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Like home in Dillingham

By Dan Branch

The flight from Anchorage to Dillingham is short, taking less than an hour. You pass over a volcano still wrapped in winter white. After that, it's mostly low hills, lakes and tundra. Thanks to the oil boom of the late 70's, Dillingham's airport looks like the ones in every other Alaska hub community with a long runway and small sheet metal terminal.

It was late September so the birch trees fringing the airstrip have dry orange and yellow foliage. The sky is a cloudless blue. At home in Juneau the ash and cottonwood trees are just turning under rainy skies. Outside the Dillingham terminal I enjoyed seeing the sun and birch trees and smelling high bush cranberries that have gone through their first frost.

The air terminal was crammed with unshaved white guys in camo clothes. They all had a going-back-to-civilization look on their faces--like they are going to have to fight with each other for seats on the plane. It made me doubt whether they are bringing home any meat.

I thought this trip would be a homecoming for me--a return visit to the Bush. I lived on the Kuskokwim River for over 12 years. Since they are both hub communities serving a Yupik population I expected Bethel and Dillingham to share many similarities. I found some. When inside the Dillingham AC store or the N & N Market, you'd think you are inside a Bethel store.

The N & N Market, like Swanson's Store in Bethel, is a mini-department store carrying an astonishing variety of goods. You can find oranges from Australia and bagels from Canada in one section, winter clothes, CDs and the latest DVDs in another. Folks collect in the N & N Market arctic entryway, visiting and watching the town population drift by the way people did in the entryways of Bethel stores when I lived in that river city.

There are many differences between Bethel and Dillingham. First, there are the trees and hills. Dillingham has them and for the most part, Bethel does not. Dillingham is much more spread out than Bethel. In Dillingham, good gravel roads snake away from town, giving access to other villages and housing lots.

Dillingham also has the boats. On the Kuskokwim in Bethel, most folks traveled by skiffs.

Even the Nunivak families used wooden skiffs to cross Etolin Strait and trade reindeer hides and meat with villagers on the mainland. In Dillingham there seemed to be a 30-foot ocean salmon gillnet boat blocked for the winter in every yard.

In spite of a slump in the fishing industry, netting salmon must still bring a bunch of money into Dillingham. Judging by all the nice cars and trucks on their roads, people seem to have more spending cash.

The Dillingham small boat harbor is a bit of a wonder. Carved out at the mouth of Scandinavian Creek, the boat harbor has floats attached to long metal arms. The arms are attached to swivels on heavy vertical posts that let the posts rise and fall with the tide without danger of being blown away by high winds.

I don't recall ever seeing a bear in Bethel but there are some in Dillingham. Like Ketchikan and Juneau, Dillingham has a bear problem. The bears got used to eating at the dump. When the city fathers fenced it in, the bears started cruising town for a snack. I imagine more than a few are shot each year.

There weren't a lot of birds around Dillingham in September. I scared up a small raft of ducks once and crossed paths with a large raven. Until being taken to the airport I didn't see any eagles. The courtsey van driver pointed out one bald eagle in a white spruce lining the road to the terminal. You grow used to eagles in Juneau. They hunt loose cats on neighborhood streets and decorate every salmon stream. A place now seems empty without them.

Dillingham seemed a bit empty with the fishing over and many folks out hunting caribou. The airport terminal wasn't empty when I checked in for my return flight to home. Once again the place was packed with white guys in camo. Unlike the group crammed in the terminal when I arrived, these guys had smiles on their sun burned faces. Hunting must have good. I know the weather was fine.

Over in the corner some locals sat looking a little bewildered. One said he didn't recognize anyone in the place. His friend just smiled and said, "Don't worry, we'll have the place back in a couple of weeks."

On the flight to Anchorage a Yupik woman sitting in front of me offered everyone in our row some dried moose meat. On the ground below, a river wound through tundra in fall color. All the troubles of Anchorage were only 40 minutes away. The plane climbed into the first clouds I'd seem in days while I hoped that the lady in the next row would offer more moose meat. At that moment, it felt like home.

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