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32 it’s a deathtrap.” “Gosh,” I said, “I really need to visit the Home.” No doubt her warnings were correct, but her superior attitude set me off. Looking out the window at the wide, supposedly unfrozen Kuskokwim, I saw an Eskimo man gingerly pick his way across the ice to join other men icefishing from the opposite shore. “We’ll walk!” Dinsmore shouted. “It’s not safe,” Mrs. Benton insisted. “Where’s the trail toward the Home?” Dinsmore demanded. With a vague hand-flap, she said, “Where the houses end. But you can’t cross the ice now.” Sam responded, “Oh, I can tell when ice is solid and when it isn’t.” Misguided loyalty kept me silent. A lifetime of conditioning made me believe men knew what they were doing. Besides, I wanted to go. Following Mrs. Bender’s scant directions, we walked through the village, passing small frame houses, some shack-like, others cheerful in fading blue or green paint. Then we stepped onto a narrow, half-frozen mud path. Freezing grasses enclosed us like walls. Within moments we saw no trail at all. Our untrained eyes couldn’t tell a path from natural spaces between grass stalks. “We’ll have to follow the river,” I said. “It curves so much it’ll double the distance.” “Better than getting lost.” I knew that much. I’d grown up hiking in the Pacific Northwest, while I had the impression Dinsmore’s roots were solidly urban. I knew that if we kept to the river, even if we ended up in the wrong place we could simply follow it back. Still, we must take care. We couldn’t walk the river’s edge because of open spaces between ice and land. Yet staying in the high grasses meant we kept falling into unseen holes. As Dinsmore predicted, the huge river did double back on itself, more than once. The temperature was below 30 but exertion kept us plenty warm. How early would daylight dim? It was only mid-October and we weren’t nearly far enough north to have a winter of 24 hour darkness. Still, we carried no blankets or flashlights though we’d brought a thermos of coffee and a bag of dry fish and fry bread --excellent traditional fare for a hike like this. After an eternity of slogging and stumbling into holes, we rounded a bend and there was the Children’s Home, large and white. And between ourselves and the

CIRQUE Home was the river’s thin sheet of ice. We stepped out. Just after Dinsmore’s adventure with the ice breaking between his feet, a shaft of light broke through the grey sky and struck the Home’s white walls like a heavenly message. As I admired this effect, shouts erupted. “Go back, go back!” I searched the still distant shore. Eskimo men were waving their arms. “Crazy gussaqs! Ice too thin!” “We’re ok,” Dinsmore shouted back. No giant hole had opened beneath him yet, and at 200 pounds, he was 75 pounds heavier than I was. Was it my imagination or did I see tangled weeds swaying in turgid water far beneath my boots? Eskimos in Bethel had told me the Kuskokwim was very deep and that its smooth-appearing surface concealed a swift current. If I fell in, the current would drown me if hypothermia didn’t kill me first. How could the shore still be so far away? I clenched my teeth against their chattering and refused to give way to tears. Shifting light and shadow and the river’s vastness and my own terror drove me to escape inside myself. A well-known 60‘s song entered my mind like a beloved friend. It carried powerful associations -- memories of my exciting year as a VISTA volunteer in the Deep South, and of linking arms with friends in the Civil Rights movement to sing “We Shall Overcome.” The song running through my head while my feet were on the ice matched my current situation: Pete Seeger’s “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Jordan River is chilly and cold, hallelujah, Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah. Jordan River is deep and wide, hallelujah, Milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah. If Dinsmore and I went through the ice we’d die, and I didn’t really believe in Heaven. Finally, finally, we neared the shore. Between ice and land, tiny waves lapped stiff mud. When we’d leapt across the water and half landed, half fallen, onto the bank, we encountered no milk or honey. Instead we faced a tall man with pleasant features: Clarence Henkelman, the Moravian Children’s Home administrator. “My goodness!” he exclaimed, grasping my mittened hand to help me up a short slope. I sensed that his language never got stronger than that. “Mrs. Bender radioed that

Profile for Michael Burwell

Cirque, Vol. 6 No. 2  

A Journal for the North Pacific Rim

Cirque, Vol. 6 No. 2  

A Journal for the North Pacific Rim

Profile for burwellm
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