9 June 1996, Sunday
The flight from Seattle to Juneau took a bit over two hours, but not much could be seen below except for clouds. Then the airplane dove into the murk, emerged above water and soon rolled to a stop in Juenau.
The capital of Alaska occupies a narrow strip between steep mountains and a shallow channel separating it from Douglas Island, lined at low tide with mudflats. Snow covered the mountaintops and a big glacier loomed behind the airport, which was perhaps 10 miles north of town. A bearded driver, a Vietnam veteran (his cap said so) drove us into downtown Juneau, pointing out the sights on the way--here, the high school, there the hospital, and across the channel, a house just bought by Mel Brooks.
We had expected "Sally's Bed and Breakfast" where we had rented a room, to be in somebody's home. Actually it was a 6-room motel built upstairs above a deli store, sort of a scaled-down 7-11. Audrey soon discovered that our pillows were still dirty from the previous tennant: the only caretaker was Wally, the scuzzy salesman at the counter downstairs, who called the owner and afterwards gave me the keys to room 5 and told me I could take the pillows there, they were clean. While I was getting them the owner called up Audrey in her room and apologized--the maid had been sick the day before. "Bed and Breakfast" indeed.
A strange town, on an unlikely site. The streets are steep and narrow, and big blocky government office buildings mix with cheap weatherbeaten clapboard. A large cruise liner was anchored downtown and fancy boutiques lined the nearby street, with a "native Indian theater" right by the dock. One is reminded of Cecily, the wacky Alaska town in "Northern Exposure": scruffy characters in the street, a drunk woman staggering past us, and the deli downstairs selling vials of ginseng-based love potion (only 99 cents). An Indian woman at a stand next to the theater told us how proud she was of her Haida heritage, also that she studied accounting at the local branch of the U. of Alaska and had a boy-friend in South Carolina.
As soon as we arrived in our room, I called the visitor center--housed in a log cabin, a replica of the first Juneau schoolhouse. The volunteer who answered, Roz, said she was getting ready to close, but would wait for us. It took a while to get there, for we never found the short cut to which she directed us, and Audrey kept asking--"are you sure you know where you are going?" Roz was very nice, a warm common-sense person who gave us loads of material and advice, including tips on the bus to Mendenhall Glacier. Meanwhile another customer came in, a woman: where can I find a laundromat? Out came the book with the listings.
Audrey was quite hungry, so our last question was about dinner. "Ethnic food is not the best here", Roz said, but recommended a Tex-Mex restaurant by the dock. It was small, crowded, busy, the food was just adequate, and Audrey was overcharged, went back to the counter and got $3.50 refunded. We then ambled back to our room between drizzles and sunshine; the local guidebook says "May and June average 2-3 sunny days a week, September less than one." Soon we were asleep.
Monday 10 June 1996
I slept fitfully until about 7, and whenever I was awake I noted that it never really got dark outside. Today was a thoroughly wet one, alternating between drizzle and rain. Audrey: "We got wet, and then, we got wet." In the morning she went downstairs and brought back our "breakfast", an apple fritter. She also got a bagel, sugar for the coffee machine in the room, and a couple of bananas to take along, which later provided the bulk of our lunch.
First stop was the Alaska State Museum, right next door--a windowless cube whose sides are sculptured in a pretty design. Inside it holds an amazing collection of Alaska lore and history.
Right across from the entrance was the gold rush exhibit--all about placer mining, nuggets, portaging up the Chilkoot pass and so forth. One hundred years ago, in 1896, gold was discovered on the Klondike, a branch of the Yukon river near Dawson, making the current year the beginning of a significant Alaska anniversary. In 1897 a ship docked in Seattle with a ton of Klondike gold and the rush was on, though it took another year for the thousands of gold-seekers to reach the goldfields.
Next to this was an exhibit about the Eskimo, or as they call themselves, the Inuit and Yupik. Because of their arctic skills, I had wondered whether they perhaps were the first Americans, but scholars say that they were latecomers, arriving no earlier than 4000 years ago. Many of their clever implements are on display, from a 38' skin boat ("umiak") suspended overhead, to needles, fishhooks and wooden goggles to protect a hunter from the Sun's glare by leaving only narrow slits for his eyes. Elsewhere on display were a traditional kayak loaded with hunting implements, and a waterproof "gut parka" sewn from intestines of a bear--thin, tough, like a plastic skin, with edges that fit snugly over the kayak opening. The exhibit then shifted to the Indians--especially the Tlingit tribes of the panhandle, with their totem art and peaked hats. Even a totem carving of Abraham Lincoln, old and rather weathered.
By the way, how does one pronounce "Tlingit?" Some Alaskans assured us that it was "Klink-it," but an order form for smoked salmon, produced by a native Alaskan corporation, stated it was "Tleen-kit." Maybe we should have asked the fellow we saw on a Juneau street (a week later), whose T-shirt read "It is hard to be humble when you are Tlingit."
We continued up a spiral ramp, around a tree with a bald eagle's nest and two stuffed eagles ("died naturally," the sign reassures visitors), and additional animal exhibits--a wolf family, black-tailed deer...I no longer recall all of them, but very well done. And then on the upper floor, memorabilia from Alaska's Russian past, including icons and their design and production. The lack of perspective was deliberate, the caption said, so that the sacred did not resemble the profane. Next to it were documents about the Alaska purchase--even a contemporary cartoon of Clinton reacting to Zhirinovski's pronouncement that he would demand Alaska back, telling an aide "look around, we must have the receipt somewhere."
And so on to ship models, lighthouse lens, and a section for temporary exhibits, now occupied by the work of an Alaska photographer about the salmon and related topics, e.g. bears catching fish. One could spend hours looking at the exhibits, yet the building is small, perhaps 100' by 100'.
Upstairs Audrey met a woman with a long shapely face and straight black hair, everything seemed to say "native American"--but no, a visitor from Argentina, "part Syrian, part Italian." I mentioned that Argentina's president Menem also had Syrian ancestry and she hid her face--not her favorite, too many scandals. She taught the English language and planned to fly next day to Barrow on the Arctic ocean.
When we entered the museum, a drizzle was falling. Without windows, we had no clue about what went one outside and secretly hoped that at the end of the tour we would emerge into sunshine. Instead we were met by a steady rainfall. After a long wait for the Mendenhall bus (it runs once an hour) we took a long wet ride to the top of the Mendenhall valley, where much of Juneau seems to live. The government offices are downtown, as are the tourist shops, but the site is too cramped for many regular homes. Some people lived across the channel in Douglas, linked by a bridge, others had homes (or trailers, it seemed like the low-rent district) at Lemon Creek, some 4 miles north, but the biggest suburb was Mendenhall Valley, inland from the airport, straddling the turbid-blue Mendenhall river which is loaded with glacier grit. Big shopping malls, suburban style homes and large empty tracts, you definitely needed a car to get around there.
Having no car, we took the bus as far up the valley as it went, then walked the rest of the way to the glacier in the rain, about a mile and a half, kept dry under our ponchos. Traffic was surprisingly brisk, with a constant flow of buses carrying tourists from the cruise ships. The weather wasn't cold, just very wet, which explained the lush greenery all around: giant dandelions, pretty blue lupine everywhere, and of course both leafy and evergreen trees, with thick moss covering the forest floor. Gradually we reached the edge of Mendenhall lake, at the end of the big glacier that filled the view in front of us. The glacier is now retreating (unlike Taku Glacier south of town), we were told its ice advanced about 2' a day, but melted at a slightly faster rate, so that over the year the deficit amounts to some 50 feet. Early in this century it reached a mile or two further, covering the spot where we were standing.
This was our first close look at a glacier, a rather untidy and dirty mass, fractured chaotically and sloping surprisingly steeply. At its front ice pinnacles loomed crazily, the size of big trucks stood on end or bigger, a wall of fractured ice perhaps 200' high. Ice floes from the glacier floated in the lake and a hill off to the left stood almost bare of vegetation, since it emerged from the ice only some 30 years ago. On the right the big waterfall of Nugget Creek entered the lake just ahead of the glacier front. All was quite impressive, even though the overcast sky and steady rain colored everything grey.
The nearby visitors' center of the National Parks Service had large windows with a good view of the glacier, and next to them a plaster model of the glacier, with a ranger explaining its features to the many visitors. But a trail brings one a bit closer, to the "Photography Point", a rocky peninsula jutting out into the lake. A ranger was watching the place (perhaps to make sure no one went further), a curly redhead with a ring in one nostril. She had come to Juneau in 1989, she said, and was determined to stay.
It took a long trudge to get back the bus stop, and we just missed our connection--two buses arriving together in opposite directions. Some younger and faster hikers who had passed us managed to catch a bus, but we had to wait an hour for the next one, in the company of a young Brit from Portsmouth. On the way back we stopped at the ferry offices to ask about a possible excursion to Sitka, but the schedules were all wrong.
All in all, a tiring day. We ate (quite well) at the nearby "Fiddlehead" restaurant, named for the native fiddlehead fern, then watched a bit of TV, keeping an eye for the weather forecast. The weatherman told us how lucky Alaska has been to receive a large rainfall in the preceding 24 hours, helping douse forest fires near Anchorage. Tomorrow would be sunny in Fairbanks, cloudy in Anchorage, rainy in Juneau. Around 8 we closed the blinds as well as we could, pretended it was night and went to bed--after all, in Greenbelt it was already midnight.
11 June, Tuesday
Busy day. Around 8:10 we walked down to the offices of the Auk Nu company for the trip to Tracy Arm, a narrow fjord south of here with twin glaciers at its end. Fairly costly--about $100 each--but delightful and interesting.
Auk Nu is an enterprise of native Alaskans. It also owns the Mt. Roberts cable car, still being built, and in the morning we watched a helicopter carry cargo up to the top terminal, slung below it by a long cable, like a bird carrying straws to build its nest. Two naturalist-interpreters accompanied the tour: Mary Irvine of the Alaska State Museum, a tall transplanted New Englander who was in charge, and in addition also Liana Wallace, a native Alaskan, an exuberant charming young woman who told us that one of her great-uncles was Skookum Jim, one of the three original discoverers of the Klondike strike. It was her day off, but she decided to come anyway and perhaps improve her own guiding skills a bit.
At the boat landing we found another Alaska native, an older woman who also worked for the company, trying to explain her complex Tlingit genealogy to some visitors. I soon lost track of her argument--why your cousin may not be a cousin, why a member of the eagle clan may marry a raven but not another eagle, and details even more arcane. Our boat was named the Sit-ku, "among the glaciers", a new large catamaran seating perhaps 80 on its lower deck and 80 on top. Lunch was included, prepared by Sue Hanke, the captain's wife, and about 30 passengers filed aboard, including the Portsmouth Brit with whom we sat out the rain in a bus stop the day before. The boat carried plastic crates filled with binoculars, enough for everyone.
Before leaving, the captain gave us a preview: we might encounter wildlife along the route, whales, eagles, sometimes even bears, and he would try to steer the boat to help us watch it. Whoever spotted something interesting would give its directions by the clock dial system--12 oclock dead ahead, 3 oclock abeam on the right, and so on. Tracy Arm had two glaciers, the South Sawyer and the North Sawyer: the first had many ice floes in front of it, but he would try his best to get to both.
Then we eased out and soon were heading swiftly into the wind. Mary pointed out the gold mines on both sides of the channel, the reason for Juneau's existence and for it becoming the state capital: at one time over 100 miles of tunnels ran from them, even under the channel. But the owners became too greedy, cut too many of the supports and the water rushed in--luckily, no lives were lost.
For the first few miles we saw occasional houses on the Juneau side, along with power lines, linking the town with its hydroelectric plant. Then the view on the east opened up to show the Taku inlet, some 20 miles long, with the giant Taku glacier at its end, 5 miles wide (Mary said) and advancing. After the Taku inlet, signs of human habitation on that side ended, and instead we could see many bald eagles sitting on trees by the shore, looking out for fish. "Look out for the golf balls" Mary told us, for white spots standing out against the greenery, each marking an adult eagle. The shore had about one eagle nest for each two miles.
On the other side, the west side, we were passing Admiralty Island, named by Vancouver for his employer. The Tlingit named it Koo-Tsnoo-woo, fortress of the bears. Most of it is now a national preserve and it still has plenty of bears, about one per square mile. These are generally brown bears, and they weigh 800-900 pounds, though some go up to 1500. They are really a kin of the grizzly, and both kinds have a raised hump back of the neck: bears live well on the island, catching a lot of salmon.
Mary told us about meeting a bear on an outing with her friend Jim: the two of them huddled side by side, trying to make the bear believe they were a single big object. A bear's eyes are not too good, unlike his smell (it is the other way around with the eagle). If the bear stands up, she said, that was not a sign of danger, just the bear's way of getting a better view--what you should to is slowly retreat, without eye contact. But it he starts clicking his teeth, "you're toast". Best bet, lie down, scrunch yourself together, protect your head. The bear she and her friend met just walked off. She said a man once lived alone on Admiralty island, armed only with a club, and whenever a bear got too close to him, he would bop him with the club and the bear would retreat. But as the saying goes, "don't try this at home."
Sea birds were all around us. Mary pointed out the marbled murre--"baked potato bird" to her, because of its uneven brown coloration--the black pigeon guillemot, with white shoulder patches, and the tern, with a forked tail like a swallow and a high pitched cry. They always fly in pairs, she said, pulling our leg... "because one good tern deserves another." We passed a few humpback whales, briefly exposing their black backs with small fins, and occasionally blowing a plume of steam. The day remained overcast, with drizzles and rain.
The boat was capable of quite a good turn of speed--perhaps 30 miles an hour, and was furthermore heading into a stiff headwind. As Audrey stood on the back deck, scanning the water for whales--thrilled by their sight, she had never seen any before--the wind suddenly lifted her eyeglasses and in one swift moment carried them overboard, behind the boat. Nothing could be done. Thanks God, back at the hotel was a spare pair, and binoculars could be used without them. Sue Hanke in particular was visibly distressed by Audrey's loss, telling her again and again how sorry she felt.
A while later we reached Tracy Arm, a dark inlet with steep walls and white threads of water running down them--and now and then, a significant waterfall. The rocks bore gouge marks from the glacier and seemed rather bare, increasingly so as the boat penetrated further, to sections freed from the ice more and more recently. Occasionally small icebergs floated in the water, some of them remarkably blue: we were told that although the overcast sky dulled the scenery, it brought out more vividly the blue color of dense glacier ice, compressed inside the glacier under the weight of ice layers above.
Someone asked Mary whether Norway's fjords looked like that. She said some time ago a Norwegian took the trip, and said "Yes, it looks like Norway, but here the walls are higher."
Near its top the fjord forked. On the shorter left side we could see from afar the North Sawyer Glacier--the water in front of it clear, accessible. We continued along the other side and soon the South Sawyer Glacier came into view, filling the width of the valley, with many ice floes in front of it. It looked much the way Mendenhall Glacier had looked, but the ice seemed more blue, and the front somewhat steeper.
The boat slowly edged forward, finding passages among the bigger chunks of ice, and as we got among the floes we could see that many of them were occupied by seals, who had given birth there to their pups. They seemed pretty inactive, like giant slugs, not reacting at all to our presence: the mothers eat nothing during this time and do very little. The seals come here to be safe from the orcas, the killer whales, which won't venture so far up the arm--maybe because the floes confuse their echo-location. Of course, sooner or later pups and mothers must head back to sea, where killer whales would be waiting.
The captain let the boat drift towards the glacier and then stopped it, letting us to wait for a "calving" of the glacier, for falls of ice chunks off the high front face. Over the next hour or so we saw several such events, each ending in a big splash, a booming sound and a spreading wave: but we were still a long way off, and it was hard to spot the falling ice before it hit the water. I only managed to do so once, a triangular chunk at the northern glacier, and because of the distance, it did not seem too big. Another boat or two were also nearby, carrying other visitors.
The melting of the glacier face is more complicated than it seems. One looks at the chaotic front, its snaggly pillars leaning every which way, and wonders why they don't collapse, but in truth the main erosion occurs invisibly below the surface of the water, where the face of the glacier may extend down for hundreds of feet. Water is constantly flowing out of the glacier, mainly from its lower levels, and one sometimes sees floes spreading out and receding from a section of the glacier where the underwater melt is pronounced.
After a few calvings, with nothing spectacular happening, the captain turned the boat and headed for the North Sawyer Glacier, which seemed rather similar, except that it had only a few floes and no seals. We hung around again: here the waterfalls from the steep slopes around were bigger, and Ynez, one of the young helpers in the kitchen (also an Indian, it seemed), spotted mountain goats high on the slopes, though even with binoculars they hardly seemed more than white patches. Unlike snowbanks, however, they slowly moved around.
Having seen our fill of both glaciers, we turned back again and headed home--the sky still overcast, rain driving us ito the cabin where we watched the scenery through the large windows. The captain stopped at one of the waterfalls, bringing the boat right next to it, a very good view. A few minutes later he revved up the engine and we were off again.
There was so much more that day, but whatever is not written down is soon lost to memory. Liana told an Indian story about a fisherman who once spotted the beautiful the dog-salmon woman playing in the water with other sea-creatures. He came back the next day with his net, approached her stealthily, caught her and took her home as his wife. They had a child; but then one day, she went to the water and saw water creatures at play, and decided to return to the sea. Still. she remembered the fisherman and because of her, his people will always have salmon and will never starve.
(These are just the bare bones of a much more elaborate story, which we heard again and again at the story telling festival, with variations--in one version it was the seal-woman, the silkie, and in another the sun's daughter appearing as sunlight.)12 June, Wednesday
In the morning we caught a bus to the ferry "Laconte" which was to take us to Skagway, a whole-day trip. Other US states have invested interstate highway funds in roads: Alaska found it more practical to get ferries instead, hence the ferry system is known as the "Alaska Marine Highway." The "Laconte" was anchored at Auke Bay, about 13 miles north of downtown: the middle portion of the Gastineau channel contains mudflats and is spanned by the bridge leading to Douglas, requiring Juneau to have two separate anchorages: cruise ships come from the south and anchor next to downtown, while traffic from the north uses Auke Bay.
The "Laconte" is one of the smaller ferries--it has a large car deck below (cars enter from the side) but no overnight cabins, just a big sitting room in front, with wide windows and padded seats, and a nice restaurant in the rear, also a convenient place to sit and watch the scenery, in particular when you need a table--e.g., for families with small kids and many toys. Those who seek fresh air can stand on the front deck, dodging spray and rain, or more comfortably on the upper deck in the rear, part of which was roofed over with fiberglass panels as the "solarium", open to the back. That's where we spent most of our time aboard. The solarium was furnished with plastic chaises, and one can see that in time of need, with a good sleeping bag, a person might sleep well on one of them. Their surfaces curved gently, just enough to make rolling off unlikely.
On one of the seats in the solarium a woman was oiling her boots, preparing for a hike out of Skagway: "I love to hike." Did she plan to take the Chilkoot trail--the route of the gold rushers a century ago? No, she had done it, there one needed heavier shoes than the ones she had. "With light shoes like these your feet ache afterwards."
She had lived in Alaska for 16 years, a part-time Juneau high-school teacher in social studies and (mainly) a counsellor. Had she met any bears on her hikes? Yes, she had, but they generally went their own way.
That changed a month and a half ago, when she was staying in a cabin by the beach near Sitka. She was walking back to it with her dog, a scottie, after a hike along the seashore, and when they were about 100 feet away, the dog ran ahead, back to his home. Suddenly a brown bear appeared from the forest, caught the dog, ripped it apart and proceeded to eat it. "It was awful." She watched everything from a distance of 60 feet, afraid to do anything that might provoke the bear. When it finished, it disappeared into the forest.
"For sixteen years I have heard bear stories, now I have one too." The Indian sitting next to her, who had earlier carefully combed his long black hair and braided it, was a teacher too, and they compared notes. He had taught in Arizona, where he said "the kids are wild, they even bring weapons to school." She told him someone further south heard that Juneau schools had a better record and therefore sent his problem kid there. "The kid became a gang leader of all the bad kids in school."*******
Just sat in the dining room next to Katie Corbin, of Pelican, Alaska, as she glued photo prints to folded cards of construction paper, using a handy roll-on gluing tool. After gluing each picture, she stamped her name in gold at the bottom rear, wrote a caption below the photo with a gold-ink pen, and signed her name. "What will I call this? It is up towards White Pass--what is the name of the river?" We walk over to a map hanging on the wall: Taiya river. She writes the name. "Not really the best shot", but that is what she has of Skagway. These were samples intended for the tourist shops in Skagway, each wrapped in a cellophane envelope, her attempt to develop a sideline: other than that, all she had were odd jobs.
Pelican is a tiny community on Chichagof Island, inhabited by fisherman--her dad used to fish but was now retired--and it is visited by a ferry twice a month. She had lived there all her life, except for one trip to Maine and another to Florida. How can such an isolated community school its kids? She said that the state tried hard to do so, keeping open a high school for only 6 kids, about one teacher per student: but the kids leave home anyway. She herself attended a boarding school in Sitka, because she wanted to study music and languages, not available in Pelican. She has never seen the Alaska state museum--hasn't gone often to Juneau, anyway.
To pass the time, I help her stamp and wrap the pictures. "Lots of people watch me, but no one until now has offered to help."
"Kim" was another passenger, a scruffy-looking man, in a scuzzy shirt with a second one tied around his waist, a backpack and a big fancy camera. He now lived outside Skagway, helping his brother build a log cabin. He has finished one such cabin already, two floors--pulled out a picture to show me, a handsome building--built of spruce cut on site, near the house. A week earlier, on another visit, he had climbed the hill behind the Auke Bay ferry landing, for a closer look at an eagle's nest he had spotted from afar, soon discovering it was not too accessible from the ground. When he came back, he missed his $150 sheath knife, he thought it must have fallen off while he was scrambling up the hill. So he rode another ferry back to the site, found the knife, and was now on his way home.
He certainly had strange views. He argued that the ozone hole was a hoax--after all, he said, didn't the ozone disappear at each sunset and regenerate at sunrise? (As far as I know, that holds true for the ionospheric D-layer, but not for the ozone.) He was also certain that the US military held potent scientific tools of which the public was not aware--"devices with photons" for instance--and that science was all a matter of fashion. After all, scientists have never yet fathomed the powers of the soul. We debated these things in friendly style.
Audrey meanwhile made friends with "Mah-gret", a plucky Australian lady traveling alone, about our own age. Not exactly a striking beauty, and the fact her hair was cut short like a man's did not improve her appearance: but she had a vigorous, grating voice, a booming laugh and lots of pep. She came from Victoria, sixty miles north of Bangi-Gai (not the same as Gunda-gai of the song, which she also sang to us--"where the dog sits on the tuckerbox, five miles from Gunda-Gai."). Her husband did not care to travel, so she went alone, stayed for a while with friends in Vancouver and now planned to continue to Denali, then Fairbanks, and from there she had "promised herself" to fly to the Arctic circle.
We met Mahgret again in Skagway, where she found a bed in a hostel for $13, while we paid $79 for a hotel room: she also cooked her own meals, carrying along a supply of potatoes.
We last saw her in Whitehorse as we walked along the main street. Suddenly a car stopped and there was Mahgret, with two other people we had also met: she had changed her mind, and was flying home soon. She had already called her husband and told him so, and his response was "but I have not yet finished all the chores I planned to do!"
And so, in interesting company, we gradually advanced north, spotting a few humpback whales along the way. The day was overcast, and now and then the rain chased us back to the solarium or below decks, though as we neared Skagway it gradually cleared up. The Lynn canal, the sea passage we were following, was flanked by glaciers, high up the mountains, and by continuous chains of snowy peaks. Gradually the passage became narrower, affording a better view of the many steep streams and waterfalls coming down from the slopes, The dark green of the spruce was here and there broken by light green strips of alders and other leaf trees, running up and down the slope, perhaps marking the paths of long-ago avalanches.
The ferry stopped at Haines, linked by highway to the main part of Alaska, not in the town itself but at a ferry landing about 6 miles further north. The captain carefully edged the ship to the dock, then ropes brought it to approximately the right spot and finally crew members with a winch at the stern (and probably with another at the bows) made the final adjustment, matching the boarding ramp to the large sliding door in the ferry's side.
We stayed about one hour while I helped Katie and talked to her. Then the ferry backed off and turned into the final stretch to Skagway, still narrower. The rain had stopped and we had a fine view, which included three large cruise liners anchored at Skagway. As we were pulling in, a train of the White Pass and Yukon Rte. railroad pulled up alongside two of the ships, bringing back passengers; later when we tried to leave, our road was blocked by another train, returning people to the third one.
Skagway's main support comes from tourists, and one thing that brings them here are memories of the gold rush: the area is designated a National Historic Park, and the national parks service maintains a very nice museum at the entrance to the town. Outside it stands a snow-blower car used to clear the railroad--a red caboose-like wagon with a huge steel fan in front, turned by a steam engine inside; a regular engine meanwhile pushed it up the track. We went into the museum and saw a film about the gold rush, well made with original pictures, now "colorized". The old part of town is built in the frontier style, with large false fronts on many buildings--some of them left from old Skagway and carefully restored. Boutiques and gift shops crowded each other, and visitors in bunches were walking up and down the street.
We registered at the Westmark, looked over its restaurant (crowded, formal, expensive), then went to peek at the stores. Audrey in particular wanted to buy a gold nugget to wear on a chain, though for the life of me I can't see how a real nugget can be told apart from a fake one, from a shapeless drop of gold dripped into a pan of water. We ended up at a restaurant offering a choice of American, Greek, Italian and Mexican dishes--the cook was Greek, we were told, so I ordered a Greek vegetarian platter, which was quite good, with nice garlic bread. Audrey's seafood platter on the other hand was drowned in heavy cream sauce which she refused to eat--a disaster only partly redeemed by a sundae at "The Sweet Tooth" and a granola-type bar brought from Greenbelt for emergencies like this one.
We walked a bit around town, which away from the historic district is rather ordinary. Someone later told us everything closed down in the winter. We also followed a scenic trail across the river, on a hanging bridge which swayed noticeably under us, but Audrey said her legs ached and she seemed to be constantly expecting a bear to burst out of the underbrush (a big, brown one, gnashing its teeth), so our hike was rather brief.
13 June, Thursday
After breakfast we walked over to the national park display, where Paul Lofgren, a white-bearded ranger in a Smokey hat, led a hike around town. The walking was minimal, because every few steps Paul would stop and tell another bit of local lore. The town site was acquired around 1887 by one Captain Moore, who saw its potentialities as the gateway for gold seekers in Canada. His hunch was correct, but when the gold rush came his ownership of the land was ignored by the arrivals, who built houses wherever they pleased; much later he was compensated, for a small fraction of his loss. In the early years the town was under the thumb of a gang led by one Soapy Smith, but the citizens rebelled and in a shootout both Smith and the man who confronted him died.
Two trails led from the sea across the coastal mountains to the headwaters of the Yukon river. From Skagway one could ascend to the White Pass, while nearby Dyea (Die-ee) was the gateway to the Chilkoot pass, not as high but too steep for horses. The gold rushers who went that way had to carry along, on their backs, all their supplies for one year (with some help from cableways and "tramways"), for without such provisions the Canadian police would not let them cross the border. Those who made it camped at Lake Bennett near the top, one of the headwaters of the Yukon river, felled trees and sawed them into planks with two-man whipsaw teams. Lofgren told us, "if there was one thing that might strain a friendship, it was whipsawing wood: the top man has the harder job, but the bottom man gets his face full of sawdust, and since one cannot see the other, there is always the feeling that your partner is not giving his full effort." With the planks they built boats, and when the ice melted in the spring, they sailed down the lake and then the Yukon river. A few were promptly wrecked at the Whitehorse rapids, the rest usually reached Dawson, some 400 miles away, only to find that the best mining claims were already taken, and often ended doing something else, just to make a living. A few, very few, returned rich.
In 1899 the railroad was begun, taking the less steep route from Skagway to White Pass, and Dyea withered away, until not even a ghost town remains, only foundations of buildings. The railroad reached the pass in 1900 and continued to the new town of Whitehorse, where travelers would transfer to riverboats, past the treacherous rapids.
Gradually the rush subsided, and gold production in the Yukon decreased--though it never stopped, and gradually rose again, until it is now close to the gold-rush level, and in the 1980s it even surpassed that. Skagway slumped back into obscurity until 1942, when the US army landed, part of its effort to build the Alaska highway. Up to 3000 troops came to Skagway, built arched Quonset huts all over town, and took over the railroad, making Whitehorse one of its main bases of operation. At the end of the war the army left and turned over its rolling stock to the railroad, but the traffic just wasn't high enough to make the operation pay, especially after the Klondike highway was built paralleling the tracks. In the end the White Pass and Yukon Route RR went out of business.
With the recent expansion of the tourist business, especially the cruise liners, the railroad resumed as a tourist attraction, running up to White Pass and a bit beyond, to the point where it met the highway. Nowadays up to 6000 tourists may be visiting Skagway at one time, keeping the town and the railroad going. In addition, Skagway is also the outlet for a large open-pit mine at Faro in the Yukon Territory, in the Pelly mountains, extracting zinc and lead. The ore is concentrated and is then hauled to Skagway in huge muffin-shaped containers, using 50-ton articulated trucks each carrying three "muffins," and the weight of each of those is shared by about a dozen wheels. We watched those monsters roar down the side-street of Skagway, heading for the port, and felt glad we were not driving a car on the same highway.
After a string of drizzly days, this one was pretty good--just some morning sprinkles, then the overcast gave way to fleecy clouds and patches of intensely blue sky. After lunch (at "Northern Lights Pizza"--Mexican, Italian and US dishes), we boarded the train, sitting near the front in an almost-empty carriage reserved for those crossing into Canada. It is a narrow-gauge railroad, its carriages are small and old, with stoves to keep them warm in the winter. A young man named Ryan kept up a pleasant commentary on the trip, alerting passengers to every photo opportunity--we met him afterwards, he came from Anchorage and in the fall he planned to enroll at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
The rail trip took about an hour and a half, starting in lush forests and ending among the snowbanks above timber line, here no more than 2800 feet up. The slope was moderate but steady, and the tracks looped into side valleys for extra elevation. At first the Klondike highway followed the same valley on the other side, but then it disappeared behind a hill. For the gold rush miners, this must have been a tough road, since the slopes were covered with jumbled boulders and cliffs. Jack London, who reported on the gold rush, called it "Dead Horse Trail", on account of the many dead horses left to rot beside it. We passed a large bridge--no longer in use, the track now detours around it--and through two tunnels, and finally reached the alpine zone of low shrubs, puny trees, many small lakes, and snowy peaks all around.
The train continued eight miles past White Pass on a gentle downward slope, picking up speed. Soon we reached Fraser, the Canadian border station on the Klondike highway, end of the line for today's trip. The rest of the way we would ride a small fiberglass bus, driven by Fritz, a transplanted Dutchman, eight years in the Yukon and loving it, having grown up in crowded Holland. About 32,000 people live in the entire Yukon Territory, the size of a quarter of Alaska, most of them in Whitehorse.
At first the scenery was as wild and forbidding as before, a jumble of mossy rocks and dwarf trees: the weather was clear and sunny. Gradually the landscape softened into a series of glacier-carved lakes, like the finger lakes of New York State, surrounded by snowy peaks. First came Lake Tutshi ("Too-shy"), then the "Windy Arm" of Lake Tagish, beautiful scenery with few signs of humanity except for the road. Where the Windy Arm met Lake Bennett--another long and narrow lake, the one from which most gold rushers set out down the Yukon--was a small settlement, Carcross.
It was originally "Caribou Crossing" because it was sited on a narrow land bridge between two lakes, where the caribou used to cross--but the name was shortened after the local minister complained that his mail often ended up in places named "Caribou" or "Crossing". It is a minimal town--store, garage, police and the tourist information center where we briefly stopped. The driver advised us to get our passports stamped, and we did--a very pretty stamp, a row of caribou on the march, and only later did we realize this wasn't an official Cnadian stamp but was just meant for the Yukon Territory's promotional "Passport."
A short distance further we passed the "Carcross Desert", billed as "the smallest desert in America", a small patch of dunes, maybe two or three hundred feet across. Fritz explained this was actually the bottom of a dried glacial lake, and the windblown "sand" was presumably glacial grit. Gradually the land became flatter (though snowy mountains persisted in the distance), then the road joined the Alaska highway, isolated dwellings and billboards began appearing, and after a while we crossed a bridge over the Yukon into Whitehorse. On the left stood a big beached paddlewheeler, and across the road from it large tents had been erected, the site of the story-telling festival. Immediately behind them was downtown Whitehorse.
It is a small town, built on a grid along the Yukon, with several sprawling suburbs--big in area, low in density. The fabled Yukon looked that day no different from other rivers, perhaps 200 feet wide, blue water flowing quite swiftly between steep banks of gray glacial debris. The bus dropped us at the Regina hotel, a 2-story boxy building which also held the local bus station.
Actually, it was quite a nice hotel, the oldest one in town. The desk clerk gave us a xerox of an old publicity sheet:
Not fancy but homey, and the cheerful women who ran its restaurant gave every customer personal attention. The walls of the lobby were decorated with humorous drawings of the Yukon, and displayed on one side was a pair of interlocked sets of moose antlers--as a sign explained, they were found in the forest. The two moose had clashed, their antlers became locked together and, unable to pull apart, they starved to death.
The elderhostel briefing had been scheduled for the afternoon, but since we received the schedule rather late, after all travel arrangements were already made, we arrived too late for it. No matter: Tanya Coulter, the tall handsome woman in charge of the elderhostel, was just walking out with the other participants, and handed us our folders, badges and everything else. The desk clerk gave us keys to room 226--a big spacious one, with two comfortable beds--and after leaving our packs there, we joined the others and walked along the riverbank to the festival, where dinner was served.
It was a pretty walk. The weather behind the coastal ridge tends to be sunny and dry--a wind was blowing, and far away one could see an isolated rainstorm, but most of the sky was clear. A pretty trail ran along the river, between the water and the old railroad tracks, now in disuse with trees beginning to grow between them. The train station itself was now an office building.
The festival was set up in a public park, a grassy area with trees and some benches--also squat rectangular garbage cans, olive-green and tilted at an angle. Their hinged covers were flush with their tops, and their bodies seemed to be made of 1/8" steel, a bearproof design. The festival was not due to begin for another day, but the "hospitality center" in its own enclosure was already in full swing, feeding many guests. These included the artists, whom we often saw in the days that followed, and also the elders of the "First Nations," who were accorded visible respect. We elderhostellers had equivalent privileges, and I sometimes fancied that we were a sort of surrogate elders for the Yukon settlers of European origin.
The food, served in a big tent, was excellent and plentiful--salad, fruit, rice, baked potato, sliced peperoni and sausage, roast beef, vegetable pasta, chicken... a lot. After finishing the meal and before returning the dishes, one passed a row of pots in which leftovers were segregated according to their recycling use. The elderhostelers ate at park benches outside and gradually got to know each other: thus we met Iris Mclean, of Ontario, a bubbly, irrepresive lady.
Though the festival only began the next evening, tonight a preview was scheduled, featuring some of the performers and starring a local celebrity, Jerry Albert, a young Tutchone whose "Medicine Beat" band combined native and modern rhythms. Earlier we had bought tickets (the elderhostel was given a special rate) and now waited for the show in the largest of the tents, striped blue and white.
People were streaming in until no vacant seats were left, and latecomers sat on the grass in front, off side, and in the passages, or stood in the back. And yet fewer "First Nation" members came than expected, because a short time before the festival, the grand chief of the Yukon First Nations, Harry Allen, passed away, and some were in mourning and preparing for the funeral. Television cameras were posted at strategic locations, and on the outside, an antenna truck was relaying the video signal.
The back of the stage was decorated with a large map of the polar region, the North Pole in the middle, underscoring the billing of the festival as a "circumpolar event." The map seemed slightly out of scale, with Alaska and the Yukon a bit bigger than expected--but it was hard to be sure.
At 8:15 a woman in black came to open the program--obviously, a member of one of the "First Nations." My notes say "young woman" because that was how she carried herself, for I did not know at the time that Louise Profeit LeBlanc was a grandmother. As we later found out, she was one of the moving forces behind the festival, and a gifted story-teller herself.
"The tradition is to open a festival by asking the Great Spirit to bless these people..." She then asked one of the elders, Edith Josie of Old Crow--that's on the Porcupine River, north of the Arctic Circle, beyond roads--to say the opening prayer. Edith, herself listed among the story tellers, stood up on the stage, and everyone else rose too: "Heavenly father... wishing those who came great distance a safe return. See the many happy people ... that is what you want."
Then Louise addressed the audience closest to her: "Children in front--watch the little ones. They can't jump upon the stage. Those children--sit!"
The first performer was Alain Lamontagne, a French Canadian harmonica player and clog dancer blessed with endless energy. His style was to clamp a microphone to his harmonica and let loose--playing vigorously and loudly both when inhaling and exhaling, a continuous melody which never stopped for a breath. As if that was not enough, he played sitting on a chair set on a sounding board, and when his music reached the proper tempo and intensity, he began accompanying himself by stomping rapidly and rhythmically on the board. Soon the entire audience seemed to wonder--when would he stop? When would he run out of wind or out of energy? But he never ran out. When his music finally ended, everyone could see his face was drenched in sweat: small wonder. A wonderful performance, and halfway through it he even interpolated the "ode to joy" from Beethoven's 9th symphony.
Then he told a story, in French, while a companion, Luc Laferte, translated with comic effect. He told of his "faithful dog" who chased cars, caught them and "crunched them", sometimes their drivers as well. He and his father were seriously considering opening a scrapyard, to dispose of all those crunched cars, but one night, alas, the dog was hit by a car. "After the funeral I composed this song, to be sung dancing on the hood of a car." And he launched into another of his furiously-fast, foot-stomping harmonica pieces, interspersed with words in French, and ending in a howl and the words "mon chien e mort."
He wouldn't leave the stage even then, until someone finally blinked the lights.
The next story teller was Daniel Morden, from Wales, telling one of those fast joke stories where every sentence contradicts itself. Very, very funny. And then a Welsh tale about Taliesin, the shining brow, a story of a witch and a wondrous child--now overlain by so many layers that I cannot recall any part of it.
Then came two young Indian women--Jackie Bear of the Tutchone, and Sharon Shorty of the Tlingit, dressed as tribe elders, and playing their parts comically to the hilt--shawls on their heads, stooping over canes, legs wrapped in layers of socks, with snuff boxes and a spitoon on the floor.
It all sounded very funny, though being a visitor, most of it went over my head. They spoke in high-pitched, squeaky voices, joked about Jerry Albert ("Juno Jerry", after he received the Juno Award with which Canada honors artists) and about tribal matters, and the audience just loved it.
Jerry Albert started his performance with a prayer, in memory of the recently departed, accompanied by a drum, beating slowly and softly. Then the concert began--Jerry sitting in the middle, a slim young man, dark straight hair, powerful voice, penetrating eyes. A misty vapor enveloped the bottom of the stage as he played, probably dry ice to enhance the mood. The four accompanists looked conventional--a skinny girl at the keyboard, a large man with a second guitar, none looked Indian. But Jerry was the focus.
Again, my memory does not retain much--just some very rhythmic singing, words in Tutchone with a strong beat, interspersed with just plain rhythms:
Heyla heyla, Heyla heyla, Heyla heyla--Heyda hey!
It meant more to an Indian girl in the row in front to us, who obviously knew the tunes and words, and who sang along. As she sang, she beamed with happiness--stealing just a quick glance at the friend next to her, to let her know, how good it felt to be here. Jerry's songs were not for us: he was singing for those girls.
The midsummer sun sets in Whitehorse at perhaps 10:30, and the sky never gets dark. We walked back along the Yukon, drew the shades and gradually fell asleep.
14 June, Friday
I was woken by Audrey's voice--get up, it's 25 to 8! Quick, to the restaurant downstairs, where other elderhostellers were already at breakfast, including Fred and Margaret Cogburn, who arrived at 10 last night, after a flight delay caused a chain of missed connections. They lived 35 miles west of Toronto and one motivation for their interest in "First Nations" was their daughter-in-law, part Indian.
Tanya again led us along the Yukon, to what would be our regular meeting place, a room in the Whitehorse library, itself located in the Yukon Government Building, the last building in town before the park where the festival was held. That building also held the territorial council (parking signs outside: include "Speaker parking only" and "Reserved, leader of the opposition") and most government offices, and was an architectural gem, with beautiful stained glass windows depicting the history of the Yukon territory.
The library is reached from the street and is airy, colorful and well used; our room was at the end of the children's section, illuminated by skylights, which unfortunately trapped too much of the Sun's heat. (Our hotel room, too, was sometimes uncomfortably hot. No air conditioning in the Yukon!). Today we were to be introduced to the festival and to story telling, and Tanya suggested that maybe we ought to form our own "talking stick circle" in the tribal tradition, with a "story stick" passed around and whoever holds it tells a story. She herself is a graduate student from Trent University in Ontario, working on a Master's thesis on "story telling as a tool for cultural bridging in the classroom."
First, however, we introduced ourselves, going around the circle: Linn Pedersen from Portland, knitting a yellow blouse, as she continued to do throughout our meetings. Jan, her husband, originally from Norway. Herta Przeczek was born in Reichenberg in the Czech Republic (Liberec in Czech), about 30 miles from my own birthplace; in Czech the "r" and "z" of her name would be written with hooks on top, pronounced "rzh" and "zh", but in Canada it became "Preezek." Steve Cribb from Montreal, who lived in the Yukon territory at age 2, and his wife Phyllis, and so on: most of the 21 who attended were Canadian, excepting for the Pedersens, Lois Salo from California, and ourselves, the ones who had come the longest distance.
For the Cribbs it was their 14th elderhostel, for Irene and Bert Turnbull, who drove up here, their 34th, and the 4th in the Yukon. Burt was a former biologist, with a wild looking white beard (made one think of John Brown) and a hat covered with souvenir pins. And Grace and Bob Faulkner combined the elderhostel with a visit to their daughter, who lived nearby.
We were welcomed by Ron Pond, the manager of the festival. He had served 23 years with the Canadian Mounted Police--13 of them in the Yukon, "a fantastic country." But he was new to this job, only two months since he took over.
Tanya chimed in: Ron was the perfect person to manage the festival, because he worked very well with people--in the police, he was involved with hostages and narcotics. This was the third largest story-telling festival in the world--the only ones larger were held in Jonesboro, Tennesee, where an $8,000,000 story-telling museum was being built, and one in France.
The next speaker was Louise Profeit-LeBlanc, the slim lady who had introduced the artists the night before. She worked for the Heritage Branch of the Yukon government and was also one of the festival's directors.
Louise spoke softly, a kindly voice, and began our meeting by burning some incense, sage given to her by the Lakota people "for special occasions." It added a nice smoky smell to the room and Louise said it was meant "to bring a sense of unity together... There is sacredness in all gatherings."
She added that she was raised by her grandmother: "When grandparents raise children, there is a special relationship." Her grandmother once told her: "One of these days you will be speaking to a lot of people ... realize that each is from a different place. It is important to bring them to a common feeling."
She then told us "You should always spiritualize the group" and therefore started a short prayer, in her own mother tongue, Northern Tutchone, ending on the word "sofan", meaning "make it good." Well, not exactly, she corrected. "Not too shabby" may be better. A friend asks you, how are you? And you reply "sofan." But it's not the same as "How are you? --Fine." It means what it says, it is not an empty courtesy: if you don't feel well, don't use it.
She then sketched a map of the territory--roughly, a steep right triangle with the long side bordering Alaska and the hypothenuse facing northern Canada--and explained the main divisions of tribes: Gwitchin in the north, including the village of Old Crow, home of Edith Josie who opened the program the night before. The Han nation--Han meaning river--near Dawson; the Northern Tutchone, including the town Mayo, where she came from. The Southern Tutchone (I guess that included Whitehorse), the Tlingit in the south, newcomers who only arrived 200 years ago, and the Tagish, from around Carcross: Angela Sidney, who started the storytelling revival in the Yukon, was a Tagish. She recorded old names, old stories, wrote several books, then in the 80s went down to a story telling festival in Toronto and wowed the crowd. "Auntie Angela was my mentor, I miss her a lot."
She herself only started telling stories 15 years ago--before that she felt she was too young, and that only elders had the right. "Every one has a little ear, a third ear, just to listen to stories." Her Tutchone name is "Tsagana", beaver woman. Such names are given only at puberty: her cousin for instance was named Porcupine--"tough on top, soft on bottom." She herself, at 12, thought she was named because she had large front teeth, like a beaver, and also because she was clumsy, as beavers are on land. But her grandmother told her the beaver stands for perseverance, when its dam is damaged or destroyed, it always rebuilds. And it cares for others--it slaps its tail against the water to alert other animals to danger.
She then told a story of the Gwitchin people--about "no tear baby" who came from the moon and in the end went back there. A beautiful story, I sat and listened, no notes, just enjoyment--and now I cannot bring it back any more (Tanya recorded it all, though). She finished abruptly--"an Athabascan full stop."
Stories fell into several classes, she said. There were the "classics", usually about how something came to be--how the world was created, why in the fall at the second full moon the caribou start migrating, and why at the second full moon in spring they come back. There exist regional stories which everyone from a region would know, community stories and familial stories. Next she would tell a story the way the original teller would present it, in this case, one Tommy McGinty.
It was about the crafty wolverine. "Wolverine, he bad, what he cannot eat, he pee on." He can open the door, smell the moose meat the hunter had brought. So the hunter, who is telling the story (a much more elaborate one than these lines suggest--full of intonations, of rising and falling voice, one must be a good storyteller to do it justice), he puts up boards over the door and window. The wolverine outside goes crazy, but he can't get at the meat. Then the hunter lights the fireplace and the cabin fills with smoke--because the wolverine, he could smell the meat through the chimney, climbed on the roof, climbed into the chimney, and got stuck at the damper.
She then told another story, about a woman who lived on the Stewart river, and I wish she had continued telling the rest of the day, because she seemed to have an endless store of lore. How do Indians cook meat? You can do it in a fresh moose stomach, with water, over a fire--you drink your soup, eat the meat and then eat your pot too. Or else, cook it in a birch-bark pot, dropping hot stones from a fire into the water to bring it to a boil.
But she could not stay--she had the funeral of the chief to attend. So she ended with a quote from Angela Sidney: "You should always live your life so that when you go people tell good stories of you."
Louise was followed by Dr. Anne Tayler, professor of First Nation literature at Yukon College, located on the outskirts of Whitehorse (Amanda Graham later described the location: "On a hill behind the jail."). She told us she started studying English literature, but found out after a while that her real interest was in the "intimate orality" of story-telling. Since then a large published literature of First Nation stories has appeared--some of high quality, some not, "in 20 years it will all get sorted out."
Naturally, she tied English literature to Indian lore. Beowulf started with storytellers, Chaucer's tales, too, and it took a long time until these stories were written down. Before that, they were often told accompanied by music, by a "scop" (pronounced "showp"). The stories of First Nations were still in that early, oral stage, when missionaries tried to suppress them--though the missionaries also collected stories, changing them to suit their own agenda. Luckily, linguists were at work too, noting down the stories very accurately, and so were anthropologists, and therefore those stories survive.
And so on. Very scholarly, but somehow one wonders whether scholars have that small third ear.
It was all quite interesting, and when we broke for lunch we went out into the small garden and lawn between the library and the government building, where the Alpine bakery of Whitehorse had prepared for us a treat--vegetarian sandwiches on a wonderful fresh bread, with Swiss cheese, cucumber and sprouts, also coffee, muffins, cherry tomatoes and chocolate squares.
We sat outside, chatted and enjoyed the sunshine. It was still very much springtime in the Yukon, the reawakening of nature, and the air was filled with thousands of little winged seeds, when one looked out from the edge of a shadow into the sunlight, one could see them rising and swirling in the warm air.
The next speaker was Amanda Graham. She first saw Whitehorse in 1985 and never wanted to go back (to Toronto, or wherever). She now has a part-time position with Yukon College, teaching social studies, and part of her time she edits "Northern Review," a literary magazine. She told us it was "a scholarly journal but written in plain English, so that even your mother could understand it.... We usually have two issues a year, unless we have one or three, except that we never had three yet."
And part of the time she was a taxi dispatcher ("I found this was my marketable skill"), a small operation which one person could handle well with no help from a computer, "except when it gets cold in the winter, then suddenly everybody wants a taxi because their car won't start."
Amanda presented a capsule history of the region, with maps and with oogabs of details I no longer recall: she has a course on this at the college, "Northern Perspectives." She too started her academic career as an English major, before finding that history was "the best discipline in the world,... it allows you a freedom and creativity." Yet the Yukon was a special case, for "much of the history here happened to people who left no records."
The very earliest history, of course, dates from times when no people were around, either. The Yukon territory was formed when microcontinents were pushed together ("accretion terranes," see John McPhee's book "Assembling California"). "The mountains rise at the rate your fingernails grow" and considering their height now, they must be ancient indeed. Vitus Bering from out at sea saw the peak of one of the tallest on St. Elias day in 1741 and named it Mt. St. Elias. But even by 1790, few Europeans had an idea of what lay behind those mountains.
Of course, the Indians had lived here for many years. The Inuit too, although they arrived a bit later, some 4000 years ago, the "Dorset Culture" using sleds but no kayaks, living just on the edge of the sea. Some 2000 years ago the second wave of Inuit came, the Thule people, with harpoons, kayaks, umiaks, dogs to pull sleds, a more robust people which spread across the Arctic in no more than 350 years.
Then the Hudson Bay Company arrived, following in the footsteps of Alexander Mackenzie and looking for furs. "The Yukon was viewed as a place of resources, free to whoever gets to them." As the Hudson Bay Company depleted one region, it pushed on to the next: so did its competitor, the North Western Company. In 1821 the two merged and after that they operated more rationally, reaching Fort Yukon in 1848-1864. It took six years for furs from here to reach England. Meanwhile the Russians held the coast, founded Sitka and Kodiak, and hunted and fished west of the mountains.
Today, of course, much of the story can be found in books: "Canada's Colonies" by Ken Coates, which she recommended to her students as an "unthreatening read", "Land of the Midnight Sun" by Ken Coates and Phil Morrison which stresses the gold rush and the Alcan highway, and popular books by Pierre Berton, by Dick North, as well as personal accounts such as "Yukon Water Doctor", reprints of Dawson's journals, and others. And there was always Robert Service, "the storyteller of the Yukon," the poet of the North.
Towards evening we returned to the festival, which was now open officially, people lining up to buy tickets, though our purple bracelets admitted us everywhere, even to the "hospitality area" to which only official participants were allowed. That's where we had our dinner--as usual, great: we sat outside and watched the people gather, and after a while went into the main tent to listen. Angela Sidney's Tagish name was displayed on a sign in front of the entrance.
The first storyteller was Katrina Mainland, from the Orkneys, north of Scotland, speaking in a strong Scots accent. "I am an otter fraud... not telling stories any more in the Orkneys." The islands have changed: first the British fleet built a big base at Scapa Flow, then came the wars, off-shore oil and TV, and now children no longer listened to stories.
But the stories are still around. The story of the master ship--so big it reached from the Orkneys to Newfoundland, its mast tall enough to catch the tip of the moon. Stories of trolls--called "trows"-- mischievious and wicked creatures, whereas hogboys resembled trolls but were friendlier, and would even help farmers. One hogboy worked so hard for a farmer that the farmer decided to reward it with a new coat and pants. The hogboy put them on and sang
No time to work for you
and that was the end of his services. Also stories about the enormous worm, the Stuor Worm. A farmer had seven sons, and the youngest, Ashypuddle, defeated it: its teeth fell out and became the Orkneys, then the Shetlands (further north), then the Faroes (still further), its body fell into the sea and became Iceland, and its liver is still burning, that's the reason for all the volcanoes there. (Ashypuddle? In German, Cinderella is known as "Aschenputtel." Hidden links everywhere!)
She was followed by Edith Josie, the recipient of the Order of Canada for her work on the history of her people. For 31 years she wrote a column in the Whitehorse Star, "Here is the News."
Then from Inuvik, a cheerful skinny old guy with a white cowlick rising defiantly from the top of his head. He told us the story of his life.
He was born 1923 in Old Crow, he said, "but I died as a baby." For half an hour. Then an old Gwitchin woman revived him, put a feather in his nose until he started crying again--"I became alive all at once." An old lay deacon baptized him and named him Joseph, and he is still registered by that name. But four years later the Anglican minister, Reverend McCullum, baptized him all over again, and named him Ishmael. The family did not know English and could not tell the minister that he had already been baptized before.
For his pension, however, he needed his baptism certificate, and that made it official, call him Ishmael. At age 11, he caught 50 muskrats... filled a flour sack, hauled them back with dogs, a pack of special dogs.
He stayed in school until 7th grade--at that time, if you stayed in school to seventh grade, that was it: he now encourages kids to stay to the 12th, "everybody needs an education." The rest of what he knew was self-taught: he became an electrician's helper, then an electrician, then the operator of a rock crusher building the Inuvik airport, getting paid $19.56 for an eleven-and-a-half hour workday.
One night he was caught in a conveyer belt, was dragged a hundred feet and his arm was broken. After that he became the announcer at a radio station. He translated and interviewed in the Indian languages--and those interviews always went so well, that people wondered, "how could you understand them?" By first practicing the dialog with the interviewed persons in English, that's how.
Now he collects 4-5 pensions, because of his age and his broken arm. Still busy. In the last five year he took a course in geology, to help the Inuit people. The First Nations talk about "our land," saying they came first to America...
At this point Louise motioned to him to wind up.
... saying they came first to America and the Inuit came later. But they are really two brothers. One brother hunted inland, one on the shore. The First Nations are the older brother, the Inuit the younger one.
Louise then apologized for stopping him. "That is the hardest part of my job. I know these elders can talk for days." She then introduced Greg Scofield, a Metis from Prince Albert.
"I am called a poet so I guess I am a poet," Greg said, though his poetry was in the Cree language. He has everyday stories and sacred stories (he gave the Cree terms), and some were written up. He then told a story "How the fox became red", involving Wissakitak, the first man in the Cree world--the trickster, the role played by the raven or the coyote in other cultures.
The next story-teller was Dan Yashinsky from Toronto, accompanied by Oliver Schroer on a fiddle--"The storyteller at fault." But one needs a tape recorder to take in all these stories--no, a video recorder, because so much acting and posturing went with it. Left unrecorded, they just wash over you, like waves of the rising tide wash over a sand castle until nothing remains of it. All I recall of Greg Scofield was that he wore a shirt with a large golden starburst on it. All I remember of Dan Yashinsky's stories was that they were intricately interlinked, like the Arabian nights (which also got dragged into the mix), a story would be abandoned before it was complete and the next would begin, yet it all made sense in the end. A delicious feast.
It was getting late, though the sun was still going strong. Audrey sat next to a woman whose husband, a physician, was in town for a meeting. "After the meeting he goes to a midnight golf tournament." Tee-off at midnight.
The last performance was by Katari Taiko, a Japanese drum group. "Taiko" is a large Japanese drum--they come in several sizes (the actors named them) and are usually pounded with great vigor, with drummers at times leaping from one drum to the other. Although men often perform on the drums, this was an all-women group from Vancouver. Most were young, and needed to be, because their constant banging and jumping, acting and leaping seemed quite aerobic. Yet among them was also a gray-haired lady who looked like a grandmother but was as vigorous as the rest.
The group, which started in 1979, is a collective, members take one-month turns serving as leader. "We call ourselves 'the talking drums' which is really an African term, not Japanese, but it is true, we talk a lot." They also shout encouragement to each other while drumming and use bells, wooden clappers and other percussion implements to create rich rhythms.
And so we listened to them accompany the story of Ama-terasu, the beloved sun goddess, who liked to weave. And of her brother Susana-o the storm god, who was jealous of her, threw a cow at her and ruined her weaving. The sun then hid in a cave, the world grew dark and people were in despair. They were saved by Oozu-me, the goddess of mirth, who banged on a washtub, and that was the first taiko. And so on, more drumming, masks, and a lion dance with a stylized lion chasing actresses across the stage. Afterwards, as we strolled back along the Yukon (less firm elderhostellers were given a van ride) we felt that we had put in a full day.
15 June, Saturday
My notes at this point become disorganized, and memory is no help. All it retains is snapshots, not labeled in any order and not linked to each other. One snapshot is of elderhostellers sitting with Dan Yashinsky on the picnic-benches in the hospitality area. I think it was Saturday, Audrey and I missed breakfast--we ate alone at the hotel and then walked over.
Dan had his "story stick", a crooked old stick, size of a cane, with colored bands and strings around the top and sheep toenails tied to the bottom, jingling whenever the stick was moved. Where does one get sheep toenails? Better not ask.
The stick passed from hand to hand and people told stories. We had missed Dan's, but later someone repeated it to us:
An anthropologist was studying an African tribe, which had a story teller. In the evenings, people would crowd around the story teller as he told his tales, and every one listened.
Then television arrived at the village, and for two weeks the story-teller was abandoned while everyone crowded around the receiver, watching the tube. After that, however, as if by common consent, all villagers left the television and returned to listen to the story-teller once again.
The anthropologist was surprised, and asked one of them: why did you give up the TV? Doesn't the TV know many more stories than your storyteller?
The man answered: Yes, the TV indeed knows many more stories. But the story-teller knows me.
The stick came around to me, and I told briefly about my grandmother and her poems and book. Dan was quite interested--he wanted to know details, and to be told when the book came out.
At 11 the festival opened again, starting with Ron Pumphrey, an old fellow from Newfoundland, born in Conception Bay--he joked that the local beauty queen was Miss Conception. Not much there now, he said, the fisheries were failing, people were leaving, and he then told about his first job with the "Daily Gleaner" in Jamaica. His story-telling act consisted of reading the local telephone book and cracking jokes about the entries--perhaps it worked elsewhere, but the Whitehorse phone book seemed somewhat thin material.
Audrey and I walked out after a while to look at a "gypsy wagon" trailer parked outside. It had a canvas top supported by hoops, like the top of a Conestoga wagon, resembling the much cruder wagons cowboys used for homes on the range. A stovepipe stuck out from one side, and looking over the open Dutch door, one could see a small cast-iron stove and seats with flowery cushions along three sides.
The trailer belonged to Carol Soth of Missoula, Montana--the program billed her as an "international participant" which sounded strange until one remembered this was no longer the US. Carol later came back and invited us to sit with her inside: the trailer had a bay window in front, a bookcase and many nice story-telling touches. Carol had designed it herself, the sofas converted to a bed, and as she traveled to Montana's public schools (for which she worked), she would invite kids in and tell them stories. She told us one, too.
Another snapshot: Linda Siegel, from Victoria, British Columbia, coming on stage with a long, flowery dress, pointing to it and telling us how she used to wonder, what a story-telling lady should look like. She then launched into a long allegorical tale of two sisters, Story and Truth. At first Story was dressed up in fancy garb while Truth was plain and austere, and everyone flocked to the showy sister and left Truth alone, much to her distress. Then Story gave her sister some sound advice, and now hardly anyone can tell them apart.
We later talked to Linda and got a sense of deep-down pain: there was a story there, for sure, but Linda wasn't telling and we did not probe. She grew up in Rhode Island but left the US after Nixon was re-elected, unhappy with the political situation. Unfortunately, she went to the wrong place at the wrong time, to Iran: she had lived in Canada since 1975. At first she did not want to talk about herself--"I don't know who you are"--as if the Vietnam war was still being fought, and she had fled the draft, and we might perhaps tell Big Brother. Those times are gone, the door home is open, but Linda has never come back, even for a visit, and her old fears still seem to live in her.
Sad: but I do have her address, and have written her. She wanted to know about outstanding women in Jewish history (she is very much into the women's movement), so I told her about Glčckel of Hameln and copied for her part of Glčckel's book.
Looking around, one could see at the festival many overtones of the old counterculture: earrings on men, nose rings on some women, shaved heads, colorful scarves, and strange headgear like outsize berets and cylindrical African-style caps. Men and women with hair in braids, pony tails on men, grungy outfits, matted hair, bare feet--or else, long old-style dresses on women, one wonders if they were bought in thrift shops. No-bra shirts, silver bracelets, Indian earrings, hiking boots and backpacks--overall, the diametrical opposite of the garb of a Japanese salaryman.
At lunchtime Tanya introduced me to a friend of hers, Aaron Naylor. He had edited a journal, she said, a try-out journal with no particular focus. "Now he knows all details of production" and was ready to start a serious journal. Aaron was interested in science, especially in magnetism, and wanted to ask me about it: I said, fine.
It was funny, but when I handed out in Whitehorse my NASA card with "Laboratory for Extraterrestrial Physics, " people often thought I was involved in the search for extraterrestrial life! I told Aaron a fair amount about magnetic fields, and also gave him the URL of "Exploration of the Earth's Magnetosphere." However, it soon became evident that his view of science was tinged with mysticism--he spoke about integrating science and religion, about "natural geometry" and about the golden ratio as evidence for "a guiding hand in the universe." We argued a bit. Then Tanya asked me "do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?" I replied: "I don't know, but what frightens me is the possibility that there isn't, that we are the only life and the only guardians of the sacred flame. And if we are careless, we could extinguish it."
In between performances, Audrey and I wandered around: the place was busy and swarmed with kids. Some congregated at the children's gazebo in the middle, building small tipis out of sticks and paper, or getting their face painted. Beyond that stood the traders' tent, where we later bought festival T-shirts, but one could also buy there First Nation art of various types. A woman named Selena explained to me, "I sell a pair of earrings for $20, I eat another day." Overlooking it all was a giant inflatable ape of black rubber, teeth bared, one arm stretched forward, the other raised high: it wasn't clear in what way it was connected with story-telling, but it fit in. A small air pump chugged constantly, keeping it inflated.
Here and in Alaska, it seems, people come with dreams, fall in love with the land, then wonder (like Amanda Graham) what they would do for a living. They are like devout American Zionists "making Aliyah" to Israel, arriving first and only then looking for a niche. A young man sitting behind me in the tent told me he would like to move to the Yukon and farm. Farming in the Yukon! "There are pockets of good climate," he said.
Then Audrey started feeling more and more sick. She developed a bad cough and bronchitis, also her throat hurt, and she wondered whether she was coming down with the flu. In the back of the "hospitality area" an ambulance was parked with a driver and a medic, and we asked their advice: but all they could tell us was to take her to the emergency room of the hospital, across the river. It sounded a bit excessive, but we were assured, that was the proper thing to do, and Audrey went there, in a van belonging to the festival (which had many volunteer drivers).
It wasn't the best idea, as it turned out: the service was not free but rather expensive, the emergency room charged right away some $170 (Canadian), and additional charges for the physician and the antibiotics (insurance later made it good, but it still did not seem fair). The diagnosis was uncertain--"something like that is going around in Whitehorse," she was told. Next day she felt a bit better, but that afternoon she was out of it.
Meanwhile I went around and listened to Sundog, a local music group with strong "First Nation" overtones (though only one of the five players looked Indian). A nice strong beat. Than the youngsters of Scotty Creek danced for us--kids of the Crow clan and the Wolf clan, after the dance they introduced themselves one by one.
Then Ishmael again, telling stories he had heard from his uncle when he was a kid. "I used to believe in those stories... used to believe that Raven could really turn into a human being, a smart guy..... I used to memorize them, but when you get that old, your mind.... so I wrote it up."
The story was "How the Raven stole the Sun." Tulu-ap, that's Raven, was led by the snow bird to a village, whose chief owned two lights--a big one he used when hunting, the small one he used at home. Tulu-ap badly wanted those lights for himself. He turned himself into a seed, dropped into a pitcher of water, the chief's daughter drank the water with the seed, and Tulu-ap sprouted inside her and became a baby. The chief's daughter, who had refused to get married, was rather surprised--but there it was, a baby--and when it arrived, everyone was impressed, "what a big boy for a newborn."
The baby grew older and began screaming that he wanted to play with the small light. After a while, the chief gave in and let him play with it. Then he began to clamor for the big light, too, and got to play with it as well. Every day he played with it, and to himself he said, one day I will steal it and return to my friend, the snow bird. Which he did: the old man screamed at him, but nothing helped, and the chief finally yelled, "you can have the light if you promise to show it to me once a day." And that is why the sun rises each day, and allows people to hunt in the daylight.
After that came Gerardo Avila and Ross Barrett, from Vancouver. Gerardo is originally Mexican and his broad face is wonderfully plastic: when he scowls or laughs or looks puzzled, you feel it powerfuly. He also performs magic tricks, weaving them into stories, while Ross accompanies him on a keyboard and on other instruments.
He told the story of Juan Darien, a baby tiger who decided to become a baby boy, and was picked up by a kind family. It all happened in Mexico. One year he came into town to celebrate "the day of the dead" when kids dress up. He was caught by the police inspector who interrogated him, but Juan Darien answered all questions with a ROAR. "I think he is a tiger" said the inspector, and put him in a cage.
Juan screamed "I am not a tiger", but the police brought in "the meanest of the tiger tamers" with his two dogs. It did not work--the dogs liked Juan Darien. The police then decided to shoot him off in one of the fireworks of the day of the dead, but Juan managed to escape. He went back to his mom and told her, "you are the only who understands there is no difference between an animal and a human."
Of course, I can reproduce neither all the twists of the story, nor Gerardo's spellbinding style, nor can I do justice to his other stories. He ended by putting on a gown, belt and headband, and offering us a course in "Mexican Karate." Before that however came extended haggling with his "straight man" over securing a government permit, and over the permit's stipulations, and overall was very, very funny.
After that Alain Lamotagne played his harmonica again, in a wild "Le Lys", a melody named for the Fleur de Lys, the heraldic lily and symbol of Quebec. He continued telling of the day his life changed, Luc Laferte translating from French and hamming it up--e.g. when Alain stood up on his chair, Luc did the same. Before Luc started he explained why he was wearing such a long T-shirt. "Because I stomp my feet. I used to stand 6 feet 4 inches tall, but all that stomping has shrunk me."
The day that changed his life, Alain said, was Bastille day, 14 July 1959. "I was seven years old, and my mom made an ENORMOUS chocolate cake (hands trace the size, a yard across)... To blow out the candle I had to stand on a chair. I not just blew them out. I FLATTENED them... So my father, impressed by my lung power, gave me my first harmonica. I went out and shouted: I had reached the age of logic!"
And with that cue, he pulled out the harmonica and launched into another medley of nonstop, wild and fast melodies, accompanied by foot-stomping. He later tried to teach us how to stomp, but it is not something you acquire casually, it is a talent you have to be born with.
Meanwhile Linn was sitting back in the audience, diligently knitting her yellow blouse. On Friday she searched the library for patterns to use, telling us "I am now at the critical point." Found them, too.
Her husband Jan, an easy-going chubby and pleasant man, told at dinner about himself. He came from Norway, and during the war, German occupation troops were billetted in his parents' house. They arrived one day, took over part of the house and put in it a dozen soldiers. These were young Germans, 18-20 years old, raised in the Hitler Youth and believing in Nazi ideology, and Jan's mother hated them. Later however, as the war in Russia became intense, they were sent to the front and older men replaced them, men in their 40s. Still Jan's mother hated them all. One was named Fritz.
By that time all of the family's garden had been dug up for potatoes and vegetables, but Jan's mother still planted flowers around the house. One day Fritz came to her and asked to be allowed to take care of those flowers. Why do you ask me, Jan's mother said, you will anyway do whatever you please. No, he said, I won't do it unless I have your permission. She gave it and the flowers flourished, Fritz took good care of them.
In 1944 Fritz disappeared, and in 1945 the German occupation ended. In 1946 the family suddenly heard a knock on the door, and there stood Fritz. He had come back, all his family was gone, and he wanted to become a Norwegian citizen.
Herta Przeczeck also told a bit of her story. She grew up in Reichenberg and was an ethnic German. Her father however was a labor organizer, marked by the Nazis, and when the Germans invaded and my own family had to run, hers had to run, too. She was 11 years old. Prime Minister McKenzie of Canada was urged at the time to admit Jewish refugees, but dragged his feet and finally told his advisers, "find me someone else who can be admitted and who is safe." And Herta told me, "that was how we got admitted to Canada.
16 June, Sunday
Sunday morning Audrey was still not feeling well, and in the afternoon we were so saturated that we took things easy and went home early.
As noted before, it is hard to recall which of the stories were told on Saturday and which came on Sunday, they all blend together. At one time I went into the kids' tent and listened to Marty Waldman sing, sounding a bit like Mr. Rogers:
I can put it into words and I can tell you too" I can put it into words and I can tell you too."
His verses told about grandma's visit, about a school bully, about dad and mom tucking him in, and how he himself feels
And score the winning run."
Marty lives in Whitehorse, yet another Yukon settler determined to stay: in the evenings he performs in "The Frantic Follies" at the Westmark hotel, and he also holds a part-time teaching job.
Then Dan Yashinsky came up and told "about the turtles, the people and the stones. " After the world was created, no one was born and no one died. Then the turtles came to the Creator and told him life was too boring with the same faces around all the time. How much they would like to raise little turtles and watch them grow!
And the Creator answered: "That can be arranged. However, if your want to raise little turtles, you also must be ready to die. Otherwise, if turtles are born and none die, soon the entire world would be knee-deep in turtles." The turtles thought about it and said, life is long enough for us, we will go along. And soon there were little turtles everywhere, and old turtles died when their time came.
Then people saw how much the turtles enjoyed their little ones, and told the Creator that they, too, wanted to raise little ones. And the Creator said--well, you saw the deal I made with the turtles. You can have that deal, too. And the men and women thought it over and said--life is long enough for us, we will go along. And ever since then, people had the joy of raising children, but also knew that sooner or later their life would end.
Dan stopped. Then someone asked: "And the stones? What about the stones?"
"Oh, the stones. They did not want any children. They live forever."
But not all is sunshine, even in Whitehorse. In the parking lot in front of the festival a little woman, dark skinned and very quiet, walks around handing out brochures to all comers, actually xeroxed sheets folded into thirds. I still have one. The front shows a smiling young man with crew-cut hair, a high-school athlete one might say, and below is his name--"Francis J. Weber, 1974-1995".
Open it up: "My son Francis was murdered on July 27, 1995, at the age of 21. He was stabbed to death by a young offender.
Open another panel: "I, Irene Subhaswati Weber, am the mother of Francis Sunjay Weber." And so forth, and so on. Another panel is addressed "To the killer of my son." And on the back: "I know my story is not an easy one to read. I know I sound bitter and distraught. I am bitter and distraught, and I thank you for taking the time to read my lament."
She asks support for better laws, to make sure that such acts will no longer happen. "Please, talk to your MLA, form a neighborhood action group, or write a letter to the newspaper."
Even in Whitehorse.
I watched the end of an act by Francis Firebrace, the Australian--of mixed parentage, half aboriginee--a very good performer, an older fellow with an impressive white beard and white hair, wearing a distinctive outfit. He was telling (I think) about a crocodile man, and ended by noting how the aboriginee culture was now absorbed by all Australians: "What will happen to us? White man conquered us, with guns, but we are coming back, walking the land again, and some of our people will have white skins."
Louise Profeit-Leblanc came back, too. She had been to the top of a big mountain--Si-me, the red mountain--to which she had taken the Katari Taiko drummers, to play in the open. A van carried their drums, everything got assembled, the drummers did their act and a helicopter took pictures, to be used for publicity by Canadian Airlines. The caption will be "We take ours to the top."
She then told of the man who married the Sun's daughter, a story which Angela Sidney shared with her "on a hot sunny day." It started with a married man who was nagged by his wife. "You looked at that lady!" she would shout at him, accusingly (I wish I could wiggle my finger the way Louise did). Finally the man ran away from her crying, realizing she would never change.
He lay in a meadow when he suddenly saw a tiny old woman come out of a mousehole and stand next to him: "Hello, grandson! I am mouse woman. You are the one who put the mouse on the beach." And the man remembered that when he was young, his brothers were trapping muskrat and found a mouse. They kicked it into the icy water, but he went in and rescued it.
Mouse woman knew the man wanted to marry the Sun's daughter, who was closely guarded by her dad. She therefore gave him magic implements--a willow that grew when pulled, two shirts which enabled him to change into birds--one made with the feathers of camp robber (raven?), one with feathers of the hummingbird, also a flint and a piece of magic ice.
With the help of her magic, the man slipped into the garden where the Sun's daughter was resting. I forgot all the twists of her story, but when a guard came he turned into a bird, when the Sun threw him into boiling water he cooled it with the magic ice. Finally he won her hand--and she appeared to him in the form of a sunbeam. "His family could see her human form after a while, but others could not."
Then his old wife surprised him and chased the Sun's daughter out. The Sun got angry and burned the man's village, but the man hid under the ice on the river bank and escaped. And some say he then went back to the Sun and retrieved his wife.
I also visited the Gold Rush Tent. "The Gold Street Theatre Troupe" of the McBride Museum in Whitehorse acted out tall tales about miners; a bit corny but all in good fun, a man and two women with big cotton beards and mustaches stuck onto their faces, playing banjo, guitar and washboard. More touching was the gold-rush story of a married couple who traveled to the gold fields through the North-West Territories, a trip of two years with great hardships, ending in disappointment. It must be a true story, such things are not invented.
Then came Ted Stone, in dungarees, a writer from Salt Spring Island near Vancouver Island. Ted told about the history of the gold rush, about miner justice, and more, good tales, often funny. One was about a band of miners, including two brothers, who had made an agreement--one would cook for the rest, and whoever complained had to take over the cooking.
The young brother was the first cook, but soon got tired of his work and began turning out worse and worse meals. Still no one complained, because no one wanted to take his place; instead the other miners gradually went away, until only he and his brother were left. No matter what the younger brother prepared, the other one would not complain. One day the young brother found that mice had got into the provisions, ate some of the food and left a mound of mouse turds. He took them, mixed them with his brother's oatmeal and served them for dinner.
The older brother took one bite (Ted acted it out with flair) and immediately spat it out, sputtering. "This oatmeal tastes--it tastes--just like MOUSE TURDS!" he roared. Then he realized he might well become the cook, and added "but I like it that way!"
Later I heard Ted in the children's tent. His house, he said, stood next to a path leading to the woods and the lake: when he felt anxious, he would first pace back and forth in his room, but soon his feet would carry him out to the path and the lake, and there the answer often came to him.
This also happened when he was scheduled to tell a story in the children's tent, and he walked out--"but down south something happens that doesn't happen here now: it gets dark." He went into the darkness, and suddenly realized that the forest was not just dark, it was also full of loud noises, like the bells clowns tie on their shoes, like rusty gates swinging, like carpenters sawing, and then all three noises together.
Then he reached the water and suddenly all the noise stopped, and he only heard "plop! plop!" as the frogs jumped into the water. And that moment he knew the story he would tell, an African story about frogs, from "Tales beside the Crocodile" by George Herschel.
Once upon the time the frogs were the worst bickerers. They argued and fought endlessly, each wanted to talk, none wanted to listen.
One wise frog, feeling embarassed, decided that what the frogs needed was a king or queen. He called a meeting and all frogs agreed it was a wise idea, but then fell to arguing about the details and never agreed on anything. So the wise frog climbed the mountain where Mumbi, the local god, lived. Mumbi was asleep when the frog arrived, and was rather annoyed to be woken up: go home, he told the wise frog, I will find you a king.
A few days later Mumbi woke up and remembered his promise. What could he do? He saw a big rock, shaped somewhat like a frog, picked it up and threw it into the pond, frightening all the frogs, who ran off. "There is your king" Mumbi roared, "his name is Goman, and he does not like to be disturbed."
Goman sank to the bottom, and after a week, the frogs came back and behaved. They decided Goman was a pretty good king.
But after a while they realized Goman did not do anything. Then small frogs found they could swim around and even into Goman, and he did not react. A while later the big frogs realized it, too, and gradually went back to their old ways. Things got so bad that the old wise frog decided to go back and visit Mumbi once more. That time Mumbi sent Mamba, the crocodile, to be king of the frogs. Mamba knew how to shut them up, and that's why today, if you ever come up behind frogs, they will stop: they think you might be their king, Mamba, paying a visit.
Ted is author of "Hoop Snakes and other Tales," or some title like that. Hoop snakes are mighty dangerous, extremely poisonous and very fast--if they want to catch you they bite their tail, form a hoop, and roll after you. They are gone now, though--because of pollution, females have taken to rolling clockwise, males counterclockwise, and the two sexes found it hard to get together.
Ted told the kids how he was once chased by a hoop snake, no matter how fast he ran it still gained on him. He had a poplar stick with him, so he stopped and hit the snake, breaking the hoop. The snake tried to bite him then, but its fangs only hit the stick, six inches from his hand, a close call. Then it disappeared into the bush.
Since it was a very poisonous snake, the stick soon began to swell. By the time he reached home, it was the size of a fencepost, and by the time he and his family got it to the sawmill, it had become a big log, furnishing enough planks for an 8 by 11 foot chicken house.
It made a good chicken house, too, and it would still be standing if he had not found somewhere in his house half a can of red paint and decided to paint it, to make it look better. Unfortunately the paint drew the poison out of the wood, and the chicken house shrank to the size of a birdhouse.
The festival ended late at night, with the return of Jerry Albert, who reported a very successful appearance in Vancouver. The performers had a final drum jam and a "closing circle" at midnight, but Audrey and I were worn out long before that, and one could also see other elderhostelers heading back to the hotel. This has been a festival for the younger people, anyway: we have had our fill, and then some.
17 June, Monday
Our group got a treat after breakfast: Dan Yashinsky and Oliver Schroer dropped by the hotel before going back to Toronto. Dan encouraged us to tell stories of our own, passing his decorated stick around the room, and when it came to me, I told of my mom's musical aunt, Ernestina Kramer or "Aunt Tini," last pupil of Liszt, before whom all musically-inclined children of the family had to appear and audition. Her verdict on my mother was "poor kid, no talent."
Oliver played spirited tunes, including a Shetland fiddler's melody, combining the style of Scot, Norse and Troll ("Trowy Tune"), and sounding somewhat bagpipy. He concluded with a foot-stomping jig, and then Dan told an African story. He later asked if any of us had a family phrase, an expression which grew in our own family, with special meanings just to us. One lady's contribution: "fish can't see the water."
The next item on the agenda was a talk on the "Elder Documentation Project" of the First Nations' oral history, in the familiar library room. However, Audrey and I had just about depleted our clean laundry, so instead I went to a public laundromat. Whitehorse has two of those, sited right next to each other at the edge of town. It took a brisk walk to get there, lugging a big bundle, and I came back about two hours later, in time for lunch, again catered by the Alpine bakery.
But lunch was delayed to 1 pm, giving Audrey and me time to cross the road and visit the steamship Klondike, the last paddlewheeler to ply the Yukon between Whitehorse and Dawson. It is now safely beached, beautifully restored (to the tune of 12 million Canadian dollars) and turned into a museum. An energetic young blonde named Michelle gave us and a few other visitors a most interesting tour, lasting close to an hour.
The "Klondike" was the biggest of the fleet, 210 feet long and over 1000 tons in weight, drawing just two feet of water. A boat needs a rather flat bottom for such a shallow draft and the "Klondike" even lacked a keel: tense steel cables, passing from bow to stern over tall "kingposts," kept her ends from sagging. The bottom deck was restored to the way it appeared when the ship was launched in 1937 (using parts of an earlier "Klondike" which ran aground), though no doubt a lot cleaner. It was stacked with typical cargo, including boxes of "Reindeer" condensed milk (an old brand of Borden of Canada), ore sacks, and in the middle, a long stack of spruce logs lined up to stoke the boiler. The steam engine consumed a cord and a half each hour: at the height of the river traffic, with many riverboats on the Yukon, logging camps proliferated along the river to supply them, ultimately stripping the land of much of its forest.
Second class passengers slept on the cargo deck, paying $25 for the passage downstream to Dawson (40 hours) and $40 for the way back (4 days, stopping for the short summer nights), or else they worked their passage. They slept on folding cots, while women and children could retire to cabins for the night. The boiler was in front, and insulated pipes connected it to the two huge pistons, one on each side, which turned the paddle-wheel at the stern. The pipes also supplied steam for steering motors, for electric generators and for other machinery, a fairly sophisticated set-up. The crew slept in little cabins right next to the engines.
The first class, in contrast, rode in comfort. It had a parlor with large windows facing the front, the preferred place (we were told) for gambling, also a first-class dining room and a galley not worse than those of a good hotel, and cabins along the side. The rear deck had a shuffleboard promenade, but was also equipped with water barrels and buckets, for quick action if sparks from the funnel started a fire. And while the pilot in the wheelhouse used a small wheel with power-assisted steering, for emergencies he also had a huge manual wheel dipping below the floor, as well as a searchlight and other aids.
The highway killed off the steamboat business, and of all the big fleet, only this one and three others remain--one of them, in Fairbanks, still carrying tourist passengers during the summer season.
After lunch Ted Stone gave us a lesson in "writing our own story." He started by telling us "You already know how to write." So what was it we had to learn? "You have heard of writers' block."
He sustains himself by his own writing (right now he was researching material for a book on the Gold Rush) and by teaching classes in writing. "You can't learn to tell a great story, but you can learn to write confidentally. " In his classes, he said, he often came across people with good ideas who never wrote them down. Why? "You need to get into the right frame of mind."
To help us attain such a frame of mind, he distributed sheets of paper and asked us to sit down and write for five minutes--about anything. I wrote:
What he would like to give us, Ted said, was a way to start writing. Some people just take courses and never go on from there.
"A little more about myself. I am a writer: I think I became one because of story telling." Someone once asked Ted what were the greatest influences on his writing career: "The library and the poolroom." In the library he found books, and in the poolroom were the people who told stories. He grew up on the prairies of Manitoba, and for the last 15 years has earned his living by writing, but before that he was a farmer (hay and animals), cab driver and counselor. At one time he worked mainly as a journalist, writing material for radio and TV, but now most of his income is from books, some not under his name, e.g. a book he is now editing on raising sheep. He still owns some acreage on Salt Spring Island where he lives.
He then went around the room, asking us why we wanted to write. It turned out that quite a few of us had in fact done some writing. Here is what was said:
Dorothy Heavisides: "I like to write but am lazy."
Angela Miller: Loves music, but also writes short stories. Has won an award for writing, but "it is too much hard work."
Bob Faulkner: Something of a historian, published a history of housing in Vancouver.
Steve Crib: Earned money writing articles for "Garden" magazine.
Phyllis Crib: Has written about three quarters of her own life story.
Bert Turnbull: Author of 29 science papers, which he tried to make as interesting as possible, because "science is pretty dull." It took him about 10 pages of writing to turn out one page of manuscript.
Irene Turnbull, about Bert: "But he wrote some nice poems while courting me." She herself has written many short stories, also poetry, even an unpublished book.
Herta Przeczek: Goes down to Arizona every year to take classes on "writing your own story."
Jan Pedersen was also working on his own story, but it has dragged on too long. His writing was now at a standstill, and he has only reached his 20th year.
Linn Pedersen was told over the years she was an excellent writer, but wrote only when she had to. "Other than that I loathe writing."
Iris McLean was a journalism major--had done some writing, but "got off the track."
Myself: done a lot of varied writing, would like to get some books written after I retire.
Audrey: "I love to read but hate to write."
Lois Salo: Her therapist told her "writing will be the saving of you", and that precipitated a serious case of the writer's block. But she would like to write her husband's story--as a hobo, then a merchant mariner--and also feminist fairy tales.
Fred Coburn: In school he was forced "to read every bloody classic" and to write a lot. After the war he became a forester and was responsible for drawing up management plans. "You had to be succint or someone else was given the job."
Margaret Coburn: Writes for an environmental group.
What a talented bunch we are! Someone asked Ted "How many rejections do you get for every acceptance?" Ted: "Rejections will come in steadily. You have got to accept it." He advised us before writing a story to talk to someone about it first: it is then "virtually accepted", although it might have to be rewritten.
The next exercise (more sheets handed out) was to outline a short story. I am not too good at inventing stories, especially on the spur of the moment, so I decided to outline the impression of my ferry ride from Juneau to Skagway, focusing on the people one meets on board. A draft of the opening:
The rest of the session was devoted to story-telling: "Oral stories are just good conversation.... I need to have a particular feeling about a story to tell it." Some practical advice:
As you take a morning walk through the woods, or drive a car, tell the story to yourself again and again.
--Sometimes, while telling your story, you make a mistake, leave something out. Just go on, even if you dropped the funny part. Never admit to the listeners "Oh, I forgot to tell you..." Instead, just weave into the story what had been omitted.
--Where does one get stories? The old rule still holds: "lie and steal." Some will be original creations, some will be taken from one's own life, some from books.
Ted ended by telling a story of the Sodo people from the Ojibway tribe, about their trickster, named Nanabush. Nanabush got into a fight in his village, and afterwards walked away in a huff. He got hungry, tricked a buffalo to jump off a cliff to its death, but in his turn was tricked into a race against porcupine. While the two raced, wolves and raccoons came and ate up the buffalo, leaving nothing for Nanabush. He then punished the porcupine by attaching hawthorns to its skin with spruce resin, and ever since then the porcupine wears its spines. These, of course, are just the bare bones--Ted told it with twists and inflections, an enjoyable performance.
Are oral stories "just good conversation"? One wonders. I suspect they are more of a dramatic performance, somewhere halfway between the book and theatre. Theatre stripped down to its basic level--no scenery, no costumes, just one performer. Austerity restricts the range, but the performance gains by having a single sharp focus, the voice of the storyteller. Also, it is eminently portable--no theatre hall, no elaborate preparation, just sit down and tell, or listen, at a friendly meeting, campfire, classroom. The stage has embraced storytelling too, witness Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight" and the many one-man and one-woman shows that followed it.
A similar relationship probably exists between video and the book. Films and TV are enormously powerful, but are also expensive to produce, in time, money and effort. Books on the other hand are a cottage industry, all one needs is time, subject matter and the ability to express it in words, a one-person job. Which is why one may hope that books will never disappear, though they might shift from paper to other media.
The relation between storytelling and books is more complicated. Storytellers came before books, and storytelling may therefore seem like a relic of simpler times. But we live in a literary age: stories are written down, for good reason, and what one hears from a storyteller usually echoes something that also exists in print. Fair enough: Shakespeare's plays may all be written down, yet we not only enjoy watching them on stage, we also find a remarkable variety in their performances.
Dinner was held at the "Klondike Rib and Salmon" restaurant in the center of town, a historic place, the original chow hut used by miners. Despite the name, all we got was just a chicken dinner; meanwhile rain began falling outside. After the meal we were to tour Canyon City, the Gold-Rush settlement which (I believe) preceded Whitehorse. Canyon City, a wild town with bars and gambling, was where miners on their way to the Klondike unloaded their cargo and portaged it past the Whitehorse rapids. Today the Yukon rapids are gone, replaced by a placid lake behind the city's hydroelectric dam.
The tour left late, and Audrey stayed behind, still too sick. A wise move: although the rain had tapered off, there wasn't much to see, for nothing remains of Canyon City except vague indentations in the ground where shacks used to stand or where the tramway ran. The tramway, which made great profits between 1898 and 1900, was a horse-drawn railroad with logs in place of rails, running on concave wheels shaped like giant sewing-machine pulleys, a system apparently devised by loggers (next day we saw a surviving tramway wagon at the McBride Museum). After 1900 the railroad made the tramway obsolete, but the owners turned this into a huge profit by selling their right-of-way to the railroad company.
An enthusiastic young man, accompanied by an equally enthusiastic large dog, told us about the archeological excavations at the site--no great haul, just a few bottles, rusted cans, coins and nuggets. To someone who had seen the antiquities of the Near East, the notion of excavating relics less than a century old seemed pretty strange.
18 June, Tuesday
In the morning, Linda Siegel conducted a workshop on story-telling. A short tense woman with curly hair, member of the Victoria story-telling guild.
First she asked each of us to write three words which summed-up what we wanted out of this workshop, and to list "three stories which resonated in your life."
Three things I wanted from this workshop? New insights on telling stories, new cultural ideas, and new experiences--people, memories, places. Stories which resonated? Ein Uneba, the small crater and the visit by the military police (I won't elaborate). Here is what was collected from the class, things they wanted from the workshop or liked in a story:
--How does a teller develop a story?
--Could we hear some more stories?
--Stories should be short and should have a human interest.
--Seeks direction, inspiration, resolve to continue.
--Likes stories about people, rather than animal fables.
--Wants to learn how to create drama--myths, folk tales, moral tales.
--Wants to learn how to tell stories.
--Most stories seem to have a happy ending, while she sought real stories, from her own life.
(Husband: "I thought I was the happy ending.")
--Is there a "classic" style of story telling, like the "classic" short story?
--Knows how to tell stories to children; but what about stories for seniors, or for isolated people?
Linda listed them on a large sheet of paper hanging from an easel, and discussed many--but her discussion turned abstract, to what Audrey termed "newspeak": bio-energetic exercises, in which you relax and view yourself as a rooted vegetable, and "centering," a sort of relaxing daydreaming. Linda also put us through "exercises", e.g. splitting into groups of four, each of which received a piece of paper listing some emotion (our group's: "Happiness"). When its turn came, the foursome would stand behind a sheet, only their heads poking out, displayed whatever emotion they were given, and the rest of us tried to guess what it was.
I still don't know how one can learn to tell stories: it is part of learning dramatics, really. I did not feel I was getting much of it that day, which is why I skipped Linda's afternoon session. Audrey went shopping, and later we met at the McBride Museum of the Yukon, across the street from the Regina--an oversize log cabin with a thatched roof on which grass was growing.
The museum is small but full of interesting local history. Around the walls of its meeting room are pictures of pioneers, photos from early Whitehorse, stories and some mementos. From time to time the "Gold Street Theatre Troupe," the one we saw at the festival, performed there; the show we attended included some songs and a dramatization of "miner justice", during the brief period before the Canadian Mounted Police arrived and imposed legal order. Many tourists came to listen, and the troupe also performed at the SS Klondike.
A larger room displayed rocks and mounted animals. It even boasted the skeleton of an extinct giant beaver, the size of a big dog with large teeth, although the sign said it built no dams. Other rooms had furnishings from the old days, and in the yard stood an old railroad engine, stage coach and mining implements: just as we were leaving, a gold-panning demonstration began there.
Audrey bought that afternoon the gold nugget she wanted as a souvenir--a fairly sizable one, costing about $200. The owner of the store assured her that it was genuine, also telling her at length about nuggets and their trade. He told her that the nugget was just the way it was found, with pieces of dross still sticking to it, cleaned and washed but not covered with a wash of gold the way nuggets sold in the tourist shops in Skagway were.
Around 5 pm the bus we rode the day before to Canyon City came to take us to the graduation dinner at the Ba'hai Center north of Whitehorse. The Ba'hai faith, in Whitehorse? Yes indeed--Angela Sidney belonged to it, and Luise Profeit-Leblanc was a member too. That was yet another dimension of life on the Yukon. Murd (for Murdoch) Nicholson, Whitehorse barber and president of the festival's board of directors, is a Seventh-Day Adventist. A white-haired big fellow with a fierce handlebar mustache, we met at the festival and when I told him I came from Israel, he asked whether I kept the day of Sabbath. I meekly admitted to being a backslider, though I did sometimes attend the services. Murd also attended our graduation.
The Ba'hai center stands close to Lake Laberge, a large lake traversed by the Yukon River, some thirty-odd miles north of Whitehorse. The road there drove home the emptiness of this land--hardly any houses, just hills, gullies and scraggly trees, and in one place, for variety, a truck which had missed a curve, lying on its side off the road. The Ba'hai center is the site of religious retreats: a pretty polygonal wooden building two floors high, with a central high hall and around it, rooms for meetings and meditation, exquisitely decorated with pictures and Persian calligraphy. Symbolism was everywhere--in the nine pointed star on the floor, in the nine sides of the balcony above--but I don't recall details.
What was missing was electric light, for the accident which we passed on the road had apparently also cut off the power. We ate our dinner by candlelight, which added a festive touch. Of course, this being Whitehorse in midsummer, the sun was still up when we finished.
Unfortunately, the lack of light also led to a small mishap. One of the elder ladies--I no longer recall her name--was coming down the dark stairway from the upstairs, missed a step and tumbled down. She wasn't badly hurt, but her leg was cut open and bled a fair amount: the bus driver ran for his first-aid kit, got her leg bandaged, and gradually things quieted down again.
Pat, the caretaker, had prepared a very nice dinner. I spoke with her later, and she said she was about to leave for 30 months in Haifa, to work there at the Ba'hai center on Mt. Carmel, which was being greatly expanded. Tanya had prepared a diploma for every member of the Elderhostel, but as each of us went up to the front to receive it, he or she had first to tell a brief story.
Audrey told the spooky story about her grandmother, how her cousin dreamt her late grandfather appeared to her and told her "if you don't feel happy where you are, I can take you to me." Just then the kid's mother woke up and yelled" don't take her, papa!". It touched many people.
I told how David Gil's dad recognized in my father the nervous recruit who had guarded him as a prisoner of war in World War 1, forty years earlier.
Lois, who had told Ted Stone she wanted to write feminist fairy tales, did tell one, in which a princess rescued a prince, a story complete with a winged horse, fairy godmother and a space suit. Jan Pedersen told how his son went to Newport, and was given money for the bus ride after promising not hitch a ride. A bit later the phone rang, some woman he did not know, and she told Jan what a nice young man his son was, and what delightful company he provided after she picked him up in her car... Dorothy Heavisides, from England, told of her son who lived in Derbyshire, whose wife insisted that her babies would all be born across the line in Yorkshire, because according to local rules, only players born in Yorkshire could play cricket for the county...Robert Faulkner told of a boat voyage. In the dark, he flushed the toilet by pumping sea water in, and the water glowed in a strange way, because of some sea-creatures in it (Tanya:"The northern lights in a toilet!").
But the star performer was the last one, Albert Turnbull, the grumpy retired biochemist, who recited from memory "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert Service. Service had lived in Whitehorse, and the alleged cremation took place at Lake Laberge, so it was a perfect ending. We then went out, lined up against a big stack of cordwood (set up for the coming winter, no doubt), handed our cameras to our friend the driver and had our collective pictures taken.
It was still quite light and Tanya thought it would be just as well to go down to the lake, about a mile away. We stood on the pebbly beach and looked at the calm water, with distant mountains mirrored in it. Then we climbed into the bus and drove home to pack.
19 June, Wednesday
Some days all your plans go for naught, and this was one of them, though it ended well. It started pleasantly enough: the friendly lady at the "Regina" restaurant prepared huge breakfast pancakes as her farewell to the elderhostelers. Audrey woke up hungry and happily pounced on them, but they were more than she could finish.
We were supposed to return the way we came, by bus to the railroad station at Fraser, then by train to Skagway. The day before we called to see if the bus could pick us up at the Regina, where it was scheduled to pass, but were told it could not. So we dragged our luggage a block or more to the old WP&YR railroad station, where according to our printed schedule the bus was expected at 8:15. The time came and passed, and no bus--still, schedules may run late. By 8:30 we were worried: a woman came and opened the offices in the station building, and Audrey phoned the travel company from there. She was told the bus had left on an earlier schedule, we should come in and they would see what they could do.
That day we got our full quota of physical exercise--schlepping the heavy suitcases to the travel office, a distance of several blocks, and then all the way back to the Regina. A friendly woman at the office--gray hair but young looks--called Skagway, then told us that by mistake we were given last year's schedule, and would get a refund (it later turned out the Skagway people were unaware of any schedule change). But what about our 4:15 plane from Skagway to Glacier Bay? No problem, she said, a regular bus was leaving for Skagway from the Regina at 2 p.m. and would get us there on time: the trip took two hours or so, and we gained another hour from a time zone change. So we walked back to the Regina and bought tickets from the "Alaska Direct Bus Line": the clerk who sold them said we were the only passengers and therefore the driver could take us straight to the Skagway airport. The bus was coming up from Skagway and would arrive around 1 am.
With half a day on our hands, we decided to walk back to the Steamship Klondike. We stopped at the library, which was distributing a poster. showing an Indian huddling under a blanket (during the dark long winter, no doubt) and reading a book. The caption--large letters in Indian (Tutchone?), small in English--was "Reading Makes you Wise." We later mailed it to our daughter-in-law Robin, a librarian in California, using a new pretty set of Canadian stamps commemorating the centennial of the Klondike gold rush.
At the "Klondike" we watched video scenes from the Gold Rush and the steamboat era, then crossed the road to the government building, to admire once more the stained-glass windows depicting Yukon history and to get a closer look at the beautifully designed building. A young "First Nation" woman (could it be that at my age all others seem "young"?) volunteered to show us the legislative chamber and its wall tapestry. It is a large hall with formal desks for council, dominated by a large abstract tapestry rising high behind the speaker. It vaguely suggests the fireweed flower, Yukon's symbol, rising from a rich green ground which blends with the green carpet, and the Canadian woman artist who created it spent 1400 hours on the job. In front of the speaker lies the mace of office.
For lunch we visited the Alpine Bakery, source of some great elderhostel lunches. It was housed in a large Swiss-chalet building, and inside it the rich smell of baking bread was enough to make one hungry. It sold not just bread and baked goods, but also a variety of "ecological" merchandise--organic foods, herbal producs, even a "deja shoe" made with recycled material. However, it had no seats for customers, so after we bought a sort of bready spinakopita and spicy cheesebread sticks, we ate our lunch sitting on a log outside.
Back at the hotel--panic again. No bus from Skagway! Later a phone call came from the driver: one of his passengers was refused admission to Canada--no papers, no money--and by the rules of the border, the driver had to return him to Skagway before continuing. But the clerk assured us the bus was now coming, and he furthermore called the LAB airline in Skagway and was told that our plane would not leave until we arrived.
Around 2:30 the bus came--a passenger van, more sensible for this route than a full-size bus. The young man who drove it made good time and the scenery was just as pretty as the week before, mountains and long lakes between them, the legacy of glaciers. At one point we suddenly came upon a black bear, ambling along the road: it paid no attention. A brief stop at the US border post, then down the valley towards Skagway, to the airport and right onto the edge of the runway.
Actually, three planes were leaving Skagway for Gustavus, at the entrance to Glacier Bay, and they were almost empty--they were going to bring back a full load of passengers. One small plane took two young women, Kim and Laurie, whom we later met at Glacier Bay. Another carried everybody's luggage, and we were the only passengers in the third plane, a twin-engine 8-seater. Ours took off last, but it soon overtook one of the planes which had gone ahead of us. Audrey looked out and to her great amazement, saw the smaller plane below us, flying backwards. "How can that be?" Vector addition of velocities, that's how. She had never before flown in such a small plane, and was at first felt a bit worried, but soon began to enjoy the close views of the landscape.
Our pilot, a handsome young fellow named Ole, said before taking off that his route would depend on the weather. Because we were seaward of the coastal mountains, the sky was again cloudy, quite unlike Whitehorse weather. We flew for a while over the Lynn Canal, with great views of the peaks and of the Davidson Glacier. But the clouds were fairly high, only the highest mountaintops reached them, and Ole soon turned inland towards a pass in the mountains. The ground kept coming closer--silvery creeks and cascades, surrounded by greenery--then we were skimming above the high country, rocks and snowbanks close below us and the cloud ceiling just above us, then the land fell away again and soon we were heading south above Excursion Inlet. On one side was substantial settlement, huge sheds--a salmon cannery, it turned out--but we turned the other way. For a while we had a distant view of countless islands and inlets, then the plane swooped down and soon it bumped onto the Gustavus runway and rolled to a stop in front of the igloo-like LAB terminal building.
Gustavus is a small village--it started as a farm, but the land, glacial debris, was only a few feet above sea level and too waterlogged for farming. Even now its evergreens are dying, part of a natural process (we were later told) which ends in a muskeg bog. So now Gustavus lives mainly off tourism, for which it is strategically located. During World War II the US military was based in Gustavus, presenting this tiny community with a runway big enough for Boeing jets.
We stood around the concrete igloo and chatted, moving inside whenever the wind picked up, and waited for the lodge bus, which was bringing passengers for the planes' return trip. We met the two young women from the smaller plane, they both had studied together at MIT and then their paths diverged. Laurie, who stood by and didn't say much, now lived in New York and worked with computers. Kim had studied geology at MIT, shifted to forestry, then to political science, then reassessed her life and decided to become a policewoman. She attended police academy and was looking forward to her first job with the police in Colorado Springs.
As we waited we told her about our kids, including Allon, his computers and the odd hours he kept. A nerd, she asked? No, a more active sort--theatre staging, target shooting, even practical jokes, and I told about the time he and friends put a plasterboard sheet over the office door to a colleague who had gone on vacation, refinished and repainted everything (even put in a fake electric socket, a nice touch). It was quite a shock to the friend when he came back and found his office had disappeared. Kim's comment: "Oh, an MIT wanabee!"
Ultimately a bus arrived driven by Kathie, a redhead. The Glacier Bay lodge has everything down to a system: the driver hands out keys and instructions, you wait in your room while your luggage is brought to you, leaving barely time for dinner and for a quick visit to the lodge--see slides given by the naturalist, buy gifts. You stay in your room just long enough for a night's sleep, then out, early breakfast, board the boat at 7, and by the time you come back, your bus and luggage are ready to go back to the airport.
The bumpy road to the lodge was being regraded, preparing it for a long-overdue repaving. The lodge is rustic and pretty, built of massive logs, and the visitors' rooms--strung out in a long, long row, connected by boardwalks--were surrounded by incredibly lush greenery. Ours was nicely furnished, though the morning shower water was not even tepid: I brazened it out, Audrey declined.
June 20, Thursday
We got up at 5:30 am, quickly dressed, took a shower (or tried to), packed and downed a quick breakfast. The "Spirit of Adventure" was already waiting at the dock--a bigger catamaran than the one which took us to Tracy Arm, with two large enclosed decks and a smaller open one on top. We took seats at the front, and waited. Next to us sat a couple from Helena, Montana: their son who lived in Juneau remained on the dock, and the son's two adopted Indian kids were waving good-bye. He and the son had gone fishing the day before and caught four halibut, up to 55 pounds: a local plant would cut, freeze and pack them, then send them back to Montana.
We waited much longer than we had expected. Another tour boat, bigger than ours and with passenger cabins, tied up nearby, and after a while its passengers came over and joined us. The official word was that the number of boat permits each day was limited, and the other boat did not get one; but passengers later told us that pipes had broken on their boat, water leaked inside and repairs had to be made.
The sky was overcast, but no rain. Glacier Bay is quite big, an expanse of smooth mirror-like water surrounded by forests with snowy peaks above them. It is not just a US National Park, but one of ten international nature sites singled out by the UN for preservation. When Vancouver approached the bay in 1794, it was filled with ice: a giant glacier front extended across its entire width, about seven miles, not far from the park lodge. By the time John Muir arrived in 1879, the ice had receded 48 miles, the fastest known retreat of any glacier: by now about 65 miles are clear, all the way to the Canada border, and the single wide glacier has been replaced by many narrower ones descending to the bay from all sides. The reason for all this ice (here and further north along the Alaska seacoast) is less the cold climate than the tremendous snowfall, fed by the Pacific Ocean.
The boat moved quite fast, making a beeline for South Marble Island, a small islet. Far away a whale spouted, then raised its tail flukes into the air and dove down. Next to the island some seals bobbed in the water. The naturalist came up--not quite as lively as Mary or Liana at Tracy Arm--and showed drawings of various birds, to help us tell the big-beaked puffin from the big black cormorant, the common murre ("like a little penguin") and the black oyster catcher with its orange beak.
None of these exotic birds were on nearby North Marble Island--a big whitish cliff, well named--just scads of gulls (Audrey: "you get a lot of gull with a little gloss"). But some puffins, murres and pigeon guillemots swam by in the water. And then we reached a big colony of seals, sunning on a ledge above the water, shoulder to shoulder, a wall-to-wall carpet of seals. Two males (most likely) at the edge of the pack were confronting each other, rearing up and baring teeth. We stopped to watch, then scooted away again, heading for the north end of the bay with its two big glaciers--the Margery and the Grand Pacific.
And now cane an unexpected stroke of good luck. In the overcast sky, far ahead near the top of the bay, a strip of blue appeared. As the hours passed, the strip widened, the clouds rolled away, and by lunch time the sky was a clear, deep blue.
On its way north the boat made two stops, to drop and pick up hikers and their kayaks. Parts of Glacier Bay--and especially Muir Inlet, the eastern fork of the bay with some impressive glaciers at its top--are reserved for kayaks and other unmotorized craft. For a small fee the tour boat will drop them off or pick them up at certain locations. Much to Audrey's amazement it ran right up onto the pebbly beach, a ladder for the passengers was dropped from the bow, kayaks (stowed on the front deck) were unloaded or taken up, then the engines roared into reverse and we were off again.
Now and then we saw whales, humpbacks which came to the bay to feed, swimming along, spouting or sounding; we never saw any orcas. But further up the bay we saw something else--a pod of whales breaching, leaping out of the water, then belly-flopping down with a big splash, again and again. Why do they do it? Is that the way an itchy whale scratches itself? They were some distance off, but luckily, the boat had provided binoculars, and though the deck was crowded with all the extra riders, obscuring the view, we all got to see them. The whales did not seem to get tired, and as they receded in the rear we could see them continuing to leap on and on.
And so we got to the Margery glacier, where a large cruise ship was already stationed motionless. Our boat approached more closely, slowly edging past floes and turning around to give everyone a view. In the background loomed the 15,000 ft peak of Mt. Fairweather, and the sea in front of the glacier was covered with floes, though only a few had seals on them. The Margery itself presented a 200-foot wall of bluish-white ice, as in Tracy Arm fractured into bizarre pinnacles and slabs. Once you have taken in the view, the main thrill of glacier watching seems to be in catching a "calving" event, the fall of a large chunk of ice from the icy cliff, preferably with a big splash and a loud boom. It happens awfully quickly--at the North Sawyer I was lucky to spot a slab in the air, but at the South Sawyer I only saw the splashes afterwards, followed by spreading waves.
Here at the Margery we actually saw a fairly respectable icefall, several pieces tumbling one after the other. By the time the big chunks fell, all of us were watching, shutters clicking, yet after the splash the ice looked just the way it did before. There seemed much less action at the Grand Pacific Glacier to the right, a bigger glacier coming down from Canada, much fewer floes floated near its face, and its ice was streaked with brown dirt. And behind all these glaciers towered a long ridge of snow-covered peaks, beautiful in the bright sunshine and against the blue sky.
A while later an airline-style lunch was distributed (even the food carts looked like those of airliners) while the boat turned back south. I looked for Audrey and found her downstairs, talking to Kim. There was more to Kim's story than what she had told at the airport. She had lived under a strain, especially in relations with her father (until he passed away, of lung cancer, it seemed), and "for six years I was suicidal." But then during a routine appendectomy, her doctors discovered a bad sort of intestinal cancer. She was quickly operated on, and although the surgeons thought they had removed the entire tumor, it had been dangerously large. Kim's Alaska trip was her celebration of completing her first cancer-free year after surgery, a hopeful sign.
That close brush with death made her re-evaluate her entire life and enroll in the police academy. "Rather than write some papers no one will care for, I wanted to do something for other people." She has our address, and we told her she would be welcome at our house at any time.
South of Margery Glacier is the Johns Hopkins Inlet, a narrow fjord with a spectacular glacier at its head. But the National Park Service has barred ships from going there, because as in Tracy Arm, a large number of seals were tending their pups on ice-floes next to the glacier. Our boat only went up a short distance, then turned around to view at the Lamplugh Glacier, and a while later the Reid Glacier.
Then we coasted into another inlet to pick up passengers, and around 5 or so eased back onto the park lodge pier. Audrey wanted to complain about the crowding on the boat--at one time I had to hang onto the railing into the narrow space behind the staircase banister, just to get a view--but there was no time. I felt satisfied, however, because the glorious sunny weather was above and beyond what we had expected that morning. And incredibly, from there to the end of the visit, the weather stayed clear.
The return trip was quick: identifying the luggage, riding the bus back to the airport and boarding an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 for Juneau, the flight continuing to Seattle. We were only some 15 minutes in the air, and stayed low enough for a good view at the forested islands and the sea between them. We then took a limo to town, registered at the Westmark, Juneau's central hotel, and had a very good dinner at the hotel's Italian-style restaurant. Quite tired, we were soon asleep--after deciding that if the sunny weather held, we next morning would take a whale-watching tour to the Icy Straits off Gustavus.
June 21, Friday
We woke up and amazingly, the sky was still clear: we crossed the street, booked the tour and took a bus to Auke Bay, north of the airport, where our boat was waiting. It was another catamaran of the Auk Nu company, similar to the one we took to Tracy Arm, and on this trip it also ferried passengers between Juneau and Gustavus.
Our naturalist guide was Darren Snyder, a pleasant young man who had actually given up life on Hawaii to settle in Alaska, though his Alaskan wife may have had something to do with that, too. He told us that before making up his mind, he tried an Alaskan winter--if he could endure that, he felt, he could take Alaska. He ended up liking it, for winter days tended to be clearer than summer days, although weather like the one we were experiencing was rare in any part of the year.
It was a beautiful day, and as we passed the small islands outside Auke Bay, we looked with amazement at the large number of bald eagles on shore, often sitting on the sand, looking out to the water. Eight of them sat on the sandspit at the tip of one island: Audrey was surprised, she had seen eagles perch on high branches but did not think they would come down to the sand. Later on we saw an eagle standing on the beach in Gustavus: small black birds hopped past it but it paid no attention, it only cared for the fish.
We passed the northern tip of Admiralty Island, while Darren kept up a stream of stories about what we were seeing. The point of land we had just rounded was named Point Retreat, because when Vancouver's men landed there, in 1794, they were met by Tlingits armed with muskets, and after some exchange of fire the British decided it was wiser to retreat. Funter Bay, a little further south, was where evacuated Aleut natives lived in World War II--an unhappy stay, many came down with TB, and they all went back home as soon as they could. Still further--Hawk Inlet, a small deep inlet with an active mine for silver, zinc, lead, even gold, and a special mining permit, because much of the island was a nature preserve, especially for its brown bears. He confirmed what other guides had said: the grizzly in the interior of Alaska was not as big but tended to be more agressive, because food was more scarce inland.
The boat then turned west towards Gustavus and Glacier Bay. Visibility was superb: far away we could see the peaks of the Fairweather range, and the tops of the most distant peaks, seemed lower than the nearer ones. They were perhaps 100 miles away, yet because they were just as snowy, we knew they were also as high as the nearer ones. It must have been an effect of the curvature of the Earth's surface.
The nearby mountains on our right rose steeply from the water: their tops were snowy, but on their sides the dark green of spruce alternated with the light green of shrubs and leafy trees. Then they opened up to make way for the deep Excursion Inlet, with the cannery we had seen from the air--one of the largest in the state, Darren said. During World War II the army had here a large supply depot, and later brought 650 German POWs from North Africa to dismantle it. Two POWs escaped but came back, having found the country too isolated and too wild.
At Gustavus the boat anchored at the end of a long pier, and most passengers left. A crane lifted off a large bin with luggage, a few passengers boarded, and then we were off to Icy Straits, to look for whales. The tour "guaranteed" we would see them, and indeed, we had already spotted a few on the way up.
But first the boat turned back in the direction from which we came, past Pleasant Island, towards a pair of sea otters, lounging on their backs. We slowly circled them, watching one roll over and over again, for no apparent reason. Then we passed another pair, at about 100 feet. Darren said that at one time hunting had reduced their number to about 1500--now it has grown to 150,000, about as many as when Alaska was sold to the US but still fewer than in earlier days. We continued to the Porpoise Islands, where seals lazed on the rocks or popped their heads out of the water to look at us as we slowly moved past them, engines barely turning over.
We then turned around and headed for Point Adolphus. the northern tip of Chichagoff Island across from Gustavus and a favorite spot for humpback whales. We should have done so earlier, because whale watching is indeed a competitive business. Other excursion boats had beat us to the area, and by what seemed a general agreement, when any boat had discovered an active group of whales, the others kept their distance.
So although we saw many whales that day, it was usually from pretty far away. Two of them fed right in front of another boat, but the ones we tried to follow faded away. Whales were all over the area, though. Once I was fast enough to snap a picture when one popped up close to us, then after a while its fluked tail waved upwards and it was gone.
Another boat off the point was lucky to find a whale that kept breaching, leaping out of the water right in front, then landing with a belly flop: we could only watch through binoculars. Still another boat was watching a different group, also very active. But we did not have time to hang around: by 2:40, the engine was revved up and the PA voice summed up what we had seen. Not a particularly successful hunt, though the weather had been glorious.
We docked again at Gustavus. A fishing boat by the deck had just unloaded several big baskets crammed with live Dungeness crabs onto a truck. The gangway was connected to shore, the crane which had earlier picked up our boat's baggage containers deposited them back, some passengers boarded and we were off again.
I asked Darren if whales slept: yes, they did, about four hours a day, lying just below the surface and floating up now and then to take a breath. He then excused himself to take pictures of the snowy Fairweathers, with the dark foothills and forests in front, below them the beach and the sea. It must have been an exceptionally clear day, when even the naturalist guide snapped pictures.
The trip back was uneventful, the sky gradually clouded over and the sunlight became diffuse. We saw another otter on its back and several humpback whales, even a pod of five near the Point Retreat lighthouse which flipped tails and dived almost in unison.
We got off at Auke Bay and were driven back to the tour company office, about two miles off, in the small bus which had brought us in the morning. It turned out there was an extra charge to return to town, about which we were not told before, and Audrey was quite disturbed by that: so that rather than pay, we walked off to the bus station. Bad choice: evening buses in Juneau are few and far between, we had just missed the 6:06 bus by eight minutes, the next one was not due until 7:22.
We sat to wait, but a bus unexpectedly arrived at 6:36. The driver however told us he was ending his run and could only take us to a shopping mall near the airport, where we would have to wait for the regular bus to Juneau. It seemed there would be more to do at a mall, so we climbed aboard, and I asked the driver for a transfer ticket, to continue on the other bus. "We don't give transfers" he said, "but I will call him on the radio and tell him to expect you."
We sat down at the mall, Audrey went out to buy a shirt and I looked around and then decided to continue my notes. Panic! The notebook, with all its notes and addresses, was gone. It and its clipboard must have been left on the bus--either there, or at the bus stop. Rather than risk everything, I decided to call a cab and go back to check--if not, we could still catch the bus and ask the driver.
A guard called the Taku Cab Company and soon one of its drivers--a big guy named Edd Webb ("my grandfather spelled his name Edd")--picked us up and raced with us to the bus stop. Nothing. But Edd knew the bus drivers--what did ours look like? We described him--no, it wasn't the one he was friendly with, though he knew this one, too. If we failed to find the notebook, he promised he would continue asking later: "This is a very small town."
He then said, "But I know where the bus barn is, it is not far," and drove us there. The gate was open, inside stood the buses and one even had its engine running and lights on, yet no one was around--and the door to the offices was locked. Edd and I went in and searched the buses--nothing.
A few minutes later another bus pulled in, ending its run and heading for the company's car-wash (maybe the bus with running engine was also waiting to be washed). The driver told us--yes, a notebook was found, it was in the office, we should just wait a moment. He unlocked the door and brought it back, with a note stuck on it, "Left on 24, 6:45."
Edd then drove us back to town, and in the end, instead of the $20 the bus would have cost, we were out $30, plus a $5 tip. On the way to town Edd told us that driving cab was his "other job," for he also worked with computers, owned three of them and was fascinated by them from an early age. "Get a Pentium" he said, of the new kind now being developed. I told him that, unfortunately, we were Macintosh people, and he turned to us and made the sign of the cross by crossing two index fingers, as if warding off the devil. He felt that Macintosh computers had no future: the new computer system (he said) would sink Apple, "and then Bill Gates will rule over us all." As we drove into town we were arguing about the origin of life and the limitation of science, which (he said) "can tell you the how, not the why."
Yes, Juneau is different.
Audrey was quite tired and saturated, and stayed in the room. In truth, I was tired too, but we had seen the clouds gather and I feared deep down that next morning we might wake up to rainy weather again. Our daughter Ilana had strongly recommended to take the Mount Roberts trail, "at least to the overlook, it is only 20 minutes" and I decided there was still enough light for a quick walk there.
The original town site of Juneau is small and steep: the Tlingit never deemed it fit for a village, only gold mining created Juneau. Because space was so limited, the city climbs up the hillside, with steep streets reminding one of San Francisco. You pass the small Russian church of St. Nicholas, founded 1894, a little higher is the Catholic "Cathedral," and then comes the "Chicken Yard Playground", so named because early in the century nuns raised chickens at that location. A stylized sculpture of a nun, of painted tin, hangs from a hook at the entrance, so that the breeze gently sways it: and at the nun's feet are sculptures of chickens, cleverly pivoted so that the wind moves them as if they were pecking at the ground.
And in between stand people's homes, wooden and weatherbeaten, and stairs connect the streets, their treads made of a metal mesh to let the snow drop through. One steep set of stairs led to the start of the trail, and the trail itself was even steeper. I kept climbing through a dense lush forest with a lot of undergrowth, with just a few places where one could look out at the view.
A pretty trail, but the hour was getting late: even in Alaska in mid-summer, the sun will set, and the forest was already getting dark. Meanwhile I kept meeting hikers coming down from the mountain, saying that the lookouts were still a long way off. Then even the hikers grew scarce, and when finally two more showed up, I decided I had gone far enough and went back with them.
They were two middle-aged men, Nick Goti and Bob Sylvester, public servants, planners for the state of Alaska. We chatted all the way down, about the impressive Tlingit festival in Juneau which ended just before our trip, and about Nick's wife, an acupuncturist with many Tlingit patients. They used to be discriminated against, he said, and at one time you could see signs "No Entry to Alaska Natives," but now after the settlement act the natives were treated well and have become active in Alaska life.
June 22, Saturday
Rain fell at night, but the morning was clear and the day was so hot that we felt rather overdressed. Go try predict the weather in Juneau!
Got up early (Audrey hadn't slept too well) and went out for a quick coffee, then up a steep street to the state capitol. On the outside it is a rather unimposing, rectangular brick building with no dome, only the marble columns flanking its front entrance look unusual. Also, its site is rather cramped, facing an office building across the street, It was built in 1930 as the office building of the territorial government.
Because the building was not originally designed to be a capitol, its front lobby has a low ceiling, but it is nicely decorated with sculptures. A cheerful young man was the receptionist--a junior in high school, it turned out, 4th generation Alaskan and planning to study engineering. Soon his friend Chris took us and other assembled visitors to tour the building. Alaska government seemed delightfully informal: offices of representatives had signs "walk right in" or "come in," and some had children's paintings hanging outside. One door had a no-smoking sign, prominently displaying a green-and-red picture of two salmon and the inscription SMOKE SALMON. Chris quite proudly told us that out of 60 representatives, only three were lawyers--"half as many as fishermen." Five were Alaska natives.
We were shown the chamber of the house of representatives (there is also a senate) whose doors had brass handles in the shape of totem poles, and saw many photos of early Alaska in the hallways. On one wall a wooden plaque carried an outline of the state, cut from a curved piece of the Alaska pipeline--thick steel, 3/8" or so, with a weld across its middle, roughly outlining the track of the pipeline.
Next we visited the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, a small wooden building founded 1894, painted a pretty blue and white. A number of young men, perhaps volunteers, were cutting the grass and fixing up the parsonage next door. Inside we were met by a young man with a bushy black beard and black clothes, the assistant priest, a converted Baptist minister from Alabama who said the congregation numbered about 100. We continued up Basin Road, past old houses surrounded by beautiful flowers, flourishing in the mild rainy climate with its long summer daylight.
Basin Road leads into a valley between the hills, a steady slope uphill. We were overtaken by a woman with a dog, who guided us to the Perseverance trail, leading to the scenic Ebner Falls and to the old Perseverance mine. At the start of the trail stood a mine entrance, barred by a locked steel door with a window grille, and out of that window poured the most refreshing cool breeze one could imagine, a powerful cold wind, as if one was standing in front of a large air conditioner.
The rest of the trail, unfortunately, was steep and hot, and Audrey was soon tired out. So we stopped at an overlook: a silvery stream ran down the mountain across from us, and some snowbanks were still in evidence, even below us. We then returned to town. Footsore and tired, we had Mexican lunch at the "Sombrero"----and then decided to take the bus to the salmon hatchery north of old Juneau, another place Ilana had said should not be missed.
The hatchery is housed in a trim gray building next to the water, and by its entrance one passes a fish ladder--a sloping concrete channel with fresh water spilling down it, and baffles to create riffles and pools like those in a natural stream. But it was dry now--a viewing port for visitors was recently smashed by a young vandal, and would cost $3000 to replace. In any case, the fish ladder would only start operating the following month, when the fish grown in the hatchery start to come back, ready to spawn and die.
The attendants catch the fish and slit them open, take out the roe and the milt and place them in incubators, where baby salmon hatch, for a while still attached to their egg sacs which provide nourishment. In special frames they grow into salmon fry, then into salmon smolt, and finally they return to the sea through the fish ladder.
All this is done not out of concern for nature, but to benefit Alaska's leading industry. It's not exactly sporting, taking advantage of the salmon's natural instinct, but it works well: the hatchlings swim out to the Pacific Ocean and become big fat fish, and then, when it is their time to spawn, they all come back to Juneau, to the fish ladder where they had started. The fishing boats will be waiting, and there is also a pier next to the hatchery, a booth renting out fishing poles, and people angling for the salmon. Life isn't always fair.
But the place is not merely a seasonal factory of salmon fry, it also has a museum floor with a pretty aquarium and many different fish, starfish, sea anemones and other sea life. One old salmon swam around the big tank, its hooked jaw showing it was ready to spawn--but he wouldn't, because the water in the tank was salty ("he'll die anyway"). We also saw smaller tanks, one with a big octopus and shell pieces of crabs it had fed on. Next to these was a gift shop selling canned and smoked salmon (Audrey bought some), T-shirts and gift certificates.
From there we crossed the highway to the Tlingit-Haida Community Center, where the Juneau Renaissance festival was taking place, entrance fee $2. Not a tourist event but a local affair, for local enthusiasts and for kids who sat with their mothers at the edge of the yard and watched armor-clad knights fight with sword and mace, with shield and pike, probably drenched in sweat on this hot afternoon. A woman loaded with armor and fighting "Florentine style" with two swords lost a match to a swordsman with a shield and a pot-like helmet, then won a second set. A referee holding a stout staff and wearing a cape and hood supervised everything, then in the break invited everyone inside for music and "delicious frozen unicorn milk."
The hall was large and rather austere, with Northwestern totem-style decorations. After a while a small music band assembled in front of the stage, playing recorders of all sizes, from a piccolo to a double-bass monster, 5 feet long. We then caught the bus back to town and had dinner at "The Cookhouse" by the cruise ship dock. I ordered the smaller of their hamburgers, the "Texas size" which was ample; their "Alaska size" was a $13.95 monster, big enough to feed two people generously.
June 23, Sunday
The "Juneau Empire" had predicted "expect mostly cloudy skies with a chance of showers and west winds to 15 mph. The high temperature is expected to be in the mid-60s..."
But the sky is blue, a vivid blue that dazzles the eyes when I open the curtain, and a cool wind blows from the north. So much for forecasts. After breakfast--coffee and chocolate croissants, we are getting decadent--we decided to return to Mendenhall Glacier and see what it looked like on this glorious clear day. We had a lot of company that day--some came with us by bus and then walked, many whizzed by in cars, and some locals biked or used rollerblades. Later on the rough trail we met a fellow on a mountain bike, riding up and down the steep and stony slopes.
The long walk from the bus stop was easier this time, because of the cool breeze and nice shade (both absent on the way back). The glacier looked much prettier than on the previous visit, and some people walked towards it along the beach: later, as I watched one standing next to Nugget Creek falls, I realized for the first time how high those falls were--maybe 200 feet, though the drop was sloping, not vertical.
We took the uphill trail to the falls and in about half an hour reached A.J. Falls ("named after me, my old name" said Audrey). The trail was nice and green, but the trees cut off the view except in one place and also stifled the cooling breezes. Being told we had another half hour to Nugget Creek, and well-aware of the bus schedule, we turned back. We still had time to visit the lookout point, where a ranger told about two women who had hiked out to the front of the glacier, a few years ago, when a large chunk calved into the lake and stirred up a high wave, swamping them both and drowning one. Also, not long ago, a young man had climbed the rocks by the falls and then found he could go neither up nor down: he spent six miserable hours before a helicopter plucked him off. But she had also seen the Juneau Arctic Club cross the glacier in three groups, roped together and equipped with crampons. One member fell into a crevasse, but others on the rope dug in and he climbed out again. "It was fun to watch them advancing slowly across the top."
In front of the lookout point were shallow lagoons separated by sandbars, and two girls, wearing shorts but fully clothed, splashed and swam in one of them, while a kid brother watched from shore. We then turned around, caught the bus, and rode into town. For lunch we munched popcorn bars brought from Greenbelt and finished with some nice cool cones from an ice-cream parlor, whose business seemed about equally divided between ice cream and lottery tickets--dozens of bins filled with different kinds of colorful tickets, one girl sold tickets while the other filled cones.
Outside the shop I met a young man from Nome, who had come to Juneau to find work. What did people in Nome do in the winter, I asked him? Not much, he said, watch TV. He asked me what I did, and when I told him it involved the polar aurora, he said he once saw the most remarkable aurora in Nome, red and spreading out in all directions. Kids in Nome like to yell at the aurora to bring it out, and I am not sure, but he seemed to believe that this really worked.
We then toured the gift shop, spending our credit freely on Alaskan clothing, smoked salmon and presents. Then back to the hotel, to pack for the last time.
24 June, Monday
The trip back was a blur. We got up around 5, rode the shuttle to the airport and were soon flying south along the Alaska panhandle. The clear weather gave a good view of endless snowy peaks, fjords (including Tracy Arm and the face of the South Sawyer Glacier), streams, lakes and a few settlements. Then past Ketchikan the clouds closed in.
It has been great fun, but enough is enough, we both felt tired. Either vacationing is more strenuous than one realizes, or our age is showing. We enjoyed every day up north, but gradually one starts feeling "this is a very nice country, but I belong elsewhere."
We stopped in Seattle, and again in Detroit, where the plane waited on the runway until a thunderstorm in Baltimore blew over. But it was just a short delay, and an hour and a half later we landed at Baltimore, experiencing what we had missed for the last two weeks: night, dark night. Blessed art Thou, o Lord, who causes evening to fall! Another hour and we were coming down Lakeside Drive, and our home was still as we had left it.
Back to the beginning of "Storytime on the Yukon"
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern