Anika is a super-cute, wired-happy and lightning-fast 7-month-old puppy in Joar’s kennel back in Willow. Yes indeed, Aniak is named after the community of Aniak on the Kuskokwim River. The community of Aniak in turn of course being one of the three communities north of Bethel that host the three checkpoints in this year’s Kuskokwim race!
Following what is said to be an old mail route from the gold-rush days, the teams run up to Yupik and Athabaskan communities of Tuluksak, on to Kalskag, to Aniak from where they turn back on a loop to Kalskag, Tuluksak and the finish line in Bethel.
Picture (right) — Joar’s drop bags to go out to Aniak, Kalskag and Tuluksak gets weighed.
The communities as we know them today were settled around the gold rush, fur trading and the coming of people from the outside: Russia and the lower US 48 states. However, these places and the Native peoples of this region have been for much longer.
Actually, archeological findings tells us that the ancestors of the Yupik people came across in waves from what is now Chukotka, making way across the Beringia Steppe and later the Bering Strait to what is now Alaska. It began some 14000 years ago or maybe even before that. By about 3000 years ago, digs tells us that the ancestors of today’s Yupik, settled along the coastal regions of what is now western Alaska, with migrations up the coastal rivers—the Yukon and Kuskokwim —over the next thousands of years.
See how that just all made a straight line from this place as an important part of ancient Beringia, to the Kuskokwim Race to our Team Racing Beringia and learning about Beringia here online!…which brings us back to Aniak the puppy at home… Joar for one just like the name “Aniak”; he loves the Kuskokwim Race; and he firmly believes that Aniak is going to be a treasure of a sled dog the future — as Aniak the place has been in the past and still is today.
ANIAK (Anyaraq) is a Yupik word meaning “the place where it comes out.” It describes the place where the Kuskokwim River meets the mouth of the ancient Aniak River. About 500 people, mostly Yupik and Tanzania Athabascans live here. Yupik musher, Richie Diehl, with bib # 21 is from Aniak! As we write this he is running in 4th place enroute from Kalskag to Tuluksak!!
KALSKAG became settled as place it is today around 1900. Before then it was a fish camp that locals would travel to known as “Kessiglik.” Today about 500 people live in Kalskag as well — that is in Lower and Upper Kalskag since this place is actually two villages connected by a two-mile dirt road.
TULUKSAK (Tul’yagmyut) is a Yupik word meaning, “related to loon.” A very traditional Yupik Eskimo village with about 400 people living there.
Now when Joar ran the Kuskokwim race in 2013 and 2014 the small community of Kwethluk just north of Bethel was not a full-scale checkpoint, but it was a dog drop. It is not in this year’s race… But since Aniak the puppy actually has a puppy sister named Kwethluk — we just need to have it here as well!
KWETHLUK (Kuiggluk) is a Yupik word meaning, “dangerous river.” The community is located where the Kuskokwim River meets the Kwethluk River. The river channels are ever-changing in this area, making for some “dangerous river.” The community of Kwethluk is one of the oldest known communities in Alaska!
All the communities placed on the Kuskokwim River itself or side rivers to it, living off the river and the land that surrounds it, is simply life in this part of the world. The land here is generally flat tundra and wetlands. The communities are situated inside the 20-million-acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, the second largest wildlife refuge in the United States. Every spring millions of waterfowl descend on the tundra and marshes, creating a Nature paradise.
People here hunt large animals like bear and moose; hunt birds and collect their eggs; fish year round; and pick berries as a important part of their die and way of getting food on the table. People travel to hunting areas and fish camps for their own food. Commercial fishing is the most important means to earn money.
What ties all these communities is the mighty river of Kuskokwim. It feeds and supports them. It ties them together in way of life and cultural tradition, because the river means everything to the people here. And, it literally ties them together as a the main infrastructure— the main way of transportation. With no dirt or paved roads put in across land connecting the communities here, in the summertime the river is “road” for personal boating as well as large barge traffic. Barges bring fuel, construction materials, and large goods to the region. Line-haul barges from Seattle and Anchorage work their way up the Kuskokwim River to Bethel. From Bethel, river barges bring fuel and goods to Kuskokwim River villages. When the water, river and wetland, freezes over from something like November to June, transportation happens by snow machine, ATV’s and truck traffic on the ice.
“It is the Kuskokwim River that connects our lands, our families and our values”
That’s the words of the the Kuskokwim Corporation on their website. They go on: “Our culture here derives from Yupik, Athabascan and Russian influences. Together, these influences have helped form the middle Kuskokwim River communities and their richly unique culture. The Kuskokwim River residents are a strong independent people that have overcome much adversity…”
Most of the 25000+ in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta as this region is called, are Yupik (some 85%). More than 1000 Athabaskan join the Yupik living in the upper Kuskokwim River villages like Aniak, The Yupik and Athabaskan cultures are some of the oldest, most intact indigenous cultures in the world.
Besides from Richie Diehl, the mushers Mike William Junior with bib number #2 and Pete Kaiser with bib number #16 are Yupik. Kaiser is the 2015 Kuskokwim Champion and as of right now the current leader of the 2016 race!