Yukon River run to promote suicide prevention

More than 100 Tanana townspeople and schoolchildren sent off Native son Vernon Stickman Sr. with ceremony this morning as he headed down the Yukon River to promote healthy lifestyles and suicide prevention.

Well-wishers, lining both sides of Front Street in front of the Tanana Commercial Co., sang an Indian farewell song in the Koyukon language as the 55-year-old Athabascan departed on the first lap of a long snowy trail to Ruby. After Ruby, Stickman will head to Galena, and if all goes well, Koyukuk and Nulato.
Stickman is being supported on his several hundred mile trek by his cousin, Chris Grant, who is driving a snowmachine and pulling two sleds of provisions.

Stickman has been planning the pilgrimage for more than a year as a personal quest and healing journey.

In September 2010, Vernon and his wife, Arla, lost their 22-year-old son, Corey, to suicide. Working through their overwhelming grief and pain, the couple are focusing on education and prevention to stem the tide of self-inflicted deaths in Interior Alaska.

Well-wishers filled the community hall in the village 126 air miles northest of Fairbanks for a covered dish gathering honoring Vernon and Grant.

Before speeches started, Donna Folger asked people to write the name of a loved one who took their own life on a small piece of paper.

“This little bell is going to take the name up there to the Creator,” she said, raising her hand toward the ceiling.

A long line of people quickly formed, including Arla, clutching a framed collage of Corey's photos.

The bell rang and rang after each paper was deposited, and soon a paper plate was heaped high with the little lavender notes.

“This is emotional. I didn't expect this many names,” Folger said.

Just before Vernon cut the ribbon at the start of his journey, the notes were burned in front of the crowd in memory of their loved ones and prayers were said.

Vernon will be wearing a Spot Checker throughout his run, and his whereabouts can be followed on the team website: www.vernstickmansrandteams.com.

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Tanana, Alaska (AP) March 2012