It was three weeks into my Kotzebue experience as a “Maps and Records Clerk” when I was asked to return a sick firefighter to his home and sign him off and deliver his paycheck. His home happened to be Shishmaref, a small Inupiaq village of 600 located 105 miles from Kotzebue.
Since we had to fly the Native home from a small airstrip at Candle to an even smaller strip at Shishmaref, we decided I should travel using Paul’s small Cessna 185, a six-seater we contracted from him out of Galena. As far as we knew, Paul was an experienced Bush pilot having flown the territory for several years.
Paul flew VFR (Visual Flight Rules) to Candle, just a short hop across Kotzebue Sound. I sat next to him as we bumped to a short stop on the mining tailings that had been bladed over into a crude landing strip. There we picked up our hurting passenger. It seems he had contracted an STD sometime prior to his delivery to the fire site. He needed his home and treatment, and was in some degree of pain.
Shishmaref was a small village located on a disintegrating barrier island facing the Bering Sea, five miles from the Alaskan mainland. Its small landing strip ran east-west across the island, about a half mile north of the village’s main road.
Our trip to Shishmaref was quick but notable. Smoke covered the entire Seward Peninsula to 5,000 feet, meaning we flew in a fog, moving with geographically identifiable rivers, passing the Serpentine Hot Springs and the tors found nearby that helped Paul achieve a successful landing.
We marched single file down the one Main Street, letting our passenger drift off to a small clinic for the medicine he needed. We then continued to the main store in the town. The store had meager stock, but it seemed a center of activity being used for all manner of trade, from hardware to hunting and fishing gear to food supplies.
Paul asked for a manager and approached him with a question- “What was the price of raw ivory: walrus tusks?”
I was wearing my BLM patch on my shoulder, and one sideways glance confirmed I was “Government”. Since it was technically illegal for Natives to sell raw ivory to non-Natives, the answer was three-part:: “It sells for $20 a pound, but of course we cannot sell it to you !” “BUT, you can buy our carved and scrimshawed art work!”
We left without ivory and walked north toward the Cessna. A short side trip took us to Herbie Nayukpuk’s studio. Herb was a village leader known for his running dogsleds in a succession of Iditarod races, and for his fine walrus ivory art pieces. Herb was also the team leader for the Shishmaref fire team, and absent, working a fire in the Fairbanks District many miles away.
At his shop, though, we found his daughter, who took us into his log studio. There we saw one pair of vices holding horizontally a partially- and elaborately- carved walrus tusk. This was a commissioned piece in process, going to a well-heeled Japanese buyer. On a second vice, clamped vertically, was another tusk. Here, Herb had scratched in a small image. He would later polish the image, drill two small holes through the ivory, slice it, polish it again, and then rub black ink into the scratched image. This formed one oblong slice to become part of a story bracelet.
I negotiated a $375 price (each) for two of his signed bracelets that consisted of alternating Alaskan jade and walrus ivory pieces, where the scrimshawed ivory story depicted a seal hunt. One was to take to my wife, the other for a colleague.
We left the shop to return to our transport. Many of the younger Shishmaref children followed us, all in a line, like the Pied Piper. This was of interest since Paul veered off into the 3 foot high brush to relieve himself. The line followed!
Paul and I took off, flying due east, knowing the smoke was dense. It was Paul’s plan to intersect with the Buckland River, which dumped directly into the Kotzebue Sound somewhat opposite Kotzebue.
We buzzed along, flying very low with good visibility straight down, but poor visibility ahead.
We reached the river and Paul turned the Cessna to follow the river. We both opened our windows to see what was seeable, mostly directly below. We were no more than 5 minutes along when I observed a large plume of smoke directly to our left. I had mapped and recorded every fire, and knew that the only fire we had engaged near Buckland was on the EAST side of the river. And we had assumed the small crew had contained that fire!
We were flying SOUTH along the river. Toward Granite Mountain and AWAY from Kotzebue!!
I told this to Paul. He then pulled up, flying to a point above the smoke. There he made contact with several other pilots who described extreme smoke covering the entire area to 5,000 feet.
At that point, Paul aimed his plane for home.
And that is how I spent my first night ever in Galena!
But this story didn’t end there: I radioed back to my logistic partners in Kotzebue to inform them that the Buckland fire was NOT out and indeed was cooking! They sent in a helicopter to find the crew with a non-functioning radio, sitting in the middle of a sandbar where they had been chased by the angry fire. They were safely removed and the fire abandoned to later die of its own accord!
The next day a different pilot flew me in his L-20 Beaver back to work in Kotzebue.