Williams' remote life is miles from Easy Street

Posted: Monday, February 08, 1999

After her morning coffee, Paula Williams home-schools her young son for a few hours, puts on a dab of makeup and jumps in her skiff to go seal hunting.

That's just part of a typical day for Williams, 34, of Redoubt Bay.

An Inupiaq Eskimo originally from Noorvik in Northwest Alaska, she lives much the same lifestyle as many Alaskans might have a century or more ago - or would like to today.

``I do pretty good out here,'' Williams said of her two-story cabin home, about a dozen or so miles south of Sitka on the west coast of Baranof Island.

``It's the kind of lifestyle I want. I'm happy - I need very little of anything.''

She's lived that life for about six years now, after spending about two years in Sitka with her husband, Richard. The couple built two cabins on property owned by Richard's mother, Alice Williams.

Paula's husband is a journeyman carpenter in Juneau. She comes to the capital city every few weeks to see her husband and to stock up on supplies, such as crackers, rice and flashlight batteries.

``I bring him a lot of Native food: seal oil, herring eggs and fish from camp.''

Time away is tough on a relationship.

``It's hard on both of us, since he works full time (in Juneau). We write a lot of letters and talk on the phone, when we can,'' she said. ``We've been married for 12 years and together 16 years, so we already know each other.''

The couple were commercial divers for a time, harvesting abalone and urchins. But the two decided to seek other occupations.

Alice Williams said her daughter-in-law is a woman's woman, and lives the way most Native women used to.

``I remember those days,'' said Alice, now 65, recalling her youth at fish camps. ``I learned how to shoot a rifle and how to run a boat - we did it by hand power in those days. Now they have motors.''

Alice said when Paula and her son first moved out of town, she had her doubts how long they would last in isolation.

``I wondered myself how they would do. But they do,'' Alice said.

Alice and Paula collaborate on artwork and Native apparel, everything from $10 sealskin key fobs to mukluks that cost several hundred dollars. Paula does all the skin sewing, while Alice, a Tlingit, does all the beadwork.

Paula sells the items to tourists on Sitka docks, or at shows and markets around Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

The mixture of Inupiaq and Tlingit craftwork makes for some unique items.

Paula learned to sew skins and shoot rifles from her grandmothers, about the same time most kids were learning to ride a bicycle.

She honed her skills by shooting squirrels, which are used to make parkas. Squirrels are not only small - they're fast. And a bullet has to be placed somewhere within its coin-sized head or the pelt is ruined, she said.

``I'm a pretty good shot, I think,'' she said.

Williams shoots about 25 seals and another 25 sea otters a year in the waters around Redoubt Bay. She also hunts deer and runs a trap line.

The animals are used to the fullest. Williams, like her ancestors, uses everything from the seal but the bark, so to speak.

``I don't waste anything. I just take what I need, when I need it. We eat the intestines, heart and liver and boil up the bones for the dogs.''

Her three German shepherds earn their keep by keeping bears at bay, she said. They also provide companionship for Paula and her 7-year-old son Leonty.

Paula speaks Inupiaq and some Tlingit. Her Eskimo name is Aaqauksraq, which means ``wise old lady.'' When she married Richard, she was adopted into the Eagle clan and given the Tlingit name Skagooni-tlaa.

So in addition to the three Rs, Leonty learns his Native languages during school at the cabin home. He's also learning much more, said his grandmother.

``She's teaching him about life out there,'' Alice said. ``She's teaching him about her culture and ours.''

Leonty is learning to scrape hides and sew skins. He's also learning what it takes to survive in a remote patch of Alaska.

It's not all work and it's not boring for a kid, Paula said.

``After we're done with home-schooling, he gets plenty of playtime,'' she said. ``He goes out and digs for crabs, swings on the hammock and hikes. He's a strong boy - he packs deer meat, hauls water and helps bring a lot of wood. He's ready for bed by the end of the day.''

She's a soccer mom, but instead of a minivan, she uses a skiff to take her son to Sitka for weekly art class, as well as softball and basketball games.

``She amazes me, everything she does,'' Alice said. ``She is still a woman. I know she uses a lot of hand lotion. She still has to look after things like that, you know.''

Paula knows some people envy her lifestyle, but it's not for everybody.

``I've had a lot of people say I live a real peaceful life,'' Paula said. ``But I stay busy. I chop a lot of wood and haul a lot of water. It's a lot of hard work out there. It keeps you healthy.''

This article first appeared in the Southeast Empire.

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