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Russian Orthodox Epiphany in Napaskiak

About 8 miles outside of Bethel, on the Kuskokwim River, a spruce juts out of the ice. One can argue that it's a marker, others might say it's a reference or gathering area, but it's more like a rendezvous point for worshipers from Napaskiak.

A snowmachine is the first to land near the spruce. A short time after, another snowmachine parks next to it. Four cars slowly roll in just after 11 a.m.

All of the passengers disembark and gather around Fr. Larson, who is at an ice podium in near zero temperature. In front of him is a hole in the ice, carved perfectly in the shape of a Russian Orthodox Cross.

The ceremony begins.

To the uninitiated, Jan. 19 has no special meaning. But to the roughly more than 90 million Russian Orthodox members, Jan. 19 was the date when Jesus, at the age of 30, was baptized. Aiming to recreate Jesus’ experience, every single believer, no matter how young or how old, is required to submerge themselves in water on that day. But unlike Jesus, who had the pleasant waters of the River Jordan to splash around in, the Kuskokwim River in January is no tropical paradise.

Larson leads the ceremony. The dozen or so followers remain unfazed throughout, despite the howling winds and frigid temperatures. They answer the father's calls, recite hymns, and sing along.

The ceremony ends after Larson dips the cross into the water three times to honor the Holy Trinity. Afterwards, one-by-one, worshipers take their turns. Some splash water on their faces, others fill jars or even buckets full of the blessed water.

Worshippers believe all water becomes holy on Epiphany. Some also think that freezing water can have beneficial health effects. They will take this water back to their villages and homes to bless their families.

Francisco Martínezcuello is the KYUK News Reporting Fellow and a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.