Alaska Dispatch News reporter Lisa Demer is really going to miss Bethel. After covering Western Alaska for three years, the paper has pulled Demer back to Anchorage following a large reduction in staff. Demer has become a friend to the region and hopes to continue covering the area.
Rural Alaska is complicated. What has been decided long ago in the lower 48 is still being worked out here: issues like subsistence, tribal sovereignty, and governance. For reporter Lisa Demer, this dynamic has meant documenting a changing culture in real time.
“This is really the best job I’ve had, as a reporter out here in the YK Delta," said Demer, "and it’s because of the people and the stories. And that’s all intertwined.”
Demer is a veteran Alaska journalist, but before she came to Western Alaska she was actually eyeing West Africa. After 20 years reporting in Anchorage, she was ready to press “send” on an application for the Peace Corps. Then the Alaska Dispatch News announced a new reporting position in Bethel.
“And the light bulb just went off in my head. I thought, ‘What an opportunity that would be,’" said Demer.
So on a sunny day in August 2014, she landed in Bethel. The paper wanted to expand its coverage of rural Alaska and Demer wanted to dig deeper into a place previously covered through Trooper dispatches and police blotters.
“And I knew there was a lot more to life out here. We all knew that," said Demer, "but if you’re not here it’s hard to see it, and find it, and tell those stories.”
One of the first stories Demer reported in the area would have come from a Trooper dispatch had she not been here. Instead, readers across the state got an on the ground view of a tragedy heard all too often, but rarely told in detail. Three winter travelers had fallen through the ice on a four-wheeler. Demer followed the local search and rescuers on the river as they worked tirelessly to recover the bodies.
“And they did it so respectfully," Demer remembered. "They prayed in Yup'ik. It was an amazing experience that is with me forevermore.”
Being in Bethel gave Demer a freedom that she’d never had in her more than 30 years of reporting. Before, she was constrained to subjects like state politics or education. Here, the full expanse of Western Alaska opened before her.
“If it was interesting I could write about it, and I could ignore everything that wasn’t interesting,” she said.
Along the way, Demer discovered the beauty of the tundra. She learned how to sew qaspeqs, how to carve Yup’ik masks, and even ballroom dance.
“You almost don’t want people to know how great of a place to live this is, because then they all might want to move out here,” said Demer.
While Demer is relocating to Anchorage, she is bringing a lot of knowledge of the Delta back with her, and she hopes to continue covering the bush. She has more stories to tell, and the region, overflowing with stories, has more to share.
Lisa, we’re going to miss you.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the number of years Lisa Demer had worked as a journalist in Anchorage before moving to Bethel. The correct number is 20.