A young woman approached and commented about how much she enjoyed the stories, then asked about where I lived. I tole her New Mexico but hastened to add that I used to live up here in Alaska, 60 miles down the road in Homer.
“Homer? “ she said, her eyes lighting up. “That’s where I live. When were you there?”
“Probably before you were born,” I replied. “The mid-70’s.”
“Did you by any chance know Yule Kilcher?” she asked.
“Sure I knew Yule, everybody knew Yule. I was even the caretaker for his homestead one winter. I milked the cow and brought gallons out on ski’s to the neighbors.
“Well” she said with a big smile on her face, “I’m Anna Kilcher, and Yule was my grandfather!”
This exchange took place by the banks of the Kenai River, a powerful glacial fed river that empties into Cook Inlet. Exactly 40 years ago at this time of year I was setting my kayak into another great river- the Yukon, for what was the beginning of a 2000 mile 80 day trip. I still remember the day the trip ended and we flew back from a tiny Yupik Eskimo village on the Yukon Delta where it empties into the Bering Sea. It was the end of a great adventure in one sense, but a voice deep inside of me invoked the essence of river flow and I found myself saying, this trip, this adventure will never end. The river flows into the sea, the sea to clouds, clouds to rain and snow in the mountains, and back to the river. Something is always ending, something is always beginning, and in between-always the flow.
40 years of life and the rivers flowing, and this brief encounter with Anna seems to me to be a deep affirmation of that intimation all those years ago. The adventure never ends. One of our stops on the Yukon was a small village called Pilot Station. We happened to pass through on the week that satellite television first came to the village. It was somewhat reluctantly that we pulled ourselves out of the wilderness mindset to join a group of families huddled around the tube. What did we watch? The documentary that Yule Kilcher put together about the evolution of his 600 acre homestead in Homer since his arrival back in the 30s by skiing over a vast ice field, the homestead that I would be care-taking three years later!
We’re staying with great friends while we’re here down on the Kenai Peninsula. Eric is the grandson of Poopdeck who died a few years ago at the age of 97 and was a friend and mentor to me during the time I lived down here He was a fount of unending stories and undoubtedly was one of the people who set me on the storytelling path. Eric and his wife Catherine are two of the most resourceful and generous people I’ve ever met. They are constantly in motion, mending nets, building a greenhouse, restoring a wilderness cabin on Tustemena Lake. We’re going there tomorrow weather permitting. (Two people drowned on Tustamenta when their boat overturned as winds and great waves came up suddenly a week ago)
It’s a really physical world up here. To make it living an Alaskan lifestyle you need to know how to build, maintain, and repair stuff. I’ve found myself reflecting on that during these first few days back here. There’s that old saying, “you can’t step in the same river twice,” But what if I had stayed here I wondered? How would I have fared? During the 11 years I lived here, I often felt a little awkward around equipment; motors, lines , rigging, welding equipment and such. I’m not sure I really had the skills for homesteading.
And now, here I am, back in Alaska and telling stories for a living. It seems so improbable in some ways. Before the festival began I asked myself, what is it that I have to offer in this place I once lived, loved and still love. As I remembered my time at the Kilcher Homestead, and shared some stories with Yule’s granddaughter Anna, she invited Liz and me to visit when we drive down to Homer next weekend. I’m planning to see one of my Yukon River trip buddies who came up from Seattle for the Yukon trip and stayed on all these 40 years. Anna told us she wanted to learn more about storytelling; she tells to kids in the local library and museum and wants to learn more about what we do and how we do it. Her appreciation and enthusiasm was a great and timely gift to me. The river flows inexorably on, tonight I ate fresh salmon from the first run of Sockeye’s that are gathering to return to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, and I feel almost like a salmon myself, returning once again to this land I love, living a life I love, and perhaps giving a little back, throuhgh stories old and new, stories always beginning, flowing, ending, beginning again, just like the rivers.