Storytellers gather for Dark Winter Nights

Kyrie Long / Copy Editor

The usher of Dark Winter Nights: True Stories from Alaska—a live storytelling event produced by Rob Prince, Chair of the UAF Journalism Department—was wearing a shirt inscribed with the words “Tell me your story.”  The lights went down at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 21 as the event commenced at Hering Auditorium.  This year, the event featured 2015 Yukon Quest Champion Brent Sass and the subject of the book “Canyons and Ice: the Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith.”

Dark Winter Nights has two live events, a podcast and a radio program according to Prince.

Prince had hoped that now that the event was taking place in Hering Auditorium, there would be people in the balcony.  His hope was realized that night, as audience members traveled upstairs to be seated.

The first storyteller was Chris Zwolinski.  Although this is his first time telling a story, Zwolinski has been attending these live events for a long time.

“I love a good story.  I love to tell a story,” Zwolinski said.

Zwolinski told a story about a near-deadly white water rafting incident that took place in 1985.  Zwolinski and his companions traveled further along a river than they intended when their raft overturned.  Following their rescue by helicopter, Zwolinski recalled his feelings on the ride home.

“I’m an idiot, but I’m alive!” Zwolinski said.

Dark Winter Nights was borne of frustration with the image of Alaska popularized by reality television, according to Prince. Since the first event took place in April of 2014, Prince has been working on expanding the event.

“I thought, if the world, or at least the Lower 48, is so interested in what Alaska is like, it should be Alaskans bringing them true stories,” Prince said.

The first two live events—the one held on Nov. 21 was the fourth—were held at Pioneer Park and had so many people crowding the theater they created a fire hazard, according to Colleen Wood, storyteller liaison and executive producer.

The final speaker before intermission was Brent Sass.  No stranger to Dark Winter Nights, Sass is a second-time storyteller.  Sass was greeted with applause from the audience, as was his companion—his dog, Silver, whom his story was titled after.  Silver is the oldest of his dogs, as well as the sire to his team, according to Sass.

For his story, Sass recalled his first time guiding a group of children through the Brooks Range.  Through hardships faced along the trail, Sass relied on Silver to help guide him and his team to safety.

“It’s that bond of trust that I have with Silver that’s just amazing and it’s been such an awesome experience to have him a part of my life,” Sass said, as Silver yawned by his feet.  “Old news to him.”

Black Friday memories submitted to the event were read in between speakers.  The memories read ranged from nothing involving a shopping experience, to food poisoning, to an emergency Office Max run braved by an individual in need of a passport and the store’s printing services.

One audience member was invited onstage to tell a story.  In his opening address, Prince informed members of the audience of the form they could fill out on the back of their programs.  The forms were submitted for a drawing at Intermission, after which a name would be drawn and a guest speaker would be chosen from the audience.

Aporn Stein’s name was drawn and she was first to tell her story after Intermission.  Stein’s tale of camping along a bear trail gained a lot of laughter from the audience.

Prince had an interview style discussion with one speaker: Dick Griffith.  Griffith traveled all across the state of Alaska in his lifetime, and playfully bantered with Prince for the duration of his stage time.  From how he gained the nickname “Black ass” to burning books for fire, Griffith had plenty to say about braving the wilderness of Alaska.

Griffith also told a short story about being attacked by a fox.

“I knew immediately: I was rabid,” Griffith said.  None of the fox bites broke skin and the Alaska Natives told him the bites were nothing to worry about, according to Griffith.  Despite doctors in Anchorage advising him to seek treatment, he never did receive rabies shots.  “My problem was I told people in Anchorage.  Never tell people in Anchorage.”

Griffith was also signing his book in the lobby after the show.

The final storyteller of the evening was Marty Raney.  Raney’s family, which consists of him, his wife and their four children, was the first family of six to climb Denali.  In addition to his mountain climbing, Raney has worked for PBS and been on television shows about Alaska.

Raney walked onstage carrying a guitar with a body shaped like the state of Alaska.  Raney called his mother while at the mic and dedicated the first song he sang to her.

“I’m thrilled with how tonight went,” Prince said.

“It was superb.  I actually was pleasantly surprised,” Nathalie Croteau, an audience member, said. “I think it brings us back to a culture of storytelling that represents and Alaska and it’s native culture.”

Prince closed the event by reading a poem he wrote, thanking everyone who contributed.  He then asked the audience to rise and join in singing the Alaska Flag Song.

“That’s what this is about,” Prince said.  “Sharing the real Alaska with people.”

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