Never Alone

by Sandy Howlett

Print Share

    Here, the bears are not a football team, the Arctic Circle is no place to get a burger, and home is in a place called “the bush.”

    Living in the Alaskan bush can be fun, boring, peaceful, scary, busy, and quiet—all the things life anyplace can be. The Alaskan bush is any place you can’t get to by road, and that accounts for almost 95 percent of the state. What’s it like being a teen in some of these remote areas? Well …

    “One. Two. Three. Pull!” The pullers jerk the handles surrounding the walrus skin blanket outward, sending 17-year-old Karmy McKay soaring high into the air. The spotter yells to the pullers and tugs the blanket to guide them to where Karmy will come down. She wobbles a bit, but manages to land on both feet. She grins, gamely ready to try the blanket toss again. Tourists applaud their approval.

    Entertaining tourists is just one facet of Karmy’s day. Like many Latter-day Saint teens, her schedule is busy. She has a summer job, attends church meetings, helps around the house, works out, spends time with her friends, and plans her future. But Karmy does all this in a small, predominantly Inupiat Eskimo village north of the Arctic Circle.

    Karmy and her brother, Kris, 16, are the only Mormon teens for hundreds of miles. There are 15 members in the Kotzebue Branch, and seven are members of the McKay family.

    Rising early, Karmy pedals down the main dirt road to work at the village’s hotel, waving to everyone she meets. “That’s one of the things I like about living here,” says Karmy, who wears a kuspuk, a colorful print cotton parka, over her clothes. “You know everybody.”

    Most summer days in Kotzebue are overcast and gray. The village is almost an island on a narrow neck of land surrounded by water, and is only 200 miles away from Russia. There is no movie house or swimming pool for Karmy and her family to go to. The teen center—with a TV and video games, several small playgrounds, and a ball field—does provide additional options for summer activities.

    Mainly, though, kids provide their own entertainment. When they have free time, Karmy, Kris, and the other McKay children (Mindy, 11, Levi, 9, and Logan, 8), like to ride their bikes over the dirt roads. There are no mountains or trees here, just rolling tundra, covered with tiny low-lying plants. There are wildflowers of every hue. A constant breeze helps dissipate the clouds of mosquitoes and no-see-ums, a gnat with a particularly nasty bite.

    Karmy, of Canadian-Yugoslavian descent, likes the small community. “Everyone here is friendly,” she says. “I’ve had opportunities I couldn’t have had anywhere else. Here, you can be involved in everything.”

    That is, everything that’s “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” Valedictorian of her graduating class, she was also the president of student government and was involved with Future Homemakers of America, the National Honor Society, and Alaska State Battle of the Books. She played basketball and volleyball, ran cross-country, took Russian classes, completed home-study seminary, and earned her Young Women Recognition.

    “In some ways I’ve missed out,” Karmy says about the lack of LDS youth. “I would have liked to have gone to Church activities with a lot of kids. I went to a youth conference in Utah once and that was neat. Here, standards are low. Kids drink, smoke, and tell dirty jokes. I have different values.”

    Occasionally a “debate” will come up about the Church. Some people have bad feelings about Mormons. “I try to stay calm and politely correct them,” she says. Her own friends have, in Karmy’s words, “grown to respect my values. I think respect builds up over time.”

    Along the shore, boats of various color gently sway with the dark water. The raucous calls of ravens disturb the stillness.

    Less than a block away from the beach is the Kotzebue chapel, where Karmy and her family have spent many hours. Constructed in 1981, it replaced the old chapel, a building the McKays eventually bought and remodeled into their home.

    It is in these two places where Karmy has developed a close, personal relationship with her Heavenly Father. The smallness of the branch has provided her ample opportunity to give talks and prayers. Through personal prayer, and church and seminary attendance, the gospel has become essential to her.

    “Three. Two. One. Blastoff!” Kimber Gabryszak was thrust back into her seat as the space shuttle simulator took off. As mission specialist on this flight, she later “repaired” the Hubble telescope.

    The space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is for students in the seventh through ninth grades. The camp is a long way from Kimber’s home on the banks of the Yentna River in Alaska. Kimber, 14, lives in a two-story wooden lodge, the Yentna River Station, built by her father and mother. The lodge is only 70 air miles from Anchorage, but there are no roads to be found here—only trees, water, moose, and bear. Visitors come by boat, plane, or snow machine—depending on the season and the height of the river. That’s why the Gabryszaks don’t leave their bush paradise very often. Kimber, who has lived here since she was 15 months old, manages to get to Willow, the closest “town,” about every two months. She visits with friends and goes to the movies.

    So why and how did Kimber get in a space simulator? Kimber wants to be an astronaut. The oldest of six children, she is mostly self-taught through the state’s home-study curriculum. When the chance to go to space camp came, she worked hard, saving money and soliciting sponsors. “I needed to see if I really want to be an astronaut,” she says. “I love science. I want to work on a space station.” One of her prized possessions is the light blue space uniform she brought back from camp.

    In Alaska, Kimber’s typical day starts at 7:30 A.M., with the family’s animals. “If they don’t eat, we don’t eat,” she says. So the 17 chickens, ten chicks, two cats, four dogs, goldfish, guinea pig, and goat are tended to. After breakfast, there is firewood to split, snow to shovel, the lodge to clean, and younger children to look after. When Kimber begins home-study seminary, her day will begin 90 minutes earlier.

    At night, the Gabryszaks have prayer and scripture reading. They just finished the Book of Mormon and have started it again. On Sundays, the family gathers for a meeting where they sing hymns, accompanied by Kimber on the recorder. She’ll read and study her own lesson, and then help her two younger sisters and brother with Primary lessons.

    One of the highlights of her summer is going to girls’ camp with members of the Wasilla Stake. “Sometimes it’s hard not to be part of a class,” she adds. “I went to seminary in town one morning. It was neat. Everyone was friends and they were doing neat things with the scriptures. Here, there’s no one my age to do that with.”

    For now, Kimber is content to write to friends she’s met along the way. She has pen pals as far away as the British Isles, and writes regularly to a Jewish boy she met at space camp. He’s interested in the Young Men and Young Women programs, and often asks questions about the Church in his letters. Kimber also sent a Book of Mormon to another friend in Wyoming.

    Life is good for Kimber. She is surrounded by a family she loves and by the great Alaskan outdoors. Although college, a mission, and temple marriage—and her dream of becoming an astronaut—may eventually pull her away, at the Yentna River Station, Kimber has already learned the most important thing of all: “I love Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father. They take care of me.”

    Alaska has spectacular sunsets, trees and brush in a rich variety of greens, flowers of every hue, and, in winter, snow that turns into a fairyland. It also has Karmy and Kimber, two young women who have proven that wherever you are, you’re never alone.

    Photography by Lynn Howlett

    Karmy and Kris McKay (left) are the only LDS teens for hundreds of miles. Their nearest neighbors are mostly Inupiat Eskimos. (Above) Karmy joins in as they stage a traditional blanket toss for tourists.

    When you’re the only Latter-day Saint in umpteen thousand square miles, family takes on even more importance. (Below) The McKay kids: Levi, Karmy, Kris, Logan, and Mindy.

    (Left) Kimber Gabryszak enjoys the Alaska fishing that some say is out of this world. Of course, that would also describe her ambition to become an astronaut. (Above) She has attended the space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, where she “flew” in the shuttle simulator.

    Running a hunting and fishing lodge in the bush keeps the whole Gabryszak family (below) working together.

    Someday she’ll have to leave all this. But for now, Kimber’s home in the bush is a place of growth, family love, and spiritual development—the same things she would enjoy anywhere.