Friday, March 3, 2017

Alaska by Post Office: The Crooked Runway


The first thing you'll notice about Nanwalek? Landing in Nanwalek is fun. Their runway is not exactly linear.

Welcome to our third installment of Postlandia visits Alaska. In our first post we discussed just how large Alaska is compared to the rest of the United States; took a postal tour of Alaska's largest city, Anchorage; and explored Alaska's unique Bypass Mail network. Next we headed down to the Kenai Peninsula; saw a couple of nice "log cabin" post offices; and took off from Homer to the villages of Seldovia and Port Graham. Now we take our third flight of the Alaskan October morning to Nanwalek. To review, here's a map of the flights we're taking in this corner of the Last Frontier.

Google Earth satellite imagery for Nanwalek is presently disappointing, so we won't have an annotated aerial view as we did with Port Graham. Nanwalek is the furthest community west on the Kenai Peninsula, and is only accessible by local boat or by airplane. It's a fraction of a square mile in size, built largely on top of a hillside (think: protection from tsunamis) overlooking the airport. The airport lies between a lagoon and the outer reaches of Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet (the body of water stretching from the northern Pacific Ocean inland to Anchorage. The gravel runway is 1,500 feet long, 50 feet wide, and, as we've seen, not perfectly straight. But it serves the community's needs.

Here is a view of the community, from a fascinating take by Kathy, on her visit to Nanwalek in 2011.

Here I am at the modest airport terminal, getting greeted and inspected by a friendly local.

Here goes my ride! It's heading back to Homer, and another Smokey Bay Air plane will meet me in an hour.

I'm greeted by a local, Mackey, who's tasked with bringing the mail to the Community Post Office (CPO) from the airport. Mail is flown in three days a week from Homer, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—weather and regional volcanoes permitting. The CPO is open 11 am to 2 pm those days. The post office is located inside the building also housing the local tribal administrative office. I'll show you the outside in just a little bit; first let's see the sign.

Nanwalek post office sign

This might strike you as modest. Did anyone else notice the red, 'white', and blue outlines? I love it. Below, here I am at the entrance. I also love the hanging sign with the standard stamp rate [remember, this was back in October], and the packaging with the active rates on them. It's always great seeing when people let loose that creativity.

Aside from this the interior is comparatively standard; you can see a bank of current-generation P.O. Boxes behind me there.

Now let's go outside. You might expect the sign to say good ol' Nanwalek, which is actually the local native term for "place by the lagoon." (Remember, the airport lies between the bay and a lagoon?) However, the sign says English Bay. This is no accident; the town was known as English Bay until 1991. Nanwalek is one of a number of Alaska place name changes in recent decades, part of a trend toward reclaiming indigenous names over arbitrary modern English monikers. (One larger example of this in action is Barrow, originally Utqiaġvik and officially, again, Utqiaġvik as of 2016. The name Barrow still appears on maps and on their post office.) Anyway, here's the sign designating (as well as yours truly):

Postlandia friend John Gallagher visited Nanwalek 25 years ago, and snagged a photo of the [now former site of the] operation in 1992. Look closely at that sign! Why fix what ain't broke?

Both names Nanwalek and English Bay belie an important part of the community's history, that of a Russian fur/pelt trading post starting in 1786. The community was then designated Alexandrovski. Alaska was Russian until the United States (remember "Seward's folly"?) purchased the entire territory in 1867. How English Bay got its name is unusual. According to Nanwalek's website, "The two villages [Nanwalek and Port Graham] share not only family relations but also many customs and traditions. Interestingly, the English names of the two villages were switched by a cartographer in the late 1800s. Thus, English Bay sits out on the tip of the peninsula, while Port Graham is located further in the bay." So English Bay shouldn't have been English Bay to begin with! It gets better still. I should note that our English Bay-née-Alexandrovski should not be confused with English Bay, a body of water out in the Aleutian Islands, whose name pertains to its exploration by Captain Cook.

All good? Great. Nanwalek's Russian heritage bears heavily on the town to this day, particularly in terms of its religious life. By the post office is the community's Russian Orthodox church, a structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building is beautiful and I was honored that Mackey (seen later on) gave me a tour of the inside of the church. Isn't it lovely?

Here's the church's classic "onion dome"!

The Russian Orthodox have some beautiful traditions. I recommend visiting this KBBI story about Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7. Here's a snippet, discussing the representation of the journey of the Three Wise Men:
Each region in Alaska that practices this style of caroling, what we call Slavic, they all have variations. But generally they follow a star, a wooden frame that’s decorated with the icon of nativity in the center and that star guides the carolers house to house.
The rituals are a blend of Native traditions, the community's Russian past, and Western influences alike. It's a rather unique combination.

The Russian Orthodox cemetery, located behind the church, is also beautiful. Male and female graves are marked distinctively: "The graves in this cemetery are marked with Russian Orthodox crosses. The crosses for females have a wooden "cap" signifying the caps women wear in church." Can you see the difference?

Here's my gracious tour guide, Mackey, on his ATV (perhaps the most common vehicle around town). The church is in the background.

Nanwalek, as one would expect, has a general store. It's bright and inviting inside, if rather nondescript outside.

Has anyone here tried Sailor Boy Pilot Bread?

I'll leave you now with a few closing views from Nanwalek. First up, the elementary-through-high school, a larger school with a more substantive playground than we saw over in Port Graham.

Here's a restful look at the Nanwalek lagoon, taken at the periphery of the airport.

Finally, a view of the Nanwalek airport/runway from the Russian Orthodox cemetery.

Flying back to Homer we get a view of the wonderful turquoise sea.

Finally, we return over four-mile-long Homer Spit. Here we see the harbor/marina, from which we'll depart for our final post office of the day.

Flying over Homer Spit

Once again, thank you to Smokey Bay Air for working with me and making this trip possible!

In our next installment we take the mail boat to Halibut Cove, and after a long day we'll relax in the bar with 80 gajillion dollar bills on the wall, which can be found back at the end of the Alaskan road. We'll also explore one unique Alaska city, Whittier, which is accessible by a three-mile, one lane tunnel through the mountains.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Thank you for your visit to the last Tribe on the Kenai Peninsula, and surviving the landing on the 2nd most notorious airport in the State of Alaska! �� Glad you enjoyed your time in our Sugpiaq Village. Google doesn't seem to care if we exist #Google