By Jennifer Kotila
HOWARD LAKE, MN Two local men knew they had to participate in a second, more adventurous mission trip to Alaska when they learned of it last year.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but a lot of people I know, it’s sort of their dream to go to Alaska at least once,” said Paul Diedrich of Howard Lake.
Diedrich, a member of Elim Mission Church in Cokato, and Ron Hungerford of Dassel had attended a mission trip with Dassel Evangelical Covenant Church to Soldotna, Alaska last year.
“Last year’s mission trip was just kind of a stepping stone for me. I wanted to do something more for adults,” said Ron Hungerford, who is a member of Dassel Evengelical Covenant Church.
The trip last year entailed making improvements to the buildings and campus at Alaska Christian College (ACC).
Because of the living conditions in the villages, children do not see the need to succeed in high school, and lack the education needed for college, Hungerford said.
“The goal of ACC is to take young individuals to college and send them back to the villages to help friends and family members,” Hungerford said.
Both men noted problems with violence, suicide, and alcohol in the remote villages of Alaska.
While at ACC, a man by the name of Glen Mehrkens, who is a retired math teacher from Goodhue, came in from a trip out to the “bush,” or Alaska’s less inhabited area.
He was asked to speak to the mission group about what he did when he went into the Alaskan bush.
Mehrkens informed the group that he organized mission trips out to villages in remote areas of Alaska with the sole purpose of improving the parsonages and churches in those villages.
“Within five minutes of Glen talking, I turned to Paul and said I wanted to do this,” Hungerford said. “We both felt like it was something we had to do.”
So, the men returned to Alaska this summer with a group of seven others to go to the small village of Shaktoolik, where they worked on both the parsonage and the church.
“The whole goal was to make the church an enjoyable, usable, and comfortable place of worship, and the parsonage more inviting to the pastor,” Hungerford said.
The men also assisted in teaching vacation Bible school (VBS) to the children in the village in the evenings.
“This was a combination of ministry, adventure, and helps (doing things that are needed),” Diedrich said.
This was the seventh year that Mehrkens had organized mission trips to the bush, Diedrich said.
Mehrkens had moved to Alaska to work at ACC as a maintenance guy, traveled to the remote areas, and was astonished at the living conditions.
“He is making a tremendous contribution to the church and enjoys doing it, too,” Diedrich said.
The village of Shaktoolik
Shaktoolik is located at the mouth of the Shaktoolik River on the west coast of Alaska. The Shaktoolik River empties into the Norton Sound, which is a tributary of the Bering Sea, according to Diedrich.
The village is 125 miles east of Nome, and 400 miles west of Anchorage.
Generally, the area west of Anchorage is accessible only by boat or plane, Diedrich explained.
To get to Shaktoolik, the men took a half-hour flight to Kenai, then Arctic Barnabas Ministries flew them to Shaktoolik, which is a two-and-one-half-hour flight, Diedrich said.
Through Alaska is a main trunk highway, with very few roads of any length branching off of it, Hungerford said.
Out of roughly 250 villagers, 54 are students enrolled in the Shaktoolik schools, 14 which are teenagers, Diedrich said.
There are only about 30 to 35 buildings in the self-contained village, which has its own power plant and water treatment plant, Hungerford said.
With no roads leading to the village, and just one main street going through the village, there is not a need for many cars.
The main mode of transportation is four-wheelers and “snow-machines,” Diedrich said.
In March, school children are given a three-day reprieve from their school studies to get the village ready for the great Iditarod sled race, which passes right down main street, Hungerford said.
The native Yupik Eskimo villagers subsist off the land by fishing, hunting, and gathering edible plants, Diedrich explained.
Besides the school, the largest industry is commercial fishing, Hungerford added.
Diedrich asked one of the boys in the village about the waterfowl population, and was told that white front, emperor, and Canadian geese could be found in the area.
He asked the boy if he saw them by the hundreds or thousands, to which the boy replied, “Millions.”
Because the village is located so close to the Arctic Circle and it is summertime, the sun barely set during the time that Diedrich and Hungerford were there.
“The sun would set about 12:30 or quarter to one (a.m.), and come up around 4 (a.m.). Between one and four, it didn’t get a real deep dark,” Hungerford said.
When Hungerford asked a villager about the winter and how dark it was, the villager pointed to the horizon where the sun rose in the winter, moved his hand slightly to the west and said, “And, about 5 minutes later, it sets there.”
Temperatures only reach a high in the 50s during the summer months, and range from minus 4 degrees to 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.
Diedrich noted the cooler temperatures in Alaska were welcome after the heat waves he had been experiencing in Minnesota.
“One day I watched the children swimming in the ocean. They were having a great time, considering the water temperature was in the 40s,” Diedrich said.
Work, teaching, and recreation
While in Shaktoolik, the men’s lives were busy.
Waking up at around 7 a.m., breakfast and devotions were complete by 8:30 a.m.
After devotions, the men worked to repair the parsonage and the church.
In the parsonage, the plumbing was brought up to code, and a new bathtub, tub surround, and vanity were installed, Diedrich said.
“The villages are pretty isolated, and the pastors fly in from outside,” Hungerford said, explaining that “outside” meant they came from the lower 48 states.
Not being used to the native culture and living in the bush, pastors and their families can be very isolated, and are not used to living in the conditions they are presented with.
“This mission trip was not oriented towards the villagers, they are the pastors’ responsibility,” Hungerford said. “We oriented ourselves to the pastors, and their living conditions so they could focus on the villagers.”
At the church, painting was done on both the outside and inside, and new lighting and a wall were added in the basement, Diedrich said.
“We also fixed a heater that was drawing too many amps. They may have had to close the building down, because the electric bill was getting too expensive,” Diedrich added.
Usually, work was finished by about 5:30 p.m. and the group conducted vacation Bible school (VBS) for the children of the village.
About half of the children from the village came to VBS, along with some of their parents, Diedrich said.
Mehrkens had been able to secure leather scraps from the Red Wing Shoe Company in Minnesota to provide leather crafts for VBS.
“I especially enjoyed being around the children,” Diedrich said. “They were very responsive and spontaneous. I give Glen (Mehrkens) much credit for lining up the materials. He spent two weeks, alone, preparing the craft projects.”
After VBS ended at about 9 p.m., some of the group would stay to clean up, and some went out fishing.
Being a fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Diedrich was keenly interested in the various species of salmon that were migrating up the river to spawn, he said.
One of the boys he visited with had just caught 200 silver, or coho, salmon and sold them to a commercial vendor for $1.45 per pound.
“So, if you figure that the 200 fish were at least 5 pounds each, that’s 1,000 pounds of fish, or a $1,500 catch in one day,” Diedrich said.
“The last three nights in the village, after work and VBS, I went fishing until midnight,” Diedrich said. “It was 1 a.m. by the time the fish were cleaned. It took me another hour to warm up before I could go to sleep, but I will treasure those days.”
Diedrich wore two life jackets while fishing one night, trying to stay warm; one around his waist, and the other around his chest, he said.
The temperature at night when he was fishing was in the 40s, but the wind was blowing, making it feel colder, Diedrich said.
Although he was only fishing with a hook and a line, Diedrich caught all three varieties of salmon in Alaska; the pink, the chum, and the silver.
Hungerford assisted one of the villagers in assembling his fish drying rack.
The racks only have a roof over them, and the fish are filleted in such a way that they are hung over the rack at the tail, with one fillet hanging on each side, Hungerford explained.
The fish are left to dry in the open air for two to three weeks, and there is no odor or flies, he added.
The men also were invited to share in a meal of Alaskan king crab at one of the village teachers’ homes.
Three of the crabs fed 12 people. “There was a lot of money on that table if the king crab were bought, but the villagers just go out and fish for it,” noted Hungerford.
The men attended church services in the village, and Diedrich was asked to share his testimony, which includes losing two children.
Diedrich had a young daughter, Angelique, he adopted from Haiti who passed away following a heart procedure.
His son, Jodi, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 26 from bacterial meningitis, Diedrich said.
“It turned out to be especially meaningful for the pastor (Palmer Salgoonik), who lost a son to suicide at the same age,” Diedrich said. “I looked up and saw tears streaming down his face.”
Both Hungerford and Diedrich said they would return to Alaska if given the opportunity.
“I realize I have done something most people wouldn’t have the opportunity to do,” Diedrich said.
“I met some of the most caring, compassionate people I’ve ever met in my life,” Hungerford said. “I don’t feel like I accomplished a lot in the eight days I was there, but I left things better than before.”