A Summer in the Land of the Midnight Sun

By Sarah Binau ‘19

It’s July 1st, and I’m on an Alaska Airlines jet headed to Bethel, Alaska, to work for the town’s Cultural Center and live with a Pomona friend. I land on Bethel’s only runway in a 50-degree drizzling rain. “Remote” and “rural” begin to take on new meanings. The town of 6,000 has one main road (warped by the melting permafrost below), a gallon of orange juice costs $12.99, and the next biggest city, Anchorage, is 400 miles away—by plane. I go to bed that first night near midnight, the sun still blazing in my window. This is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, I think as I drift off.

Living in Bethel this past summer was simultaneously the most curious and loving experience I have ever had. Southwest Alaska provided a lesson on how to share my gifts in a small community and celebrate learning. I worked a job funded by PCIP (Pomona College Internship Program) at the town’s Cultural Center, and when my supervisor found out I play the ukulele, I found myself performing on Bethel’s single radio station to advertise a community event. When I asked that same supervisor how to contact people whose phone numbers I didn’t have, she advised me to call that same radio station and send a message: “Hello Bethel, Sarah Binau at the Cultural Center is looking for so-and-so: please call Sarah at 4574.” What do you mean I just give four digits of my phone number? I asked, skeptical. It turned out that all landlines in Bethel start with the same three digits, and, because all Alaska numbers have the same area code, only four digits are necessary to make a call.

Every day in Bethel taught me a new lesson. There was an excitement about learning, about meeting someone with a skill and knowing they could impart it to you, that was deliciously contagious. I learned to fish for heavy, slippery salmon, and how to rip their gills and sort them (I now know the true meaning of the phrase chum bucket). I wrote a 42-page cookbook for a community event we held at the Cultural Center. I flew in a Cessna propeller plane over the wide Yukon Delta, diving to see moose and bears and the never-ending Kuskokwim River and her various sloughs, another word I learned up North. I made a variety of international and local friends.

Most of all, my summer was another lesson in a never-ending class I like to call Maybe Your Way Isn’t the Only Way, Sarah. Being a visitor in someone else’s home (whether that home is a house, a town or a country) teaches me that sometimes my world view is not that of others around me, and that that is OK.

Sunset past midnight

Looking back on the summer, I know that trusting my friend (who swore I’d love the experience) and living in Bethel was better than doing something “just because everyone else is doing it” at Pomona. I would give the same advice to my Pomona peers–listen to your friends. Visit them. Learn from them.