The Fragility of Ice
On January 6, 1949, three young polar bear hunters out on the Bering Sea ice broke loose from their King Island home and started drifting on an ice floe. For 20 days, wind transported them 500 miles north, past Siberia and back over to Alaska. Two died. Severely injured and frostbitten, the third, Gregory Ayac, discovered a cabin southwest of Shishmaref, where he survived until he was rescued. For the next 20 years, he lived a quiet life as a carver in Nome before getting killed by a drunk driver.
A generation later, Alaska Magazine editor Ed Fortier published the article, and later short book, “One Survived,” informed by more than a decade of friendship and letters exchanged with Ayac.
Juneau writer Merry Ellefson heard the story when she met Fortier late in the 1990s. As development director with Perseverance Theatre, Ellefson was busy writing grants and doing research for a King Island Christmas musical. On his death bed at Providence Hospital, Fortier gave Ellefson the letters from Ayac. A play about Ayac’s incredible survival story seemed like the natural next step. Two significant events waylaid that plan, however: Her brother died in a tragic accident, and she gave birth to her son.
Ellefson never did shake the haunting story of those hunters swept away on the ice. Twenty years later in the Arctic coastal village of Wainwright where she was teaching people how to Nordic ski, she spent time out on the shorefast sea ice. She realized “this story is never dying in me. I gotta take some time and find out [why].”
After grant-funded research trips and interviews all over Alaska, Ellefson still is trying to figure out how to present the story on the stage. “I think maybe this story isn’t about the story,” she says. “It’s about how we’ve shifted since the story was told and who we are in response to the story. I’m not quite sure how it plays out.”
Much has changed over the past generation. Top of mind is hyper awareness of cultural appropriation. Ellefson learned that among other things, Iñupiaq hunters traditionally don’t speak about what happens on the ice. Then there’s the controversial forced relocation of the King Island people to Nome, impacts of colonization and climate change, shifting survival skills, and the politics of the past 70 years through the present.
Ellefson traveled to Nome, juggled script ideas, and wrote monologues and scenes. “But the story Ed told became more complicated as I wrote,” she says. “I’ve been deeply challenged by the growing idea that a survival story about a King Island hunter in 1949 could connect statewide audiences during a time when our ice thins (metaphorically and literally).”
Ellefson feels something of a kinship with Ayac, the sole survivor of the ill-fated ice journey. “Just as I thought I knew where I was, the wind shifted,” she says about the writing process. “I think if the ice feels really fragile or unsafe, you just back up and figure out a different way to go.”
Ice took the life of Lyndon, Ellefson’s brother and best friend, in 1998. He was an elite mountain runner training for the world skyrunning (high altitude) championships near the Matterhorn, where Switzerland meets Italy. Running along an alpine ridge, the father of two fell into a crevasse. “Losing my best friend, my best person — that death and loss shaped my adult life,” Ellefson recalls. “What emerged was a clarity about the importance of relationships. I also realized that in this story, somebody lost their brother. I just really need to be mindful of the impact of loss. And how that can or should inform art.”
She draws strength and inspiration from her devotion to her brother’s spirit. He got her into running, started her high school cross country running team, and went on to help start the national skyrunning team. Ellefson coached her son Arne’s cross-country team where, “there’s ritual, accountability, love, courage, loss and respect.”
Ellefson is also the longtime holder of local half marathon titles. It was another kind of marathon that drew her to a career in theater. As a St. Olaf College undergrad, she took a seminar in London, “where we attended 28 plays in 30 days. The ones that spoke to me revolved around social issues like ‘Master Harold and the Boys’ and ‘Softcops,’ ” she recalls. “I was strongly impacted, not by the National Theatre but with the smaller houses.”
In the early 1990s, Perseverance Theatre founding director Molly Smith invited Ellefson to write her first play, FISHMAS, an allegory about the birth of Christ. She found solo playwrighting less than gratifying. It set her on a path to community-based theater, where a group of artists create a project. No one person gets the playwriting credit. During a recent Harvard University workshop on participatory creativity, she realized that, “working on ideas instead of focusing on who has them is what I’ve been doing as a theater artist and coach most of my life.”
Ellefson’s most recent collaborative theater writing project was based on visits with people experiencing homelessness. The audience interactive production “Home but not Less” was “carved from the voices of more than 100 Alaskans.” It was directed by longtime ally Shona Osterhout.
“She constantly challenges my mind to dig deeper for a greater understanding of humanity at the core of great theater-making,” Osterhout says.
Ellefson is still weighing options for how best to tell this next story. Emerging themes include shifts in climate, colonization awareness, and the puzzling relationship between the U.S. and Russia. “Ice is the springboard, even though it is hard as hell,” she says.
When one of their hunters goes missing, King Islanders hang up a pair of mukluks. When they stop slightly rocking back and forth, loved ones know the hunter is dead. Three pair of mukluks were hung when three young, strong hunters drifted on a patch of ice 500 miles from home seven decades ago. The mukluks of the one survivor never stopped moving.
A pair of mukluks hang on the wall in Ellefson’s airy study, given to her by the wife of a fellow outdoorsman. Ellefson wore them over the course of a decade as the Alaska snowshoe coach for the biannual Arctic Winter games, sadly cancelled this year due to the coronavirus. As she moves into the next phase of this project, she looks up from her writing at the mukluks. Sometimes, they seem to move ever so slightly.