outside, the temperature ranged from 25-40 degrees, but inside, when the fire was going, it was a comfortable 80 degrees.

I was eager to take part and learn about the daily tasks of their lives. Here I am separating leaves from a pot of blueberries. The blueberries would made into jams and syrups, which they’ll use for the rest of the winter.

Tyler and Erin getting the jars ready. (Erin doesn’t like having her picture taken; Tyler doesn’t mind.)

A friend, with excess meat, gave them the front quarter of a bear.

Taking my first stab at butchering.

Plain bear meat to be served over rice. Not bad at all.

Tyler, Mowat, and me, repairing a neighbor’s floor.

Koa in the greenhouse where tomatoes are growing.

Ferry funny farm: cabbage, snap peas, arugula, corn, lettuce, snap peas, beets, carrots, etc. etc. They also have honey bees.

Hauling fallen wood out on ATVs.

The Ferry cemetery.

Trying to get writing done, but Romeo made it tough with his constant pleas for affection. He would often grab my hand with his paw as if to tell me I should be using it to lavish him with caresses.

Son, Mowat, 7, unearthing a carrot.

Daughter, Koa, 10, harvesting beets.

Picking cranberries.

The geese were heading south.

Drinking from stream. They will haul large plastic canisters from the spring to the house.

Boot Hill. People commemorate lost loved ones up here.

Not sure exactly what the story of this plane is, but I’m told it was put here on Boot Hill, and didn’t land in this fashion. That’s the Alaska Range in the background.

In their cabin, there’s no shower, no flush toilet. Baths are infrequent, and visits to the Laundromat in Healy, even more so. There’s no home workout gym, no wine rack, no jewel-toned vases, no liquid-screen television (or whatever they’re called now).

It’s the sort of home where kids and dogs (and chickens, in a previous year) run wild. There’s clutter. There’s mess. But their home—absent the trappings of the modern McMansion—is full of a soulfulness, a kindness, and a warmth that is characteristic of homes whose inhabitants are tightly-knit as a family, a community, and with the environment of which they’re a part.

In the morning, I heard, then spotted, a sky scribed with V’s of geese pointing south, honking loquaciously. At night there was the trembling of a hot stove stuffed with spruce logs, then the high-pitched howls of coyotes. For breakfast, blueberry jam spread over homemade bread. And everywhere was the fall forest—a congregation of gnarled green spruce and leafless, bleach-boned birch: the latter of which form a grove of skeletons that will remain numb and bald and bitter until spring.

In such moments, I experienced the rare instance of recognizing that the “now”—the present moment—was going to be a memory that I’d always carry with me. And it would be the sort of memory whose warm glow will always beckon you back, but might be tarnished if you go back and you or it has changed in the interim.

While I’ve lived in Alaska for many years, I’ve mostly resided in dorm-like housing units at Coldfoot, or in lavish government homes when working for the Park Service. My experiences with living a frontier-esque lifestyle have been few.

And while I experienced the discomfort of bathing in ice-cold rainwater, and while it was tedious to keep the stove in the Arctic Oven full of wood, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt a greater sense of belonging in a lifestyle or more at ease with myself. It’s the sort of place that’ll wash away one’s neuroses and self-consciousness; the sort of place where it’s impossible to care about the existence of unsightly shoulder hairs.

How rare and refreshing it is to come across a home so absent of pointless decorum and so full of soul. And I can’t help but think the absence of the one fosters the presence of the other. It seems as if—in all the time we devote to disinfecting our homes to kill some one-in-a-billion germ that might cause our innards to grumble for but a few hours—we pollute what should be a carefree, easygoing atmosphere. It is a toxic obsessiveness. Cleaning—for the sole purpose of cleaning—creates a culture of stuffiness and resentment. Aren’t our bones and skin and hair borne of the soil? Why must we be so squeamish of a little dirt?

Upon heading back up north, I thought of an Inuit word the Eskimos have called “Koviashuvik.” They use it to describe “a time and place of joy in the present moment.” And while Koviashuvik is—by its very definition—fleeting, I couldn’t help but think that maybe there are ways and lifestyles and people that could make it last.


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