LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — “Some people from the University of Illinois are doing a study on the ‘meaning of place.’ They want to visit folks in the Bush to do interviews,” our liaison at the National Park Service advised me.
I am not sure just exactly what these people expect from us, nor can I exactly interpret what they connote by “meaning of place,” but I do know that, like most long-time bush residents, I have a deep-rooted sense of home.
Of course one must first define “home.” Is it the two-story log house our parents built in the 1960s, with bookcases in every room, Bill Berry paintings, and sundry collections of skulls, bones, rocks and glass? Although the Bush has always been home to me, nothing grounds my life quite so much as the home I’ve lived in since age 9.
Or does “sense of place” refer to a larger area? Perhaps the scattered and diverse community where we grew up among neighbors from old-time trappers to retirees and young families, and FAA workers that came and went (except for our father, who took early retirement rather than be promoted to an Anchorage job).
We know the local berry patches and the route of an occasional solitary grizzly and how resources change throughout the seasons, whether we need dry bedding straw or spruce trees that will slip their bark easily.
We know the peregrine nests, the eagle nests, and their preferred hunting areas. Which sections of the lake beach prove most susceptible to being bulldozed by spring ice. Current river channels, the channels of the 1970s, and the old channels where the river ran before I was born, now filled in and overgrown.
But my sense of place extends well beyond our immediate area. By canoe, dog team, or pack horse my sister and I have rambled between here and a healthy stretch of the Alaska Range. We’ve traveled the entire length, or most of the length, of four local streams 50 to 70 miles long.
I know where this one tends to flow underground during summer dry spells, and why weak, shelly ice in one section overlies ankle-deep shallow water while just two miles downstream, tenuous ice covers six feet of swift, sucking current. On another 70-mile stream, I know the two solitary spots worth fishing for grayling, and about the impressive 30-foot tall cut bank where the current is voraciously eating into a frozen vegetated ice lens, sucking down whole islands of slumping moss and trees.
The driest route through the bogs and muskeg between our home and first trapline camp, and the easiest routes to the Alaska Range from there. The Secret Passageway dropping down from the hills to access yet another river, cleverly bypassing the 10-foot tall cut bank. The location for the most dazzling, eye-popping view of Archangel Ridge as it tumbles steeply off a shoulder of 17,000-foot Mount Foraker.
“It’s a feeling of safety,” my sister Julie offered. The familiar bird songs and arrays of wild flowers that summer brings, old friends all whether we can name them or not. The predictable fluctuations of a changeable river that we’ve lived by and studied for six decades.
The two tedious months I recently spent in Fairbanks recovering from a broken leg reminded me of how I tend to lose my sense of identity when away from home for too long. I feel disconnected from life and everything important to me, floating groundless in a vacuous nether land. Once home, the way forward springs into clarity: sled dogs to hug, horses to scratch, garden to plant, fish nets to run.
A sense of place, developed over decades — or, for some, over generations — means developing a strong feeling for the predictability (or unpredictability) of the area. However, it also leaves us vulnerable to unprecedented changes.
Newcomers may bring clashing values or competition for resources, while locally raised children often leave bush communities in search of educations, jobs, mates or a way of live centered on human activities rather than the cycles of nature. (We miss you, Becky and Steven, Kari and Jon, Katie and Scott, Shawn and Stormy, and Blackburn descendants too numerous to tally.)
Environmental changes driven by a remodeling climate, shifting rivers, forest fires, erosion or permafrost melt leave us searching for alternate travel routes, berry patches, or hunting and trapping areas. Temperatures of 50 or 60 below, we can deal with. But when climate change brings rain, once unprecedented, in November we have trouble managing the implications of delayed under-ice fishing and dangerous traveling conditions. Political threats from potential land sales, highway-building, or post office-closings bring the community together in opposition of permanent life-altering changes.
A sense of place imbues a deep appreciation for what home, in its most expansive interpretation, has to offer, whether knowing where to find resources, or how to manage when things go wrong, or where to go when you need to remember who you truly are.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.