There is no such thing as a quick run to the grocery store here. If you forget the milk, your choice is to go without or take the 40-mile plane ride back to Anchorage.
In a world consumed by traffic, errands, and commitments, the communities of Tyonek and Beluga on the west side of Cook Inlet stand apart as a place where time moves at a different pace. Here, seasons, weather, and wildlife set the schedule.
Separated from the chaos of the regular world by wilderness on three sides and Cook Inlet on the other, no thin lines of pavement or gravel connect this area to the rest of Alaska. Getting here requires flying into a dusty gravel landing strip on a bush plane or taking a boat ride across the treacherous Cook Inlet.
While firmly planted on Alaska’s mainland and just 40 miles from Anchorage, the lack of roads effectively turn these communities into an island, including the solitude and logistical challenges that come from being disconnected.
Despite their close proximity to Anchorage, few Alaskans know much more about Beluga and Tyonek than what they read in news articles about PacRim Coal’s proposed strip mine at the headwaters of the Chuitna River. While this controversy dominates the headlines, these communities are defined by much more than a fight between salmon and coal. They are places rich in history, culture and characters.
A Life Close to the Land
For at least 7500 years, the Tebughna (pronounced tuh-bone-ah) Native people have used this area on West Cook Inlet as fishing and hunting grounds, because it was exceptionally productive and prosperous.
“We had the salmon, the beluga, the seal, all of the resources of the sea, and of course we had the moose and otters and fur bearing animals,” explains Native Village of Tyonek President, Al Goozmer. “The land took care of us and we did what we could to take care of our land. Mother Earth provided for us. It was a wonderful relationship and it carries on to this day.”
Today the 180 residents who call the Native Village of Tyonek home carry on that relationship. Located just southwest of the Chuitna River on the shores of Cook Inlet, overlooking the Chugach Mountains of the Kenai Peninsula, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful place.
“Would you choose anyplace else?” President Goozmer exclaims with a laugh when asked why this location was chosen for the village. “Look at the beauty. Lakes, fish, water…”
Life here is intimately connected to the land, water and wildlife.
“Mother Earth provides the heat in our homes, it provides for the meals we cook, it provides for the clothes on our backs, it provides for our shelter,” says President Goozmer, whose Tebughna name Nieth’Kok Liq’Kil roughly translates to “Hard-Headed Salmon Boy.”
The connection to the past and the reverence for the land is palpable in this place. One cannot help but think of those who stood on the same banks of the Chuitna River while watching enormous king salmon make their annual pilgrimage upstream to spawn. It’s humbling to share an experience with those who lived off this land for millennia.
“The eagle, the bear, the moose, the wolves, the salmon and the mountains are all tied to who we are and what we are physically, mentally, spiritually and morally,” President Goozmer explains. “We look at this as a spiritual place. I don’t need to go to the Crystal Cathedral in California or anyplace else like that. It’s right here. This is natural.”
While the people of Tyonek still live a subsistence lifestyle practiced for generations, it would be a mistake to believe that life is exactly the same here today as it was millennia ago. As with any place, the people and the environment evolve over time. Today, the residents of Tyonek have woven a new thread into the cloth that connects them to the land by growing food at the Tyonek Community Garden.
The Native Village of Tyonek partnered with the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District in 2012, starting the garden to enhance food security and provide fresh organic produce for the community.
Tyonek youth take part in every facet of the community garden including planting seeds, transplanting, weeding, harvesting and distributing the produce.
“The kids at the school decide what foods they want to try and we grow it,” explains Christy Cincotta, executive director of Tyonek Tribal Conservation District. “The starts are grown in the school by the students, then transplanted outside.”
In 2014 the garden yielded 1450 pounds of produce including tomatoes, corn, pumpkin, zucchini, spinach, lettuce, celery, herbs, peas, green beans, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, radishes, potatoes, beets, carrots, rhubarb, and strawberries. The community distributed over 350 pounds of this produce directly to Tebughna elders with the remainder sold at farmer’s markets in Tyonek and Anchorage to help sustain the program.
“Everything here was built by our young people,” President Goozmer says, walking through rows of vegetables and pointing to the solar panels that power the irrigation for the garden. “I am just so proud and so thrilled because this is the generation that is going to take care of us.”
The results speak for themselves with exponential growth in the harvests. The 400 pounds of produce harvested in 2012 grew to 800 pounds in 2013 and 1450 pounds in 2014.
“The garden is just one small example of what we’re trying to do to be self-sufficient and self-determined people,” says President Goozmer. “This is the beginning of agricultural industry on West Cook Inlet. If this goes good, within five to ten years we’ll be in mass production.”
Tyonek is a place rich with history whose people are guided by the stories passed down over generations, but it is also a place where residents energetically work together with an eye on what’s to come.
“The Village of Tyonek has a very bright future,” says President Goozmer.
Just across the mouth of the Chuitna River, northeast of Tyonek, lies the frontier community of Beluga, Alaska. A town of 17 full-time residents, Beluga is not for those who crave the hustle and bustle of city life.
“You’re on Beluga Time now,” Larry Heilman says as he picks guests up at the gravel landing strip. The “terminal” here consists of a dusty yellow shipping container with a simple wooden bench. On the side, a sign proudly displays, “U.S. Post Office, Beluga River, Alaska,” above an array of 13 mailboxes. Mail comes in by plane every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and Larry serves as the community mailman.
Larry has been a fixture in this community since he began work as a welding specialist at the Chugach Electric Association’s Beluga Power Plant in 1974 and started building the community’s first log cabin in 1976.
After reuniting with Larry at a high school reunion in Washington and coming up for a visit, it didn’t take long for Larry’s wife, Judy, to realize she had found a home in Beluga.
“When I first came over in October of ’91, I got on a little plane by myself. Lawrence [Larry] picked me up, dropped me off at the cabin and went back to work. When I got out at the driveway I just had this feeling that I was home,” says Judy. “My heart started pounding and I just knew that this was home.”
At that time the Heilmans lived in a 24-by-24-foot cabin with no water, electricity or phone line.
“The heat stove was made out of a large welded pipe. Furniture was made of 2-by-6s with padding from an old camp trailer,” Judy remembers with a laugh.
Today the Heilmans live in the same cabin, although Larry has built two additions and it now has all of the amenities of modern life, including running water, electricity, a phone line and internet.
Judy and Larry embody the industriousness and creativity that are necessary for those living in these off-the-road-system communities.
“You have to take care of everything yourself. You don’t have a plumber to come, or an electrician. If your car breaks down you need to fix it yourself, or find a neighbor that can. You have to be self-sufficient,” explains Judy. “If you run out of something you have to make do or make something else.”
Growing and harvesting their own food is a major part of being self-sufficient for the Heilmans. A large garden for vegetables, chickens and ducks for eggs and meat, and bees for honey surround their log cabin home. Larry welded a large boom on the front of an old pick-up truck to hang moose for processing, which sits on the back of their property next to a cold smoker to preserve salmon.
“We can live with what we have,” Judy asserts. “We have fish and moose and chicken and eggs. We have our own raspberries. We have blueberries around. We smoke the fish, we can the fish, we freeze the fish. Sixty percent of the food that we eat would be from around here.”
Affectionately known as Grammy Beluga in the community, Judy enjoyed watching her grandkids come out to Beluga as children and experience what she describes as “freedom from the restrictions of city life.”
“There are no fences, but they always knew how far they could go,” she says.
By the time the Heilmans’ grandkids were 4 or 5 years old, they would fly back and forth on bush planes by themselves to come visit their grandparents.
“We’d have lots of fun going to the beach, having cookouts, finding agates, picking blueberries and fishing,” she says.
While these idyllic visits presented a welcome reprieve from the normal rules of city life such as “stay out of the road” and “don’t talk to strangers,” there was one important rule the kids always had to remember.
“They all had to learn the moose drill. No matter where they were, what they were doing, if the dogs start barking they had to look around to see if anything was threatening and if there was nothing there, they had to run to the porch,” Judy explains. “If they didn’t run the first time they were in trouble and had a time out.”
Maintaining the garden, feeding the chickens, ducks and dogs, filling the freezers with moose and salmon, and entertaining grandkids and guests keeps the Heilmans busier than the bees buzzing around their homestead. Nonetheless, it is clear they would not have it any other way.
“We’re pretty well off,” Judy says. “In our eyes.”
Childhood in Beluga
On a beautiful spring day in May, 9-year-old Simm Scarola expertly wields an ax high above his head, letting it fall on a 12-inch log with a satisfying “thwack!” Once the blade is firmly implanted in the wood, Simm uses a small sledgehammer to finish the job, helping his family split and stack wood for the winter while his dad, Luke, works a two-week shift as a plant manager for BP on the North Slope.
Simm’s mom, Kaydee Scarola, grew up in Beluga attending a one-room schoolhouse with six to ten other children, and experienced things other children can only dream about.
“We did every kind of natural craft imaginable,” she explains. “From when the Beluga whale washed up and we rendered the fat to make candles, to using the clay for pottery, it was some of the best education I could ever have gotten.”
As the daughter of a fishing guide, Kaydee had her official guide license papers by the time she was 11 years old.
“Dad would take clients up the river and let me take people a bend away,” she remembers. “You don’t realize how unique it is until you leave and you look back. My dad’s clients would say, ‘You’re the luckiest girl ever.’”
When not guiding clients with her dad, Kaydee spent the long days of summer playing outdoors with the other children in Beluga.
“Three Mile Creek was our swimming hole back in the day. It was fun to swim around and feel the fish tickling your toes.”
As the days grew dark and rivers froze over, Kaydee would help her dad run trap lines for moose, bear, lynx, marten, beaver, wolf, and wolverine.
“It was easy for a 10-year-old girl to set a snare,” she explains. “I remember trapping on the Theodore River and hearing wolves howling just a couple hundred yards away.”
After heading Outside for college, Kaydee met her husband, Luke, and turned right back around for Beluga.
Today the Scarolas homeschool three children in their hand-built cabin, just 400 yards from the house Kaydee grew up in. Kaydee and Luke are the only parents raising kids in the small community.
From one generation to the next, growing up in Beluga provides an upbringing unlike any other. When he’s not splitting wood, 9-year-old Simm’s favorite activities include four-wheeling and duck hunting. Simm’s 7-year-old sister Sabin’s favorite thing to do is dog sled with the Scarola’s six sled dogs. For 4-year-old Shaphin, known simply as “Phin,” life doesn’t get much better than feeding chickadees by hand.
“It’s so close to Anchorage, but all it takes is one flight and you’re in the middle of nowhere,” explains Kaydee. “We’re the closest bush community to Anchorage.”
On cold mornings, Sabin will get up and start a fire before her parents get out of bed.
At a time when childhood has become so busy that a search for the phrase “overscheduled children” yields 159,000 results on Google, raising kids in Beluga provides an exception to the trend. Life here provides ample opportunity for exploration, play, and problem solving.
“Our society today is all about distractions. The beautiful thing about Beluga is it closes out distractions,” explains Kaydee.
There’s no question that life moves at a different pace here, and that’s something the Scarola family wouldn’t change for the world.
“My compass has been calibrated to this pace and this rhythm,” Kaydee says.
A Weekend Retreat
While only 17 hearty souls call Beluga home full time, dozens of others use this outpost as a place to unwind on the weekends or over the summers.
For Ronnie and Bobbi Burnett, building a cabin in Beluga was a dream come true and a weekly escape from their hard work as owners of Alaska Kitchen Distributors for 35 years. The couple started building the cabin in 1993 and finished in 2007, but the long process didn’t bother Ronnie one bit.
“Building it is the most fun part,” Ronnie says with a smile on his face. “Hauling materials over on snowmachine; that was a blast.”
Like many others, Ronnie and Bobbi chose Beluga because of its remote feel so close to Anchorage.
“It’s right there, but you’re back away from it just far enough that it seems like we’re a long ways away,” Ronnie explains. “I like to go boondocking in the bush and do a little trapping and hunting.”
“Boondocking,” Ronnie later clarifies, refers to exploring off trail on foot, ATV or by snowmachine.
While their Beluga cabin served as a weekend retreat for over two decades, the Burnetts recently retired and look forward to spending much more time on West Cook Inlet.
“I was a country boy. I enjoy getting away from the city. This is what I like. Being over here and not looking at high rises,” Ronnie says. “This is what we looked forward to.”
A Place Unlike Any Other
Watching Larry Heilman wave as the Cessna Skywagon ascends over the gravel runway and turns toward Anchorage stands as a reminder that a faster-paced urban reality awaits on the other side.
Somehow there is great comfort knowing that a place so peaceful, and a community so closely tied to the land, still exists within a stone’s throw from Alaska’s largest city.
After living there for over two decades, Judy Heilman understands this lesson as well as anybody.
“It’s just 25 minutes to paradise,” she says.
Sam Weis lives in Anchorage and is eternally grateful to the people of Tyonek and Beluga for their warmth and hospitality.