BEAVER — In a season of short days and long nights, life in this village just below the Arctic Circle hugs tightly around the places of light and warmth, in living rooms by roaring wood stoves or the school gym where a basketball can always be found. About 60 people live here, though the number fluctuates as families move away for a time and then come back — or do not.
Insecurity about the future is a constant in remote places like this. In earlier days, residents had to focus on personal survival, getting their families through the hard bite of winter with enough food and fuel. Now, people are more connected to the broader world through jobs and technology, but villages themselves have no such certainty — they can vanish as people drift away, or flee for the opportunity and allure of Anchorage, Fairbanks or points beyond.
With new students, a village can cling to school funding
Xavier Sanford’s feet do not yet even reach the floor at his desk. But last fall, Xavier, who is 5 and deeply fond of dinosaurs, helped save his school just by showing up. School enrollment — referred to, often with dread, as the October count — hangs heavy over Beaver and other rural schools. If the student population drops below 10, Alaska pulls the plug on funding, which can bring the death of a school, and a community.
Beaver started the school year strong with 14 students, including Xavier, the only kindergartner. But by late fall, after funding was appropriated for the year, enrollment slipped to nine after a family got on a plane and flew off to live somewhere else. Reinforcements, in the form of two kindergartners ready to start next fall, including Alaina Pitka, 5, are easing fears, for now at least, of a school shutdown.
Evening ritual: A crackling fire, a fast-moving card game
A lightning-fast game of pan — think of it as caffeinated rummy with nine decks of cards — is an evening ritual in a cozy, photo-lined log cabin warmed by a crackling wood stove. As the family members and friends bantered, bluffed and placed bets, they also poked fun at the host’s love of ‘70s classic rock, which grooved out a mellow arc in the background.
Teisha Wiehl, 23, moved to Beaver in November from Fairbanks with her husband, Clinton — who is from here — and their daughter, Lauren, 3. “I was tired of cars and crowds,” Wiehl said.
Grocery shopping, sometimes by air
Old and new rub shoulders. Packages from Amazon.com and other retailers arrive from Fairbanks on the afternoon flight, a little propeller-driven plane that serves the community. Some residents even get meat that way, from shops in Fairbanks, to the disdain of traditionalists who fill their freezers with moose and bear that they skin and butcher themselves, and salmon from the Yukon River, frozen white this time of year on the village’s front doorstep.
Newer homes, looking buttoned up and tidy, sit alongside abandoned cabins with yawning front doors and snow-dusted floors, empty kerosene lamps in some places still hanging from hooks.
Land ownership, and funding, are frequent challenges
Layered legacies of land ownership complicate things. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs once ran the old, now-abandoned school, which has asbestos insulation and an environmental remediation headache no one wants to pay for. So the building molders where it stands. Recent state budget troubles have added another pinch, as lawmakers at the Capitol in Juneau cut programs at a time of falling oil-tax revenues.
Rhonda Pitka, the chief of the village, and the mother of Alaina, who is heading for kindergarten next fall, sought for years to get title to a strip of land owned by the Episcopal Church, with the goal of installing a biomass generator to heat the community buildings and the new school. Pitka finally got the land, but then state money to help with renewable energy projects disappeared in a cloud of red ink.
Tiny dots of humanity in a vast land
The fates and fortunes of native people all across North America were shaped by government policies, economics and demographic tides — but also, and perhaps most profoundly, by physical space.
In the lower 48 states, tribes were forced onto reservations as a tide of settlers took tribal land for farms, ranches or mines. Up here, by contrast, where Alaska Natives are connected by language and heritage into vast ethnic groups, people clustered onto what are essentially islands on a still mostly empty landscape — tiny dots of humanity off the road system in a sea of tundra and forest. Many residents of Beaver, which sits at the border of Gwich’in and Koyukon regions, have ancestors on both sides of the line.
Adapting to a new home
Ai Adams was born and raised in Tokyo, the daughter of a theatrical costume designer, and fell in love with the mystique of Alaska from books she read as a child. A visit to Beaver about a decade ago with a tour group, and then later her marriage to a local resident, Cliff Adams, made the dream reality. “Life is just once,” she said, her Japanese accent still strong.
She now runs her own fur-trapping lines, hunts and fishes with her husband, and makes traditional clothing that keeps her warm on the coldest days, she said, out gathering wood in winter in the seemingly endless, silent forest that begins at the village edge. Of city life and Japan, she said, she misses almost nothing.
Fresh roots for a family
Lyla Evans, 4, pointed excitedly out the window toward a house under construction next door to hers — the first new dwelling in Beaver in years. “We’re going to move over there soon!” she shouted.
Her parents, Nellie and Mike Evans — she works at the school as a cook; he’s a laid-off oil field worker — both came from families scarred by alcohol, they said, raised by foster families after their biological parents were unable to care for them. They have vowed something better for their daughter, who will start kindergarten next fall. “We’ve both had tough lives, but we didn’t want our daughter to grow up like that,” Evans said.
Lyla was more urgent about her reasons for wanting to move soon, and abandon the drafty old fur trapper’s cabin they have been living in, with hooks still on the beams from which hides once hung. “My house has mice,” she said with a deep frown.
Out of the wilderness
Desperation and hope went hand in hand in Beaver’s early days during the gold rush of the early 1900s as a supply outpost for miners in the Chandalar River mining district north of the Yukon.
Frank Yasuda, a Japanese-born Alaskan who had been living in the northwest outpost of Barrow, arrived here in the early 20th century after leading a party across more than 400 miles of wilderness with his wife, Nevelo. Barrow was in crisis from disease and starvation, as the whales on which residents depended for food were disappearing.
The Yasudas’ feat of survival and determination in getting here, and then staying to build and anchor Beaver into the 20th century, became legend. Yasuda even lived long enough to see Alaska become a state in 1959. Their cabin still stands.
‘All it takes is one little mistake’
When skies turn clear at this time of year, the temperature can plummet to 50 degrees below zero or lower, crossing what residents described as a kind of red line of danger. Like deep-sea divers with the bends, people under hypothermia-induced confusion can feel hot, even as they are freezing, so they do exactly the wrong thing and shed clothes. A breath unfiltered by a face mask can freeze the lungs. A wet boot becomes an iron cage in seconds that cannot be removed without fire or shelter. “All it takes is one little mistake,” said Cliff Adams, Ai Adams’ husband.
A commitment to stay
Carmen Russo had given up on teaching. At 62, she had seen enough and had enough, she said, in remote villages where dysfunction, alcoholism and despair can cast a shadow of ruin. An 11-year-old in her last school committed suicide on the playground.
But then this year she was talked into a temporary stint in Beaver — one last stint before retirement, she told herself — and it all changed. She fell in love with the students, and sensed a more supportive network of parents. Retirement has now been put aside. She recently asked the district to let her stay on permanently.
“It works here,” said Russo, who was born and raised in Alaska. “It reminds me of home.”
With housing in Beaver so tight, though, there’s a price: She has been living with her two dogs and cat in an unused classroom.