Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “Alaska”

Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage into the Wild

StanfordAlaska22_MoreHumpbacksdocI confess:  I did not come to Alaska to learn more about Tlingit culture or early Norwegian settlesments.  I wanted to experience wilderness and wildness, before they disappear from the earth.  When we sail up into Tracy Arm north of Hobart Bay, I feel like we were really there.

I wake up and open the curtain to see a big blue berg floating by – we are approaching Sawyer Glacier, shining  in every tone of teal between near- navy and shadowy ice blue.  As we watch, a large section of the glacier calves off, with a huge splash  followed seconds later by the deep roar.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later we make our way up toward Glacier Bay.  One of our group sights a group of orca between our boat and a smaller tour boat a bit further into the Bay.  Suddenly an orca breaches, throwing itself clear out of the water.  It is half the size of the small tour boat, and no more than 20 feet away from it.  Shamu at SeaWorld could not have shown off to better effect.

We sail into Glacier Bay, feeling smug because our smallish boat can go much further in that the multi-thousand passenger cruise ships we pass. The first peninsula jutting into the bay is Gloomy Gloomy Knob, the home of mountain goats.  We saw several Rams and one foursome of ewes and kids – then the foursome began running – they had been spooked by a drone zooming by for a close-up.  Flying drones close enough to disturb wildlife is illegal in National parks. Our on-board Park Ranger Nicole bolts for the captain’s bridge and its radio, gets the offending boat on the wire..  The droners deny the drone was anywhere other than near the beach! But we have photos!  Geez Louise!

Further in we spot a moose mama with twin calves (she looking quite skinny – the effect of nursing two?) As we circle around the bay we see three bears on the rocky moraine which constitutes a beach.  The mother bear is badly scarred either from skin disease or perhaps a burn and sparks from a fire, but not crippled. The two cubs are happily turning over rocks looking for shrimp or small fish sheltering underneath.   P1030607web

We get off the boat at Lumpaugh Glacier and walk on a glacial moraine- lumpy, shifting, insecure footing.  The bears looked more comfortable and secure – perhaps claws and flexible pads give them better traction?  It’s odd to imagine these rocks ranging from tiny pebbles to boulders being carried and then dropped by the slow river of ice moving back and forth across this empty land.  Maybe it wasn’t so empty then.  Maybe the Tlingit shamans tried to find some explanation for climate change.  Did they blame the actions of Man for having angered the Gods?  Does nothing change?StanfordAlaska62_GlacierReflectionweb

 

 

Advertisements

Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage to Petersburg

P1030503docOur next stop up the Inland Passage was at the town of Petersburg, settled originally by a group of Norwegians over 100 years ago.  We were entertained by a group of students dressed in traditional  costumes made by local ladies, with design of Alaskan wild flowers registered with the special organization that registers traditional costumes. I now turn the blog over to my husband David, who is half Norwegian and glories in every drop of squarehead blood.

StanfordAlaska14_PetersburgViking-webDavid’s travel notes: We stopped in Petersburg, a 100-year old Norwegian settlement.  Quaint as you can imagine.  We went to the Sons Of Norway Hall for some cute  Norwegian dances performance  by the local 5th and 6th graders in traditional costumes.  Absolutely charming, with all those clean-cut Norse smiles.  (Note that the girls are taller than the boys  –  that will change in a few years).   They served us morning breakfast treats including Lefse, which my dad used to make much to our puzzlement. 

P1030506web

Trophy plaque in the Sons of Norway Hall – most unusual contest!

The lady leader of the dance troupe asked if any of us had any questions or comments. Well, of course, I stood up and said, “I just want to make sure that these kids are aware of this old, famous Norwegian rallying cry:  ‘Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.’

 Lots of laughter but then one of our fellow boat travelers, Ken Johnston, walked up to me and said, “When you said that I was ready to kill you: my ancestors are Swedish.”   Well, of course, for the rest of the cruise Ken and I got along famously, trading Scandinavian lies.

 Like this one:  Ken: David, did you know that the Swedes invented the toilet?  David: Yes, Ken, but it took a Norwegian to invent the seat for it.P1030505doc

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Along the Inland Passage to Kake

P1030471docCruising along the Inland Passage of Alaska reveals few “tourist traps.”  The landscape is simply too big to allow any encroachment by man to seem significant against the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and ocean.  Just standing on the upper deck of our small cruise boat allows us to take in vistas of ice, snow, forest, and water which make the occasional human settlement seem irrelevant.  Still, we need to stretch our legs daily, and there are stops which allow us to focus our eyes on things less than 100 yards away.

One morning we stop in Kake, a traditional  Tlingit village. Our guide is a plump and charming Tlingit girl, who is learning her native language as a second language and teaching it to others  She explains that the Tlingit society is matrilineal, and divided into two moieties, the Eagles and the Ravens. Each moiety may only marry into the other to avoid incest.  A man mentors his sister’s sons, not his own, to make sure the boys understand the customs of the mother’s clan to whom they belong.  I wonder how Tlingit women speak of their fathers-in-law – how deep does role-reversal go?

P1030472webFor Alaska’s centennial the wood carvers of Kare created the worlds largest totem pole, originally 168 feet high.  Totem poles, however, are not designed as long-lived memorials;  the top twelve feet with its watchward Raven fell victim to weather and wind and now lie in the grass next to the splintered and faded pole. 

After a visit to a woodcarver’s studio where we have a chance to support the local economy, we crown our visit with a Tlingit dance performance in the local high school gym, which is brightly painted with their Thunderbird mascot in black and red. An octogenarian matriarch leads the ceremonies; the dancers range from babes in arms to very old elders.

P1030477webThe lead dancer is a black man adopted into the tribe on marriage with a Tlingit woman. He dances in a finely embroidered cape made for him by his mother-in-law as a memorial to his daughter, who was murdered while walking home from a dance the previous year by a boy from a rival clan. At the end of the dance the family of the murdered girl is presented with a ceremonial paddle marking her passage to the afterworld now that a year of mourning has passed.

At the conclusion of the ceremony we are all invited to join in the final dance, women moving more or less counterclockwise in one line, men moving in the opposite direction  in a second line.  The atmosphere was both solemn and festive, and somehow we were welcomed;  as part of the dance, we belonged.

.

 

          

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Stopping Along the Inland Passage – Sitka

 

P1030429webSitka is the launch point for many voyages up the inland passage. But don’t be in a hurry to leave.  In addition to the compact and diverse shopping street , Sitka offers

  • The Sitka Sound Science Center.located in a former hydroplant on the historic campus of Sheldon Jackson College, formerly a vocational training school for Alaskan natives, now a science center and working fish hatchery.
  • the Sheldon Jackson Museum,located in an historic building crammed full of over 6000 Alaskan native carvings, textiles, and other artifacts, collected by an early Presbyterian missionary  with a genuine appreciation for Alaskan native culture.

  • St. Michael’s Cathedral, a small but amazingly ornate monument to the courage and faith of early Russian Orthodox settlers, still operating as a working parish church.
  • Totem Park – Sargass National Forest, a largely open air museum of giant totem pole carvings,  and site of a battle between the native Tlingit and Russian traders.  The Park includes a very complete visitors’ center and a team of friendly rangers.

So put on your parka and gloves and walk down  Sitka’s Coastal Trail, making all the stops along the way before you board your cruise ship for points north!

Freeway Free in Alaska (actually you have no choice)

P1030432doc

Since there are only about 15 miles of freeway in the entire state of Alaska (built as a bit of a boondoggle between the capital city of Juneau and its airport), it is not much of a challenge to be freeway-free here.  The preferred method of travel is by water, whether by kayak, canoe, or cruise ship.

StanfordAlaska4_JuvenileBaldEagleHarborSitkacrop

Alaska was not exactly on my bucket list – I usually prefer to go to places where the food and language are exotic.  But once in the state I was enchanted – it still feels so WILD here.  The first day in Sitka, I strolled around the town and spotted a couple of bald eagles keeping watch over their territory from the top of the tallest tree in town.  Mt. Morecombe, which marks the entrance to the Sitka harbor, is a somnolent volcano.

The stroll of Sitka includes a main street of perhaps six blocks, with a harbor and historic park at one end, the coast range looming behind, and a second park looking out over the volcano and the bay at the other end.  The shops include quite a nice book store, a quilting shop with Alaska-themed print calicoes on offer, several craft shops offering carvings from driftwood or walrus tusks,  several small coffee shops,  and a restaurant offering fresh -caught salmon.

The standard wear for Sitka inhabitants involves jeans, down vests, and flannel. The shopkeepers and customers have an easy-going, relaxed air, as though there is nowhere else they would rather be, nowhere they need to rush off to.  I suppose those who want to be somewhere else than a small town in Alaska have already left.

The air is cool and brisk and smells faintly fishy.  I can feel myself relaxing, too.  There’s nowhere else I can be now, so I might as well be here.  I find myself a bench at the harbor, and scan the trees for eagles.  I turn, and find one perched on the apex of the church steeple, looking for all the world like a weathervane. Wild.

A 21st Century Visionary (Los Altos Town Crier, July 5, 2017)

StanfordAlaska37_ZachOratingdocOn my travels in June I met a modern-day visionary.  His name is Zachary Brown, he wears rumpled plaid shirts and jeans and hiking boots, and he is the co-founder, executive director, and so far the sole employee of the Inian Islands Institute, a center designed, according to his business card, to provide “Experiential living and learning in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska”.

Zack was brought up in Alaska, in a little town of 400 people at the northern end of the Alaskan panhandle, surrounded on three sides by Glacier Bay National Park, and on the fourth side by Icy Strait.  Gustavus is accessible only by boat and seaplane.  When, the residents of Gustavus s feel a need to escape the hustle and bustle of town, they go to the Hobbit Hole.

The Hobbit Hole is a homestead nestled on an inlet of Icy Strait, originally a fishing camp, later expanded to accommodate the owner’s family, then the owner’s brother’s family.  One of the wives was a craftsperson, so a pottery studio was added.  A barn evolved into a workshop with a sleeping loft above.  The brothers entertained visitors from the Lower 48.  For a while it was known as the “Pot Hole.”  

As the brothers aged the old nickname lost its relevance, and it was Zack’s mother who suggested that the place be called “the Hobbit Hole.”  The name stuck.  The brothers built a guest house.  Their wives maintained a garden and a lawn.   Folks from Gustavus became used to holding special events there, or spending a weekend in one of the guest rooms.

Then while Zack was working on a PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Stanford, he heard that the Hobbit Hole was for sale.  The brothers were retiring.  And he had a vision. He could buy the property and set up a hands –on field study center, focused on sustainable living, renewable energy, locally grown food.   But how could he convince others – and himself – that this crazy idea could work?  Maybe he’d have to do something else crazy first.

 On the day he graduated with his PhD, Zack set out from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences building at Stanford and began to walk north. He walked from Stanford to Port Angles, Washington, camping each night.  In San Bruno he was almost arrested for vagrancy, but agreed to leave town and camp elwwhere.  Along the way he was offered many a ride, but turned them down, though he accepted the occasional offer of a cold beer instead.  When he got to Port Angeles 55 days and over 1000 miles later, he bought a kayak.

From Port Angeles, he paddled to Gustavus, another 900 miles. Along the way from Palo Alto, he had talked to hundreds of people about his vision for the Hobbit Hole.  Each time he told about it, the vision became a bit more real, a bit more doable.  And each conversation yielded at least one more potential supporter.

Three years later, Zack and his partners have obtained two major foundation grants.  They hope to complete the contract for purchase of the Hobbit Hole in February of 2018.  Meanwhile the Howe brothers have allowed them to hold seminars, yoga camps,  and work parties at the site.  They have also hosted two sessions of Stanford Sophomore College, and entertained visitors from expeditions sponsored by Yale and Stanford Travel. P1030646web

I was on the Stanford expedition, and the visit to the  Hobbit Hole as one of the highlights of our trip.  It was a mostly sunny day, only a brief spatter of rain, as we pulled into the dock next to a rack of kayaks, including Zack’s trip veteran.  The gardens included blooming daisies, forget-me-nots, and marigolds, as well as lots of edible Alaskan native plants.  Zack showed off the workshop, the pottery studio, the hydro-power station.  And he led us through the woods to a moss-crusted concrete pillar marking the deaths of two people, possibly a mother and son, possibly Tlingit.  The site was a Tlingit fishing camp long before Alaska had a name.

We were two thousand miles from Silicon Valley, where life seems dependent on ever-more-complex technology.  It was amazing to be in a place and with people where life is dependent on a water wheel, a garden, and a storehouse deep in the ground which never warms up.  And exciting to know that our country is still big enough to allow young men to dream dreams and have visions.StanfordAlaska47_HobbitHoledoc

 

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: