Last month we were in Port Heiden and saw many of these old, abandoned Bristol Bay double-ended gillnetters scattered along the coast, reminders of the sailboat salmon fisherman of long ago. In 1951 (the year of my birth) the Alaska law prohibiting motors in these boats was repealed and the sails gradually disappeared from Bristol Bay as gas engines were added.
There are so many other reminders of the distant past in villages of the Peninsula. Although the Russians were the first white visitors to this area, Scandinavian fishermen and trappers followed close on their heels, marrying native women and settling in their villages. The most prominent family names now in many villages are Matson, Christensen, Nelson, Anderson, and many other ‘sons’.
This winter I came across a fascinating account of Annie Matson, a native woman who married one of these Scandinavian adventurers—Olaf Matson, from Norway. Annie was born in Chignik in 1899. Her family used to make the 60 mile trek over the mountains between Chignik and Port Heiden (Meshik) twice a year. She and Olaf met while her family was in Port Heiden and they married when she was 16 years old and he was 27.
In just a few typewritten pages, Annie tells of the harsh realities of life on the Alaska Peninsula a hundred years ago. Her father froze to death sitting up in his dog sled one night after getting lost in a blizzard. Some years later Annie got trapped in an early spring blizzard and froze her feet before she could get home. With no doctor to help, she used a knife to amputate her own toes after her feet thawed.
Later, Olaf and Annie built a home across the bay from Port Heiden and raised their children there. Olaf found work up and down the Peninsula, salting salmon in the summer and trapping in the winter. At least one of their six children was born while Olaf was out on his trap line. Annie was home alone and delivered the baby on her own. If ever there was a Wonder Woman, it was Annie.
Part of her story includes her encounter with the Lord later in life. Her father was an acting Russian Orthodox priest and she always had an interest in being right with the Lord. It wasn’t until she was 55 years old that she finally experienced for herself the joy of being forgiven by the Lord and welcomed into His family. I will let her tell that part of her story.
“My religious activities were of course all centered around the Russian Orthodox church since my father was an acting priest. I went to my church regularly and did all the things I was taught to do in my faith.
After my marriage to Olaf, I had to cut down on a lot of our customs. I could go to church but I was not allowed to have Holy water and bread in our home, as we had always been taught. So being married to a white man I had to walk in the white man’s ways. I used to slip away and go into the little church that had long ago been abandoned and do the things I had always been taught to try to make myself as Holy as possible.
In the fall of ’54, came a fulfillment to my long believed dreams. For it was then we received into our village of Port Heiden school teachers who were more than just school teachers. They were also missionaries.
One afternoon shortly after the teachers arrived, the wife of the teacher came into our home to visit and to tell us about her religion and the way she believed in God. As these words were spoken from her lips I felt all warm inside, and her words sounded like good words. My husband had little good to say, but I told her and my husband, this lady’s words makes me feel good in the heart.
It made me feel badly to think we were much older than these people but yet I knew they could lead us into happier lives. The first time I went to the church services the teacher helped us learn of Jesus.
As I heard the preaching of the Bible it sounded so good to me and it felt like a knife stuck in my heart. Many times I could not hold back my tears but let them run freely. I knew this was the way I too wanted to serve Jesus, although yet I knew very little about it.
I had always done everything I had been taught to be as Holy as possible, but now I was learning a new and better way to please my Master. After a few weeks of hearing the word of God, I began to so plainly understand that I had not been pleasing my Master. I was very anxious for the teachers to help me to know how to receive the joy and happiness that they were speaking so often about. The more I heard the more I knew I wanted to give my heart to Jesus. So one night after they thought we fully understood the way of salvation they had been teaching us, they asked if any of us wanted to become Christians.
At this time it was like my heart was wide open. I did not know very much how to pray, so Mrs. Kee told me to talk to Jesus in my own way—just as I would ask my mother for what I wanted, so I was to ask Jesus also. It was like my heart and all inside was so open, as I cried and prayed and asked my Jesus to forgive my sins. As I prayed I became so happy then for I could feel my heart was made clean, and I knew Jesus had come in to live.
As I prayed and thanked Jesus in my little way, I felt like I was in a new world. My mind was made up. I am going to be a better woman now. As I walked home, it seemed like I had been walking on an old filthy road, but now it was nice and clean. Boy I didn’t feel like the same person. I was so happy I just couldn’t hardly stand it. When I went home, the tears were still flowing freely down my cheeks, and I was uttering praises to my Jesus. My husband thought something was wrong and so he ask me what was the matter. He wanted to know what made me act like that. I told him, it was just like someone had given me a present of all the diamonds, and nice things like I had never even seen. Even if someone had given me a million dollars it would not have made me so happy as what I had received in Church.
Now my heart is so happy in Jesus, and right now if somebody would come into this room and tell me they would give me all kinds of money if I would turn away from this way, I would not do it.
I may have a hard time in the future sometimes. But if I have to go without something to eat, and I have to wear two sacks for a dress, I will do it. I will not go back on Jesus. For I can really say, I love Jesus better than anything in the whole world.”
What a testimony! I would love to have met Annie. Now, 60 years later, many of Annie’s descendants are still in Port Heiden. Although AVM has had several different missionary families living there in years past, at this time there isn’t an active church in Port Heiden. Dan Buckwalter and I visited there twice this last winter and had long talks about how AVM can help meet some of the spiritual needs in this small village. One outcome of those discussions is to bring a team to conduct a one-week children’s vacation Bible school program later this month, both in Port Heiden and in Pilot Point. We are making those preparations now. One of the challenges we face is that to get there will cost $5000 in airfare for a team of 4 or 5. If you can help us cover that expense, that would be a big encouragement for us. Please designate your gift for village travel.
We have five other places we want to visit this summer as well. It has been challenging to figure out a way to make this all work. One plan was to use the Alaska Ferry system to reach some of these places, which would be more economical. But now the ferry has been unexpectedly pulled out of action this summer for repairs. We would appreciate your prayers as we study all the options for making these trips work.
Lastly, if you would like a copy of the rest of Annie’s story, send an email to avmRandy@gmail.com or a letter to me at the address below. It is 8 pages of life on the Alaska Peninsula, as told by the original Wonder Woman, who met the Lord there 60 years ago.
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