Forester’s Quest

Written by Richard Drebert
©Good Catch Publishing

 I was 3 years old when the sea plundered my ancestral village on Afognak Island.

For four minutes the earth beneath my grandparents’ home thrashed. By the time the tectonic undulating stopped, most buildings in the village had abandoned their foundations. The elders in the Russian and Aleut neighborhoods of Afognak Village knew what was coming next. Folks in Afognak’s Russian Town (descendants of czarist fur traders) and our Sugpiaq people (living in Aleut Town) fled to high ground together.

A short time after the earthquake, it seemed as if Leviathan suddenly swallowed the surf. Fishing boats listed on the sand, their bow lines tied to pieces of the shattered docks. The wildly churning shore had splintered wooden boardwalks, and hundreds of rock fish flopped on the beach around naked piers.

Outside of their collapsed houses, screaming children clung to mothers. Fathers tossed blankets, coats and sacks of food into waiting trucks as engines belched exhaust into the cold evening air. The villagers sped away, beating the arrival of seawater by mere minutes.                        

It was on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, when the tides of Afognak Bay were loosed upon my grandparents’ village. Residents watched from the hills, gasping as dirty rollers spewed over ancestral burial sites. The saltwater eddied and surged down hand-dug wells, then flowed a half of a mile inland, until the open sea suddenly ordered its retreat.

Then the sea flooded Afognak Village all over again!

Villagers watched buildings, like the general store and nushniks (outhouses), rock in ocean swells where fishing boats usually anchored. The sea washed away old Sugpiaq footpaths and turned shallow swamps into foul lagoons.

After the strongest quake, tremors rocked the island, and the narrow bay reached its tentacles into the village again and again, stealing away cabins, firewood, foodstuffs, equipment — everything that villagers needed to weather the hard winter.

On other islands up and down the Kodiak Archipelago, tides flaunted their hidden reefs — then threw blankets of ocean to cover them, over and over.  

Scores of Afognak villagers huddled around campfires in high mountain clearings to survive, and after three grueling days and nights, they crept back to assess the damages to their homes. Twenty-three of the 38 buildings in the village were swept off their supports, and Afognak fisheries on the island, like Del Valley, invited displaced islanders to use their storage buildings as living quarters.

Kodiak brown bears, shaken awake in their dens, scavenged along the beach, feeding on dead animals. For weeks, armed men escorted children when they traveled between muddy homes and school. Russian and Aleut, young and old studied the bay warily, where capsized boats, yard ornaments and houses drifted on the tide before sinking away.  

My Grandpa Afonie and Grandma Christina found that their red-roofed house still clung to its foundation like a battered warrior, but few other homes were salvageable. The lives of my grandparents changed forever when their village was condemned as an “uninhabitable” community.

The Good Friday quake and tsunami also wounded the economy of neighboring Kodiak Island, 20 miles southeast of Afognak. But for the Emerald Isle of Kodiak, the money poured in to launch a hasty rehabilitation.

In 1964, Afognak Village residents moved to safe new homes constructed at Settler’s Cove on the Emerald Isle. The housing complex was named Port Lions, in honor of the most generous construction and relocation donors: Lions Club International.

Reluctantly, Grandpa and Grandma moved to Port Lions. The red-roofed Sugpiaq heirloom became the family fish camp — a place to stay in summers while picking berries, fishing and smoking salmon.

Grandfather still disappeared in the Afognak mists to trap and hunt — but many ancient paths had been washed away. Afognak village life was no more, and restoring the traditions that bind a family together sometimes felt like manning a kayak without paddles.

My family adapted, mixing their old ways with the new ones they learned at Port Lions. But Grandpa and Grandma never really left Afognak Island in their hearts, and before I’d even been a twinkle in my mother’s eye, a power mightier than any earthquake mapped out my destiny in Afognak’s pristine forests — and Kodiak’s corporate boardrooms.  

 

***

 

One day, long before the ’64 earthquake …

Afonie’s blood ran cold as glacier water when his eyes met the unflinching stare of the landlord of Afognak Island — the mighty Kodiak brown bear. It happened in the blink of an eye — the decision by the bear and the hunter to kill.

In the landlord’s domain, Afonie trapped ermine, otters and fox. He hunted elk and deer and fished for salmon in the landlord’s streams. Afonie sold luxurious pelts to merchants in Kodiak and made a respectable subsistence living. His wife, Christina, with their six children, supplemented their store of winter provisions with potatoes and other vegetables. His industrious children gathered salmon berries, blueberries and the like, while Christina smoked and dried salmon for the family to enjoy during the long snowy months.  

Afonie was one of the few true Sugpiaq hunters on Afognak who lived the old way. He refused to be tamed by civilization. Grandpa held to old superstitions, too, including that he hated to be photographed. He believed that immortalizing himself on film shortened his lifespan somehow.

Men respected Afonie. His months-long trapping campaigns alone in the remote 700 square miles of Afognak forests invited quiet admiration in his village.

It wasn’t often that Afonie Lukin was taken by surprise, but it happened the day the great landlord of Afognak lunged at my wiry grandfather just as his rifle “cracked,” and the echo ricocheted through mammoth stands of Sitka spruce. Afonie wished his rifle thundered a little louder, like a heavy-caliber weapon. It was nearly impossible to kill a charging grizzly bear with such a light carbine.

 

Afonie is home too soon from trapping, I think. Why?

Grandma Christina studied her husband’s face and knew he had a tale. He wore a satisfied half-smile — the smile she had fallen in love with — and it lit up her heart. He dumped his game bag on the table, and she was about to scold him, but a bloody heart, the size of a fat snowshoe hare, plopped out. She shivered as he narrated each detail of his harrowing ordeal of killing the fearsome ruler of Afognak.  

Grandma knew that Afonie’s stories of courage whetted her family’s legacy of ling’aklluku (respect) in the community, and her six children would treasure and retell his tales throughout their lives. Christina silently thanked God — again — for keeping her husband safe. Tonight they all would make a meal of that heart from the great bear who thought he owned the island!

Afonie sat wearily in a straight-backed chair anointing his rifle with gun oil. He knitted bushy eyebrows into iron sights, paying particular attention to the chambering action. Like himself, his rifle seldom spoke. When it did, everyone listened.

           

My grandparents taught their children to treat life as a gift, and Grandfather’s perfectly groomed, red-roofed home validated his place as an elder in Afognak Village. Yet in the hard climbs ahead adapting to “city life,” it was Grandma Christina who carried the burden of steering our family. She was known on Afognak Island and later in Kodiak as a woman with faith in God.

As a young woman, her daughter, Nina, followed in her mother’s footsteps, and her convictions touched a young carpenter’s heart. The carpenter was my father.

 

***

 

Fishing traditions ran strong through Pete Olsen’s veins, in currents of Danish and Eyak Native blood. My father’s hometown was Cordova, some 280 miles from Kodiak. Dad met my mother while she worked at a remote cannery at Port William. Dad labored on a construction crew repairing docks at Port William.

In those days the cannery operated on Shuyak Island, about 45 miles north of Kodiak (facing Afognak Island). Nina and Pete worked long hours, but like most young men and women, they wedged in time to make new friends. When Pete fell in love with my petite, gentle mother, he suddenly hit an unexpected sandbar that wrecked his dreams.

“I cannot marry you, Pete — unless you commit your life to Jesus. I’m sorry …”

Pete Olsen couldn’t live without Nina, and when he gave his heart to God, he wondered why he had waited so long to love them both! Pete visited Nina at her home on Afognak between construction jobs, and after months of a long-distance romance, my father and mother were married at a little chapel in Valdez. Dad joined the Army and worked on tugboats in the Kodiak Archipelago until his military discharge.

Dad and Mom got started on their family and only stayed on Afognak a short while before moving to Kodiak for better opportunities. In time, Mom and Dad bought a house overlooking the channel — my boyhood home. I was born child number eight, branded with my father’s dream of carrying our Native heritage into the 21st century.

But my father’s hopes in me were as ill-fitted to my maturity as logging corks (nail-soled boots) several sizes too big. Gradually I grew into my role — but not before a near miss, as deadly as timber felled in a high wind.

 

***

 

Ling’aklluku.

Though my father only had a seventh grade education, he kindled respect (ling’aklluku) as he dealt with charting the future of our Native people. In 1971, when I was 10 years old, he assisted in a massive land conveyance to local tribes after Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). After nearly a century, the U.S. government resolved the claims of Alaska’s Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos involving ancestral lands that they had lived on for generations.

The federal government awarded our Sugpiaq tribe nearly 200,000 acres of resource-rich land and a share of cash payments as well. My father served on the board of our newly formed Koniag Incorporated, where nearly everyone was inexperienced in dealing with attorneys, corporate structure or confronting a swarm of carpetbaggers, opportunists and thieves. Most of Dad’s spare time went to the overwhelming task of learning to invest Native funds and manage the resources on the acreage we suddenly controlled.

***

Dad was the first to roll out of bed each morning, and he sat quietly by the warm oil cook stove as I padded downstairs from the bedroom I shared with so many brothers and sisters. On his lap his well-marked Bible lay open, and he turned a leaf prayerfully. I stopped at the bottom of the stairs in my PJs, never guessing how anchored by responsibilities he was. His decisions affected thousands of Sugpiaq people — a life more challenging than his parents could have imagined.

“Dad? We goin’ fishin’ this week?”

My father looked up, and the worn look in his face vanished as he thought of our 32-foot seiner and his children hauling in salmon or halibut. It was getting harder to find time for the old ways of subsistence anymore — but he would make time this week.

“You betcha, Peter.” I trotted over to his chair, and he wrapped me in a bear hug. “I need you to do good in school, so I can send you to college. I need someone real smart to help me. Okay?”

I grinned, and at that moment there was no ocean too wide that I wouldn’t swim for my father. And I had a relationship with his God, too — Dad and Mom saw to that. We prayed to the God of the Bible at every meal, and they took us kids to Sunday school like clockwork. At church we learned about Jesus and how he’d sacrificed his life so that we could go to heaven.  

When I was around 6 years old, Jesus had leaped from the Sunday school flannel graph into my reality. I felt a deep yearning to know him, and one day his spirit splashed me with great waves of his love. I was alone in a forest glen when peculiar words rushed off my tongue, none that I could understand — but they seemed to be from Jesus and for Jesus. I hid this strange but heart-filling experience afterward and never dared bring it up to anyone.

Our home was like a big open skiff that everyone wanted to ride in. Mom and Dad often invited neighbors and friends to share meals, and the eight of us kids brought home our pals, too. No one went hungry at the Olsens’ house. Fresh-baked bread, salmon, venison stew, turnips and taters filled the bowls of Mom’s hungry fans. No one was turned away. Some who came were addicted to alcohol or destitute — men or women who panhandled outside of stores in Kodiak. Mom and Dad treated them with respect and counseled them.

“Jesus can take away that alcohol lust, George.”

In our kitchen, Mom ladled out a bowl of stew for the gaunt Native man, and he nodded absently. He had been planning a binge, but got hungry. He knew where to come.

George finished with a cup of Lipton tea. He thanked my mother and hobbled out the door toward town until he noticed me staring after him from the yard.

He wasn’t a large man, but his aggressive demeanor made him seem BIG. He hunched over me like an eagle on a perch, his graying hair greasy under his ball cap. I noticed gaps in his yellow teeth, and I smelled Mom’s stew on his breath as he leaned close.

“You got five dollars?”

I swallowed hard. I did have money, but I knew why he wanted it.

“D***, boy! Give me some money!”

I shrank back and headed for the house, and he hurried off. George was like many other Native men and women who were alcoholics. Some were friends. Some were part of my family. I was Sugpiaq, just like them — why did they feel so hopeless? I couldn’t begin to understand — yet.

 

***

 

It wasn’t such a good idea after all.

My cousin Greg had “borrowed” a skiff for our adventure: helping a local fisherman yank his boat off a sandbar. Miles away from where we emancipated the skiff, we discovered that the fishing boat was much too heavy for a 10 year old (me) and a 12 year old (Greg) to budge, even with the motorized 17-foot skiff. We abandoned the project.

Far from Kodiak’s shore, an easterly gale sloshed spray into my face as I sat in the stern. The outboard burbled along without a hitch, but we barely moved forward against the wind. If we ran out of gas … well, we were right to be scared. Our skiff rolled on seething whitecaps.

Darkness set in, and rain flicked my face now. Should we turn back? Fifteen miles from our original launch point, we finally beached the skiff near the Chiniak Highway. On our walk toward Kodiak in the darkness, my mind wandered to our house long before I got there, and I knew I was in trouble. Another cousin happened by and drove us to our homes.

In my parents’ living room, my family and friends met me with curiosity, anger and relief. Everyone had been keeping an anxious vigil with my mother.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked Mom, glad, yet worried that he wasn’t with us.

She lifted her chin, as if peering over spectacles, and arched her eyebrows at me. “In the boat out looking for you, Peter.”

Dad had been rehearsing how to tell Mom that he hadn’t located the skiff or me, when he opened the front door. There I stood, wearing my most contrite, sheepish 10-year-old face, and I watched prayerful relief wash over him.

I recognized a father’s unconditional love that night. 

 

***

 

My father had the great honor and punishing job of helping to build a separate legal corporation for our tribe that had its ancestral roots in Grandfather’s island home. A group of solid Sugpiaq men and women created this new Afognak Native Corporation — but at first it all seemed confusing, like trying to herd seals on a beach.

Under ANCSA, about 100,000 acres of the land our Native tribe owned was on Afognak Island. Logging Afognak’s spruce timber appeared to be the logical choice for creating a revenue stream, so we needed to develop a foundational land management plan.

Dad had a good eye for honest men, and he hired a hard-bitten Oregon forester to inventory our timber resources. My father never expected Joe Bobb to champion our Sugpiaq cause so fiercely — but God knew exactly whom Dad needed to watch his back. Joe Bobb’s knowledge of the logging industry, as well as his expertise in resource management, helped protect our fledgling corporation as it left the nest.

The first time I met Joe Bobb, he barely spoke to me. I was fresh out of high school, and my dad delivered me to Afognak Island for a crash course in cruising timber with a master forester. Joe Bobb did his level best to make my life challenging that first year, but he never succeeded. I had worked with grouchy fishermen and hunters, and my hide was as thick as a bear’s.

Joe Bobb fascinated me, and I studied the old German’s every move. From morning till night, he ruined an unlit stogie, like a logger shreds tree bark with his corks.

I rode with Joe Bobb in a Boston Whaler skiff along the Afognak shoreline, beaching the craft periodically to measure the girth of trees and estimate marketable board feet. It wasn’t until years later that I realized my father handpicked this old woodsman to be my forestry mentor; Joe Bobb was an alum of Oregon State University, where I planned to study forest management, too.

Few young men have enjoyed such a level path to a profession as I had. I was fully backed by my father, family members and community. With a college education and practical forestry training, Dad prayed that I would have the tools to solve the forestry problems he and others couldn’t attend to.   

But alone in the woodland’s silence I faced a part of me that no one else really knew. Farther up the trail and out of my family’s sight, the real Peter struggled to carry the load. Inside dependable Peter — the gifted athlete, the honor student and the hope of my Sugpiaq people — my soul felt like it was rotting away. I gladly accepted the honor of protecting my heritage by learning forestry management, but the weight of it bore me down. I felt like I carried camping gear for too many people.

My childhood relationship with Jesus waned, though I tolerated him on Sundays at church to appease my parents. Secular teaching in school and parties scraped hollow my former joy of knowing God as my creator. I replaced this clean relationship with a sweaty warmth that I relished among troubled friends.

In high school, I chose smoking dope and “drinking games” as a path to acceptance and camaraderie. By my senior year in high school, I blunted my razor-sharp guilt with weed, and it grew dear to me, like my mother’s home cooking.

One day, in a moment of solitude at home, my older sister and I sat together enjoying companionship and conversation. I broke out a hidden stash of marijuana, and my room reeked of sentimental musings, laughter and pot smoke — when the door opened. My father inhaled the situation and glanced away, shaking his head. Then he fixed his eyes on mine.

Disappointment. Broken trust.

I felt sick, my chest bloated with guilt.

“I was hoping you wouldn’t go this direction, Peter,” Dad said and closed the door.

It seemed that a door remained shut on a part of our relationship for years after that.

Nearer to my high school graduation, on a dreary Kodiak afternoon, my father sat at the head of the table, and I sat in the chair nearest him. Mother sat across from Dad at the other end, and every other chair was empty. My siblings were elsewhere — and in my mind, I was really gone. I had been smoking pot before I arrived for lunch, and I sat in silence, hoping they couldn’t smell the marijuana smoke on my clothes. Suddenly the haze in my head lifted, and I viewed the three of us from a shocking vantage: In the same chair where I squirmed, my mother and father often counseled drug addicts and alcoholics — like me!

I barely knew these two wonderful people anymore. I was trading a lasting relationship with them for a temporary, miserable lifestyle that I was beginning to despise. It just wasn’t worth it anymore, but how could I survive without something to deaden the pain in my soul?

And how long before I looked in the mirror one morning and a sad soul like George stared back? The thought terrified me.

My mother and father were so loving and kind, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about my problems. Perhaps if I excelled in college and worked hard in forestry on the island, I might redeem myself and reclaim respect.

Maybe …

  

Later, I leaned against a massive spruce where Grandpa Afonie likely stood as a young man my age. I gazed into the wet spruce boughs hiding the sky, pondering my future. Some of my friends had quit school and rode the slick decks of crab boats on 20-foot swells, raking in thousands of dollars. But the fisherman’s lifestyle didn’t appeal to me — I needed to hear my own heartbeat in the shade of towering timber, where by some mystery I might discover how to rescue myself.

 

***

 

“Peter. Son, serve the Lord wherever you go. You serve him!” Grandmother Christina’s face, deeply etched by weather and trials, held me transfixed, like a halogen beam on a seiner.  

“I will, Gramma,” I said, smiling, averting my eyes from hers. My suitcases were crammed with expensive beer for my first parties with new friends at Oregon State University.

Big brother Mark held me at arm’s length, frowning. “And don’t you get snagged by alcohol or any drugs!” he warned.

Tears glistened in his eyes, and I felt uncomfortable. My Alaska Airlines jet rolled up, and I hugged my mother tight, waving off my family. It was my first trip alone, and I was in seventh heaven.

Freedom at last!

My euphoria lasted a few weeks while my fraternity brothers and I got to know one another over drinks and joints. Then a visit to my academic counselor slapped me with my first dose of reality. I had been trying to recover from a party the night before.

My advisor appraised me, like a forester marking a tree for cutting. “You’re an athlete. Hmm. And you know how to study, by your grades. Are you planning to play ball here at OSU?”

“That’d be great, but I really am here to learn forestry,” I said.

Suddenly the room seemed dark, like the fluorescents hid behind a threatening cloud. “Mr. Olsen, you need to decide right now if you are going to pursue sports or your forestry career. You cannot do both. Understand?”

I did.

“I’m here to study, sir,” I said, and the cloud lifted again.

He nodded approvingly. “Our forestry program is the best in the country, but our teachers will work you hard, son.”

I was proud that I could hold my own among our fraternity’s computer programmers, engineers and a few real geniuses — partying. Our fraternity had safe harbors for dope smoking and beer bashes, and my first year at OSU I juggled study time and partying with pretty fair success. But in my second year, my grades began to slip, in direct proportion to my hangovers and wandering mind.

A familiar weight of obligation to my Alaskan family and community began to glare through even the heaviest marijuana fog I could conjure. I was terrified when every lesson seemed harder than the last. I was scared as h***, knowing that the golden child was falling apart.

“This isn’t you, Peter.”

Dennis, a brainy engineer also respected as a person of faith, sat with me in the fraternity lunchroom.

His words struck me deep, where it hurt. I knew he was right. “Why don’t you come to church with me?”

It seemed a good way to distract myself from self-pity, so I agreed. In fact, I attended church several times in the following weeks, which reinforced my belief that I was totally out of control.

 

***

 

The old radiator groaned and clanked as I flopped my heavy books onto the Formica table. My dorm room was always way too hot or way too cold, but I didn’t notice on this particular night. In my soul, I had reached a point of no return and felt as desperate as the night my cousin and I faced 12-foot swells in our stolen skiff. There was no turning back. I had to deal with my addiction and guilt, once and for all, or …

I dug out the Bible Mom had packed for me and breathed a heavy sigh. “Lord, where do I start?”

Drip. Groan. Clank. And suddenly I felt that God had entered my dorm room.

I glanced at an empty chair, wondering if Jesus would suddenly appear. His presence was touchable — but all inside me, comforting, reassuring me. This was the same “knowing” that I’d experienced in the forest when I was a 6 year old. So real. So powerful. How could I have traded God’s loving embrace for a bitter synthetic high or smoky anesthesia?       

Revelation — the concluding book of the Bible, full of dreadful images of apocalypse — seemed a peculiar tool to encourage me, but the voice of God was clear in it. I read the profound and mystical book of Revelation straight through, and in chapters where Jesus spoke to the churches, or angels poured out vials, or when the new heavens and earth were created, Jesus spoke to me.

That night God bolted truth to my soul. Jesus said, “Peter, you’re right — you are out of control in kicking your addictions to alcohol and dope. In fact, you have no authority over a single microsecond of your future. I hold the heavens, the earth, your culture, your family, your education, your reputation in my hands.”

At 19 years old, early in my second year at college, I surrendered to Jesus, who awakened in me a new reason for living. I recognized a fresh resolve gathered from ancestors innumerable — to whom Jesus gave power to accomplish great things for him, whether they recognized or lived up to God’s mandate or not. We are all designed with innate, unique purpose coursing through our veins, as certain as DNA commands the color of our hair and skin.

I gave up the heavy load of preserving my Sugpiaq heritage. Jesus carried it, and I assisted him.  

I cut myself off from all OSU functions for more than a month, except cafeteria and classes. I dared not breathe a single molecule of pot smoke, for fear I would slip back into smoking dope again. I didn’t dare smell beer fumes or josh with my peers in the computer lab. I sequestered myself in my dorm room with God and my books.

To say I never smoked again would be stretching the truth. I stumbled, but God never abandoned me.

On one such discouraging gray Oregon day after smoking a joint, I stared up at the sky, condemning myself, over and over. Suddenly a beam of sun seared the clouds, and a gap opened, widening like a beautiful golden gate to heaven.

“Peter,” Jesus spoke to my soul. “In a fixed number of lapses, this is one time fewer in your life when you will fail. Take courage. The end of your struggle is near.”

Slowly, my need for alcohol and pot dried up like dew on sun-drenched stone.  

 

***

 

Whirlwind.

Each summer that I worked with Joe Bobb on my grandfather’s island, I fulfilled my father’s idyllic dream that his son was learning to be a steward of God’s gift to the Sugpiaq people. But near the end of my second year at college, a student named Debra distracted me from forestry ambitions. Debra was visiting a friend at the fraternity, and I convinced her that she could do better. We began spending time together, and soon we were discussing a serious lifetime relationship. I took Debra home to Kodiak to meet the giant Olsen family, where she got her first lesson in Native culture.  

Debra and I graduated from OSU in the same year — as a married couple — and we drove my little ’77 Honda Civic up the Alcan and ferried it over to Kodiak. After a few months of marriage, Debra and I moved to a cold trailer camp on Afognak Island, with Joe Bobb next door. I was a young buck forester now — that my woods boss needed to cut down to size.

Joe Bobb still growled like an old boar grizzly and mutilated his cigars, but I had changed. I was a college-educated woodsman now, not so contented to trail behind him hauling his equipment to timber sites. I was anxious to bedazzle the world with my forestry “expertise.”

Cultural protections and reforestation techniques churned in my restless mind — long before I understood shareholder obligations and corporate jargon. At the time, I couldn’t fathom a life of studying maps and shuffling contracts all day in an office.

After 18 months, Debra and I left my grandfather’s mossy forest and moved back to Kodiak, where our son Aaron was born. We would return to Afognak Island in 1988, during which time our second son, Jeremiah, was born.

 

The years between 1988 and 1995 were hard but fulfilling ones spent managing logging operations, teaching Bible classes at our logging camp and watching my sons grow strong in the woods where my mother spent time as a child, too.  

In managing our forests, the question always begs an answer: How soon can we replant trees on the same land where we have harvested timber?

Stewardship values live within our Native culture. We strive to cultivate, nurture and renew our natural resources whenever possible. Stewardship is our response to God’s gift of the earth.

In marriage, we are stewards, too. The Bible encourages us to cherish our partners as precious gifts. But the principles I revered as a forester, I found difficult to apply in my marriage.

A distance settled between my wife and me before my little family returned to Kodiak, where I took a position at the offices of Afognak Native Corporation. Debra and I were the only ones who knew.

My need to keep up appearances shouted down an inner cry for help. Once again I was losing control of a part of my life that I believed God trusted me to manage. I was failing, and the weight was too heavy to bear — again.

I felt powerless to change anything. My marriage upheavals, as well as trying to adjust to a cramped office environment after years in the wilderness, sent me to my knees.

What was I doing wrong? I yearned for the kind spiritual touch from God I had experienced as a child in the forest and later as a troubled college student.   

We were attending Kodiak Assembly of God church when I reconnected to Jesus in a way that helped me cope with my troubles.

I asked God to fill me with his spirit, and he did. He was the same spirit who touched me as a boy, and he embraced me once again, but in a totally different way. It was all too big to take in or explain, but I was different from the inside out.

Yet even during my spiritual rediscovery, an inevitable collision with reality gained steam, like a log rolling down a mountain.

I treasured the respect of my community and enjoyed the cultural legacy passed on from my grandparents and parents. My church appointed me as a deacon, and ironically, I often counseled others who dealt with marriage problems. I moved into upper management with Afognak Native Corporation — absolutely unaware that an adversary more ruthless than any grizzly stalked me.

Every fiber of my being ached to renew my union with Debra, but hope was fading for my wife and me. Why could I not have the same kind of marriage my parents had? And if, God forbid, I failed to save my marriage, how could I face my community, my family, my own beloved children?

It seemed that demons jeered at me: “He saved others, but himself he cannot save …”

One day I felt talons lift me from the earth, and I knew it was over. No weeping, no more petitions before God and no counsel could save me from divorce.

So many “should haves” appear in my mind as I look back. I should have been more vigilant. I should have begun marriage counseling earlier. I should have sought advice from people who fought the same battles as I. I should have dedicated my life blood to the task of saving my marriage — even at the cost of my career.

My season of grief blinded me to spiritual truth that I have since come to understand: God uses people and experiences (dysfunctional or not) to deliver us to the time and place of his ultimate purpose.

 

***

 

“Lord, I feel like I’m lying in a pool of vomit …” Graphic, unsavory — but that’s how I felt after my divorce.

I sat in my office, my head in my hands, unable to concentrate.

Respect, reputation, ministry — all lay on the jagged reefs of despair. Months had passed, and the weight of failure grew heavier every day. Somehow I needed to buck up, carry on, but how?

I followed deep ruts of training etched into my brain from years of emulating Grandfather Afonie, my father and Joe Bobb.

The ruts were deep enough to keep me on track, while I waited for God to somehow give me a whole new map to guide my life.  

Lord, where do I start?

I reached out to God like I was a student again. In my uncertain college days, God spoke very plainly — and once again he pointed me to the Bible. I read about King David.

Pride had blinded him, and he overreached his authority. His most powerful, carefully guarded asset — his reputation — disappeared overnight. David grieved and prayed that God would save his ill son from death, but to no avail.

After his son died, protocol demanded that King David hibernate for a time, to reflect upon his faults and mourn his loss, but instead, David put his mistakes and his grief behind him. He dried his tears and got busy on kingdom business.

I took inventory in my own life, and with all the bravado I could gather, I told God that I was willing to live my life without a wife, if it was his will. In my heart, I think I heard him chuckle a little before he said, “Yeah, right, Peter. Get real.”

I was 39 years old with two sons, a career intact and a growing need for a godly helpmate. I yearned for a friend who would share a lifetime serving Jesus with me.

God seemed to be nudging me past my comfort zone, but I had no clue as to how to find a true-hearted woman. As for my battered Christian reputation, Jesus calmed my fears by telling me that the fruit in my life would speak for itself; it would just take time.

I lived on an island and felt the isolation from the rest of the world like never before. Was there any female out there who could understand me and love me, anyway? Was there some way to dip my toe in the bay and talk to someone of the opposite sex without causing a tsunami of gossip in my community?

I sweated over what username to type in the first time I explored a Christian singles Web site. This Sugpiaq warrior faced his quest like he was crawling into a bear’s den.

And what I found in chat rooms shocked me.

A subculture of Christ’s church lived there. Thousands of misunderstood, broken people gathered for comfort and advice. On my little island, I never had a clue that they existed, and I fit right in.

When I struck up a conversation with Jessica, it was all I could do to hang onto my courage and not run away. Since childhood I had faced the dangers of wild Alaska, and I had traded blows with corporate pirates as I defended our Native lands. But when I talked with this gentle woman, I felt 15 years old again.

An Internet romance was completely out of character for Peter Olsen. What would my friends say? My pastor? My family?

In corporate management, I followed proper procedure and demanded everyone else do the same. I was known as a stick-in-the-mud conservative. What was I doing talking to a woman online?

Jessica was from Texas — far away in miles and farther yet from my Native culture. But in our e-mails and phone conversations, a sweetness radiated straight from her heart.

Jessica wanted to know the nitty-gritty details about my former marriage and divorce, and in my usual, plain-spoken (blunt) way, I bared my soul. That’s when a disappointing unease swept over Jessica, like a rising tide. Was I a man on the rebound? If so, she wanted no part of it. Jessica had never been married and patiently waited for God to select the true believer that she would team up with for the rest of her life.

So, after a few initial honest conversations, she ran the other direction. She explained about her strong Pentecostal roots. She told me about her desire to help others find Christ. Her ministry had been gathering momentum since her teen years when she placed her faith in God. She was going places with Jesus and dared not jeopardize the future with a foolish choice.

“I understand,” I said, with a sense of loss, but not surrender. A distant memory echoed in my head: My mother had rejected my father at first, too …

After a few days of wrangling, soul searching and prayer, I called Jessica again, to close the door tight, if it was God’s will.

It would take a miracle to convince this woman that I was the man for her, that God would empower her to live with the shadow of my past, that she could love my sons the way I did, that I was a man who loved Jesus the same as she.

Could a girl from Texas and a Sugpiaq Native join forces and replant God’s grace in soil where every tree had been felled?

It took a miracle from God, one that prevails to this day.

 

***

 

One summer as a young man, I followed my woods boss, Joe Bobb, and another forester named Mac along a creek that gurgled loud enough to drown out the jingling bear bells on our vests. We were mapping timber stands, and we kept to clearings, avoiding thick willow patches waving in the cool morning breeze.

My pack pinched my shoulders, and I itched to leave the two old codgers behind to get to the designated plot of timber. My elders trudged along slowly, carefully appraising the bear country we trespassed. Joe Bobb never let down his guard on Afognak, and his grizzly sixth sense suddenly twitched.

“Let’s head around that patch,” he said, nodding toward a tangle of willow that swallowed up the trail ahead.

I rolled my eyes, watching the two men trade our direct route for a long, circuitous path to our destination.

Not me. I didn’t hear any thrashing or see any brown fur in the willow thicket. So I started to plunge in, bear bells jangling warnings. I pictured myself perched on a log at the timber stand, smug and waiting for the old guys. My mentor and Mac disappeared on their chosen route.

But for some inexplicable reason, my boots suddenly froze fast to the trail — just for an instant. In that split second, I made the decision to tag along behind my elders instead of striking out on my own. I veered around the brushy patch, resigned to listening to Joe Bobb’s crotchety wisdom.

The bear in the willows sounded disappointed.

His jowly bellow and snapping teeth stoked my adrenaline to the boiling point as I quick-stepped toward Joe Bobb and Mac. I never did see the bear, but the last sounds I heard over the frantic tinkle of my bear bells were cracking brush and huffing that died away in the distance.

Like all good Sugpiaq storytellers, I remember my bear encounters like they happened moments ago, and I have learned that experience is not the best teacher. A godly mentor is.

Such a person is a precious gift, allowing us to follow in the footsteps of someone who knows how to avoid the beast in the willows. Jessica and I strive to be those kinds of mentors, who gently warn others away from paths that hide inevitable ruin.

 

***

 

Afognak Native Corporation flourishes, and I give the credit to Jesus. I’ve been married to Jessica for 12 years, and it’s a privilege to work with my grown sons, one of whom is married. Most of our growing family attends Kodiak Assembly of God church together.

When we visit Afognak Island and I peer into its salmon streams, I smile at my reflection these days. I’m gray-haired now. A grandfather peers back at me.

I have learned some things along the way. I’ve learned to let Jesus help me shoulder responsibilities without letting them become burdens. I’ve learned to treasure the rewards of eternity, even above our ancestral lands.

I’ve been shaken from my foundation by forces as personally devastating as the earthquake that ruined my ancestral village. And I’ve been replanted and nurtured, until my faith could grow deep roots.

I still cherish the lands and community and values of my grandfather.

But it is my grandmother’s mandate from all those years ago that guides me: “Son, serve the Lord wherever you go. You serve him!”

I have learned to find refuge in God, the loving steward for us all, and the only one who can bear my load.

Someday, I believe, I’ll see Jesus.

Until then, I try to pack only the burdens that Jesus asks me to carry. I follow his path and serve him wherever I go.

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