2019 Tour – #7 Unalaska, April 18-21

Unalaska landing

It was thick fog for the entire 268-mile charter from St. Paul to Unalaska, but when we finally dipped down below the fog, we saw mountains rising straight up out of the ocean; harbors everywhere; boats and beaches, high-tech fish processing plants and wild tundra. Welcome to the incomparable Unalaska!

Janice Krukoff deserves to win the biggest Easter basket

Janice Krukoff, Community Liaison at the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association’s Oonalaska Wellness Center and our local liaison extraordinaire, whisked us into a van and brought us to The Grand Aleutian Hotel (and yes, it looked grand to us) where she handed each one of us a goodie bag full of information and useful things from Unalaska.

We just had time to dump suitcases in our rooms before climbing into the van again.

As we crossed the bridge separating Amaknak Island from Unalaska Island, Janice clued us in on an important distinction: Locals never refer to their community as “Dutch Harbor.” The name of the community is Unalaska, or “Ounalaska” or “Oonalaska” (closer to the original Unangan). Dutch Harbor is the port. We appreciated the clarification: Dutch Harbor is to Unalaska as Long Beach is to Los Angeles.

Janice delivered us to the campus of Unalaska Junior/ Senior High where we hoped to make short work of putting up our set. But alas NYO athletes were high kicking, seal hopping, stick pulling and wrist carrying in the gym so we were “forced” to stuff our set into a closet and take off for a leisurely dinner at the Harborview where we could watch eagles soaring and sea otters swimming just outside the bay window.

Father Ivon Bereskin in the Cathederal
Qawalangin Tribe hosted a potluck for us at Unalaska Senior Center

We were so ready for the next day, Friday, our first company day off since Anchorage. Janice, our official unofficial tour guide, was determined we were going to make the most of it. First we met her at the Aleutian WWII Visitor Center, where Aquilina Bereskin welcomed us and Janice augmented the exhibits with stories about her family’s activities in the area during WWII. Then it was off to the Museum of the Aleutians, which manages to gracefully integrate the cultural and natural history of the region. The next event Janice had planned for us was really special. She arranged for Father Ivon Bereskin to give us a tour of his parish church, the Cathedral of the Holy Ascension Of Christ Russian Orthodox Church, the oldest cruciform church in the North America, dating back to the Russian fur-trading days in the early 1800s. Father Bereskin was most cordial and gave us all sorts of information about the icons, paintings and history of the church. He even allowed us to take some photos.  

After lunch with the kids at the high school cafeteria, we returned to the Grand Aleutian for some free time. Some hiked, some napped and some just processed all the information we were given on our tours.  For dinner we were guests at a community potluck hosted by the Qawalangin Tribe at the Unalaska Senior Center. The Unangan elders got a kick out of watching us eat all the different kinds of seafood, including octopus. We all enjoyed watching the Unangan Dancers.

Unangan Dancers
Jim Wilson, Unalaska HS Principal and President of Ballyhoo Lions Club

Our Saturday got off to a great start at the Annual Pre-Easter Brunch hosted by the Ballyhoo Lions Club. The whole community turned out in the high school cafeteria for eggs, bacon, pancakes and a chance to admire all the children in their Easter finery. Jim Wilson, the Jr./Senior High School Principal who is also the President of Ballyhoo Lions, kept the event moving by giving away gigantic Easter baskets door prizes. We cheered when Janice Krukoff won one of them.

Putting up the set and doing workshops with the kids after brunch helped us work off the pancakes so we could focus on our Saturday evening show, our final performance of the 2019 tour.

It was a beautiful ending. Over one hundred community members watched the cast give some of their best performances. Everything seemed to click. For one thing, we had the whole set to work with, but we also had the confidence of knowing we could do the play with just a makeshift set. That confidence of finally being able to trust the play helped everyone relax and just do it. Having two weeks and seven very different audiences was a great gift.

After the show, we celebrated with a dance party across the street from the hotel.  

Cast with Janice, her dog and her truck

The next morning was hurry-up-and-wait at the Unalaska Airport along with many workers from the fish processing plants speaking Slovenian, Russian, Korean, Filipino and other languages we couldn’t identify. We were all going home.

The fog rolled in. By this time we’d learned how to wait and welcomed the time to reflect on all the amazing, wonderful, hospitable, generous people we met. We headed to our respective homes confident that the communities of Northwest Alaska have the knowledge, experience, resources and the will to change the climate of fear and hopelessness that causes suicide. It was a privilege to work with them.

Kadey & Joshua admire the view

2019 Tour Begins: Juneau, April 6-7

The Winter Bear Project 2019 Tour begins, Juneau.

We held our breath as an invited audience filed into our Preview show at McPhetres Hall in Juneau on Sunday, April 7. We exhaled when, after three intense weeks of rehearsals, we heard our first “live” audience laughing at the jokes. We had a show!

After the show, many in the audience told us they were moved by our story and they shared their stories, a pattern that was repeated by audience members in all the locations we visited. Our Juneau audience gave us the vote of confidence we needed to set off into parts of Northwestern Alaska unknown to most of us.

Night of Remembrance Candlelight Vigil

Thanks to The Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition for sponsoring our hometown show. We were proud to join them on March 26 at the Night of Remembrance Candlelight Vigil sponsored by the Alaska State Suicide Prevention Council on the Capitol steps. That coming together with others to acknowledge the pain caused by suicide helped us focus on our intention to use the play to change the climate of fear and hopelessness that breeds suicide.

Next stop: Anchorage and a day off. But first we have to take down the set, pack it up and send it off to cargo. A touring company member’s hard work is never done, but we’re hoping two weeks of practice will make it easier.

Comments from Juneau: “ I really enjoyed the play – I think it might save lives.”
“The cast really brought the play to life – such an important subject.”

2018: Kivalina, Edge of the Chukchi Sea

It’s hard to play “favorites” with the incredible communities we visit on Winter Bear tours, but I have to go on record saying that my experience in Kivalina was one of the most powerful ones I’ve had in my 4 years with The Winter Bear Project.


This village of about 400 people will be the first to be forced to relocate due to climate change. When former President Obama visited Alaska, he flew over Kivalina to observe the effects of climate change on rural Alaska. Landing in Kivalina, one can sense that the community is undergoing a hard transition as they strive to hold on to their traditional way of life in the face of change.  The only thing keeping the village from eroding into the sea is a rock wall, which we took a stroll down on our first evening in town.

Brian Wescott (Sidney Huntington) enjoys the wide open spaces in Kivalina.

One of the make-or-break aspects of a village visit is the community contact.  And hoo boy, did we luck out with the wonderful Dolly!  From the instant we landed, she gave us the star treatment and helped us get to know the community, its challenges, its needs, its culture.

Director Tom Robenolt shares a laugh with the cast as Dolly looks on.

Dolly took great care to support us throughout the visit, and the icing on the cake, as it were, was when she shared a delicacy with the cast following our performance at McQueen School.  Check out the video below where I lead you through the cultural experience of trying seal oil for the first time.  It’s not a taste for everyone, but it sure was for us hungry actors!  Unlike anything I’d ever sampled before.



The yummy frozen fish we dipped in Seal Oil. Still drooling!

The most powerful moment in Kivalina for me personally was participating in a Community Poetry Workshop led by Erika Bergren (Lynx) with assistance from Lance Claymore (Wolf). Erika facilitated a wonderful exercises utilizing the 5 senses that opened up all of us, “non-writers” included, to creating a piece about our environment.

Though I enjoyed all the sharings from the folks in the workshop, one gentleman by the name of Tiny Swan blew me away. Dubbed the local poet by Dolly and others, Tiny arrived with a folder full of work he’d composed onto hand-drawn scrolls. As Tiny shared his pieces about Inupiaq life, loss, and love, our jaws lay collectively on the floor.

“Hear My Whispers” by Tiny Swan

















Lakota  Actor and Poet Lance Claymore (Wolf) had the honor of reading some of Tiny’s work aloud for the first time. As we left the community center, Erika, Lance, and I remained dumbfounded by the talent and artistry we had just been witness to. It’s one of those experiences you try to share about, but you know you’ll never communicate its power.

Community Poetry Workshop. Tiny Swan, the town Bard, is second from the right with Dolly to his right.

Such an unforgettable visit to Kivalina!  We wish the community strength during their transition to a new home.

~Sarah Mitchell, Raven