Grayling: “Love is patient and kind…but only to a point.”

Planes get canceled for many reasons in the Alaskan Bush: below minimum visibility at the point of departure; poor visibility at the point of arrival; equipment failure; personnel failure; perhaps even a shortage of duct-tape.  There are any number of reasons for a flight to be canceled, and so people in the villages learn to be flexible…or adaptable.

Since I had slept with the light on all night (see previous Blog), I awoke with no sense of the current weather in Anvik.  It was light inside, but I had to get to a window to see what was doing outside.  To my comfort, the day had dawned clear and calm.  I could tell by the sheen on the puddles that it was also cold.  But the sun was rising and it looked promising for a warming trend.

A perfect day to fly!

I was on my way to Grayling, today.  A young couple was planning to be united in Holy Matrimony in the evening–my first marriage ceremony as a bishop.  Also, there were a couple of babies to baptize the next day, Sunday, at St. Paul’s.  I was looking forward to the experience and the arrival of my plane at 10:30.

At 11:30 I received a call from the Hageland Air representative in the village.  “Fog in Aniak.  The plane will be here at 3:30 to take you to Grayling.”

“Fine,” I thought.  The wedding ceremony was scheduled for 7 o’clock and the flight to Grayling, I knew from experience, was only 15 minutes.  A 3:30 departure would leave plenty of time to get settled and prepared for the nuptial celebration.

I used the time to tour the Anvik Historical Society Museum.  An extraordinary place, every surface and wall area was covered with some fascinating piece of indigenous artwork or artifacts.  There were baskets so finely and tightly woven that it seemed beyond comprehension that the work was done by hand.  Every manner of leather clothing and fur, including a parky made of ground squirrel fur.  A ground squirrel is not a large animal, yet this parky would have fit an average man.  The number of pelts, and the mastery of sewing to assemble the coat was stunning.

A poster-sized color photograph caught my eye.  The picture was of an elderly woman working with an Ulu, a traditional knife used by many indigenous Alaskans to cut fish for drying and smoking.  The photograph was afire with the deep reds of King Salmon flesh hanging on drying-racks.  The woman was surrounded by cut fish—enormous pieces of fish that I ignorantly and humbly predict were once 25 to 30 pound fish.  She held a large fish in one hand, her Ulu in the other.  Her hands looked stronger than any I have ever seen.  Her face, however, was as tender as any grandmother’s and there was a wonderful and distinct joy in her eyes.

It was an inspiring picture: a tale of abundance, hard work and dedication, preparing for predicted periods of scarcity.  The stories this woman’s hands could tell: thanksgiving and effort overcoming want and hunger.

I thought of all the lives nourished by the work of her hands and the gift of God’s.

3:30, no plane.  “Maybe by 4:30.”

Something in the Hageland Air representative’s voice made me think 4:30 was just as unlikely to see the arrival of the plane for Grayling.

At 5 o’clock my new friend Tammy called to tell me that a worried bride was dispatching her brother and his friend to come and get me by boat.  “Did you bring any warm clothes?” Tammy asked.  “It can get a little cold on the water.”

“Oh, I’ll be fine.”  I was so excited at the prospect of a Yukon River boat ride that I would have been warm in shorts and a tee-shirt.

It was getting close to 5:45 when the boat, a large (18-20ft) flat bottom Jon-Boat was ready to take me up-river to Grayling.  The boat had a ‘custom-made’ cabin at the stern-I remain impressed with the creative uses of 2x4s, plywood, and plexiglass. It was plenty warm out of the wind, but it was loud. This would not be a serene river cruise.  Nevertheless, I was completely taken-in by the experience of running up the Yukon in an open boat.  The water was flat on the surface, but I could see the power of the churning flow of the current.  The trip took about 30 minutes, when my captain brought the boat to shore at Grayling.

I was met by an ATV driven by my captain’s wife and she that took me to the Tribal Office, which is housed in the old Episcopal Mission house.  I had about a half-hour to prepare for the wedding ceremony.

Fortunately, someone had already started a fire in St. Paul’s wood stove.

St. Paul’s, Grayling, like many other village churches is a simple stick structure.  Unfortunately, this building, too, is in need of some attention.  The wooden steps into the building are broken, the doors are not secure, and the floor seems to slope in every possible direction.  Although it is wired for electric lights, there is no electrical service to the building.  I found this fact of great concern as darkness was approaching.  I did not relish the idea of reading by candle light or the additional risk of fire.

Fortunately, a portable generator provided by the bride’s brother was somehow rigged to the electrical main and, thus, the lights were on and the growing darkness of the night was cast out.  This wedding ceremony was happening for the most part thanks to the efforts of the bride’s brother.  I half expected him to also be the Best Man.

The bride and groom arrived and, after some introductions, planning on the fly, and a review of the necessary documents, the ceremony began.  It was sweet.   Both the bride and groom were visibly moved at the exchange of vows, and the atmosphere was warm, familial and, loving.  By the end of evening, I had no fewer than two other couples wondering if I would consider celebrating their wedding in the coming year.

Following the ceremony, there was a reception at the bride’s house.  While the guests watched, the couple did all the ‘traditional’ things a wedding reception is supposed to include.  Unfortunately, in my opinion, the traditions followed were from Western culture.

The couple cut a beautifully decorated cake, fed each other a piece with a modest amount of icing smearing on the face. The father of the bride offered a toast and then followed the first dance.  Gifts were offered, we ate a potluck dinner, and joined in an after-dinner ‘dollar-dance.’

My favorite moment happened as the music from the dollar dance ended:  the bride thanked everyone for coming and bid us good-night by saying: “okay, it’s time to go.”

It was time to go.  It had been a long day.  Love is only so patient.

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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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