We circled the village of Scammon Bay, which sprawled across a hillside near the Bering Sea coast. The airstrip looked good for landing the Cessna, but I could see people standing nearby. I wondered why they were waiting there.
It was July 1972. I led RCA Alascom’s (part of the Radio Corporation of America) “bush phone” field crew, a small band of techies building a network of radio phones to connect Alaska’s villages. But this time I was traveling without my team. We had been unable to contact the phone at Scammon Bay, and I was making a quick trip to find the problem and get the village phone working again.
We lined up on the airstrip and made a smooth landing.
As I stepped from the plane, I heard young voices ask, “What can we carry?”
The teenagers wanted to help by carrying my toolboxes into the village. They spoke the English they learned and used in school, but most of the village elders spoke only the Cup’ik dialect of their native language, Yup’ik.
As we carried my toolboxes up to the little general store where the radio phone was installed, I saw an elder — a lady — kneeling on the ground and cutting fish. I nodded a hello. Her weathered face was deadpan. She was cutting some salmon that had been caught by the men of the village in their subsistence nets and preparing the fish to be dried on outdoor racks. It would be later stored as food for the winter.
One of my teenage escorts whispered, “That’s Maryann Sundown!”
Maryann looked down to focus on the salmon in her hands. She deftly cut it with an ulu, a traditional knife with a curved cutting edge. When she looked up at me again, her face was still deadpan.
We began to communicate — in a way. Maryann spoke only Cup’ik, and one of the teenagers offered to act as an English-to-Cup’ik interpreter. But Maryann communicated mostly with a wink or a raised eyebrow. As she spoke to me, her voice was expressionless, but her eyes laughed. A few moments passed. Then she flashed a devilish grin.
Later I learned that Maryann was a renowned Yup’ik dancer. Her fame had spread across Alaska because her dance performances invariably kept her audiences in stitches. She and her cousin, Agnes, did the “mosquito dance,” in which the two women portrayed berry pickers bedeviled by the pesky bugs. They jumped around and swatted wildly, delighting the audience. Maryann was known as the “Yup’ik Dance Diva of Scammon Bay.”
Like other elders in the village, Maryann had seen dramatic changes — the arrival of snowmobiles and radios — and later telephones and television. But she was steadfast in holding onto traditional values — belief in family, community and the importance of helping others. Meeting people like her was a bonus I hadn’t expected when I signed on to lead the bush telephone program.
And others in the villages received me with warm hospitality. It was typical. Up and down the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, I was asked, “Would you like some agutaq?” It’s the Yup’ik word for “Eskimo ice cream” — blueberries in whipped reindeer tallow, seal oil and water.
When I took my team to northwest Alaska — to villages along the coast like Little Diomede and Kivalina — I was asked, “How about some muktuk?” That’s the Inupiaq word for frozen whale skin and blubber. Once a King Islander offered me some walrus flipper. and I gratefully accepted. It was chewy.
To return the hospitality, I flew in fresh fruit and vegetables available in the big city of Anchorage. These scarce commodities were my gifts to the villages.
At first I suspected I was so warmly received because people really wanted the new phone service. But later I realized the villagers didn’t think that way. Offering such hospitality was standard for them.
Several months later Scammon Bay’s phone was again out of order. This time the problem wasn’t in the village. It was at nearby Cape Romanzof Air Force Station, a mountain outpost that was close to Scammon Bay but still seemed a world apart from the little village.
The Cape Romanzof radar looked west to keep an eye on the Soviets, especially the Bear bombers and MiG fighters that sometimes lurked too close to the Alaska mainland. When they did, U.S. Air Force fighters scrambled from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage and Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks to help them find their way back to Soviet air space.
The high winds along Alaska’s coast had blown down our antenna at Cape Romanzof. On the day after Christmas 1972, my friend and pilot John Lee flew three of us — a technician, an ironworker, and me — to the remote outpost. The Air Force had allowed RCA to put a VHF base station there to link up with our radio phones in the nearby villages — including Scammon Bay. Big, curved antennas — they looked like old drive-in theater movie screens — connected calls from the villages to Alaska’s telephone network.
The remote Cape Romanzof Air Force Station had two camps. The lower one was a base camp with an airstrip, and that’s where John landed the Cessna. The wind howled at base camp, but its weather was tame compared to top camp, where the radar antennas and our radio gear were set up.
We climbed aboard the station’s “tram,” a wooden platform 10 feet on a side with a flimsy-looking railing around its edge. The tram was suspended from a motor-driven steel cable. As John flew back to Bethel to keep the airplane safe, three of us crouched on the platform that carried us to top camp, and that’s where we would stay for a while.
Our big antenna array, four stacked antennas mounted on a heavy pipe we used as a mast, collected ice — lots of it. The ice increased the surface area of the antenna and mast, acting like a huge sail and increasing the wind’s force on the structure. The antenna array had blown down, and we planned to fix it. We needed to strengthen the antenna structure. I had shipped in heavy 4-inch pipe to use as a mast and thick 3/16-inch guy-wire to replace the smaller pipe and wire that had first been used. The earlier structure just wasn’t strong enough to withstand those Cape Romanzof winds.
But soon after we reached top camp, the wind picked up to more than 60 miles an hour. We could see that it would take us a while to do what was supposed to be a simple job, and we spent most of the next week inside, waiting for the wind to back off.
Even after we finished installing the new, stronger antenna structure, high winds prevented us from leaving the mountain. The tram was our only way down from the high radar station to the airstrip at base camp. Concerned about safety, the Air Force ran the tram up and down the mountain only when the wind speed was below 30 miles an hour. So we waited a few more days.
We “celebrated” New Year’s by turning in early at top camp. Finally, the winds subsided and on January 5th we took the tram down to base camp, where John picked us up for the flight back to Bethel. We had been on the mountain ten days to do what was supposed to be a one day job. But the people of Scammon Bay knew only that their phone was working again.
By Dr. Alex Hills
This story is one of many in the new book, Finding Alaska’s Villages: And Connecting Them, which describes the adventures of Alex Hills and his team taking modern communication services to Alaska’s villages. Published by Dog Ear Publishing, it’s available from Fireside Books in Palmer and from all online booksellers.
After living and working in rural Alaska during the 1970s, Alex became a university professor. He is now Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Affiliate Distinguished Professor at the University of Alaska. He has also held distinguished visiting professor positions in Singapore, New Zealand, and Chile.
Dr. Hills is well known in the fields of wireless, telecommunication, and networking technology, having lectured widely and published many papers and technical reports. He holds 18 patents, and his easy-to-understand articles in Scientific American and IEEE Spectrum have been enjoyed by readers worldwide. He led the team that built Carnegie Mellon’s “Wireless Andrew” system, the world’s first large Wi-Fi network. With this work, described in his book, Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio, he helped to create the vision of what Wi-Fi would later become.
Professor Hills has also lived and worked in many foreign countries. For example, he has mentored Carnegie Mellon students working in Chile, Ghana, Palau, the Philippines, Cook Islands, Rwanda, and Peru, showing them how to apply the technology skills they’ve learned to meet the needs of people living in developing nations. The experiences of these students are detailed in the book, Geeks on a Mission, written by Dr. Hills and the students themselves.