February 12, 2009

His Name Was Emil

When I was a kid, my family lived on a road that ran through thick woods. A mile behind our house, in an area we referred to as our backyard, a narrow creek flowed at the bottom of a gully. One day I was on my way to fish the creek and happened across a small shack made of old logs and roofing material. Judging from its signs of wear, the structure had stood there a long time. I walked towards it until movement showed through a tiny, curtain-less window.

"Who’s that?" I heard an old man's voice say, but more than a little frightened, I walked away without replying.

The thought of an old man living alone in our backyard was disconcerting. Perhaps he was an escaped convict or a deranged lunatic. Yet, after relating the meeting to my parents, my mother made a strange request. She asked me to take food to the man and check to see if he needed our help. Despite my feelings of apprehension, Mom couldn’t be dissuaded. In that gentle, but firm, way mothers come to master, she encouraged me to take an extra plate of dinner to our neighbor.

Within seconds of meeting him, I could tell my concerns had been overblown. He had one of those ambiguous, part-Russian, but mostly-Alaskan native, faces that sported a week's worth of sparse stubble, deep wrinkles and an almost toothless grin. He told me his name was Emil Dolchuk and when he saw the food I carried, his cloudy eyes opened wide. Emil invited me into his one-room home where the smell of urine and mildew jolted me as I entered. Inside, the shack's meager decor included a cot along one wall, a fold-up table opposite from it and two unmatched chairs. There was no electricity and no running water. His source of warmth was a wood-burning stove constructed out of tin tubing and a 50-gallon drum.

As he ate, Emil talked without pause. He seemed compelled to share stories of his life, but I can remember none of them, because I could only think of leaving—to be gone from the sight of the old man's poverty. During the following months, checking up on Emil became a family project, but after moving form the area, we lost track of him. Then several years later, we were reminded of our former neighbor in a startling way: an obituary notice in the local newspaper marked his passing.

Now, the story would end there except that after the passing of a few more years, I went to the city library to research the area's early history. There I found a shelf full of old journals written by Orthodox priests, commercial fishermen and homesteaders. As I read the sour-smelling and forgotten pages, I was impressed by several references to a man—a former city father. He’d been first to suggest the need for a new school (which he'd helped build and, thirty-years later, I attended). He had been a member of Kenai’s first volunteer fire department and for many years, as the village post master, he had braved winter toil by delivering mail to the town via dog sled.

The man's life took on shape and substance as I read. I could imagine him preparing to pick up the mail at Moose Pass 200 miles away. I could see him take a cautious step onto the crust of old-fallen snow and grimace as he fell through. He would grumble as his breath formed a lazy vapor that disappeared slowly into empty winter air.

In those days, unbroken and thinly-crusted snow was his greatest nightmare. It required him to "break trail" by running ahead of the dogs. With snowshoes lashed to his feet, he would land spread-legged and heavy on the snow's frozen crust to create a pathway for his huskies. While inching across wind-swept and frozen tundra, the sled would shimmy and shudder along the jagged edges of the scarcely broken trail.

After traveling only a short distance, but already wet with his own sweat, he would tell himself that Soldotna Creek was only twelve miles away and that he could rest his aching lungs there. By the time he would reach the cache, winter’s fleeting light would already have left the sky and he would still have much to do. He would need to build a fire and dry his drenched clothes before the night settled fully and sought to freeze him in his own perspiration. He would go to the cache and bring out dried chum—dog salmon they called it because the fish filled local rivers like maggots on a carcass and gave homesteaders the chance to catch a year's worth of dog food during a few summer weeks of gill netting. With coarse tools and nature's gifts, this remarkable man helped carve a community out of the wilderness. And his name was Emil Dolchuk.

If Emil were alive today, his stories would be worth gold to me. Unfortunately, all that reminds me of his good works and wisdom are a few scattered entries in hand-written journals. Yet I am fortunate to have them, for they are testimonies to the contributions of a man I've learned to appreciate and long to see again.

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