Becoming Alaskan

Well… I have a storage unit, a PO Box and a boat. While registering my boat in AK I just about pulled the trigger on an Alaskan drivers license. I’m not quite sure I’m ready for that… Yet. 

I’d like to introduce you all to my new friend, Devlin. I was introduced to him a couple weeks back and we spent about 5 days exploring Resurrection Bay on kayaks and in a zodiak boat. We caught fish and even got a little adrenaline rush when humpbacks decided to surface right next to us. Let me tell you, I’ve been in a kayak next to humpbacks before and even got in the water with them, but that was Hawaii 85 degree water, this is Alaska, 45 degree water. You have about 5-10 mins to make it to shore before your limbs stop working properly and your body temperature drops beyond your brain’s existence. If you make it to shore, the real work begins of trying to get dry, warm and get a fire built or get help. It’s no walk in the park, it’s serious. When your kayak fills with water, unless you have another kayak close by, it’s pretty much impossible to get the water out, let alone try to climb back in. All that being said, my intentions of getting as close as we could quickly changed when I honestly saw a humpback surface about 60 yards away swimming directly at us. A few moments later I honestly felt something rub the bottom of the kayak and I swear I saw the whale under us. Let me tell you, I about ran across the top of the water. You couldn’t get me to paddle any faster. I was done! Saw the humpback, time to go, don’t need to see anymore… Living without fear most of my life… I think Alaska is good to me, reminds me of the power of Mother Nature and her family. 

Devlin is an 18 year old native Eskimo who going into his senior year of high school. Devlin’s life journey is an inspiring one. What he’s seen and experienced is far beyond most teenagers living in the lower 48, or anywhere. Devlin was raised mostly by his grandfather. He was the man in his life the he looked up to, respected and loved dearly. He taught him how to make spears, hunt seals, even polar bears. He also taught Devlin how to play guitar where music is vital to the village. At the age of 10 he was camping in a shelter with his grandfather, his uncle and his grandmother. They had taken a boat up through the ice break up and spent a few nights in harsh weather, moving the shelter every day due to increasing levels of ice. One morning his grandfather fell through the ice into the river and without hesitation Devlin’s uncle jumped in to save him. As the two men were swept away, so was their future, along with Devlin’s future with a father figure. The two men were gone. After some time, Devlin’s grandmother turned to him and said, they’re gone, drown. Can you get us back to the village? He nodded yes, and at 10 years old he navigated the boat back to the village. Once they returned, the entire village went on a search and recover mission. Devlin’s grandfather was found high up on some ice, frozen, on his back with his arms spread wide, facing the sky. No one can explain how he got there, only accept it. The search for his uncle continued and a harbour seal kept approaching the search boat. It would bark and swim off. The boat would follow and the seal would approach again, make noise and swim back. This continued until the seal just dove up and down in the water several times. The villagers dropped their large hook over the side of the boat and continued working the bottom of the river. They snagged something. The seal pops up, staring at the boat. They pulled in the body of Devlin’s uncle and looked to the seal, thanking it. The seal took them to the exact location of his uncle. Not sure how to explain this but obviously there was something pretty cool happening. 

That’s only the beginning, Devlin was heartbroken. The man he looked up to the most, who taught him more than anyone else, was gone. Sadness blankets his days and depression starts to settle in. It was only a couple years later when he came home from school and his aunt said, “go look for your cousin, she’s outside playing somewhere.” His 4 year old cousin had been playing outside with her friend and he couldn’t find them anywhere. He searched everywhere, then he saw something. A hole in the ice. He quickly ran to it and pulled his frozen 4 year old cousin from the water. He ran to get help and they tried to keep her alive, but unfortunely they last both of the little girls. Devlin is now 12 years old and life’s beginning to look like its full of sadness and loss. He struggles to find any joy. His mother decides to move them into the mountains. Now he’s away from his customs, his friends and everything he’s known to exist. Moving from Kaktovik Alaksa to Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska is quite a change. Even though it’s still a village and the only way in and out is by plane, it’s a different world. Still above the Arctic circle and no trees (except the 1 tree his grandfather planted 70 years ago which stands in front of their home.)  Devlin tried to move on but questioned God and life. Living in the village is tough. It’s hard to find things to encourage you. There’s not much to offer as far as career and future. It’s tough to explain, but it’s truly like a foreign country. Devlin decides this world he lives in is not what he wants and his attempts of taking his own life was taken seriously. He was majorly depressed and had serious hopelessness. He was sent to North Star treatment center in Anchorage at 13 for mental health evaluation and care. He lived their for about 6 months. He didn’t like it their and was sent to Bethel, AK to another treatment facility. This one he loved! He could practice subsistence living, which is what he knew and loved and was missing. Going to catch fish and smoke them, hunt and trap animals. He was getting his roots back. It seemed to help for a little while. After spending a couple years in Bethel he moved back to Anatuvuk. He enrolled in school and fell into the temptations of peers, drinking and drugs. His depression returned and he attempts to leave this life under his own will. He was intercepted and a long time mentor of Devlin, Dwayne King, who owns Kingdom Air, flew him out of Anatuvuk. Dwayne owns and operates a flight training school in AK and has been trying to get Devlin a Pilots license and on the right track for a couple years. As I heard of Devlin through Wade Nolan, we had a discussion and Wade filled me in. I felt a calling. It was time for me to meet Devlin. 

I met Devlin with Wade and we spent a good couple days outside Seward in kayaker’s Cove. This is where we kayaked and fished. My parents came to AK and was able to meet Devlin. He shared stories and pictures of their whale hunts. A fascinating young man. Then, I had a thought. I’m here doing research on Alaska and the natives and the story I’m telling includes an 18 year old native… Wait what? This is too good to be true. I decided to ask him if he wanted to go on an adventure? He anxiously said yes and it was set. When my parents left I picked up Devlin. I can honestly tell you, the gifts he’s given me in the past 3 days is everlasting. He’s teaching me more than I could ever teach him. The best part, it’s all completely unintentional. He has no idea about the film and he’s just being himself. It’s the things we don’t realize are that are influencing someone that are make the biggest impact. Here’s a quick couple stories.

 I decided Devlin could use a new pair of shoes or boots. So we went to the True Value Hardware store where they sell everything. I first grabbed him the extra tuff boots that are a must have in Alaska (even though I don’t even have them, Everyone else does) it’s almost like having a beard. If you don’t own extra tuff rubber boots, you’re probably a tourist. So his eyes light up when I tell him I’m buying them for him. Then we turn to the hiking boots. I show him a couple men’s boots, he says, “sure” and even when I ask him over and over which ones, he says “I’ll take whatever.” Here’s the lesson, HE MEANS IT! He literally will take whatever. So, I say, “I’m not going to pick your shoes, you are. Which ever ones you want, they’re yours.” He smiles, he looks and reaches for a boot. “These ones.” I figured ok, he finally made a decision. We find the size, he tries them on and we go to check out. So, before I go any farther, the laces on the boots are purple, almost a pinkish color, but he just thought that was the coolest thing. As we’re checking out, the cashier says, you know these are women’s shoes? I said no, I turn to Devlin, do you want to put them back and get a different pair? He looks at me like I’m crazy. “No.” I want those ones. Me being obnoxious said, “are you sure?” “Are you sure they fit?” “Try them on again.” And it hits me… As I’m reaching down to squeeze the top part of his toe to see if his toe hits te end of the boot, I’m now my mom and I’m doing exactly what I hated when I was young. I quickly stood up and said, “they’re perfect, we’ll take them.” I paid and out the door we went. The first thing Devlin did is take off his old used, falling apart shoes and trashed them. He climbed in my truck with a great big smile and literally said word for word, “These are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn.” I just sit and take it in, almost speechless.  Then he continues, “I’m going to wear these for the next 2 years!” And then it hit me. This journey’s going to be a whole lot more than I bargained for. Not only did he not want shoes for fashion, or because they have some basketball player on them, it wasn’t about if they were men’s or women’s boots, purple or black laces, it was about comfort and the excitement of having brand new shoes and now he has 2 pair, hiking boots and rubber boots. He’s living on cloud 9! His smile spread from ear to ear for the next couple hours and he was so excited to show them to people. Thank you Devlin for allowing me the opportunity to sit and reflect on how many pairs of shoes I have and how many pairs of shoes I don’t wear and now knowing how many pairs of shoes I can donate. How many shoes do you NEED? 

Another story that I want to share. It may not sit with you as it did with me experiencing it, but my hope is that it helps you reflect on your reality and compare to someone else’s reality. Whos world do you live in? What would it be to live in someone else’s shoes? Devlin and I had set up camp near Moose Pass on Upper Trail Lake. It’s was awesome! Right on the lake, nestled in trees and we had a new boat to explore the mountain encased lake. Yesterday the weather was changing and in the distance was some severe weather. We discussed a plan and decided we would make an adventure out of it and hunker down. It obviously wouldn’t be the worse weather he camped in. So we pulled tarps and covered our tent but the winds were making it nearly impossible. After the tent pole was busted by the wind and the tent will no longer stand, we have no choice to to abandon our plan and pack up as quickly as possible and go somewhere, not sure where but we’re in trouble, the rain was literally causing flooding. So we eventually got everything picked up and drove towards Kenai. And there it was… Devlin saw it and said, what’s that? “Pizza Hut.” He’s never been to Pizza Hut so guess what, it’s my treat. What do you want? “I don’t care” this is the instant answer for Devlin and at first I would talk to him about making decisions too and he continued saying “I don’t care.” And when I pushed him he said, “I really don’t care.” He says this because he actually means it. Any food you give him, anywhere you stay, anything you do, is awesome, so whatever I decide, he’ll be happy with. He finally said, “pepperoni” and I got him a pepperoni pizza and I got one with meat and veggies. I figured he’s just a teenager and I didn’t want veggies either at his age. Then the pizza came. He looked at my pizza and said, “what’s that?” I said, “A mushroom. Have you had them? He said, “No.” So he tried it for the first time. He liked it! He pointed to the green peppers. “What’s that?” “Green pepper.” “Is it hot?” “No, have you tried it?” “No.” He does, he likes it. Then he sees me putting crushed red peppers on my pizza, “What’s that?” “Crushed red peppers.” “Are they hot?” “Yeah, a little.” He dumps a ton of them on his pizza and starts eating. Soon he begins to sweat and drink his water, breathing in and out. “Pretty hot,” he says. Then I pay the bill and the red and white mints are left and I hand him one. He looks at it, not sure what it is. I could tell, so I unwrapped mine and slipped it into my mouth. He watched me and unwraps his and slips it into his mouth. It only lasts a couple seconds and then comes right back out. “That’s spicy!” First teenager I’ve seen to not like candy, or at least this one… Another lesson for me. To watch someone, a teenager to be exact, experience things for the first time is hard to explain. The only other times in my life were The Sahara desert. The crazy thing, this is considered the United States and Devlin is considered and American citizen. Just how different is village life? Completely different. They literally speak a different language and eat completely different foods. They have amazing customs of song and dance. It’s a beautiful community environment and I’m learning so much more about the “Native” Alaskans. Those who are not transplants for the lower 48 who come here because Discovery Channel makes it seem so cool. These are the real Alaskans. I know and love many who were and weren’t born in Alaska who have lived most their life here and some that haven’t who are all part or almost full Alaskan, or as close as it gets if you’re white. Although, I’m sure they’d all admit, it’s the Aleuts, Athibascans, and all the native Indians and Eskimos who make up the real Alaska. Most of them don’t live in Anchorage or Fairbanks. They live in the Bush. Take a look for yourself at a road map of Alaska. Only about 1/6 of the state has roads. Where there are no roads, their are Natives, living life, for the most part, in the wild. Sadly, the native lifestyle here in Alaska is on the decline. The 21st century society is seeping in like a plague. iPhones and Facebook are filtering in and the young children are getting away from making their own clothes and smoking their own meat. It’s cooler to see what the Karashians are doing than to hear about the time your uncle lost his fingers by freezing them off in a storm that nearly took his life. I’m hoping to tell a story about those native Alaskan’s cultures and ways of life before it’s gone completely. Such a wonderful experience. Thank you Devlin for showing me the Eskimo culture. The videos, the songs and the dances are certainly going to play a part in my film. Now, the time to build our own shelter and smoker is nearing and I look forward to what’s to come… 

For those who offer prayers, please pray for Devlin’s acceptance into the Job Corps in Palmer. They will get him his high school diploma, a drivers license, training and free room and board. We went to orientation on Tuesday and toured the campus. He’s “super” excited. (Devlin’s favorite word, super) This could be a life changer… Or saver for Devlin. A well mannered young man who has a spirit flowing bright inside, in need of direction and hope. That was me once, I’m glad I didn’t give up. Here’s to you Devlin! And Many more adventures!! 

Here’s some older facts, but assuming with the implementing of cell phones, TV and society, I’m guessing it’s much higher now. I do know that Alaska has the highest suicide rate per capita over anywhere else in the US. 

The rate of suicide in the United States was 11.5 suicides per 100,000 people in 2007. In 2007, Alaska’s rate was 21.8 suicides per 100,000 people. The rate of suicide among Alaska Native peoples was 35.1 per 100,000 people in 2007.

Alaska Native men between the ages of 15-24 have the highest rate of suicide among any demographic in the country, with an average of 141.6 suicides per 100,000 each year between 2000 and 2009.

More than 90% of people who die by suicide have depression or another diagnosable, treatable mental or substance abuse disorder, most say they feel hopeless, worthless, trapped or intolerably alone.

First time to Cabelas. 



One thought on “Becoming Alaskan

  1. A wonderful true story about Devlin’s life. I am so glad you are mentoring him at this time in his life. Wonderful pictures. I am sure he will be a success story. Looking forward to watching his life move forward in a positive way.

    Like

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