A summer Sunday in Alaska

It's not difficult to find the LDS meetinghouse in Skagway. The town has only four streets running up the narrow canyon floor - Broadway, State, Main and Alaska - with other streets running across the canyon.

Most anyone will tell you, "The Mormon Church is just up the street at 11th and State Street." That is only four blocks from the center of town, a pleasant walk.The chapel was built in 1983 by Church members and a missionary couple. They hand-mixed and poured the thick concrete foundation, and constructed the building of heavy tongue-and-groove timber. It reflects the feeling of Alaska - rustic and sturdy, and has the warmth of its people - open and friendly.

In the summer, Skagway's population may be 700 citizens; less than half that many in the winter. The town is situated at the northern end of Alaska's inside passage, and was the gateway to the rich gold fields of the Klondike, 600 miles inland. Thousands of men lost their lives on the rugged trails - Chilkoot and White Pass.

When the railroad was built in 1889, it is said that about 100,000 men swarmed to the gold fields. Only about 4,000 found gold, and far fewer than that became rich. The railway still operates today, in part for the benefit of tourists. An old engine shipped from Utah is kept as a memorial to the gold-rush days.

Thousands of tourists arrive at Skagway during the summer on cruise ships, or in campers and vans. They seek the beauty of the country and a taste of history.

On Sundays, many Latter-day Saints ask the question, "Where do I find the Mormon Church?"

Arrive a little early and chances are you will get acquainted with Duff Ray, who has been branch president for 11 years. He'll make you welcome and invite you into the chapel, with its natural wood finish and the sun streaming in from the skylights above.

Pres. Ray came to Skagway in 1983 to build a house for his brother, who was a teacher and coach at the local school. "I liked Skagway," Pres. Ray said, "so I stayed. Summers are great and winters are cold, but I like it. Really I call it `Snagway.' It snagged me!" He is now a year-round citizen and has three businesses, the Kone Kompany ice cream store, the Klothes Rush gift store and a video store, all on Broadway Street.

"I plan to stay a long time," he said, "We just built a house on the pine-covered mountainside overlooking the valley and the bay."

After a friendly greeting, the branch president disappears behind a door at the front of the chapel for a meeting with his counselors, Frank Pickett and Marty Morgan.

Brother Pickett, once an Idaho resident, is now a year-round Skagway resident. His wife leads the Primary, and their four sons fill Aaronic Priesthood duties. During the summer he operates a camp and RV park, and in the winter he teaches school.

His daughter, Kadi, one of three Beehive girls in the branch, describes life in Alaska: "Interesting! Winters are fun; days are short, cold with snow, slush and freezing; spring beautiful and welcome. Summer, with long, long days, is wonderful, but sometimes windy and with a lot of rain.

"My best friends are LDS, but I have other friends. I have been bringing one of them to Mutual with me. She likes it."

Brother Morgan, second counselor in the branch presidency, is a summer resident. Like the town, the branch doubles in size in the summer. In the winter, he returns to mainland United States.

"I am thrilled that I can serve in the branch presidency," he said. "Pres. Ray didn't waste any time in extending the call, and I am happy to serve.

"My wife and I came to be part of a summer play, `Days of 98,' that Skagway produces for the tourists. The play has a cast of six, and five are LDS. I direct the play, and my wife, Linda, is the secretary. David Foutz, a returned missionary and a BYU student, plays the bad guy and comedian. He was married just last April. He and his wife, Tristana, do the show in the evening and work at a gift shop during the day."

Skagway is an ideal spot for the missionaries. They are well-liked and well-known in town, and cover the territory for miles around.

"We are called traveling elders," explained Elder Robert Hill of the Lake Ridge 4th Ward in Magna, Utah, who serves with his companion, Elder Tim Trendier of the Enrose Ward in Mesa, Ariz. Elder Trendier could not help but add that the climate is much different than Mesa's.

"The temperature was 37 degrees below zero last winter," he said. "We just bundle up and do the work. People are amazed that we are out; some invite us in to get warm, and others say, `come back on a warmer day.' We enjoy the wonderful summer days, but there is a lot of rain."

Elder Hill said, "The missionary area in Alaska is so big that we never see another missionary, except at a zone conference. There is a lot of space to cover. We have a car, and when we tract we just drive until we see a house, and then we visit. People out in the wilderness like to see us. Everyone in town knows us.

"We show the people that we care about them. We do a lot of service. We help at the library, with young people programs and at the retirement center."

By meeting time, the chapel seats are nearly filled. Visitors from the campground and cruise ship add to the attendance. Some members travel a long distance to the branch. It is fast Sunday. "Testimony meeting in a small branch is wonderful," Pres. Ray announces. "Everyone has an opportunity to bear testimony. This summer we have many visitors so the competition may be greater."

"I know God is here," testified Rachel Walch, a summer resident. "I know that He loves me. Everything that faces me, these beautiful mountains and the sea tells me so. My fellow workers label nature as God, but I know He is a person - a living, loving God. I know He lives. This is the foundation of my testimony."

Karla Ray followed, testifying that "we have a living prophet." Referring to the recent change in Church presidents, she said, "Our president is not just the president of the Church, but a prophet for all the world, I know that if we follow the prophet's counsel we will be blessed in our families and in our lives."

A long-time resident of Skagway told about being baptized in the river with four other family members. "I helped build the chapel," he said. "There was never a question about us going to Church. Before the chapel was built we met in our home. The foundation of the Church is the family. It is important to take time on Sunday to worship in this place of peace and love."

Pres. Ray shared a past experience of flying in bad weather from Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. "My wife was very worried and so was I," he related. "But, when I got on the plane I saw President Benson with Sister Benson. I didn't worry after that."

"I love Heavenly Father very much," testified Katherine Holsinger, a BYU student in Alaska for the summer. "I know He is mindful of His children. I am grateful to be here for the summer and look forward to knowing you, and to know Jesus better as my Savior."

The hour was up, the meeting ended with the hymn, "The Spirit of God."

Indeed, it was a wonderful summer Sunday in Skagway.

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