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A Time with Sara Karakoff

Sara. I know only your first name, Sara. Your grave marker, weathered, snow-covered, tells me so very little about you. Your last name – is it Karakoff? The engraved words, softened by time, are worn, almost invisible. The day you were born, the day you died, are lost. I can make out only the year of your death. They buried you the year before the great Alaska Good Friday's earthquake of 1964. That quake destroyed your village, here on the shores of Afognak Island. Your people left. They moved across to Kodiak, to Port Lions village. They scattered to other parts of Alaska. And they left you behind, Sara, here on this point of land jutting into Afognak Straits. They left you to the sun and the winds, the rains and the snows, blown in off the North Pacific waters. And here you've remained, in your tiny Native cemetery. Here you've rested, Sara, forgotten for thirty years. Who knows you, remembers you? But Sara, I'm going to tell the world about you......


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The shaking begins at the whiskery tip of June Bug's nose, rattles down her body, and flies off the end of her tail. The snow that covers J.B., as Ike calls his dog, showers off her in a white cloud. J.B. pops out as a bundle of irrepressible joy, disguised as a year–old Black Lab.

I can just feel the energy and life in J.B. as we plow behind her through the snow drifts covering the trail. And my brother and I can use her energy. The five–mile hike to the Old Village of Afognak will take us all day.

"You sure Ike won't mind if we take her along?" I ask my brother.

Andy turns back to wave at Ike and Mary. They stand in the door of their cabin, Ike's arm around Mary's waist, watching us head out. "Never lost a dog of theirs yet. Fifteen years I've known 'em. And J.B.'s stuck in there with them all winter. They're both seventy now. They don't do a lot with her. Ike knows she has to get out. No problem."

And now, as Ike motions for J.B. to accompany Andy and me, she goes absolutely nuts! She flies toward us, jumps up at Andy, at me, throws a wet lick at our faces, sprawls in the snow. As we both fall back, laughing, she charges off ahead of us, plowing through the snow drifts along the beach. And then she jumps up in the air again, burrows into a snow-bank at the side of the trail, and emerges once more as a snowy blob. Another frenzy of shaking turns J.B. back into a dog.

"Well, I'm glad we're doing this," I tell Andy, as we set off down the trail, following J.B.'s paw prints in the snow. "Last night with the two of them was fun." I also turn to wave at Ike and Mary. "But you keep telling me about that village and its church. And then that cemetery. I almost feel like I've been there. I have to see it."

"You know," Andy replies, and his voice takes on that liltingly rhythmic voice peculiar to long-time Alaskans, "absolutely nobody else ever visits the village. I feel a peace and serenity there, in all that loneliness, that emptiness. I get feelings, about that place. Feelings I've never felt anywhere else. It'll be good for you, too. You'll forget. At least for a while. You'll see."

I believe him. I need peace, serenity. Like so many people who come to Alaska, I'm running away from something. In my case, the despair of the past year has driven me here, if only for a brief stay. And I need things like this, a winter escape, to help me forget, to move on.

The gray skies and the darkly rolling waves mirror my mood, as these thoughts float through my mind. The faint drone of the Northern Wilderness airplane flying down Afognak Straits drifts over the sounds of the waves breaking on the beach. The floatplane delivered us to Ike's cabin yesterday, and will pick us up again tomorrow, weather permitting. If the weather doesn't permit, we'll have to stay another day, or two or three.

And I wouldn't mind at all. I wouldn't mind if I had to stay a week, a month, even a lifetime, on this island, isolated by some raging winter storm. A storm sweeping in off the sea, from the depths of the North Pacific, where the winter storms are born....

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When were you born, Sara? How long ago, what year? Here at the village? Maybe on a spring night? I was born in the spring myself, half a century ago, half a world away. And then you grew up here, at the village, Sara. You were baptized at that tiny church, attended school as a little girl, taught by a teacher brought in from Kodiak. What did you do, little girl? Did you play with hand-carved toys, the figures of wolves and whales, made by the old men of the village, who had nothing else to do? Or with dolls, made by the old women, from sticks and cloth? And at night, Sara, you dreamed the dreams of a child, maybe about those wolves, chasing you through the woods? Or did you dream about yourself, about growing up, about your life to come?
What dreams did you dream, Sara.....


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I dream so often now. I dream about my past year, about my coming ones. And dreams, daydreams, come easy in this land. Like just now. A breeze has sprung up. It tinkles together the dripping icicles that hang from the tips of snow-covered pine tree branches along our path. Icicle sounds.... Tinkles.... Musical notes.....

They echo in my dreams, my memories. Memories of piano notes. My wife played at our wedding....

The breeze dies. The icicles are still, the tinkles fade, stop. Just like those piano notes faded, stopped....

But enough! I came here to escape my past. And it strikes me that I'm not the only one here with a past. Take Ike and Mary, for example.

"What happened to Ike? Howd he end up here?" I ask Andy. The trail has cut away from the beach into the woods, and we;re in the middle of what must be a swamp in the summer time. The thorns on the bushes catch at our snow suits as we walk through them.

Andy doesn't answer. Instead he pulls lose a thorny branch stuck to his leg and points to it. "Salmon-berry's," he says. "Only in Alaska. Beautiful purple flowers in the spring. And when they're ripe, red berry's that look like clumps of salmon eggs. Mary picks them. She makes jelly. And Ike makes even Salmon-berry wine sometimes. The bears like 'em too. Sometime she's been picking berry's on one side of a patch and a bears on the other side. But they don't bother each other, not at all."

And he looks at me with a distant way stare. "Ike and Mary. The only two people on the island. All alone. Except for the bears....." Andy turns, and starts off through the Salmon-berry patch again. He looks back at me over his shoulder. "All alone, on an island. Only in Alaska...... Are you afraid of ending up like him too? Or is that what you want?" And he pauses briefly to look back again. "You heard his stories."

And we had too, last night, after Mary cleared the dinner dishes away. We listened to Ike for hours, sweating from the heat pouring out of their wood burner stove, lining up our empty beer bottles in a long row on the kitchen table. We heard about Ike in the army in World War II, about Beans Antone and Fartin' Fannie, about many other characters of the Alaskan frontier.

Ike told us of his early days with the Afognak sawmill, which he helped shut down after the earthquake. He told us of meeting Mary at the Old Village, and marrying her, over thirty years ago. And how the two of them remained here, after the quake. The only people on Afognak, when they closed the sawmill and abandoned the Old Village.

"I know he told us all that stuff," I call ahead to Andy. "But what happened to him, to Mary? How could they live here, all alone, for all those years?"

Andy pauses, to let me catch my breath, in a clearing surrounded by snow-covered pine trees and intersected by deer trails. "Well, you know," he replies, and again Alaska is in his voice, "I do not think that Ike could live anywhere else. He could not survive in a city. There is a feeling, a spirit, about this country, about Alaska. The wildness, the ocean, the storms, the animals..... A magic. It attracts a special kind of people. Does he feel lonely? No. This is where he belongs."

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And this is where you belong, too, Sara. This land of spirits and animals, of nature and stories. As you grew up here, in this village, Sara, you listened to those ancient stories, about the animals, about their spirits, told to you, in front of a fire in your cabin, by the old men as they carved their carvings. Stories told late into the night, quietly, reverently, as a storm raged fiercely and loudly outside. I can see you lying there, Sara, on the bare wooden floor, listening, firelight dancing in your eyes, stories dancing in your head....
I grew up on the plains, in a city. But there were no stories. There was school and college and career, for me. But no magic....
And in this the land of yours, Sara? This land so cold and gray and barren in the long winter, so green and full of life and energy in the short summer. There is magic here, isn't there? A magic, that you felt, as you grew up here.
You know, Sara, I can feel it too. Magic, fascinating, attracting, even me, a fleeting visitor from far away. But for you – and for Ike and Mary and Andy and June Bug – it's a part of you. And Sara, I envy your land. I envy all of you.....


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"You know," I tell Andy, "I envy June Bug. Just look at her! How'd you like to have her energy? Where's she get it?"

J.B. is splashing around in a creek that crosses our trail. She dives in, swims across to the other side, and clambers out. And again, she shakes from nose to tail to fling off the water. Then she glances back at us over her shoulder and tears off down the beach. Her feet churn up pieces of the small white seashells covering the black volcanic sand of the beach.

With the tide just past peak, the creek is full. We have no easy way to get over it or around it. So we're stuck for the moment. We don't want to risk getting our feet wet, our boots full of water. Even I, a tenderfoot - a cheechako, as the locals call us - have read Jack London. I know what happens, up here in the North, when you get wet. So we're taking a break, at the bank of the creek, waiting for the tide to drop further and let us cross safely.

"Yes," says Andy, as he watches J.B, "you need some of that energy, don't you? Or to get back into life. Or something...."

And then an unexpected task.

In deference to my advanced age, five years greater than his, Andy has been carrying a backpack with lunch, an emergency survival kit, and a marine radio. Those things you always take with you, he has told me, on winter strolls in Alaska. If you plan on coming back, that is. He's also carried a rifle in his hand. That's in the unlikely case we stumble up against a Kodiak brown bear - a Grizzly - roused from hibernation for a midwinter snack.

Andy leans the rifle against a driftwood tree, takes the backpack off, and reaches into it. "Here," he says, handing me a pocket knife and a small butane lighter from the survival kit, "build a fire."

I understand immediately. It's a challenge from his wilderness Alaska to my prairie Minnesota, a challenge from a younger brother to the older one, a test of my manhood.

"You bet!" I respond with delight, and set to work.

Dead branches and twigs litter the trailside at the forest's edge, driftwood covers the high tide mark on the beach. And dried brown weeds and dead grasses stick out of the snow, remnants of the summer gone by. A fire? No problem!

I dredge up hazy memories of my Scout days, and construct a pile of twigs and grasses. I start with a small mound lined with the thinnest and driest pieces, and then cover that with increasingly bigger sticks of wood. And then I'm ready for the test.

I hunch down over the pile to shelter it from the wind, take the lighter, and stick it into the middle of the pile. "Watch this," I say to Andy over my shoulder, and flick the wheel to start the flame, to light the fire......



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I lit a different fire, once, Sara. The one in her heart. But it went out. Is there to be another flame, another fire, for me? But, Sara, how about you? As you got older, did you ever build a fire, in the winter time, on a cold, windy beach. I bet you could do that, better than I can. And how many fires did you build in your own cabin? How many fires did you light in the hearts of the young men of your village? How many of those young men admired you, courted you Sara? How many loved you? How many did you love? And you married one of those young men, Sara. You had a husband, children, grandchildren. And you took those children for walks in the woods, to pick the wildflowers that blossom in the spring, to gather Salmon-berries in the fall. You took them for walks along the beach, in the winter. To watch the waves and the tides, Sara, to feel the wind in their faces......


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The wind swirls around me. The flame of the lighter flickers and dies. I get down on my knees on the black sand, lean over more, to make a better shelter, and spin the wheel again to restart the lighter. Andy just stands in silence and watches, arms crossed. June Bug comes over to inspect my operation. She sticks her nose to within a foot of my little wood pile. Will she get singed when the fire bursts forth?

But is that an expression of amazement - even contempt - on her face? She snorts and wanders off. After five minutes of my futility, with no sign of smoke or flame, Andy also snorts. "Let me do it," he commands me. I relinquish the lighter, with a mixture of embarrassment and relief.

Andy ignores my miserable little pile. Instead, he selects a twig an inch or so in diameter, and begins whittling it. "The surface is always wet," he explains to me. "You can't start a fire with the outside wood. You have to get to the dry wood, inside." And Andy begins to assemble his own small pile of thin, dry wood shavings. Now that he explains it, it's obvious. I'm impressed.

But then! He pulls several scraps of paper, saved from candy bar snacks earlier, and sticks them into his pile of wood shavings.

"Hey!" I splutter, pointing my finger at him. "You're cheating. You didn't give me any of that!"

"You didn't ask," he says, getting down on his knees to light the paper.

And I can't argue. I just stand by helplessly, as he puts the lighter to the paper. It flares up. The paper burns. And then the paper is gone. The flames disappear.

The wood shavings ignore all of this. They show not a spark of smoke or fire. Andy tries to light the shavings directly, having exhausted his stock of paper. He tries several times. No smoke, no flame, no fire.

Andy concedes defeat, with a laugh. It's obvious we're not going to have a fire. He stands up and points to the creek, which has now fallen enough for us to cross. "We better get going," he says.

I also laugh, and clap him on the shoulder. "Sure, brother." And we both jump the fallen creek to join J.B.

On the other side the trail has disappeared, and the beach is washed by waves. We have to walk along the shore, in snow drifts blown in by the wind. In places, a crust has formed on the snow. When it supports our weight, the walking is easy. But I break through the crust every few yards, and sink in, up to my knees, or even higher. Forcing my way through the snow then becomes hard work.

The clouds are also breaking up, and patches of blue sky appear. The cloud shadows scoot ahead of us, racing J.B. down the beach. The sunshine feels good at first. But I begin to get warm, then hot. I start sweating.

I knew when we started out that the layers of clothes Andy had me wear were too much - a shirt, two sweat shirts, the head-to-foot snow suit, boots, hat, gloves. In temperatures like these - close to 30 - I wear far less than this at home in Minnesota. But here I deferred to the local wisdom of my brother, and wore all this stuff.

I take off the gloves, then the hat. I finally zip down the coveralls, as far as I can, to the waist, and try to get some air circulating, to cool me down. Too many clothes!



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What kind of clothes did you wear, Sara? I'm sure that most of the time they were ordinary ones, like those other Alaskans wear. But did you have Native Costumes, perhaps for ceremonies? What did you wear, as a grownup, when you attended that little church? The one that sits a stone's throw from the cemetery here. Did you have a "Sunday Best" dress? And other times. Did you have a pretty wedding dress? Not a white frilly one, like those worn by women in the Lower Forty-eight. But another Native Costume, that you wore at your wedding? How was your husband dressed? And what did you do at your wedding, Sara? How many people celebrated with you? Were some of your rejected suitors there? Did you have a feast? Did you dance? Did you sing? To the accompaniment of tunes played on a guitar, or a violin, or maybe to the tinkly music of a piano......


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"There's still a piano, there, in that house." Andy points with his rifle to a small, crumbling house surrounded by Salmon-berry bushes, at the edge of the forest. The village starts here, at the beach, and this first house has taken the full fury of storms off the ocean over the years. Only a few patches of paint remain, and those are now faded and gray. The boards on its walls are cracked and peeling away, there is no glass in the windows, no door in the doorway.

"I looked in there, the last time I was here, a couple of years ago. There's a piano still there, in the middle of the living room. And the house even has some logs left in the fireplace, mostly burnt, but not all of 'em. It's like the fire died, and then they left.

"And some of the other houses have all kinds of stuff. Beds and dressers, tables, even dishes and forks and knives on some of the tables, books on some of the shelves. They just left it all here, when they moved out. It's really something."

My curiosity is intense. I want to see the piano, the fireplace, all the other vestiges of life here. But something else attracts me, draws me on. "We can stop by, on the way back," I tell him. "But let's go see the cemetery first. Where is it, the other side of the village?"

"Yeah," he replies. "It's right there, by the church."

We walk through the village, past other windowless, battered houses, to the small Russian Orthodox church standing on a rocky bluff a few yards off the beach. It's own windows have also long since disappeared, and the weathered boards crumble from its walls too. The steeple still stands, but is missing boards at its base. It sags in the direction of the cemetery. The old style Orthodox Cross still remains atop the steeple, though it too leans toward the cemetery, as if pointing.

We pause at the front of the church. The rotted steps up to the door are too fragile to trust with our weight. We just stand there, and look into the church.

Inside, in the dimness, a stray shaft of sun from a jagged hole in the roof lights up piles of boards, littered in disordered heaps. "You were saying some guy started to tear it apart? To move it somewhere else? Why was he doing that?" I ask.

"I am not really sure," my brother replies quietly, slowly. "I think he believed there is a connection. An interaction. A bond that shouldn't be lost, shouldn't be broken. Between things, between life that has been, and life that is now."

I look past the church toward the cemetery a few hundred feet away. "And he came here, because of that thought, didn't he," I say softly. Andy doesn't hear. And then more loudly, "Tell me more of the story."



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How many more stories were there for you, Sara? And how many years? You died.....

I wonder if you passed away an old woman, respected in age and wisdom? Or you died beautiful and young? Perhaps even from a bear attack, on the edge of one of the wild Salmon-berry patches that grow so abundantly here? Maybe it happened in a wild Alaska storm, or maybe from a sickness, a fever. What was your life? Was it long, full, a happy one? Or a life cut short? You died.....

And then, they buried you here, Sara. In this grave, in this cemetery, at this church. But are you lonely? I don't think so. I am, I'm lonely. But I don't think you are. The spirits of your ancestors, the spirits of your ancient gods are here, the people and gods that lived this land for a thousand years. They are with you, you with them.
What could be better?

And here you sleep, Sara. Here you wait. Here, in the shadow of the steeple, you sleep and you wait.....


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The shadows of clouds drift across the steeple, as we stand silently and watch. June Bug, still for once, sits at our feet, tongue hanging out, her breath making small puffs of steam in the air. She also looks up at the church. Behind me, Andy's voice floats through the air. "Well," he continues, "as I understand it, this man's idea was that all the things that took place in that church were very important. The worship, the weddings, baptisms, even the funerals, everything. And he thought all that would be lost, if the church was destroyed. He said that people had to keep visiting it, worshipping in it, in the church, to keep the past, keep it all alive."

Andy pauses, as a wave breaks on the beach behind us with a crash that drowns him out. As the wave retreats into silence, he continues. "And so he started to tear it apart, to move it somewhere else, to Kodiak, where the people were. He even numbered all the boards and pieces," and Andy points to some faded markings on the lumber, "so he could put it back together the right way. He worked on it, by himself, for a couple of summers....."

Andy turns away. "But nothing ever came of it," he says. "He disappeared. We don't knows what happened to him. He's just gone. Only his story is left, isn't it? Alaska has a lot of stories in, like that. A lot. Come on. I know you want to see the cemetery."

I don't reply. I just follow him in silence. We enter the cemetery through a broken gate standing by itself. The fence remains only as scattered pieces of rail and posts in the snow. I stop a few yards inside the gate, in the middle of the cemetery. Andy and J.B. continue on, toward the pine trees leaning out over the ocean, at the tip of the point.

I'm alone. At my feet is a low mound, no more than half a foot high, no more than five feet long. At the head of the grave a small marker sticks out of the ground. The marker leans forward over the grave, toward the church behind me, It's the only one still standing in the cemetery. The rest are gone or fallen over, buried in the snow.

I lean over and brush the snow off the face of the marker.......


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Sara.....
Did you ever think this would happen? That someone would come and visit you? Be enthralled by your name? Wonder about you? Want to tell the world about you? Sara. I'm sorry I never knew you, never met you, that you never met me. But, you know, it's odd. I feel like I do know you. I feel, somehow, like we've talked.
I feel like you've told me about yourself.....
I have to leave now. There's miles to go, back to the cabin. The sun is low in the sky. We have to get back before dark. If we didn't, Ike and Mary would get worried,
and we don't want that.
But Sara, I have a promise for you. I'll come back to see you again. I'll come back, in the spring, when the snows are gone, and your land is coming alive. Maybe not this year, but the next year, or the one after that. I'll come back, Sara. And when I do, I promise I'll bring you flowers. Because, Sara, I.....

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I rise. Andy waits quietly for me on the beach, knapsack still on his back, rifle in hand. June Bug, already racing down the surf line, back past the church, throws her head over her shoulder, to look at us, to lead us home.

I leave to join them.

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Date Created: May 15, 1996
Last Modified: April 9, 2004
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