By Robert Moffat
It was hard to not feel GL-O-O-O-MY. As we looked out the ice-decorated windows on the shortest day of the year, it was still blowing and snowing. No sight of the mail plane again today. December 21,1961 was going to be the same as many previous days: cold, dark, and snowy.
As we looked out, we thought, “It will be a pretty bare Christmas here in Anvik this year.” We had not seen a mail plane for weeks. Our mail was in a huge pile in a bin near the airport in Bethel, Alaska--250 miles away.
We had done our part, completing our Christmas shopping in early November. The Sears and Wards catalogs became the books of secrets in the Moffat house. The kids had conspired with each other on how to spend the dollars they had to buy presents for each other. Order blanks had been filled out with warnings: “Don’t you dare watch.” Checks had been placed in the envelopes, and we had taken them to the trading post to be taken by the mail planes, eventually, to Seattle and Portland. Then we had settled back in anticipation of our presents’ arrival. Now this!
Our mail had come by boat to Anchorage and then via plane to Bethel, where it was sorted by village and flown to the proper destinations once or twice a week. Just after the first of December, it had turned stormy. In this Arctic weather factory, especially around the tundra flats of Bethel, mail flights were cancelled day after day, week after week. Pilots needed assurance of weather that would allow them to not only get out to the villages but return safely, as well. Arctic “whiteouts” were not something to be ignored, let alone challenged.
It didn’t improve on December 22 or December 23. Two days until Christmas and Alaska Airlines’ response to our shortwave radio question was always the same. “Sorry, Anvik, we will have to cancel our flight to your village again.” Our moods turned from gloom to depression. Sure, we understood the pilots not only had bad weather to content with, but also three very short hours of daylight, even if the weather was flyable. There were no phones or airfields, yet alone ones with lights. The bush pilots flew on ski-equipped planes and landed on snow-covered strips on the Anvik River. It was even difficult to get around by dog team at times. But Christmas depression smothers reason, and we were sure the presents, and the turkey we ordered, were not going to make it, and we were discouraged.
And that was not all. What about all those cherished gift boxes we always received from friends, supporting churches and relatives? They really made Christmas special in this isolated place. We loved serving God here and were thankful for His care and His blessing on our ministry to this Athabascan Indian village, and we had friends here, some who had come to believe in Jesus and were like family. However, in every person’s heart, there is the desire to be at home on Christmas. It was one of the hard things about being missionaries. Those boxes and Christmas cards from loved ones were more than just toys, homemade pajamas, and new perfume for Carol. They were reminders of home and love.
Christmas Eve morning dawned cold, crisp, and CLEAR. We rushed to turn on the short-wave radio. It was alive with chatter. It was also clear in Bethel. Mail planes were loaded and taking off for Shaktoolik, Mountain Village, Holy Cross, Tuntatuliak and many of the over forty villages and communities served by Alaska Airlines. They wanted to fly. The US Government Post Office was the bread and butter of those small bush airlines, and all this bad December weather meant they were not making money either. But as the day progressed and we followed flight after flight to different places, we never heard “Anvik, a plane just left for your village.”
Optimism began to be replaced by disappointment. The few hours of daylight came and went. Once again, the Arctic darkness began to cover the snowy landscape, and we began to make alternate plans for Christmas.
“We could have a moose roast again for Christmas dinner.”
“We could even make some homemade ice cream in the hand-turned ice cream maker.”
“How about cutting out the pictures of the present we ordered and wrapping them with ribbon, so people will know what they will eventually get?”
We would make the best of it—for Christmas, for the kids’ sake.
Just before supper, the boys and I went outside to throw wood in the basement to keep us warm on this cold Christmas Eve. “Let’s put up enough for tomorrow, too, so we don’t have to work on Christmas.” They marveled at the huge moon that was rising over the horizon. “It’s going to be a pretty night. Santa is going to have a good night for flying to the rest of the world”, we joked. It had been so long since we had seen the moon that we couldn’t help looking up in awe before going back into the house. The Northern Lights were also beginning to do their dance in the skies, and that, together with the moon’s glow, made the snow sparkle like diamonds. As the moon rose further, it was almost like daylight. Cold can be hard, but it sure can be beautiful, too.
About that time, back in Bethel, a bush pilot taxied his plane into the parking stall. It had been a hard day, but a good one. He had been flying to many villages since before daylight, and he knew he had made Christmas special for many living in the small Alaskan villages scattered throughout the bush. As he tied his plane down, he checked with the dispatcher on how they did today. He was told, “We had flights to every village except Anvik, Shageluk, and Holikachuck. All that freight will have to wait until after Christmas, if the weather stays good.
Back in Anvik, our family was well into a monopoly game when some of the neighbor Indian kids came running excitedly into the house. “It’s coming, it’s coming,” they shouted, “The mail plane is coming.” “Don’t joke,” we replied, “you know the mail plane never comes at night.” “Listen on the radio,” they said, “We heard it was coming!”
Our radio had been turned off hours ago when we were sure all hope for getting our Christmas mail was gone. Turning it on, we just got the last of a transmission from the pilot. “Anvik, be sure and have someone down on the river to get the mail when I get there. I have to turn around and get right back down to Bethel, while I can still see in this moonlight.”
By now, the whole village had heard the news. In cabins and homes, we all put on mukluks, parkas, and mittens and kept one ear to our radios to hear the progress of the mail plane. Finally, even though the last report said it would be another half hour, we all began to gather at the riverbank. Those of us who knew we would have more mail than we could carry, hooked up a few sled dogs to our sleds.
What a sight this was. What excitement! The -30* cold allowed us to hear the plane coming ten minutes away. The moon was full overhead, and its reflected light, enriched by the Northern Lights, made it possible to see like it was day. The pilot needed no additional light to land—it was so bright out. His ski-equipped plane touched the snow-covered ice, and our Christmas had come after all.
We all helped unload the many sacks of mail into our sleds to be taken to the trading store/post office to be sorted and dispursed before the night was over. I asked the pilot why he decided to fly on Christmas Eve. He said, “I saw that one huge pile of mail for Anvik and just would not have been able to go home and enjoy my Christmas. And besides, look at the moonlight—it’s better light than we get on most days up here.”
We could have survived without the coming of our Christmas food and presents, but as always, He gave more than we dared to “ask or think”.
Lovely, lovely story! Thank you for sharing it
Which villages did you live at Ronnie?
Loved your story! I grew up in Alaska and went to UAF. Took the 12-hour train trip to Anchorage one time, and the moon was shining so brightly on the snow that it was like daylight all the way, just like you described.
Been there and done that we were missionaries to an Athabascan village.