By Hank Lentfer
If you are a long-term Alaskan, you know there are four ages of the northland. There was ‘before the plane’ which was followed by ‘after the plane and before the pipeline.” Then there is the era ‘after the pipeline and before the satellite’ followed by ‘today.’ There may be a few ‘before the plane’ Alaskans still alive but there are quite a few of ‘after the plane and before the pipeline’ people still out and around. I am one of them. When I was in the bush ‘in those days,’ communication was over a telephone line and many villages only had one phone. Television was courtesy of VHS – (look that up, millennials) – and news was a week ‘after the fact.’ Then came the ALASCOM satellite and today you can use an iPhone in whiteout ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and talk to your auntie in Tallahassee.
While many sourdoughs will wax nostalgically of ‘the old days,’ in fact, a lot of Alaskans still live the same way now they did a century ago. Technology has not changed the weather. Many bush residents still survive on subsistence, prices in the village store are through the roof, sewage lagoons are the ‘solid waste facilities’ and drinking water is by the bucket-load. If you want a snapshot of what those 'old days' were like on the dog trail level, RAVEN'S WITNESS is a good start. Richard K. Nelson was a cultural anthropologist who spent 40 years in the bush. The book is a ground-level look at an Alaska that, in far too many parts of the state, is still the way things are. In villages where the mail plane is still a once-a-week event as long as the weather is clear, dog sleds are the mode of travel. Everyone can use an iPhone, but to make it through the winter you still have to catch enough fish to fill a drying rack and smoke at least one moose. In those villages it is just as tough today as it was ‘back then.’ The book is readable, entertaining and a bit frightening to newcomers who believe Alaska has left the ‘olden days’ in the historical real vision mirror.