Ernestine Donaldson of Big Lake, Alaska

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“Ernestine Donaldson of Big Lake, Alaska,” Liahona, June 1998, 14

Making Friends:

Ernestine Donaldson of Big Lake, Alaska

Towering mountains, arctic glaciers, and silver lakes make up the state of Alaska in the United States. Miners and trappers traveled here to live among the natives and to try to make themselves rich. Ernestine Roxanne Kuutug Kignak Donaldson, age 9, of Big Lake, Alaska, is a native Alaskan; she is rich because she has a wonderful family and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Ernestine, a Yupik Eskimo, was born in Barrow, Alaska. She is named after her grandfathers—Grandfather Roxy and Grandfather Kignak—who were both whaling captains in Barrow, Alaska. Barrow lies on the coast, more than 480 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. An LDS family, the Donaldsons, lived in Barrow for nine months. While there, they became the legal guardians of two-month-old Ernestine.

There were only four or five families in Barrow who were members of the Church, and they met in a home for Church meetings. “You haven’t lived in Alaska until you’ve lived in a village,” Ernestine’s mother says. Barrow can be reached only by plane, and the water there is so full of iron and other minerals that the Donaldsons bought all their drinking water.

The weather in Big Lake, where Ernestine lives now with her family, is mild compared to that of Barrow. In the summer, she and her sister Danielle, age 7, love to swim in the lake behind their house. They swim around the dock and jump from their wave runners into the water, which is cold even in August. Ernestine can drive the wave runners all by herself. Danielle likes to pretend she is driving a boat.

In wintertime, the lake turns to ice and becomes a frozen road. During those months, they ride snowmobiles instead of wave runners. Ernestine learned to drive a snowmobile when she was seven. The girls also ride in a regular car on the frozen lake! Their mother and father drive on it because it is a shorter route to the main road.

Last winter, Danielle and Ernestine learned to ice skate on the lake. Danielle said that at first it was scary to skate on the lake—she was afraid she might fall in. But soon she was zipping around on the ice.

At Christmastime, the girls prefer to wait inside the warm house while their father cuts down a Christmas tree. When he brings the freshly cut tree home, they help decorate it. Christmas is their favorite holiday. And one good thing about living in Alaska is that there is always snow for Christmas! When it gets very cold, the girls wear snowsuits to play outside.

Ernestine and Danielle are close friends. “Danielle is more quiet and shy; she depends on Ernestine,” their mother says. “Everybody loves Ernestine, wherever she goes.” She remembers taking Ernestine to school when they lived in another town, and everyone started chanting her name.

Ernestine has a special talent for making friends, and she is kind to everyone. When an elderly neighbor called, needing someone to stay with her overnight, Ernestine volunteered to take care of her.

At Primary, Ernestine enjoys playing games in Sharing Time. Danielle thinks Primary parties with hot dogs and ice cream are great fun. They both like to sing their favorite song, “I Am a Child of God.” Someday Ernestine may play that song in church, because she is learning to play the piano.

Her favorite toy is a double easel—she can draw on paper on one side, and on a chalkboard on the other. Art is her favorite subject in school. Both she and Danielle like sports and play on soccer teams. They practice flips on the trampoline and even like to jump when it’s raining outside! With the lake right in their backyard, there is always a boat to watch and a place to swim. One of Ernestine’s favorite places to go is the neighbors’ home because they have a basketball hoop.

One night Ernestine had to go across the lake with her family in the middle of the night because a forest fire threatened their home. At 1:30 A.M. her mother woke her up, and they all climbed into their boat and went across the lake. She felt frightened, and she worried about their house. “We saw flames from clear across the lake!” she remembers.

She spent that night on the boat with her mother and her sisters, Loralee, age 18, and Danielle. Her father, a police officer, patrolled the lake, rescuing people. As the fire burned a black path through the area, Ernestine and her family lived out of their car the next night, then went to a friend’s house for two days. They went to the church meetinghouse to get clothes and supplies. When they were finally able to return to their house, she felt very thankful to Heavenly Father that it had not been burned and that almost all of the ward members’ houses were untouched by the fire.

Ernestine Donaldson may not be a miner or a trapper, but she knows that what she has is better than gold: her family, the Church, and the beautiful land of Alaska.

Photography by Rebecca Todd

1. Ernestine.

2. With Danielle, her sister and close friend, in the very cold lake behind their house.

3. Danielle and Ernestine with their nephew, Ryan Contreras, age 5.

4. Biking near her home.

5. A friendly game of checkers.

6. Fun on the trampoline.