Traditional river blessing resurrected

Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2008

NENANA - Nenana resident Robert Ketzler saw Sunday as a chance to remember his grandfather, who died on the Tanana River.

John Wagner / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
John Wagner / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

So Ketzler joined about 75 residents and church leaders for a nondenominational blessing of the river.

"This is history," he said afterward of traditional river blessing ceremonies.

Organizers said Sunday's ceremony revives a Nenana tradition, where church leaders recognized both the importance of the river and other waterways - which provide a major means of connecting Athabascan villages to Interior hub communities - and the power of nature.

And when the group shared the names of friends, co-workers and loved ones who died on the water, Ketzler offered Joe Justin, the name of his grandfather.

"(My mother) wanted me to remember him," he said.

Work crews, managers and owners from local waterway fuel transportation companies also took part in Sunday's ceremony. Two vessels from tug companies drifted in the Tanana as the Rev. Canon Ginny Doctor blessed the sun-covered river from its southern bank.

Jack Coghill, a former Nenana mayor and former Alaska lieutenant governor, attended Sunday's event, which he and others said was the first of its kind in Nenana in about four decades.

Ministers and leaders from St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Baha'is of Nenana, the Nenana Assembly of God Church, St. Theresa's Catholic Church and Nenana Community Church pitched in, leading songs and readings. Coghill said after the event that Sunday's ceremony included more organizations than blessings 40 or 50 years ago.

He said he was impressed with the turnout, though within minutes of that statement, a menacing gust of wind led many to pack up their cars and leave.

"Typical Nenana spring weather," Coghill said. "You never know when the wind is going to come and clear the crowd out."

Endil Moore, a captain and freight distribution manager with Crowley Marine Services, said barge companies suggested including their workers in the ceremony when they heard it was being planned.

He also noted subsistence fishermen are gearing up for the busy summer season and said organizers seemed to welcome the suggestion of a broader ceremony.

"It seemed like good timing," Moore said.

Penny Forness said the church leaders' early suggestion of reviving the blessing after four decades of inactivity grew when a handful of community leaders decided to participate.

"It just kind of blossomed," said Forness, the acting administrator at St. Theresa's.

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