What grander setting for a couple to pledge their never-ending love than someplace where all the elements for which Alaska is known come together? Where earth forms a border along glacial blue water and snow-covered mountaintops reach toward heaven. Where bald eagles soar, brown bears prowl and salmon run. Far away from impatiently ticking clocks and bustling traffic.
And who better to perform the ceremony of marriage in such a setting than someone whose heart is dedicated to the celebration of love and whose life has been spent in close harmony with the land?
Such a combination can be found at the Wilderness Wedding Chapel in Cooper Landing, where Willie Johnson and his wife, Lovie, are host to couples wanting to marry or renew their wedding vows.
"You see, this is what I'm called to do," said Willie, who retired in 1992 after serving as an ordained minister for more than 40 years. "So whenever couples ask me to marry them, I don't question them as long as they're legal and have their marriage license."
Don't let the seriousness fool you. The twinkle in Willie's eye clearly states he has fun fulfilling his calling.
"I had a lady who called me from the Lower 48, and the first thing she said was, 'The (Kenai) Princess Lodge referred you to us. I want you to marry me,'" Willie said. "And I said, 'What? You want me to marry you? Don't you think that's a little too short of a notice? First I'll have to divorce my wife.' And she said, 'No, I mean my fianc and me.'"
Originally from Hooper Bay, Willie met Lovie, a Louisiana Cajun, when he was pastoring a church in Anchorage. They were married 15 years ago and have been the owners and operators of the Alaskan Sourdough Bed and Breakfast in Cooper Landing for approximately five years.
The chapel is a recent addition to the business, but performing weddings isn't new to Willie.
Since the first one for a family member in 1966, he has helped couples build memories meant to last a lifetime.
"There was one renewal of vows that wasn't here in our chapel," Willie said. "It was down by the (Kenai) river bank, right at the bottom of the hill by the Kenai Princess Lodge.
"This couple had been married about three years and the wife told me that they weren't satisfied with their ceremony, and that they wanted something that included nature and the handiwork of God in it. I said to her that I'd do my dead-level best; that if they wanted to put nature into the renewal of their vows, I'd do my best."
After completing the renewal portion of the ceremony, Willie chose the words from the last stanza of the gospel, "How Great Thou Art."
When through the woods and forest glades I wander and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze, then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee: How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee: How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
"When I got through the last portion of that stanza, lo and behold, maybe about 25 feet above us, an eagle flew over while I was looking at (the wife). She looked up and the tears started rolling out of her eyes, and I saw that eagle after it passed," Willie said. "Then I concluded the renewal with a prayer and she hugged me and thanked me, I don't know how may times.
"And she said to me, 'This was just what I was looking for.' I said to her, 'You wanted nature and the handiwork of God included in your renewal of vows. God is not dead. He saw to it that you got your wish.'
"And they left that place really satisfied and uplifted. She said to me, 'I will never forget you and the time of our renewal of vows for as long as I live.' That was a really moving situation," Willie said.
Iggy Keyes, an employee of the Kenai Princess Lodge, met Willie when Iggy was just a young boy of 7.
"The first place I saw him was at Kwiguk, Alaska," said Iggy of the village that no longer exists. "Willie pulled up on the shore there to start a mission."
Years later, while working at the Denali Princess Lodge, Iggy and co-worker Cecilia became engaged and were transferred to the lodge in Cooper Landing a short time later.
"I didn't realize Willie was living here until someone said they were a friend of his and asked if I knew him since I was from the same area as Willie," Iggy said.
When the Iggy and Cecilia planned their Feb. 8, 1993, wedding, they asked Willie to officiate along with Pastor Mike Weber. The ceremony was done in English and Willie and Iggy's native Yupik, as well as Hebrew, in honor of Cecilia's Jewish background.
"It was a little bit hard for (Willie) because he hadn't spoken Hebrew before," Cecilia said. "But the Yupik language has guttural sounds, and a lot of the Hebrew language does, too. I worked with him and tutored him to help him be able to say the words."
"He does his weddings very well," said Iggy, pulling from his personal experience, as well as having watched Willie perform ceremonies along the river's edge and in front of the fireplace in the lodge's main dining room.
Pastor Weber said the Keyes' wedding was the only one he and Willie performed together, but it isn't the only time they've worked together.
"The guy is amazing," Weber said of his experiences harvesting moose with Willie. "You can tell he has a lot of experience out in the woods, harvesting game for his livelihood. He has a lot of stories to tell, and he's got a dry sense of humor. He's a great person."
Willie's neighbor Malcolm Herbert agreed.
"I was invited to go with him up the Yukon River on a moose trip and to bring his boat out," Herbert said. "We got about 700 miles up river and ran into a bad snowstorm and had to give it up, but it was an adventure and a real pleasure for me to go with him.
"When he starts talking about things he had to do as a young boy in his village, it makes you really think. His experiences as a youth are tough for many of us to understand. He's really a wonderful man."
Herbert, who is Lutheran, said if there wasn't a Lutheran church nearby, he knew where he would go.
"I'd go to Willie's church," he said, referring to the chapel.
The youngsters of Cooper Landing have also benefited from Willie's experiences.
"We had a big tournament with Moose Pass and we thought it would be cool to include a Native Youth Olympic tournament," said Ed Sotelo, a teacher at Cooper Landing Elementary School. "Willie helped us out.
"He came down religiously, once a week," Sotelo said. "He would get all the little kids in a circle and demonstrate the different activities and how he did it was kind of unique.
"When he talked about the one-foot high kick, he mentioned the reason it is an event. The reason Natives would do it is because when they are out on the ice hunting a good distance from another hunter, a one-foot high kick signaled something and a two-foot high kick signaled something else. He went into great detail to explain the events.
"We love that man," Sotelo said.
The couples Willie has married also appreciate his unique blend of sensitivity, insight and humor.
"There was a couple I married up in Anchorage years ago," Willie said. "He was from Kake and she was an Alaska Native. I married them at their home.
"While I was performing the ceremony, he had the hiccups. Every other word I said ended with his hiccup. And his wife was laughing all the time. I couldn't concentrate on what I was doing," he said. "I felt sorry for the man, but the lady was the one who really disturbed me while she was laughing.
"Finally I said, 'Hey lady, if you want me to finish with this ceremony, you have to hold your laughs down.' She got really serious and looked at me without moving her eyes, but he was still hiccuping. I glanced at her and it got really funny. I was at a point where I was ready to burst out laughing.
"I finally concluded with a short prayer, and I was really glad it was over. Funny thing about it, they gave me more money than any other people I'd married before."
Even in such a spectacular surrounding as Cooper Landing, some couples are only intent on one thing: getting married.
"One couple stopped by in their fishing clothes and they wanted to get married now," he said. "I was cleaning the (B and B) rooms and my wife came and got me. When I talked to them, I said, 'You want me to dress up?' But they said, 'You're OK just like you are.' So I performed the ceremony and they were on their way. I don't even remember their names."
No matter what the circumstances, Lovie is there at Willie's side, encouraging him in what he feels led to do.
"For Willie, this is just who he is," she said. "When he marries a couple, it just really, really makes him happy. It's what he's all about. He loves seeing people happy. He absolutely loves it."
In between weddings, the chapel doesn't sit empty.
"At 11 a.m. on Sundays we do a gathering of people who want to stop in and worship, even if they're just traveling through," Lovie said. "We have a little music, and a little gathering together. It's nondenominational. Everyone's welcome."
Willie said sometimes guests who simply want a quiet place to meditate use the chapel.
And how does the man who loves to perform wedding ceremonies celebrate his own marriage?
"We were flooded with work since we started this B and B," Willie said. "Many times we almost forget our anniversary, but after a day or so it comes to my mind. (Lovie) always waits to see if I'll remember. My wife's a wonderful lady."
He doesn't consider himself a romantic, but said when the two make their frequent trips into Soldotna for supplies, they have a favorite restaurant where he takes her to eat.
By way of advice for other couples, Willie said, "As long as they love each other, that's the main thing regardless of who they may be and what nationality they are.
"If people get their love from the Lord, they'll love one another. That's the main thing in the world that we are living in."
The Johnsons can be contacted through the World Wide Web at www. alaskansourdoughbb.com.
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