Lifting the Veil on Alaska’s Last Frontier
FOR two days now, the four of us have huddled in a small room in the famous gold-rush town of Nome, Alaska. In 1898 more than 40,000 prospectors converged here to seek but one thing—gold! We, on the other hand, seek a different treasure.
Our interest, for the moment, is in “the desirable things” who may reside in the isolated villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, 200 miles [300 km] to the west in the Bering Strait. (Haggai 2:7) There the Inuit brave the icy Arctic waters and hunt whales only a few miles from what was once the Soviet Union. But blowing snow and a dense gray blanket of fog hold us captive. Our airplane is grounded.
As we wait, I reflect on events of the past few years and thank Jehovah God for his blessing on the bush witnessing. In Alaska—which is called by some the world’s last frontier—there are more than 60,000 native people living in over 150 remote communities, spread over almost 600,000 square miles [1,600,000 sq km] of wilderness, not connected by roads of any kind. By means of the Watch Tower Society’s airplane, we have already reached over one third of these isolated villages, bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom to them.—Matthew 24:14.
To reach these remote settlements, the plane often has to let down through clouds and fog that may cover the land for days. Once on the ground, there is yet another fog that must be penetrated. Like a veil, it envelops the minds and hearts of these kind and peaceful people.—Compare 2 Corinthians 3:15, 16.
A Painful Transition
The Alaskan bush is inhabited by Inuit, Aleuts, and Indians. Each of these has its own customs and traits peculiar to its individual heritage. To survive the Arctic winter, they have learned to live with and off the resources of the land by hunting, fishing, and whaling.
Foreign influence came upon them in the mid-1700’s. Russian fur traders found a people dressed in animal skin and smelling of seal oil, who lived, not in igloos made of ice, but in semiunderground sod houses with grass roofs and below-ground entrances. The traders brought these soft-spoken, mild, and yet hardy people many serious problems, including new cultures and new diseases, which reduced the population of some tribes by half. Alcohol soon became a curse upon the people. The new economy forced a change from a subsistence form of life to a monetary one. To this day, some feel, it has been a painful transition.
When Christendom’s missionaries arrived, change of another kind was forced upon the native Alaskans. While some reluctantly gave up their traditional religious practices—worship of the spirits of wind, ice, bear, eagle, and so on—others developed a mingling of concepts, resulting in a fusion, or confusion, of religions. All of this often resulted in suspicion and mistrust of strangers. A visitor is not always welcomed in some villages.
The challenge before us, therefore, is, How will we reach all the natives spread throughout this vast frontier? How can their suspicions be put to rest? What can we do to lift the veil?
Early Efforts to Witness
In the early 1960’s, a number of hearty Alaskan Witnesses braved the elements—fierce winds, subzero temperatures, whiteout conditions—and flew their private, single-engined airplanes on preaching tours among the villages scattered to the north. In retrospect, these courageous brothers were really exposing themselves to a large measure of risk. An engine failure would almost certainly have led to disaster. Even if a safe landing was possible, they would be miles away from help in subzero temperatures and with no means of travel. Survival would depend on getting food and shelter, which would be scarce. Thankfully, no serious incidents occurred, but such dangers could not be ignored. So the Alaska branch office of the Watch Tower Society discouraged this approach.
To press on with the work, faithful brothers in the Fairbanks and North Pole Congregations concentrated their efforts on the larger villages, such as Nome, Barrow, and Kotzebue, which are served by commercial airlines. They used their own funds to travel to these areas, over 450 miles [720 km] to the north and west. Some remained in Nome for several months to conduct Bible studies with interested ones. In Barrow an apartment was rented to provide a haven from the frigid minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit [-45° C.] temperature. Over several years, more than $15,000 was spent by those taking to heart Jesus’ command to preach the good news to the ends of the earth.—Mark 13:10.
Unexpected Help Arrives
The search for a way to reach the more secluded communities continued, and Jehovah opened the way. A twin-engined aircraft became available—just the thing to cross the rugged Alaska Range safely. There are numerous mountains that tower over 14,000 feet [4,200 m] in Alaska, and the peak of famous Mount McKinley (Denali) is 20,320 feet [6,193 m] above sea level.
Finally, the plane arrived. Imagine our disappointment when a worn, faded, multicolored piece of flying machine touched down on the runway. Could it possibly be airworthy? Could we entrust the lives of our brothers to it? Again, Jehovah’s hand was not short. Guided by licensed mechanics, over 200 brothers volunteered their services, spending several thousand hours to refurbish the entire plane.
What a delight to behold! Lifting into the Alaskan skies, a shiny, like-new aircraft with the registration number 710WT emblazoned on the tail! Since both seven and ten are used in the Bible to symbolize completeness, 710 might be taken to emphasize the support Jehovah’s organization has given to lift the veil from hearts enshrouded in darkness.
Down the Aleutian Chain
Since receiving the airplane, we have covered 50,000 miles [80,000 km] of wilderness, bringing the Kingdom good news and Bible literature to over 54 villages. This is the equivalent of crossing the continental United States 19 times!
Three times we have reached down through the thousand-mile-long [1,600 km] Aleutian Islands, which separate the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. The more than 200 almost treeless islands that make up the chain are home not only to the Aleut natives but also to thousands of sea birds, bald eagles, and emperor geese, with snow-white heads and distinctive black-and-white ribbed feathers.
The alluring beauty of the region, however, is not without its dangers. Flying over the sea, we could see 10-to-15-foot [3-5 m] whitecaps on the foaming icy water, so cold that even in the summer one can survive in it for only 10 to 15 minutes. If forced to land, a pilot’s only options are a rugged, rockbound island or the frigid, deadly sea. How grateful we are for our skillful brothers, certified A & E (Aircraft and Engines) mechanics, who volunteer to maintain the aircraft in tip-top shape!
On one of the trips, we were headed for Dutch Harbor and the fishing village of Unalaska. The region is known for its 70-to-100-knot [130-190 km/hr] winds. Happily, it was much calmer that day but still turbulent enough to make us queasy several times. What a surprise when the landing strip came into sight—just a notch cut into a rocky mountainside! On one side of the runway was a sheer cliff of stone, on the other, the icy water of the Bering Sea! When we touched down, it was on a wet runway. It rains more than 200 days a year there.
What a joy it was to discuss God’s Word and purpose with the inhabitants of the area! Several old-timers expressed appreciation for the hope of a world without war. They still had vivid memories of the bombing of Dutch Harbor by the Japanese during World War II. Our memories of such witnessing trips are equally unforgettable.
A Slow Warming Trend
Checking the weather again, we notice a slow rise in the temperature. That makes me think of our bush work. Slowly but steadily we have seen a warming trend in the hearts of the people.
It has taken time to remove the shroud of suspicion and distrust that the people have toward outsiders. In our early attempts, it was not uncommon for village church leaders to meet the airplane, inquire of the purpose of our visit, and then abruptly ask us to leave. Such receptions, of course, were disappointing. But we recalled Jesus’ counsel found at Matthew 10:16: “Prove yourselves cautious as serpents and yet innocent as doves.” So we returned with the plane loaded with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cantaloupes, and other items not easily available locally. The formerly hostile residents were now delighted to see our cargo.
While one brother attended the “store,” accepting donations for the fresh goods, several others went from door to door, informing the householders of the arrival of the fresh cargo. At the doors they also inquired: “Oh, by the way, are you a reader of the Bible? I know you will enjoy this Bible study aid that shows that God has promised us a paradise.” Who could refuse such a tempting offer? Everyone appreciated the physical as well as the spiritual food. The welcome was pleasant, much literature was placed, and a few hearts were warmed.
Stepping Over the Border
Over in Yukon Territory, the Whitehorse Congregation extended to us a “Macedonian” invitation to “step over” into Canada to visit some of the areas in the remote Northwest Territories. (Acts 16:9) Five of us were on board as we headed for Tuktoyaktuk, a village near Mackenzie Bay on the Beaufort Sea, north of the Arctic Circle.
‘How do you pronounce this strange name?’ we were wondering as we arrived.
“Tuk,” a young man answered with a big smile.
“Why didn’t we think of that?” we marveled.
We were surprised to find that the people of Tuktoyaktuk were well versed in the Scriptures. As a result, we had many friendly discussions, and much literature was placed. One of our young pioneers had an enlightening conversation with a householder.
“I am an Anglican!” said the householder.
“Are you aware that the Anglican Church approves of homosexuality?” our pioneer inquired.
“It does?” the man hesitated. “Well, then, I am not an Anglican anymore.” Hopefully, another person was having his heart opened to the good news of the Bible.—Ephesians 1:18.
An old-timer was impressed with our determination to reach every home in the area. Normally we would have to do all our work on foot. Usually there would be a walk of a mile or more [km or more] from the airstrip to the village. Then, to reach each home, we had to hike over gravel or mud paths. The man lent us his pickup truck, and what a blessing it was! Stepping over the border and helping out in Canadian territory was a fine privilege.
Is It Worth It?
When the weather is bad and we get stranded or indefinitely delayed, as we are now, or when a long day of witnessing seems to have brought nothing but disinterest or even hostility, then we begin to wonder if it is worth all the time, energy, and expense. We may think of people who seem to show interest and promise to correspond but fail to do so. Then we remember that it is not the custom of many native people to write letters, and friendliness can easily be mistaken for interest in the Bible message. At times it seems so difficult to measure success.
These negative thoughts quickly vanish when we recall the good experiences of other Kingdom publishers. For example, a Witness from Fairbanks preached in the village of Barrow in the far north. There she met a teenager who was home from college in California. The sister kept up the interest by correspondence and continued to encourage the girl even after she returned to college. Today, the young lady is a happy, baptized servant of Jehovah.
A knock on the door jars me out of my reverie and gives yet another proof that it is all worth it. There in the doorway stands Elmer, so far the only dedicated, baptized Inuit Witness in Nome.
“If you get out, may I go with you?” he asked. Living isolated and over 500 miles [800 km] from the nearest congregation, he wants to share in the ministry with his brothers while he has the opportunity.
The sun’s rays begin to break through the clouds, and we know we will soon receive clearance to depart. As Elmer climbs into the airplane, we are warmed by his happy, beaming face. This is a special day for Elmer. He is coming with us to our village destination to preach to his own Inuit people, joining us in our attempt to remove the veil from the hearts of those living on the world’s last frontier.—Contributed.
[Map on page 23]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
10. Dutch Harbor
[Picture on page 24]
To reach isolated communities, it is often necessary to cross one of Alaska’s many mountain ranges
[Picture on page 25]
Betty Haws, Sophie Mezak, and Carrie Teeples have a combined total of more than 30 years in full-time service