I LOOK OUT THE PLANE’S COPILOT WINDOW AND FROM UP HERE the view is perfect and flat in all directions except to the south, where sixty miles away the ground rises in a cone-shaped volcano: the snowcapped Mount Peulik. The sun leans heavily toward the north pole and the land abruptly ends as it disappears into Bristol Bay, which from the air, on a clear day, looks like a flat plate of tinted glass. Looking east and west the flat tundra landscape spreads outward, disappearing at the bend of the earth.
My destination is the small village of Egegik, 350 miles southwest of Anchorage on the western side of the Alaskan Peninsula, a stretch of land that extends out from the mainland 475 miles, and averages 50 miles wide. Cut off from the interior by a vast mountain range, the peninsula is geographically isolated, even from Alaskans. At its farthest point west the Aleutian chain begins, a 1,200-mile strip of islands aimed at Russia in the shape of a kite’s tail. The only way to Egegik is by sea or plane, and by sea one must navigate the violent waters of the Bering Sea, not something done by anyone other than commercial fishermen or cargo ships.
I boarded the plane in King Salmon, Alaska, and strapped myself in the copilot chair. The only other seats on the plane were occupied, one with cargo and the other with a female passenger; a Native woman who was busy chatting with the pilot about something. Thrilled by the landscape below I quickly put in my earplugs, and adjusted my sunglasses to shield my eyes from the Alaskan sun, that cosmic torch that taunts all summertime visitors to the Great North.
Now I scan the earth for any clues of a human footprint. A house. A road. A discarded boat, or heap of trash. But there is nothing. From my angle there isn’t even a tree, at least one standing over four feet tall. There are no hills, just a flatness, the kind one imagines astronauts see as they peer down at earth from space, the world smashed flat by the relative distance. But there are the thousand shallow ponds that dot the tundra, a broken mirror shimmering the reflection of the plane’s metal, exposing how small we are in comparison to the landscape before us.
These pockets of water fill topographical wounds created ten thousand years ago, as the last of the great glaciers slowly receded, scraping the land as they disappeared, like a giant John Deere bulldozer clearing a road. A road the size of Tennessee. As the millennia passed, mountains disappeared, pulverized to rock and pebbles, leaving behind indentations in the earth’s surface, which then became lakes and ponds, making the area resemble a gigantic soccer field full of potholes after a fresh rain.
The lack of trees can shock the first-time visitor. The flora is thick but short and bent over, genetically altered by thousands of years of wind blasting down from the Arctic with nearly hurricane force. That isn’t to say there is a lack of vegetation. The ground is teeming with green. Tundra grass, alders, and willow squeeze together and cover every square inch of the land. They grow in low thickets, each species intertwining with the next, growing sideways instead of upward.
WITH THE WIND behind us, we fly over a river and a tiny village. It looks deserted, not a person in sight, only a cloud of dust rising up behind a single van driving toward the airstrip. There are a few large water tanks, some heavy equipment, and a row of sea cargo containers, but no people. Several large buildings are covered with rusted tin roofing on the bank of the river. Steam billows from a smokestack. This must be the cannery. Most of the homes look abandoned, the grass growing as high as the windows. As we bank I get a closer look at the Egegik River, which spans more than a mile from one bank to the other. The water is muddy, not clear as I had envisioned.
The plane sets down on a stretch of gravel on the bank of the river, just behind the town. A lone orange wind sock stands at attention; the pilot guesses 30 miles per hour, says that is normal out here. There are no buildings at this airport, no small tin shack with the word EGEGIK on it; there isn’t even another plane in sight. Instead a van is waiting at the edge of the gravel, near the grass.
The van pulls up to the belly of the plane and we all pitch in, quickly unloading the luggage, along with the U.S. mail. Some groceries and boxes of frozen goods are transferred as well. The driver of the van is a small Native woman with a round flat face and Asian features. Her age is a mystery and she laughs loudly with the young woman from the plane, who also has a round Native face and Asian features. They are talking as if they have been having a conversation for the last two hours. I don’t listen. Instead I hold my backpack close to my side, staring out the window as the van begins to move, trying to pick up any clues that will help shape my perception of this outpost. The driver heads down a single-track dirt road toward town.
“Hey, where you going?” the driver suddenly yells at no one in particular.
I say nothing. The driver looks at me in the rearview mirror. “Yeah you, I’m talking to you. Who you working for?”
“Sharon Hart,” I say, blurting out the name of the stranger who called me twenty-four hours ago, asking if I wanted a job as a commercial fisherman.
“Sharon’s fishing partner is Carl, my husband,” says the passenger. “I’m Jannelle.”
“And, she’s my daughter,” says the driver, pointing at the passenger.
DRIVING, WE PASS a few people walking but no one waves, their heads pitched downward as if staring at their feet. I count more four-wheel ATVs than cars, and on one ATV there are stacked several people. It’s hard to say whether they are mothers with their children or older siblings with their younger siblings or maybe just friends all riding together.
Finally the van stops in front of a small shack with a caribou rack above the front door. “Sharon’s house,” says Jannelle, pointing at the dilapidated structure. “There was an opening today, she won’t be home for a while. Carl’s still on the Fiasco, halibuting.”
I nod my head as if I understand.
“Get out. And shut the door,” yells the driver. Stunned, I don’t move.
My first instinct is to compare this place to a shantytown in the Third World. In some ways it does resemble many I’ve visited. But there is one clear difference. In poor villages, the world over, the local people are almost always friendly. They may not have food on the table or running water, but they welcome you in. And the poorer the place, the nicer they are. At the other end of the scale are the rich, locked behind tall gates, with twenty-four-hour security guards. But here I am confused. Egegik, by the looks of it, is poor, but the people act rich. I know within the first minutes of being here that this will be a difficult place to understand.
“Now!” the driver shouts, waiting for me to get out of the van.
Standing on the road, I look away from the driver, hoping to discourage her from speaking further to me. The passenger leans out the window, raises her eyebrows, and playfully nods her head in my direction.
“Welcome to Egegik,” she says, and the van drives away, spitting sand in my face.