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Waqaa from Woolnough

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Life Above the Tree Line- Where "Flat" is a Relative Term

Flat is a relative term. Before moving to Bethel, Alaska, I heard all about the tundra. I heard things like "flat as a pancake."; "Flat as a piece of paper." I even heard some metaphors for flat that don’t belong in a newspaper. So far, everyone’s information has proven to be incorrect. 

Yes, Bethel is flat. Yes, the tundra is flat. But, as I’ve walked around town (we’ll talk about that in a later column), I’ve discovered subtle elevation changes that create incredible changes in perspective. In fact, that’s a good metaphor for this column—changes in perspective. 

My favorite weekend walk is the two miles from Blueberry subdivision to the AC (Alaska Commercial Center: the grocery store, hardware store, appliance store, clothing store and, well, you get the idea). There are actually climbs and dips that exceed ten feet! Ponds, lakes and sloughs vary in elevation by several feet due to the different levels of permafrost. And then there are the tides. Tides on the Kuskokwim River—50 miles from the ocean—exceed five feet. This all leads to a greater sense of relief (now there’s a word with more than one meaning!) than is apparent as one flies into Bethel International. In a Zen sort of way, the perspective changes constantly—if you let it.

I moved all over the country and the world while growing up. I learned to love the changes—I might as well, I had no choice. My brother, on the other hand, hated it even though it was as inevitable for him as it was for me. 

I find myself intrigued by the incongruities: wealth vs. poverty; tradition vs. modern influences; cultural differences; technology vs. subsistence lifestyle; health vs. drug/alcohol addiction; and the growing pains of an isolated community in bush Alaska. I could grow to really like this place—partly because of the change in perspective Bethel has provided. I’m reminded that home is not a place, but a feeling and family. I miss Pamela and I maintain a countdown of days until my first trip back to Idaho. So Bethel is not yet home. But it is growing on me. 

The people are tremendous—I still don’t have a place of my own, but folks have gone out of their way to help. Given the relative flatness of Bethel, the friendliness and helpfulness of the community is its greatest similarity to Sandpoint—it certainly isn’t the mountains and the trees. 

Trees. Simply put, there aren’t any. That’s not really true. There are just no trees taller than ten feet. The alder bushes, however, grow to eight feet and can be considered Bethel trees. This is because we’re so far north that we’re above the “tree line.” Except for the Aleutian Islands, we’re also almost as far west as you can get in Alaska. Since Alaska is all one time zone, our western locale gives us an interesting perspective on the day. As we approach the autumnal equinox, the sun rises well after 8:30 am and sets about 9 pm. Because the sun slants low across the sky, sunsets are prolonged and, when it’s not raining, beautiful. Again, a difference in perspective. 

So what’s it all mean? At its best, this move has nudged me from my comfort zone and off dead center to help me re-evaluate my priorities. I have a new appreciation for family and less concern for material items. At worst, it’s uncomfortable. The lesson? Change your perspective to get a new view on life. Do you have to move to Alaska? No, but it’s guaranteed to rock your world if you do.

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AC Woolnough

Tagged as:

Alaska, Bethel, tundra

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