Monthly Archives: June 2013

a church growing in the woods

Out in western Alaska there flows a slow, meandering river.

Born in the central Brooks Range as a frantic, clear-water stream charged by melting snow and ice, the Koyukuk eventually leaves the mountains behind and begins to wander through the flat spruce and birch forests in what appears a confused attempt to find it’s way to the ocean. Boulder-strewn banks become muddy silt. The river grows, and slows, as the rush of youth becomes the slower pace of middle age. Eventually the Koyukuk meets the Yukon River and catches a ride to the Bering Sea.

Somewhere in the midst of the wilderness the Koyukuk ambles past the village of Huslia like a tired, old bear. This community of three or four hundred Koyukon Athabaskans is decidedly different from other villages; the population is actually growing. The high cost of living “in the bush” is forcing increasing numbers of rural residents to relocate, with Fairbanks and Anchorage as two popular destinations, but “Huslia people” love their home, their culture, even their climate; last winter’s sixty below temps have become this summer’s high eighties, accompanied by hordes of mosquitos.

This is the place Don Ernst and his family have called home for more than two decades. Well, most of them, anyway. Don and Brenda’s children have grown and their two sons are thousands of miles away, but their daughter and son-in-law live here in Huslia, keeping the Ernsts well supplied with visits from grandchildren.


Don and Brenda are church planters. Their ministry has been long, rewarding, challenging, often difficult and sometimes heart-breaking, but it’s also been effective. There is a church here. In fact, it’s a growing church…literally.

This summer Don coordinated visiting teams of volunteers with local effort to expand the log building where believers meet. During the brief summer they have torn down walls, milled logs, stacked them into new walls, constructed the floor, built and set trusses, and now the entire roof is on, protecting the building from the coming autumn rains.

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Before long, minor details, like doors and windows and lights, will be installed and the building readied for use.


In a couple of months the air will cool, leaves will flush with color and drop, and the woodstove will be fired up. Locals will gather to sing praise songs and strum guitars while Brenda picks a tune on the mandolin. They’ll thank the Lord for another successful moose season and a supply of meat cached in the freezer.

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The first snow of the coming winter will settle on the roof. And Don will step up to the pulpit, look out across the wide room with plenty of space for growing families, and open the Word of God, just like he’s been doing for the past twenty-three years.


The floods of 2013


The attached will give you a good idea how the communities of Ross River, Yukon and Galena, Alaska have been affected by spring floods. You will also find links for more information and ways you can help. Please check it out.

Flood Edition v3

Galena flood update

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Galena, Alaska, May 26 – 30, 2013

The Setting: A mixed community of 500 Koyukon Athabaskans and non-natives, located on the Yukon River in the Alaskan Interior, accessible only by air or via the river.

The Incident: Similar to the situation above but on a much, much larger scale; the ice jammed and the vast Yukon River was impounded into a temporary lake 40 miles long. Over the course of several days the town was progressively inundated, first the “old town,” then parts of the new town site until everything located outside of the protective dike surrounding the old military base was flooded. Electricity, phone and water service were cut and roads became impassable as water surged into previously unaffected areas; in some locations rising 5-6 feet in less than an hour. Hundreds of residents were stranded before evacuation to other communities.  Some homes were pushed off foundations by the current and others simply floated away. Vehicles were submerged and boats became the method of travel over what an hour before had been gravel roads. The only remaining dry land in Galena was inside the dike, creating an “island” actually below the water level. The flood threatened to breach the dike as it crested a mere 6 inches below the top. On the evening of the 28th a military C-130 departed with the last of the evacuees and sled dogs, leaving behind dozens of hardy residents living in boats. Every building outside the dike was impacted by water. Late in the afternoon of May 29th the ice jam began to weaken and lose its grip. By 9pm the jam released and moved downstream, allowing the extensive flood waters to drain back into the river system. At 10am Thursday, May 30th, the National Weather Service lifted the flood warning for Galena.

The Aftermath: Galena is now a disaster area. Roads were washed out or left impassable due to ice, debris, or even buildings dropped behind by the retreating water. Phone, fuel, water and sewer services are not operational. Electrical service has now been restored. Drinking water is scarce, as is food and gasoline. The community is crippled and faces a long, expensive task to rebuild and recover. Most supplies of firewood are lost, as are the freezers needed to store seasonal foods such as summer fish and fall moose meat.

How this affects the ministry of SEND North: Two of our three missionary families serving in Galena are now without housing; the third cannot bring his family home for a month or more. The Galena Bible Church is damaged and in need of major repair, as is the home of the local pastor. Hundreds of Galena evacuees will not be able to return until their homes can be repaired/rebuilt, presenting a multi-dimensional challenge; not only are funds needed (the total damages must be in the tens of millions of dollars) but the short season and remote location make building and obtaining supplies very difficult. Schools may not be open in the fall.

How you can learn more: Google “Galena, Alaska flood” or something similar, check out the facebook page, “Yukon River Rescue,” access the SEND North website ( and you can follow the staff links to the Fox’s, Kaufield’s or Hornfischer’s pages.

Ross River flood

Ross River, Yukon Territory; May 15 & May 30 – June 3, 2013

The Setting: A small community of 400, predominantly First Nations residents, located at the confluence of the Pelly and Ross Rivers (tributaries to the Yukon).

The Incident: Warmer temperatures and surging spring run-off broke up the ice covering the river and carried it downstream. On the afternoon of May 15th the ice flowing on the Pelly River jammed near the town and flooded low lying roads and homes, causing local residents to run for higher ground. Three hours later the jam released and the flood subsided. On May 30th the swollen river breached the dike again, causing a second flood lasting several days.

The Aftermath: Several homes were damaged and two destroyed. The “three hour event” of May 15th created a long term problem for members of the community. The second flood hindered efforts to recover from the first.

How this affects the ministry of SEND North: SEND church planters, Tim and Gwendy Colwell lost many of their possessions and have sought temporary shelter in the local community center. They are looking for a more long-term solution for housing. Their home, a owned by SEND North, is a total loss.

How you can learn more: Access the SEND North website ( and you can follow the staff link to the Colwell’s page, and you can view footage of the Colwells during the second flood  here;