TANANA — Vernon Stickman Sr.’s first steps on a long winter walk down the Yukon River Thursday morning were heralded with a good luck song sung in the Koyukon language, accompanied by the beat of a skin drum.
More than 100 Tanana residents turned out for the 55-year-old Athabascan’s send-off in front of the Tanana Commercial Co., approximately 130 miles west of Fairbanks.
In striking contrast to Stickman’s lightweight running clothes, the onlookers were muffled in heavy parkas, many sporting marten skin hats against sub-zero temperatures.
After a year’s planning and with the help and support of Tanana residents and many others, Stickman is on his way toward achieving a goal he started forming during the dark months following his son Vernon Corey Stickman Jr.’s suicide in September 2010. He hopes to walk as far as Nulato, 220 miles downstream, talking against suicide as he goes.
As Stickman, the Tanana school custodian, and his wife Arla, the postmaster, worked through their overwhelming grief and pain, the couple began focusing on education and prevention to stem the tide of self-inflicted deaths in Interior Alaska.
They realized it was time to start talking about suicide prevention and healthy choices and lifestyles to schoolchildren and Interior communities.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems. Life will get better,” Stickman stressed Wednesday night, at a covered dish gathering to honor the couple and Chris Grant. Grant is Stickman’s cousin, who is supporting him and driving a snowmachine pulling provisions for the trek.
Grant will also join with Stickman at special events planned in Ruby and Galena. And if all goes well along the trail, the two will push on to Koyukuk and Nulato.
Following dinner and before speeches and Indian dancing started at the send-off party, Donna Folger asked people to write the name of loved ones who took their own lives on small pieces of paper.
A long line of people quickly formed, including Arla Stickman, clutching a framed photo collage of her son Corey.
After each paper was deposited, Folger rang a small finger bell, and soon a paper plate was heaped high with the little lavender notes.
“This little bell is going to take the name up there to the Creator,” she said, raising her hand toward the ceiling.
“This is emotional. I didn’t expect this many names,” Folger said.
Faith Peters, a community planning specialist and counselor, said that with the example of Stickman and Grant, healing can come as they carry the message of suicide prevention down the Yukon River.
“That means we can be OK. We can ask for forgiveness and love one another, and heal,” she said. “Suicide is sad and it cuts right to the heart.”
Grant, who has been alcohol-free for 27 1/2 years, plans to talk about sobriety along the way and urge young people to keep busy fishing, cutting wood, hunting, trapping, traveling and visiting to stay healthy.
“If you stay sober and never drink, you’ll have a happy life,” he said. “Then you can work on your drug problem and family problems.”
For Stickman, who has enjoyed long distance running throughout his life, the long walk is both a personal quest and a healing journey.
He and Arla realize the importance of talking about their pain and not just keeping it to themselves. They both now abstain from alcohol, convinced that their son, a happy, caring, sensitive, hardworking young man, wouldn’t have killed himself if he hadn’t been drunk.
“When this happened, I couldn’t stand up here and talk to people about it,” Stickman said. “I could just talk to my wife and Chris and counselors.
“It’s been over a year now,” he said. “The pain is still there. I don’t think I’ll get over this, but I’ll get better.”
Thursday morning, just before Stickman cut the ribbon at the start of his journey, the lavender name notes were burned in front of the crowd in memory of their loved ones, followed by prayers and a spiritual reading.
“All your sorrows, leave behind you. All this I ask in the name of Jesus, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” intoned Rev. Helen Peters, a Tanana elder and Episcopal priest, blessing Stickman and Grant on their way.
Vernon will be wearing a Spot Checker throughout his run, and his whereabouts can be followed on the team website: www.vernstickmansrandteams.com.
Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.