FAIRBANKS — Depending on the weather and trail conditions, Tanana resident Vernon Stickman Sr. will put on running shoes or snowshoes Thursday morning before starting on a 175-mile trek down the Yukon River to Galena.
If his feet and the weather concur, Stickman may continue another 52 miles downriver to Koyukuk and Nulato, and possibly to Kaltag.
Among the 55-year-old Athabascan’s goals is to stop at each river community along the way and talk about suicide prevention and healthy lifestyles to schoolchildren and at community gatherings.
Stickman’s winter walk stems from a family tragedy.
In September 2010, Stickman and his wife Arla lost their 22-year-old son, Vernon Corey Stickman Jr., to suicide, and have been dealing with grief and pain ever since.
“I think of it (the walk) as part of Vern’s healing,” Arla said. “He needs heart healing. We’re both devastated, and I support him.”
Each parent has been coping with the loss of the younger of their two sons in similar and separate ways.
They quit drinking shortly after Corey’s death, but in his grief, Stickman later took solace in alcohol before quitting again this past December.
Arla, Tanana’s postmaster, is angry and channels her anger at the irresponsible use of alcohol, and the painful consequences of overindulgence.
She plaintively states Corey would be alive if he wasn’t drunk when he took a gun and impulsively killed himself.
“Our son had plans with his life, with his girlfriend. This wasn’t planned, it was something that happened while he was drunk.
“There was nothing anybody could do about it. He was really loved. He was raised with a lot of love, so much love, it’ s still a shock for me,” she said.
In the 18 months since, Arla has had lots of time to think, as she misses the daily hugs and “I love yous,” she shared with Corey.
“Families that still drink, they don’t realize they’ve got it all. They’re blessed. Life is kind to them to have their whole family with them,” she said.
“I wish I never drank. I had it all; I knew it; I had everything in life. If parents could quit for their children, life is going to get better, be happier.”
In the dark days, about three months after Corey’s death, Stickman said he turned to his Christian faith.
“I believe in the Lord. He doesn’t put things in our life without a reason,” he said.
That was when he first thought of running and walking downriver and talking to people about pulling together and helping each other find ways to prevent suicide.
It was another three months before he decided to do it.
“I really didn’t know how people would like this,” Stickman said. “Some people don’t like to pick up on hurts. But once I got going, I just didn’t let it go.”
Stickman, the village school custodian, has always loved running, competing in village competitions and completed the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks in 1988. He runs daily to stay healthy.
He likens his upcoming walk to the 1925 serum run when mushers relayed life-saving diphtheria medicine from Nenana to Nome to save people’s lives.
“This (walk) is the same,” he said, “to save people’s lives.”
“I want people to join together in each village and form wellness groups. I want people to pull together and help each other and find ways to prevent suicide.
“Even though it is hard for me to accept help, that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to talk to somebody, or to a counselor.”
Stickman soon realized he would need help — lots of help — to embark on his quest.
“My wife really got this going,” he said. “I couldn’t have done this without her.
He also credits God. “He’s my witness to how many times he’s intervened in my life to make a difference.”
As word spread about Stickman’s quest, the support has been “amazing,” Arla said. “Suicide touches everybody.”
On Feb. 10, the Stickmans flew to Fairbanks where they were feted at a successful fundraiser at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall, which has allowed them to purchase supplies of food, sleds and fuel for the trip.
Chris Grant, Stickman’s cousin and longtime hunting, fishing, work and wood hauling partner, will accompany Vernon when he hits the trail mid-morning Thursday
“He’s like a younger brother to me,” Stickman said. “I can rely on him. He doesn’t drink.”
Grant, 27 1/2 years sober, will drive a snowmachine, pulling a heavily laden 8-foot sled, fabricated by David Doudna of Northern Sled Works in Fairbanks.
Stickman and Grant are familiar with the Yukon River winter trail and its vagaries. They are bringing lightweight aluminum snowshoes, and bigger work snowshoes if the snowmachine gets stuck in deep snow.
For footwear, Stickman has packed running shoes and a pair of ankle high insulated shoes with metal cleats for running on ice, as well as canvas boots, made by his grandmother and lined with shoe packs if he has to break trail.
The men’s trail food menu includes dried fish and moosemeat along with meatloaf, spaghetti, Gatorade, bread for peanut butter sandwiches, and some muktuk given to Stickman by his sister.
“I like muktuk. It’s rich and gives me a lot of energy,” Vernon said.
In addition to being Stickman’s, primary support, Grant will set up a tent camp with a small stove along the way for comfort stations or bad weather.
Grant also will join in the village conversations and talks with Stickman during stopovers in each village.
Stickman will be walking solo through most of his journey, pulling a 6-foot pulk (sled) with emergency gear, stove, sleeping bag and food.
To prepare for the walk, Stickman ran hills near Tanana and did some speed work. On the trail, he plans to walk at a steady pace of about four miles per hour, and cover about 20 to 25 miles per day.
Depending on how many villages he visits, Stickman expects the trip to take approximately two and a half weeks.
The men aren’t worried about overnight stays. Stickman grew up in Galena and Ruby, and they plan to sleep in fish camp cabins between communities, and maybe have to make only one overnight camp.
Stickman expects the trail to be rough in some places where ice ridges formed during freezeup, and he also is aware of some windy, extremely cold areas with high snowdrifts along the route.
The men plan to follow the Iron Dog snowmachine race trail that already is covered with more than a foot of snow since the race ended, Stickman said.
“We’re really excited about getting on the trail and are so grateful for all the help we’ve received in the past year and past months,” he said.
To follow Stickman’s progress during his long walk on the frozen Yukon River, visit his website at www. vernstickmansrandteams.com
Adam Demientieff, owner of Storytellers Productions, set up the website which is connected to Stickman’s Facebook page. He suggests pressing the “like” on the page, and updates on Stickman’s whereabouts will be automatically sent out as they are received.
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