Yukon River Haiku
On a jail monitoring trip, Yukon-Koyukuk region, Alaska
Village kids ring the
blue and white helicopter
I get to ride in.
Under the chopper’s
transiting shadow, fishwheels
line the riverbanks.
in Koyukuk, the mayor’s
son: drowned while fishing.
Pilot’s and trooper’s
voices mix in my earphones.
South, a cloud drops rain.
Brown river Yukon
bears silt, carries old mountains
suspended to sea.
Pilots know sloughs by
their color of dark-brewed tea,
the silt settled out.
Where once river flowed,
an oxbow scar green with grass,
a sow bear, two cubs.
[October 17, 1995]
About this poem (or rather, series of poems)
In the third haiku, VPSO stands for Village Public Safety Officer — usually a village resident who gets training in basic law enforcement, search and rescue, and other public safety-related duties. VPSOs are usually hired by the regional Native nonprofit for the area where their village is, but are supervised by Alaska State Troopers. They’re the first line of law enforcement in many predominately Alaska Native villages in the Bush — that is, rural villages off the road system.
For the first several years I worked at the UAA Justice Center, we contracted with the Alaska Division of Family and Youth Services (DFYS), now known as the Office of Children’s Services (OCS), to monitor Alaska’s compliance with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974. The project included making visits each year to one-third of the sites in the “monitoring universe” of jails, lockups, and juvenile detention facilities. I wasn’t a regular on the project, but helped out by going on some of the site visits. This series of haikus came from one of those trips, taken in August 1995 to the villages of Galena, Kaltag, Nulato, Koyukuk, Ruby, and Huslia. These are all predominately Athabascan Indian villages on the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers — a couple of them are part of the route for the annual Iditarod sled dog race, though of course I was traveling in the summertime. The Alaska State Troopers posted at Galena took my visit as an opportunity to have a chopper brought over from Fairbanks so they could show the area to an AST pilot newly assigned there — that made me pretty happy, because I didn’t have the extra work of chartering a plane to fly me to the villages — but mostly because I’d never been in a helicopter before! it was really cool!
So was the country. I wrote to a friend shortly afterwards of
how beautiful it was in the Galena area, how different the middle Yukon is from the downriver spots I visited last year because there are trees everywhere — and yet how similar it is, how the river dominates everything, how it meanders and changes course and leaves behind the scars of its old channels, how the flora suddenly changes from black spruce forest to the shallow reeds or whatever of a shallow pothole lake.
I had my camcorder with me & took footage throughout the two days’ of flying. After the message above, I wrote a longer, very detailed message about the trip, which I think I might post in the next couple of days (with some edits to protect the privacy of the people I encountered along the way).
The previous jail monitoring trips I’d taken had been to villages in Yup’ik country on the lower Kuskokwim near Bethel and the lower Yukon around St. Marys (about which a nonfiction story, “Site Visit,” was published in 1996). I’ve also traveled to the Kotzebue area, Unalakleet and other villages around Norton Sound, a second Bethel-area trip, King Cove, Sandpoint, and Kodiak. Unfortunately I didn’t have a digital camera in those days, so I don’t have many photos. But I generally brought my Hi-8 camcorder. I really need to break out the tape & see if I can transfer it to digital & post some of that stuff on YouTube.
Meantime, it’s just refreshing to have a post about life. I think I need to take some time out from the political stuff that’s dominated my attention since the summer & take a long walk in the woods.