Warm Place in My Heart for Unalakleet

By Stan Friedman

UNALAKLEET, AK (April 5, 2012) – When I left Chicago to cover the 125th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska, it was a record-setting 83 degrees at home.

One day after I arrived in Unalakleet, which is located on the shore of the Bering Sea, it was 20 degrees below zero – a difference of 103 degrees!

Unalakleet on the Bering Sea

There are no roads into Unalakleet, so you have to fly in. No flights came in or left on one of the days I was there because of the blizzard.

As I walked through the snow that was descending upon the village of about 700 people, I wondered how do you hold an annual meeting here? Then I realized this was normal for most of the attendees. Click here to see additional photos.

Still, they have had one of their coldest winters – one of the coldest that even the elders can remember. For more than six weeks, the temperature didn’t rise above 20 degrees below zero, often reaching a bone-chilling 40 below zero. Then again, as my host Karl Erickson told me, at some point it doesn’t make much difference.

The pastors, some of whom minister in villages of no more than 200 people, have an amazing passion to serve and believe strongly in the ministry of “staying” and presence.

A bit of irony: Way up north in Unalakleet, they like – no, love – to sing Southern gospel songs in the style of the Gaither Family. SingSpirations that last several hours are common. When the churches get together, musicians from each congregation take turns leading the worship.

At one of the services, the alumni of the Covenant High of Alaska sang, including the old school song. Covenant High was a boarding school that has impacted the entire state, with some of the top business, legal, medical, and political leaders having attended the school.

Stan Friedman outside the church

Close ties remain for many of the former students. “It was like Bible camp,” says Unalakleet’s pastor Joel Oyoumick, who grew up in the village. Lessons were taught in a simple classroom. “Sometimes we had class when it was 20 below because the oil ran out.”

Of course, just about everyone asks residents about the show “Flying Wild Alaska.” Yes, I did meet in passing Fern and Jim Tweto. Ariel, one of the show’s stars, lives in California and comes back only to film the show.

Actually, Fern offered to call Karl to let him know I got his truck stuck on a snowmobile trail a little ways down from the hangar. She suggested he could bring his other vehicle to give me a push. (The trail looks like a road, albeit a little hilly . . . and besides, I thought these trucks could go over anything.) On my way to drop off bags at the airport, I had stopped to take a photo in the cemetery where the first Swedish missionary to Unalakleet, Axel Karlson, is buried.

Not wanting to experience the embarrassment of having Fern call Karl, I told her with great anxiety not to worry about it. Fortunately, several pastors and Curtis drove by. He hopped in the driver’s seat and the rest of us gave a push. He gunned it over the final hill, and I didn’t have to make that call. I told Karl when I finally got back from the quarter-mile drive what happened, and he just said, “Oh, okay. No problem.”

I never did get the Axel Karlson headstone photo.

Two of the pastors arrived early for the conference and rode their snow machines more than four hours to hunt caribou. They camped overnight and then brought back at least four animals on the trailer behind the sled.

John Hege covers up to go hunting

John Hege, a minister at Community Covenant Church in Fairbanks and former pastor in Shaktoolik, said people in one village were disappointed when he visited. They were expecting the television preacher, John Hagee.

As for food, I learned the meat from one moose could feed a family for a year. “They’re a lot bigger up here,” Karl informed me. And, I didn’t expect this – there’s a pizza place in Unalakleet.

People keep asking me what I ate. I ate raw Bowhead whale blubber with skin attached, known as maktak; seal oil from bearded seals, which is used for dipping food and is used in various recipes; herring eggs; dried seal skin, which is like jerky; caribou; salmon jerky; and King Salmon. (See recipes below from cookbook assembled in honor of the anniversary.)

Wild blueberries were amazing. I also did feast on other “regular” food, thanks to Karen Erickson, who very well could be the best cook in the village.

I’ll also remember this experience the next time I complain about food prices. In Unalakleet, an 89-ounce jug of orange juice was $15.05, which was labeled a cost-cutter deal because 30 cents had been shaved from the regular price. Two jars of peanut butter packaged together cost $24.15. Some people save their money to fly to Anchorage to shop and then send back food. It still can be cheaper than shopping locally. Stratospheric grocery prices also are a reason many of the people live by hunting, fishing, and picking berries.

They tell me Unalakleet is gorgeous in the summer and the salmon fishing is incredible. I’d love to experience that.


“How to make seal oil”

In the spring or fall, remove the fat from underneath the skin of a seal. Cut the fat into long thin strips and place in a clean bucket. The blubber has to be clean with no meat attached or blood on it. Cover the bucket with a clean, thin cloth and put in a cool, dark place, preferably in a porch or underneath the house. Stir every day. When the blubber turns into oil – called “dungik” – ladle into clean jars and store in the freezer to enjoy with meals all winter.
. . . From Ida Nakarak of Elim

“How to make black meat” (Paniktaq)

Black meat is meat that has been dried from Ugruk (bearded seal). Black meat can also be made from other marine mammals. Cut the meat into thin strips and hang out to dry. When dry, put in jars or cans with oil you made from the seal. You can also put the dried meat in Ziploc bags. Store in freezer.
. . . From Donna Erickson of Unalakleet

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