"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Restful Week in Anchorage, AK

After a couple of rainy days in Sitka, a short flight brought us to Anchorage, where we hoped to see the surrounding area at a relaxed pace and just soak up whatever Anchorage had to offer.  

Anchorage is bounded by the Chugach Mountains (above) on one side and water on the other three. To the south is Turnagain Arm, to the west is Cook Inlet and to the north is Knick Inlet.  All three bodies of water are pretty wide, shallow and grey with glacial silt - not at all like the water we were used to seeing in southeast Alaska. 

Anchorage is a medium sized city, with typical US retail, an international airport, a large university, industry and tourists regularly pouring off cruise ships and trains.  We found a great B&B online on Sand Lake, just south of the airport. It's a very green area of the city, very close to Kincaid Park, prime moose territory. 

(BTW, if you want to see moose, hang out in Anchorage for a week. In fact, in our first few minutes in Anchorage, while picking up our rental car a moose went trotting down the street, right behind our car.) 

So, Lakeside B&B run by Ann and Tim Rittal, is basically the whole bottom floor of their home, with a great view of the lake, a deck and a lovely backyard. 

Inside there is a large living room, dining table and kitchen...

...bedroom, and private bath. The apartment is completely private and well stocked with books, videos and information about the local area. Ann provided us with plenty of breakfast supplies that we were free to fix for ourselves. It was like having our own cozy apartment for the week, and was a lot more space than we're used to in the RV. 

Sand Lake was a pretty busy place: rowers, kayaks, paddle boards, swimmers, loons, geese, ducks and seaplanes. (1 in 60 Alaskans has a pilots license!) 

A couple of nice mallard families lived in the yard and visited us now and then.

Our first day in Anchorage we visited the Alaskan Native Heritage Center. Upon entering we listened to a pretty remarkable highschool student who was talking about Alaskan Native history and culture to a group of visitors in the theatre area. She was speaking articulately and confidently without any notes, answering all kinds of questions with unusual expertise for a young person. 

Later we saw her performing native song and dance with other students and one of their teachers. They were all talented high school students who are committed to learning the language, culture, song and dance of Alaskan native groups. In addition to their training and rehearsals, they volunteer their services and guides and performers at the museum.  

Inside the main building of the museum, in addition to the theater, there are exhibits of Native artifacts such as clothing, baskets, tools, kayaks, etc. But outside is the most unique part of this museum: examples of traditional buildings and homes of various Alaskan Native people.  The stereotype of Alaskan homes is the igloo. No igloos here. In fact, we learned that Eskimos are only one of the many Native groups in Alaska and are now referred to as Inuit. Represented here are Athabascan, Inupiaq/St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, Alutiiq, and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples.  

All the buildings are arranged around a lake. 
Through this gate made of whale ribs you can just see the main Museum building. 

This is a Tlingit community house, where many families would live together. 

Inside were some beautiful carvings on house poles, which are like totem poles but are used inside.

Several of the buildings were structures with turf and vegetation completely covering them.

This one had a particularly long curved entrance way to keep the cold wind out.

The museum also keeps a dogsled team, most of whom were out working when we stopped by to see their homes. We spoke to one of the women who works with the team, and she explained that the dogs are not huskies (another Alaskan stereotype) but are hybrids of huskies and other dogs well suited to running. I wish I had a picture of the dogs. They were incredibly skinny, and longer legged than huskies. They are kept lean because its easier for them to run if they are not carrying extra weight. They are not underfed; they eat a great deal but because they are working dogs they run it all off, like athletes do.

The Alaskan Native Heritage Center has a deal with the Anchorage Museum offering a reduced price and a free shuttle when tickets to both are purchased together. Parking in downtown Anchorage is kind of a bother and can get expensive, so taking the shuttle from the Heritage Center is a convenient way to avoid that hassle. But we didn't have the energy for another museum on that day, so we passed on the shuttle.

The Anchorage Museum is an impressive structure on a nicely landscaped campus downtown.  

It houses historical, cultural, scientific and artistic displays about Alaska and Anchorage in particular.  A temporary exhibit, entitled Gyre: The Plastic Ocean displays the works of artists who explored the huge deposits of plastic waste spiraling in each of Earth's oceans, and made art in response.

I personally found the exhibit moving in a disturbing way, but also admired the artists' abilities to express their reactions in imaginative, informative, humorous, profound, and painful ways.  They all used materials found in the gyre, and the amount of diverse plastics used was horrifying and amazing. 

 On a totally different note, they had an exquisite display of Native artifacts, beautifully displayed.  Below is a functional parka made completely of bird skins, complete with all their feathers.  Throughout, the use of "found" materials was strikingly similar to the artists' works in Gyre, but so beautiful and inspiring, instead of so ugly and disturbing.

We took a delightful lunch break in the Museum's restaurant, called Muse. It was a fun, aesthetically appealing, urban experience with delicious and not too pricey food.  Great decision.

After lunch we tackled the Alaskan history and art, and the hands-on science sections of the museum.  Here are a couple of my favorite items. The first is Eskimo Drummer by Lawrence Ahvakana.

And this is "Radio Babies" by George Ahgupuk, a delightful Native artist who depicts Alaskan life.  This picture shows a doctor speaking over the radio to a mother delivering a baby alone in the distance, and the baby flying over the radio waves. 

We finished up our visit with the Discovery Imaginarium - a huge couple of rooms filled with hands-on science exhibits for all ages.  This one was fun: a large ball maze that has a few opportunities to impact the path and speed of the balls, as well as add balls when they come out in various places.

Rick enjoyed the hot air balloon.

Another day I took a long hike in Kincaid Park by myself in the evening (I know it looks like midday) and ended up literally face to face with several moose at different points along the walk.  You turn the corner and there's a moose in the trail just chomping on the veggies.

The females hang out in Anchorage to calve because it's safe from predators.  I ran into this mom and her baby and had to wait on the path looking unthreatening for some time before they turned away and I felt safe to pass by.  I think I saw five all together on that hike, including a big bull. Like I said, if you want to see moose, go to Anchorage.

The days were long and just as relaxing as we hoped. This picture was taken at about sunset, which was at 11pm.  It was hard to stay up to get a sunset shot!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Alaskan Dream Cruise: Return to Sitka

On the last morning of our marvelous sea-faring adventure, we cruised along the length of Sitka,
past fishing boats and processing plants...

sea planes...

and into a private dock in the backyard of Bob and Betty Allen, the owners of Allen Marine and Alaskan Dream Cruises. Can you imagine having a totem pole and a dock in your backyard? It's not so unusual here. This is the Allen home...

…and this is one of several houseboats nearby, docked right next to a very old shipwreck.

During breakfast all our luggage was removed from the ship and we said our last goodbyes to the officers, expedition leaders and crew.  Owner Bob Allen even dropped in to express his thanks to us for cruising with his company. It was a surprisingly emotional experience! The crew had been so effective and generous in their professional relationships with us, that we all felt very grateful. Of course these feelings go a long way towards leaving good tips, which I feel certain many of us left behind.  (If you're interested in reading the review I wrote, see the Cruise Critic website.)

Bye-bye Baranof Dream! 

We had scheduled two days/three nights in Sitka after the cruise to rest and catch up on laundry, emails,  naps, and whatever else we might need.  It turned out that our new friends Dave and Judi also needed to do some laundry and planned on spending the day in Sitka. So we invited them to join us, as we had a rental car, and the four of us spent a rainy day at the laundromat and the McDonald's across the street. We had a great time. Good company makes any chore a pleasure.

After the laundry was done we had some more time before Judi & Dave had to catch their plane, so we used the free vouchers Alaskan Dream had given us to the Alaska Raptor Center.  The very well informed guides there introduced us to many of their birds, including this American Kestrel. What a beautiful little hunter!

The Raptor Center houses and rehabilitates all kinds of raptors, from tiny owls to bald eagles.  The only birds they keep are those that are not able to return to the wild due to disability of some sort.  This bald eagle was one of about 7 or 8 permanent eagle residents that we saw.  Neat to be able to see them so closely. They are intense birds.

We were introduced to several kinds of owls and hawks in their outdoor cages. Then we received a tour of the indoor space where they rehabilitate the birds. The eagles had the largest space - about the size of a gymnasium, where they could safely practice flying between different kinds of perches.   There were smaller spaces reserved for small raptors and owls.  There were no "shows" of trained raptors, like we've seen at various other museums and nature centers. 

The time finally came to drop Judi and Dave off and say goodbye until some future get together. We drove on to Frank & Gloria's Place, where we had stayed overnight right before the cruise. Although  our cabin on the cruise was plenty comfortable, it did feel good to spread out a little bit. 

The next two days were cold and rainy, but we just took it easy and saw some more of Sitka. The first day we drove all the way to the end of the road to the south, and the next day we drove all the way to the end of the road to the north. (The whole road is a total of 15 miles long.) 

At the northern end is Starrigavan Recreation Area, which has lots of trails to explore. After some deliberation we chose the Mosquito Cove Trail. There were brown bear warning signs, indicating that bears had been seen in the area a few days ago. No surprise. Did you know that there is an average of one brown bear per square mile in southeastern Alaska?  Well, we decided to do it anyway, be alert, and make a lot of noise, as is recommended.

It was a beautiful trail, traversing the steep shoreline and passing through rainforest-like terrain. Of course this means dense vegetation, lots of dead trees and big rocks: plenty of places for bears to hang out without being able to see them. Well, we were nervous through the whole walk.

An hour and a half later, no wildlife sightings. That was fine with us. 

But, minutes after getting into our car and driving back toward town, an adolescent brown bear came  bounding across the road in front of us like a big sheepdog, followed by three officers with dart or stun guns in close pursuit! The bear got away into the woods, and the officers stood around deciding what to do next - then waved us on. We had to assume the young bear was getting into trouble in the neighborhood and these guys were problem solving. This was the closest encounter we had with a bear during our whole Alaskan visit. 

I made one more interesting stop while we were in town: the Sitka National Historic Park, also locally known as Totem Pole Park.  I was very impressed with the beautiful collection of Tlingit and Haida totem poles, as well as other native arts and historical artifacts. Many of the poles are mounted along the shore in the deep woods, where they are truly striking, mysterious and powerful, especially in the misty rain.

That about did it for Sitka. We left feeling ready for the next leg of our Alaskan adventure: Anchorage.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Alaskan Dream Cruise: The Tlingit Village of Kake

One of our most excellent guides from Alaskan Dream Cruises, Leonty Williams, had been preparing us for our visit to Kake for days, by teaching us about the Tlingit, their history, culture, and efforts to preserve their heritage and community.  Kake is almost exclusively inhabited by Tlingit people who still maintain much of what is called a "subsistence" lifestyle, meaning they still hunt, fish, and gather select botanicals for food and other uses. One of our guides in Kake however pointed out that their lives are so much richer than "subsistence."

Kake is primarily a fishing village, but the fishing house at the harbor doesn't seem to be in use. I'm not sure they have their own fish processing plant, or if it is just done non commercially. 

After meeting our local guide and our bus driver (a local elder), our first stop was Michael Jackson's wood carving and jewelry studio. That's his real name, but not his Tlingit name. Most of the native people we met have both a tribal name and a Western (not sure that's the correct terminology) name.  Mr. Jackson has been the master woodcarver and totem pole builder in the area for a long time. He demonstrated the various traditional tools and methods he uses.

Our next stop was Kake's claim to fame: the tallest single tree totem pole in the world.  Here our guide explained some of its history and the legends its figures represent. (She is also a Tlingit language teacher in the community school.) The figure in the base position on the pole is called Strong Man. His legend tells of a competition of strength to become leader of the community. Long story short: he won by tearing a seal in half, which is what is depicted in this carving. 

Totem poles are a real photographic challenge. Rick is trying to get it all in.

We loaded up our school bus again and drove to Gunnuk Creek, or "eagle highway" as we called it because of the number of bald eagles flying up and down the creek and perching all around it. The salmon were running so the eagles were watching and fishing I assume, though we didn't see them actually fish.

Here's an immature bald eagle that sat still for me. There must have been at least 50 hanging around and flying back and forth from their roosts overlooking the creek to the harbor.

We saw our first salmon here too. 

Our final stop in Kake was the high school gymnasium where a group of local Tlingit performed traditional dances and songs for us. The banner below has the Tlingit name of the town, Keex'Kwaan, printed on it, as well as the eagle (left) and raven (right), the two moieties into which all Tlingit people are divided. (Not to be confused with athletic mascots that you might see on banners in high school gyms.) Within the moieties there are also clans identified with animals, such as bear, frog and orca. The dance regalia has clan symbols sewn or beaded on the back. These can be seen in some of the pictures below.

The town's people gathered for the performance and for a small market to sell handcrafted wares such as wood carvings, jewelry, devil's club salve and wild berry jams. We saw many children being guided by their friends and family as to how to participate, in a very relaxed, natural manner. Below, one of the elders is playing the drum softly for the littlest dancer as others watch and encourage her.

Here another elder encourages a young dancer. Love the T-shirt. Is that the Elmo clan?

The spokesperson that day was an elder woman who we learned is the primary teacher of dance and song in the community. She was lovely and gracious in her welcome. The dancers traditionally stand with their backs to the audience to show their clan symbols, so we "know who they are."

The dancers/singers were men, women, boys and girls of all ages, with wonderfully strong voices, presence and grace. The roles were pretty gender specific, with the women singing and playing drums in more supportive roles, and the men doing much of the more fancy dancing.  Here the men are doing a dance in which the women are rounding them up in a contained space.  It was all very interesting.  The tall man in the bear fur hat is our Alaskan Dream expedition leader Leonty, who is something of a leader in the Southeast Alaska community, at least in terms of dancing.

The experience ended with an invitation extended to join the dance, and most of us did. The men from the cruise were especially enthusiastic dancers. I think Leonty was a real inspiration and role model for them. It looked like the Tlingit women were going to have to round them up to settle them down. Perhaps that's what they wanted. 

The island burial ground for Kake

A sense of peace and generosity pervaded our visit to Kake.  It concluded with the option of a walk through the town and back to the boat.  We could see what Leonty had prepared us for - that the town is not "pretty" in the same sense that a town like Petersburg is. We are not accustomed to associating homes and yards that seem to be uncared for with a strong sense of family and community. But we saw firsthand that the beauty here is in the people and their relationship to nature; their pride is in their songs, dances, stories and language, if not in their houses, property and landscaping.