Visiting Point Hope, Alaska, is literally like visiting an article out of a National Geographic. It has “other-worldly” qualities that you have read about in that periodical. You do not take your world with you to Pt. Hope, but you leave it at the Arctic Circle and for the length of your stay float along on the current of events as they unfold.
Your first experience in the arctic is with a bush pilot. These are the last cowboys of our day. I can still remember meeting my pilot, a tall, lanky kid who stepped out of the office with a stupid grin and an ornery boy’s gleam in his eye as he looked at me, a total stranger to him, held up a manila folder and announced triumphantly, “Secret Orders!” All he needed was a ten-gallon hat and spurs to identify him properly. Then it was to the plane, A Piper twin-prop with numerous attachments not originally intended by the designer. In seconds we are airborne and climbed into the soup. I’m on one side of the plane while the other side is stacked high with boxes of supplies intended for a village even smaller than Pt. Hope.
From the air you gaze at the landscape beneath. You just naturally want to say, “Ah! Breath-takingly beautiful.” But the words won’t come. Beneath you are barren hills. Barren because no trees grow above the circle. The ground below is absolutely carpeted with lakes and ponds. Glorified puddles really. The words, “God forsaken wilderness,” just naturally creep into your conscious thoughts and you wonder what happened to the brain of people who try to describe it as needing “protected.”
2,000 feet below I see a few scattered shacks and black dirt road. Suddenly “Cowboy Pete” throws the plane over on its side and I discover that that isn’t a black dirt road. It’s our landing strip! “Pete” glides the plane in and taxis to a ramshackle shack where folks are waiting for the treasures he’s bearing. Behind the shack, with its nose gear collapsed and its nose buried in the tundra, is an ancient, four engined, Lockheed Electra. Its been there for thirty years. They tell me the pilot died putting it there. By default I am elected “load master”, so I off load the boxes to the pilot who distributes them to the natives. Then he jumps aboard and we’re off. We are taxiing down the runway. “Pete” has both hands off the yoke, not even looking where we’re going, fiddling with the envelope, (those “Secret Orders”). “I know the drill,” I thought. “Taxi to the end of the strip, turn around and take off.” No! That is not the drill. Now, more than halfway down the runway, “Pete” absent-mindedly glances up from his conference with himself and simply says, “Oh!” His right hand slams both throttles open, the engines respond and the nose rises and suddenly we are airborne. He had forgotten he was supposed to be taking off!
Back in the soup I fire up my laptop to finish some pressing work. (I have “Secret Orders” of my own!) I look outside and watch as ice begins to coat the leading edge. “Ah? Does he know about the ice?” Well of course he must know about the ice. He’s done this before…hasn’t he?” But “Pete” is busy with his “Orders.” (What are those “Orders”?) Then he glances outside and reaches over and flips a switch and the ice disappears.
Now it is out of the clouds at 800 ft. and onto the tarmac at Pt. Hope. Point Hope is the only paved runway this far north. They have landed big C-130 cargo planes. They told me that if they added another 20′ feet to the runway they could land jets. (Where do I give toward that project?) We taxi to an old, abandoned, dilapidated steel building where people meet the plane to gather their freight or fly out. My ride isn’t here. In about five minutes the entire area will be deserted. I look at my cell phone and see the message I expected, “No Service.” “Is there a phone around here?” I ask the pilot. Nope. No phone, no ground crew, no gate, no security. Nothing. But then Larry Higby, the agent for Bering Air asks, “Where do you need to go.” (No one “visits” Pt. Hope. If you are in this village of 1,000 you are there for a purpose.) “Do you know where Nick Serino lives?” Nick is the missionary I will be preaching for for the next four days. “Yep.” and with the carefree helpful spirit that all these folks need in order to survive he says, “I’ll take you there.” I jump in his old Dodge Ram and the magazine on the seat tells me that Larry and I are “soul-mates.” Cars! He loves muscle cars and we discuss the subject for the long two mile trip into town. Larry has seven Pontiac Fieros. Two of them in Pt. Hope where he and his son, Scott, race each other.
Pt. Hope is just that, a point of land that sticks out into the Arctic Ocean pointing at Russia to the south. The airstrip cuts across this point near the end. Between the airstrip and the tip of the point is the “old” village. Abandoned since the 70’s it is a graveyard of old decrepit rotting earthen houses. Most have fallen in. They used whale bones for studs and they are green with algae. The remnants of long tunnels leading to the entrances testify to the efforts of the former inhabitants to keep the winter cold out. Whale bones stick out of the ground everywhere. From the ocean at the point it is a mile inland across the old village to the airstrip. Then it is about two more to the new village. Nick’s house and church stand facing the airstrip on the first street you come to.
On a previous visit Nick and I took his two four-wheelers far out onto the tundra to a cabin of one of the villagers. I couldn’t believe the scene. There, beside a little lake, stood the cabin. The four-wheelers were sitting on the soft tundra with the beauty of the mountains in the background. I told Nick it looked like a Honda advertisement in some outdoor magazine. But Nick is in the lower-48 this trip so I won’t see him. I’ll be the guest of his son, Daryl, and his wife, Laurie. The church building, which is right beside their house, has a guest room, where I’ll be staying. But something has changed since my previous visit. A flush toilet! The first time I visited here the bathroom looked like any other except for the five gallon bucket with a toilet seat bolted to it. (So that’s where they got the term, “the Can.”) This time it is so civilized that I thank the Lord each day for this added little blessing.
The arctic is wild all year round. Everyone who lives here knows that no matter how good things are right now, in one hour they could be fighting for their life. A four-wheeler quits running out on the tundra, a whale boat that pops a leak, an airplane that decides to quit flying, a polar bear that comes to town unannounced and uninvited; people die from such things all the time. Just two days before my arrival Daryl, and his younger brother, David, were feared lost. They took their four-wheelers (That is the main mode of summer travel. A snow machine being the main winter mode.) fifty miles inland, up the river, caribou hunting. They bagged and quartered their animal but before they could return the fog rolled in. Fog here is treacherous. It shuts down everything. Then they buried one of the machines in a creek bed. In the arctic you are either a “survivor” or you are dead. Without supplies or camping gear the young men wisely hunkered down for the night. The next day, (it was July and there is no night) they knew rescuers would automatically begin to search for them. But the fog rolled back out and riding the remaining four-wheeler they returned to the village to the joy of Daryl’s pregnant wife. Then they turned around a went back out and winched their stuck machine out of the creek and drove it home. Routine life in the arctic.
The village consists of plywood houses built up on pilings so they “float” on the tundra. Every house is surrounded by its own jungle of crates, torn apart snow machines, dog houses and the ever present “Conex” shipping containers that ride in on the barges from down south and bring life to the population. Although there is some scrub grass, the entire area is stones. Little stones about an inch or two around. It is as though they trucked the stuff in by the megatons and covered the ground with it. Out at the point and all along the beaches it is nothing but stones. And flowers! Wild flowers cover most grassy areas. Blue, purple, yellow. Another testimony of how much our God loves colors.
We have our services and they are surprisingly well attended. We even have some folks who come for their first time. A good portion of the crowd are teens. The Serinos love these young people and grieve that they cannot do more to help them, not with just the eternal matters of the soul but with secure guidance for their individual lives. There are Desirae and Emma. Two sisters. I can still remember looking at the soulful eyes of Desirae as she drinks in and ponders every word she hears. There’s Alice, who seems to say little and then she sits down at the piano and makes it come to life. There’s Tony, Ollie, and Travis. These young men are the future. Not just of this church but the village. I can only pray that something eternal has been planted from the preaching.
One day I take a four-wheeler out to the end of “Seven Mile Road.” That’s where the road simply ends. Miles from town with the midnight sun over my head and the soft, mushy tundra under my feet and am awed that an old drunk from Ohio could end up in the arctic on a mission from God. I don’t know what that four-wheeler will do but we did it on the lonely road back to the village. Just me, God and the Honda.
Then to the point. I stand at the end of land and watch seals playing out in the Arctic Ocean. Then I motor over to a Walrus carcase. I’d seen them all along the beach. A dead walrus with it’s head cut off. Why? The Eskimos catch them, cut off the heads to mount and sell the tusks for about $1,500 and then leave the carcase to rot in the sun. It has something to do with a “Proud Heritage” or something like that. They need no licence to do this. It is their natural “right.” (?) Whatever, I’m thankful I don’t have such a “proud” heritage.
Then I look down the beach and, in the spirit of the arctic, make one of those wrong decisions that can turn to tragedy in a minute. The ocean is to my right and the land to my left. Straight ahead is a narrow spit of land, about 4 feet wide, running parallel to the beach with a long tidal pool on the left between me and the land. Far down there the spit intersects the main beach again. The tide is coming in and is lapping at the far end of the spit. I start down the spit toward the beach. Halfway down I finally pause to think, “How deep is that water I’m going to have to cross?” It doesn’t matter. This four-wheeler is not a toy and I’m not going to endanger it. Not for my personal safety, but for the safety of the machine, I elect to back out of the situation. “Let’s see? How did Daryl say you engaged Reverse? Oh, yeah, 1-2-3. 1; push this red button down, 2; pull this brake lever back…My, my! Look how the waves are rolling up against my tires now!…and 3;…? and 3! …What was ‘3.’ Oops! My shoes are getting wet.” I look for another button to press. Nope. Then I look at the tidal pool to my left. About 18″ deep. It’s getting deeper with each wave so, as the only choice I have, I turn left and head down in to cross it to the beach. Have you ever heard that standing water is deeper than it looks from the surface? Well, it is! The Honda rolls down and then starts up the other side of the 2 1⁄2 feet of water when the tires lose traction on the loose stones, the engine suck seawater and quits and a wave spanks me for my stupidity. Now I’m off the machine looking at it and pondering what to do. It’s an hour’s walk into town and then the ruckus of coming and pulling the thing out. But even now the waves are closing in and I simply cannot leave $5,000 worth of four-wheeler at the mercy of the tide. I may have to walk into town but first I have to secure the machine above the tide level. What to do? I pray…”Oh, OK. I can do that.” I step down into the pool, plant my feet, bend under the rack on the rear of the machine and lift. Sure enough the beast slides about six inches up towards the beach. Now the front. Plant, brace and lift. Now the front moves upward. In ten minutes I’ve got the four-wheeler out of the water where it should be safe while I walk into town. (I was wrong. This area was under water later.) But wait. Why walk? I crank the engine. Nothing. I crank some more and it spits out the water and lights off. Soon I’m force drying my seawater soaked pants on my way back to town.
“Boy the sun is bright at midnight.” That absurd thought came to me as I gazed at the sun at that very time of day. At midnight it is two fingers above the horizon. At 2 AM it has dropped lower and to the right. At 3 it will hit the horizon and then, like a light plane doing touch-and-go landings it will bounce back into the sky and circle (in 24 hours) for another attempt. It never sets. There is simply no way to describe being outside at 2 AM and having it be day light. It has an effect on you. You are tired and know you need to go to bed but simply cannot pull yourself away from the light. You have to experience it.
Next day the fog rolls in and shuts down the air strip. For two days you can barely see a quarter of a mile. If it stays like this I won’t fly out to Kotzibue Thursday for the meeting there. The wind blows the fog in sheets like smoke. Nothing moves. Then about 11 PM Wednesday night I can see blue sky straight above. By 2 AM it’s clear and you can see the fog far out to sea. I’m leaving tomorrow!
Thursday planes fall out of the sky like bugs. They’re trying to make up for the time lost to the fog. Three days flying in one day. We go out to the airstrip. It looks like Pt. Hope’s version of O’Hare. Seven planes on the ground at once. There’s the green & yellow Cessna Caravan of Hageland Air Service. The deep blue & gold of Cape Smythe’s twin piper. The little green & white Beech craft of Bell Air. Several other freight flights are stacking boxes on the tarmac and leaving as quickly as they can. There’s even the Beech twin King Air of the Air/Sea Rescue team that’s in the village for training. And there’s the tan & orange Bering Air Cessna Caravan that will be taking me out. Everyone is scurrying. Bush pilots don’t dawdle. They always have a sense of urgency that says, “Let’s go. I’ve got other stops to make and other people to pick up.” As soon as the engine fires the plane is rolling. The light weights go down, turn around, open the throttles and rise like they’re being sucked off the ground. They’re airborne in about a quarter of the field. Then it’s a hard turn to port to follow the coast south to Kotzebue. Our Caravan is a huge, single engine, high-wing, fixed gear craft. Simple and rugged it’s like a flying water buffalo. It lumbers out with a huge load and lifts evenly into the air. We make our turn. Out the windows on the left I can see the old village behind us. Then the airstrip. Beside us I can see the village. I can even see Nick’s church, sitting like the light house it is to guide travelers on the way. My visit to another world is over. What a place!