There are times when it’s better to say good-bye.
Many years ago, I made several trips to Alaska for the Quill project. I recall it being in November when I first visited Shungnak, along the Kobuk River, about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was beautiful weather, but cold, with temperatures in the afternoon below 0˚F, dropping to -20˚F or less than that overnight.
My hosts Bonnie and Hans were rightly concerned about my citified clothes, especially my ordinary hiking boots. They insisted that I needed Sorel winter boots. With fewer than 200 people, Shungnak had what you might generously call only one small general store, but it was no place to shop for fancy boots, or boots of any kind. Items like that have to wait on the infrequent air deliveries.
Amazingly, there was an available pair of boots, just for me. Hans and Bonnie had about 25 sled dogs, who slept outside in that cold climate. Hans would warm up huge pots of food for them. One time, he got a small burn hole in his boot. You can see the small innertube patch in the photo. The boots by then had become a bit worn in other ways, so he purchased a new pair, but kept the old ones around. Fortunately, we both wear size 14, so his boots fit me perfectly.
I was very appreciative of them, especially on a long sled dog ride, which is a story for another time. Since I had more villages to visit, Hans graciously gave me his old boots.
Later, in McGrath, I met some folks waiting for the small plane we’d be taking towards Juneau. They asked where I was from, and I told them Cambridge, Massachusetts. They looked me over. My clothes were getting a bit travel worn from village life and sleeping on floors. But they especially focused on my boots. Finally, one old man said,
“There’s no way you came from Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking like this!”
That bare nugget of a story then started to spread. Somehow, in pre-web Alaska, people would learn within hours all that was happening in the next village 100 miles away. As I traveled, I first found myself being asked whether I was that city guy dressing up to look Alaskan. Then, I dropped out of the story entirely, and I began to hear about “some guy” who wore worn and patched boots, just as if he kept a pack of sled dogs.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been back to Alaska for a long time. The boots have been moved from one closet to another. I’ve been thankful for them on cold days with heavy snow, but I never felt that my climate did them justice.
I reluctantly decided that it’s time to say good-bye. Maybe I can find some guy who spends his life out on the streets, who has feet as big as mine, and who could make much better use of them. So, this is just a little message to say thanks to Hans and Bonnie, and to the boots that kept me warm and will always be in my memories.
Your returning to Shungnak makes perfect sense to me. And my returning for at least a visit makes sense, too!
Chip, we just tripped over this when googling Shungnak images. Imagine our surprise to see the pack boots and your post. We’re back teaching in Shungnak now after 30 years. The reconnection with the people and the land has been better than we ever imagined. Come visit. Hans still has the same pair of “new” pack boots and he’ll burn a hole in them for you if you show up. Thanks for the nice memory!
This is the most beautiful piece I’ve ever read about boots!