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Where is Kate Shugak? And who is going to find her first? The last person you would expect, is who. I can’t wait to see the mail from this one.
About the Dedication
for Jeannie DeLavern Stabenow
thanks for loving Dad
Jeannie came north from Michigan, only the second time she’d been on a plane. Now she’s a pilot, working on her A&P license. Our friend Mary O’Connor took this picture. Jeannie’s kind of making a statement here, don’t you think?
Jim Chopin was a state trooper, by virtue of his profession trained and dedicated to the gathering and evaluation of information. He knew a good deal more about Kate Shugak than most people, far more than she would have been comfortable with had she known.
Her father had been an Aleut fisher, and a veteran of Castner’s Cutthroats, a specially trained commando unit that had fought in the Aleutians during World War II. After the war there had been few villages left standing to go back to, and like many other Aleuts, including his mother, Ekaterina Shugak, he had moved north to the Park, although it wasn’t a Park then, just a big chunk of land owned by the federal government that at that time wasn’t being watched too closely. So people moved in, Aleuts, miners, trappers, hunters, fishers, even a few misguided folks who gave farming a try and almost invariably failed, they all staked out sections, built cabins, and refused to move when Alaska became a state in 1959. The fight over who owned what land was on. A lot of lawyers later, the homesteads were grandfathered in, and in 1980 the Park was created around them.
Stephan Shugak ignored the fuss, married Zoya Dementieff, and in 1961, when they’d given up on ever having children, their daughter Ekaterina Ivana was born. Ekaterina for Stephan’s mother, Ivana for Zoya’s. Billy Mike still told the tale about how Ivana had lost the toss to be first name. Jim figured Ekaterina snuck in a double-headed coin. That old broad hadn’t been one to leave much to chance.
Stephan supported the three of them by fishing salmon in summer and trapping beaver in the winter, and if he and his wife had managed to stay off the sauce it would have been a good life. They hadn’t. First Stephan was gone, then Zoya, and little Kate had been shipped off to Niniltna to live with her grandmother.
She had stuck it out for a week. The morning of the eighth day she got up early, tucked half a loaf of home-made bread down the front of her snowsuit, shouldered the little .22 rifle her father had given her and walked the twenty-five miles home. This had been the first week in December, with the highs below freezing and the lows below zero.
She made it all the way to the homestead and had a fire going in the wood stove before anyone in Niniltna knew she was gone. Abel had told that tale, of how he’d seen the smoke from the chimney and snowshoed over to see who was trespassing on the Shugak’s cabin. Kate had welcomed him inside and made him a cup of Lipton tea, sweetened with honey just the way he liked it, and a slice of buttered bread. She didn’t invite him to stay the night. “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry,” was how Abel described it. He’d snowshoed back to his own homestead and waited for Kate’s grandmother to arrive, which she did, the next morning at first light on a snowmobile, bundled in beaver and spitting mad.
Ekaterina brought Kate back to Niniltna and locked the girl in the spare bedroom. Kate climbed up on the dresser, kicked out the window and got a mile down the road before Ekaterina caught up with her the second time.
Kate didn’t fight her grandmother. She waited. Old Sam Dementieff had visited Ekaterina’s house during that time, and described it as an armed camp — “She don’t know where it was coming from, but Ekaterina knew it was coming, and she was ready to repel boarders.” Old Sam would pause, giving his punch line its due dramatic weight. “Kate was readier.”
When she brought her back the second time, Ekaterina tried reasoning with Kate. She was only a little girl, barely in kindergarten, how could she take care of herself all alone way out there on the homestead? And what about school, she had to go to school, it was the law. And what about her old grandmother, all alone in her big house by the river in the Niniltna?
This last should have carried weight. Kate was always susceptible to guilt, and Ekaterina could lay it on with a shovel. But at the time it was delivered, to the accompaniment of sad brown eyes squeezing out a single, forlorn tear, Ekaterina’s house was filled to the rafters with fourteen cousins making their traditional after school stop for fry bread and cocoa, one uncle there on tribal business and three aunties making a quilt. Kate looked at them, looked at her grandmother and curled her lip. Auntie Vi told that story — “Ayah, that girl, she one inch high then, and she look twice as big as her emaa.”
The next day Emaa walked up to the school to escort Kate home. Kate never did come out.
Kate always knew where the back door was.
Until that day, Ekaterina Moonin Shugak, village elder and tribal leader, had never been confronted with a will as strong as her own.