Anvik: Chasing Birds and Ghosts

There are three villages in the Lower Yukon that support Episcopal congregations: Anvik, Grayling, and Shageluk.  It is a matter of coincidence that an alphabetized listing of the three follows the logical flight path of air service to these villages.  Leaving from Aniak, the ‘typical’ flight plan would follow a tear-drop route: first to Holy Cross (to quote Anna Frank, my Archdeacon for Native Ministries: “That’s a Roman Catholic village: you better stay on the plane!”), next to Anvik, Grayling, and Shageluk.   Leaving Shageluk, it made sense that the next stop on my visitation schedule would be Grayling—the reverse order.

No plan, including the Bishop’s, is typical in Alaska, nor does it even have to make sense.

While the plane would stop in Grayling, it was only to discharge five boxes of chickens (see my Shageluk journal).  I was going on to Anvik…but not without a brief delay.

As it turns out, an unsealed cardboard box is a poor container for the transport of live chickens, especially chickens that have just experienced the joy of flying at 1500 feet.  Perhaps hoping to claim a seat back in the plane, a cockerel escaped his cardboard prison and began to run around the airplane and the parked cars at the Grayling airport.  While a chicken’s flying abilities can be questioned, there is no doubt that they can run and elude capture.  And this bird had to be captured before any other bird, including our Cessna Stationaire, was going to fly.

Let the fun begin! All hands, and legs, became involved in the chase.

Finally, a human-wall surrounding a Ford Pick-up truck was sufficient to capture the would-be stow-away, and he was unceremoniously returned to the flock.  I must admit that watching people chase a chicken is rather entertaining.  It seems most of those at the Grayling airport that day would agree with me on this point.

With all the chickens home to roost, we were finally on our way to Anvik.  Little did I know, this would not be the last bird to cross my path and delay plans this day.

Grayling to Anvik is a short flight, and fifteen minutes after take-off we were landing at Anvik.  I was greeted at the airport by Tammy, who was accompanied by her son and nephew, both10 years old.  They were a delightful, if not energetic, welcoming party.  Somehow we all packed into the cab of Tammy’s pick-up and started off on a tour of Anvik.

The first stop was the school.  Like most, it was well equipped, although the Anvik school is in the process of some impressive building projects.  New housing for teachers is being constructed and a new playground is in the process of being erected.  Unlike many of the other schools I’ve visited in the interior, Anvik has a native teacher who is a life-long member of the community.  Moreover, she is one of the nicest, energetic, and dedicated people you could find.  I could tell immediately that she cared deeply for the children in Anvik and for the village.

But a pot-luck dinner to celebrate my visit was scheduled to start soon, and Tammy needed to get to the Community Hall and set-up.  We were going to be late, and I hadn’t even seen the church or where I was staying.  We had to get a move-on.

Fortunately, Anvik is about 10 square miles in area and home to about 40 households. A tour was not going to take a long time. After seeing Christ Church, the Old Mission House, the village building, and the Historical Society Museum (yes, Historical Society Museum–it is delightful and very informative), we were doing pretty well with time….until we started down the road towards the dump.

“Mom!  That’s a grouse!”

Sure enough, a grouse was sitting in the road not 30 yards ahead.  I had never seen a grouse in the wild before this moment.  For some reason I believed that this fact was due to a grouse’s keen senses and the instinct to get away when danger approaches.  Evidently this grouse lacked one the other or both.

“Mom, can I shoot it?  Please.  Please.”  A boy of 10 years sounds just the same asking for a new video game as he does asking to hunt a grouse.

“Okay, dear, but we only have time for one shot.  One shot, that’s it!”

Two shots from a 410 shotgun later, and two beaming boys were walking back to the truck proudly holding that grouse by the legs.

“Well now we’re really going to be late,” said mom.  “I told you only one shot!”

Frankly, I was feeling very proud for those boys, and thought it was worth it if the dinner needed to be delayed a bit.

“I expect to see that grouse at the pot-luck dinner tonight,” I added, thinking how unlikely it would be that those two boys would be able to clean and prepare that bird in-time for our dinner.  I’ll never see that bird again, I thought.

I was wrong.  Grouse is delicious.

After dinner I celebrated Holy Communion in Christ Church. The building is beautiful.  Located right on the bank of the Anvik River—which flows into the Yukon which is less than a quarter of a mile downstream, in fact, you can  see the Yukon River from the bank, Christ Church has the honor of being the first Episcopal Church in Alaska.  Although the history of the Anglican Church’s presence in Alaska can be traced to Fort Yukon, those who were “first” in Fort Yukon were from the Church of England.

Besides that, for a long time, they thought they were in Canada.

In 1887, two men, the Rev. Octavius Parker from Oregon and the Rev. John Chapman

Christ Church, Anvik

from New York City, established Christ Church Mission in Anvik.   Today, both the church building and the mission house remain.   The Mission House, which once provided refuge for orphans and the sick, is showing its age.  It was sold to a private owner many years ago, and, so I’m told, has been used even recently to house mushers during the Iditarod.

Anvik (Shageluk, and Grayling, too) are on the Southern Iditarod Trail which is run on odd years.  2011 will be a big year for these villages.  Perhaps for the old Mission House, too.

Christ Church, on the other hand, has been lovingly tended and is in wonderful shape.  Communion worship was a delight.  My young grouse hunter was seated in the first pew along with his cousin and three other young men.  Their energy filled the church, as did our a cappella offerings of Holy, Holy, Holy and Amazing Grace (congregational choices).  No baptisms or Confirmations this visit.  But I left with promises that some of the front pew would be ready for Confirmation in a couple of years.

I’ll hold them to that promise.

It had been a long day, and I was ready for bed.  Tammy took me back to the Village Office and showed me my room.  I had the entire upstairs to myself and my bed was a set of mattresses stacked together.  I thought to myself there would be no “Princess and the Pea” tale tonight.  I was ready to sleep through just about anything.

“There will be a few people downstairs tonight playing cards,” Tammy told me in her matter of fact way.  “So if you hear voices or sounds downstairs, that’s what it is.  I say that because this is the building where we used to have all our Memorial Potlatches and many people say that they often hear things here…and sometimes see spirits…you know, the ancestors.

But if you hear anything tonight, it will probably just be those people.  And you don’t worry about that other of stuff, anyway, do you?  Bishops aren’t superstitious, right?”

“Right,” I said with all the Episcopal authority I could muster.

I slept that night with the light on.

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About Bishop Mark Lattime

The Rt. Rev. Mark Lattime is the 8th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska.
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