Not many people canoe the Tanana, and for good reason. With an incessant current, deadly cold temperatures, and silt from glacial runoff that’ll fill your clothes and sink you to the bottom, it has a reputation for fierceness. Log jams could flip the boat in a heartbeat. And sandbars, popping up all over the place, make it easy to get stuck. But the river was my backyard, and we weren’t going far. The takeout spot was just below the bluff where I lived and we wanted to check out the not-accessible-by-foot surroundings.
As we navigated the river, I thought of the community just a few miles away, to the west of the river, in the Middle Tanana Valley, called Whitestone. Accessible only by boat in the summer, and by a road constructed of ice, which crosses the river, in the winter, the faith-based community is truly isolated. The community began in 1982 when a church group from New Hampshire contacted the man who staked a claim on Whitestone during the Federal Homestead Act. They bought the land and later turned it into an agriculturally-based village. Since that time, community members have built impressive infrastructure, including a powerline, a fuel storage facility, a landfill, and a weather station used by NOAA to collect data. Barley and wheat fields, along with a private school, also populate the land. Residents of Delta, the town 10 miles to the south, sometimes refer to Whitestone as a cult or commune. But the community does integrate itself somewhat, as a means of making money. It owns a greenhouse along the Richardson Highway, and helps maintain Rika’s Roadhouse, a historical park and popular tourist destination in Big Delta.
It’s easy to let your imagination run wild in such a secluded and extraordinary place, since a lifestyle like the one the Whitestone community lives is beyond what many of us know. What I mean is, I wonder if the Whitestones are communists. (If they are, I think it’d be fascinating. I’d want to interview them.) I elude to this because there’s been a large influx of Russians in Delta, and their hometown, Claremont, New Hampshire, also experienced a Russian population boom in the early 1900s. Most of them were orthodox, and most of them were members of the communist party, escaping religious persecution and economic hardship. Having never met any of the Whitestone folks, I have no idea what their intentions and exact backgrounds are–other than that they want to live a life in tune with their religious beliefs, and that means isolation. But I think they could be staging the next revolution. So look out, Delta Junction.
Our trip down the river was without incident. We went back to the area across from the put-in spot a few times that summer to set hooks for burbot, which people say is the poor man’s lobster. But we never caught any. I can only assume how good it must taste, broiled, with melted butter for dipping. I bet the Whitestone community knows all about–the proletariat lobster.