Tom J. Usterman stands in the mud, slightly slouching against a service truck.
He whips out a pack of camels, quickly lights one, and takes a slow drag.
“I like to work with my hands,” he says. “My money makers,” he adds with a grin.
Tom works as a Port Attendant at the Small Boat Harbor on the north side of Bethel, Alaska. He’s a handy man, a jack of all trades. From general maintenance to helping the elderly, Tom is a perennial face at the Small Boat Harbor.
“I’ve got a facial recognition around here,” Tom said. “The people, I like to help them out, have small conversations…I like helping out people. It’s a great feeling.”
Tom’s initial interest in working the harbor came from a friend.
“I heard it from a friend who said ‘if you’re looking for a job, we need some help over here at the port,'” he said. “I applied and ever since then on a regular basis I’ve come here year after year. It’s kind of something that is fun for me, because…sunshine, you get to meet new people, life along the water I guess.”
Through his work at the harbor, Tom is a firsthand witness to the thriving boat culture on the Kuskokwim river, the main mode of commerce and transportation for the people who call its banks home.
“For new vehicles, building equipment, and mass bulk production the barges that come up the river maintain a lifeline for Bethel,” Tom said. “I guess I want to say I want to be a part of that. ”
Boats are integral to survival on the Kuskokwim, from subsistence fishing to emergency runs to the hospital in Bethel. But survival is not their only use.
“About half of Bethel owns boats and come summer time when it’s 90 degrees, they’re not staying here, they’re going down the river…people can travel up and down the river, see family, go see gram, or go to fish camp,” Tom said.
Tom believes that boats are and will continue to be a strong part of the Kuskokwim peoples’ culture.
“The culture is still pretty much the same as it was twenty years ago,” he said. “Just faster boats and bigger motors.”
Check out the video of Tom’s interview here.