Friday, July 20, 2012


Alaska Trip 3

The main purpose of the cruise was to put us in contact with nature as often as possible with well-informed guides.  In our case, we also had a top professional entomologist (Doug) and a very knowledgeable student of geology (Leon) along with us.   

Columbines along the trail on our first nature walk, a hike inland from our landing place in the boat's skiff, to a fast running river coming off a glacier.  The hike took us through a wide variety of foliage, as well as a bog, and gave us a look at a porcupine, a small group of quail, and a ptarmigan (Alaska's state bird).

There's a story about the ptarmigan that was told us by a friend in regard to an Alaskan town that's become a prime tourist destination.  The original settlers wanted to call it Ptarmigan after the bird but nobody knew how to spell it.  After lengthy debate leading to argument, they gave up and decided that since the bird looked like a chicken they'd call the town Chicken.  It was a mining town and now has a very small population, particularly in winter.  In summer, however, Chicken, Alaska a big draw for tourists. 

Our guide and Leon working to identify a plant species.

A little red squirrel interrupted while eating by our group passing through his territory.

On our way to the town of Wrangell, a mountain top wreathed by a cartouche of clouds.  As soon as we docked at Wrangell, we hiked out to Petroglyph Beach.  At the head of the handsome ramp & stairs tower that allows easy access to the beach below, we were greeted by a big, friendly dog with a short piece of branch in his mouth who managed to captivate just about all of us into his favorite throw, chase and retrieve game.  He was tireless and incredibly friendly.

The main attraction on the beach is a rock outcropping famous for the carvings left by early people in the area.  Because the rocks are under water at high tide (tides ran around seventeen feet in the areas through which we sailed) no evidence survives among the rocks or on the beach to date the carvings or provide information about the people who carved them.  The most common motif was a group of concentric circles but the fan-shaped design above and the suggestion of a face, either human or animal (or perhaps something else entirely), below, were the most interesting I found.

When we were finished on the beach, we walked back into town and began to explore Wrangell in full celebration of the Fourth of July.  The town was essentially closed down and out in the streets where tents and booths had been set up, mostly selling food and patriotic items.  We had three goals, the restored house of a famed Tlinglit clan leader and the big museum of native arts adjoining his property; the Totem Park; and any shops selling T-shirts as the boat's crew had announced an ugly T-shirt contest for dinner time that evening.

The big disappointment was that the house and museum were closed for the Fourth.  We thought it strange at a time when people were coming into town for the Fourth to have so many shops, restaurants and historic sites closed on the holiday, but that's how Wrangell does things, so we headed to the Totem Park.

The park features four poles, modern reproductions of of historic poles commissioned by the clans that owned them.  Although the poles are made of cedar, they do deteriorate over time because of the frequent rains and winter freezing.  Reproductions are considered perfectly legitimate ways of bringing the art to future generations as long as they work is done by great artists who, in this case, were commissioned  to make the new poles with traditional hand carving tools instead of modern chain saws and power drills.

As I think I mentioned before, Michael Rockwell (Dr. Spo) knows how to interpret a great many of the symbols of the poles and their meaning depending on where on the pole they're placed.  The poles tell of clan history and legends.  When the Russians owned Alaska they, and especially the famous late 19th Century Archbishop of Sitka, appreciated native culture and understood that the poles were history expressed in art.  They fostered native arts and culture unlike the American Protestant missionaries who immediately assumed the poles were idols and did all they could to suppress them and the culture whose story they told, doing great damage to the native peoples in the process.

Poles with a large "box" on top, frequently an animal like this whale, are mortuary poles, the box containing the ashes of a distinguished person.

After exploring a bit of Wrangell and at least peeking in the windows of the museum, we went off in search of T-shirts.  We found two shops open on the street leading back to the dock area.  The first one featured some real winners, unquestionably ugly shirts but at $22.50 apiece, our enthusiasm for buying one for a single use faded fast.  Right outside the door of the other shop, however, was a rack of mark-downs, $18.99 shirts selling for $10.99 with one design, available in several sizes, that was an absolute standout:

We had a couple seconds of concern about offending or enraging any Sarah Palin fans but those concerns faded when the store owner greeted us at the counter enthusiastically, told us how happy he was to be rid of the shirts which nobody wanted, mentioned that Ms. Palin had visited the town and told us he "couldn't stand that bitch."  Jollity ensued, money changed hands and we were back to the boat to change for dinner.

Being a bunch of smart asses, and two of us with careers in performing arts, we knew how to stage an entrance, moving to our usual table in formation and with aplomb.  Word spread throughout the dining room and people came up to take pictures and joke with us.  Delightfully, the crew gave a prize to the best ugly T-shirt on a child (the cruise had a fair number of children, all superbly behaved during the entire week).  Appropriately, they gave the adult prize to a single person who had gone for one of the really UGLY shirts at the higher price.

But for us they announced the Group Dynamic Award and for the final days of the cruise we were known, humorously,  as "Team Sarah Palin."

L to R, Top to bottom: Fritz, Leon, Someone, Myself, Michael, Doug. 

As compensation, you must admit that the shirts aren't ugly per se, until you get close enough to see what's on 'em. Dontcha know. You betcha.
Love that mountain hiding behind the clouds. That's too cool! And the top of the first totem pole looks a little scary. Like some sort of alien or something. Don't you think!
So "Team Sarah Palin" huh? Pretty funny! Okay, gotta go look up "cartouche" now. Sounds dirty!
Wow! What a cool trip. Thanks so much for sharing. I've really gotta make it to Alaska one of these days.... even if I have to cycle there! XD
Since you had alerted me that there was a Sarah Palin comment in the post, I was sure the moment I saw on the second petroglyph that it would be the inspiration.

I was not disappointed when she did appear! Great story and wonderful pictures.
Funny, I remember holding the cup, not supporting it.
Well, you might have started holding it, but it migrated upward eventually!
Thanks for mentioning that I'm a top professional entomologist. Even the people who already know that I'm a professional entomologist now know more about me.
You guys simply had TOO much fun! It's not fair while we slaved over gardening, and the high summer heat! Hah. A lifetime trip it seems to me was had by all.
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