[I left off “The Last Frontier” with Part 2 on 5 April. It covered the first leg of the cruise down the southeastern coast of Alaska, through the Inside Passage from Seward, where we embarked on the MS Statendam, to Sitka, the capital of Russian America during the first two-thirds of the 19th century. I pick up in Part 3 with the final portion of the sail south in the Gulf of Alaska until we docked in Vancouver, British Columbia, for our final disembarcation. I recommend going back to read Parts 1 (26 March) and 2 before reading Part 3.]
After departing Sitka at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, 13 August 2003, our next port of call was Juneau, the state capital. We had booked a long excursion here, encompassing an overview of the city, plus a three-hour whale-watching cruise, a salmon-bake lunch, and a visit to Mendenhall Glacier. (That’s the one I mentioned in Part 2 that you can fly out to in a helicopter, land on, and then get out and tromp on—but those flights are all quite expensive, and I didn’t see any real need to walk on the ice just to say I did it.) On Thursday, 14 August, the ship docked in the early morning, of course, and we got off at about 8 a.m. to board the tour bus. Finally, the weather caught up with us and it was pouring rain in Juneau. This, as I said, is typical of the Inside Passage in summertime, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. Fortunately, the rain came and went a bit (or we came and went in and out of it—I’m not sure which), and it was less of a dampener, if you will, than it might have been.
Our first destination was the marina where the whale-watching boat docks, and we drove out along Glacier Highway, Juneau’s one highway called simply The Road (it’s all of about 14 miles long in toto; remember, this is the state capital you can’t reach by land!), getting a little survey of the city, which is small, like all Alaska’s cities after Anchorage. (Anchorage is a little over a quarter of a million. Juneau is next with about 31,000 inhabitants, then Fairbanks at about 30,000. Believe it or not, little Sitka is fourth. The whole state has a little over half a million people—not counting tourists.) The rain had slowed to a drizzle as we drove, and we caught views of the glacier and the mud flats along the bay, which would be under water by the time we drove back past them in a few hours. (As I said, the tides differ by several feet from low to high, and they come in and go out quickly. When we returned to the ship in mid-afternoon, the gangplank, which had been on Deck 5 when we left, had been moved down to Deck 4 to accommodate the higher water.)
The whale-watching was terrific. The boat is enclosed (though you can go out on deck if you wish), so drizzle and ocean spray aren’t a problem. It wasn’t luxurious, but comfortable enough, with windows all around for easy views. There was a naturalist on board to give us information about the ecology and the wildlife, and the captain was a native Alaskan who knows the waters well and added his observations. The boat supplied binoculars for every other passenger, and since we had a pair of our own, Mom and I didn’t even have to share a pair. There was even a small galley on board (it’s a three-hour tour—propitious phrase), so coffee and snacks—mostly sweets and salmon-based hors d’oeuvres—were passed around from time to time. There’s no set route; the captain goes where he feels whales and other sea life might be hanging out, and the other boats in the bay give heads-ups as they spot stuff. Of course, we had a view as we pulled out into the bay of the Mendenhall Glacier behind us, and we sailed through the extension of the Mendenhall River as it flows into the bay, as I described in Part 1. (That’s the opaque, glacier-fed river that flows out into the clear seawater bay without blending in for several miles. I don’t know how long it goes before dissipating into the ocean waters and disappearing.) This was a successful voyage—they essentially guarantee seeing whales at this time of year; they’re quite abundant as they feed in preparation for their return to Hawaii to breed. Still, we got to see some uncommon sights—one even rare and unique to Juneau.
Our first sightings were lone humpbacks diving for food. These are solitary animals; they don’t travel in pods, a fact that would be significant later in the trip. Those well-circulated photos of whales rising up out of the water, breaching into the air dozens of feet high—that doesn’t happen much in Alaska. It’s behavior whales exhibit at the other end of their cycle, in Hawaii. What we saw was a simple dive as the whale’s head comes above the surface, usually preceded by a spout of water as the blowhole clears the water in preparation for the breath the whale has to take to make its dive. Then, as the head reenters the water, the hump appears above the water line, and then the tail comes up in an amazingly graceful arc and reenters the water. Depending on how deep the whale is diving, it will repeat this behavior over and over every few minutes, moving along several hundred yards at each dive. You can more or less predict where it will surface next in each successive dive, so it’s easy to track the whale once one’s been spotted (look for the telltale spout). Even though this is a repetitive sight, it’s fascinating in its grace and form. It almost seems like slow-motion as this huge animal arcs up and back into the water, and the tail seems to hang there a little longer than natural, as if the whale has paused a moment in mid-dive. All this, of course, has to be viewed through the binoculars because the regulations prohibit the boats from going closer than something like 300 yards from the whale. The engine is damped—the boat can’t just shut down like the busses in Denali; it’d drift away—and we sort of make a little circle both to stay put and to give both sides of the boat a view of the whale as it dives and resurfaces. (The regulations also prohibit more than a certain number of boats from gathering at one spot when a whale is spotted. I think it’s three at a time. Like I said in Part 2, the Alaskans are pretty protective.)
After a few minutes, we’d move along to another spot where the captain thinks a whale might be feeding, slowly meandering around the bay. En route, we spot some porpoises, drawn to the boat’s wake to play. They were Dall’s porpoises, named for the same man who identified the sheep we saw in Denali (Part 1), and they’re black and white, like small killer whales. (The captain said that some people mistake them for baby killers.) Unlike the whales, which are solitary and shy, the porpoises are playful and travel in pairs or groups. They’re also very fast, especially compared to the whales—no slo-mo here. You can’t catch them with binoculars because they’re under the water by the time you get the glasses up to your eyes. There’s also no warning spout like the whales give off—just a quick glimpse of the dorsal fin as it breaks the surface first. But the porpoises follow alongside the boat so closely, you can see them pretty well with the naked eye—as well as their speed allows, anyway. Along the way, we also saw some sea lions lounging on a buoy, and some others just hanging out on a rocky little island. We also saw several seals in the water, close to the shore of a small island, not far off from another feeding whale. (I gather they chose that spot to catch the whale’s left-overs. When the whales feed, they scoop up tons of fish and churn up the water some as they dive, surface, and spout. This frightens fish, especially herring, and they head for the surface to escape the noise and the bubbles. The seals just wait around and catch what shows up.) We also saw some eagles, this time perched on trees on some of the nearby islands—but they were really too distant to get the classic bald eagle sight.
After a time, the captain deadheaded for a specific spot in the bay. He’d been called over by another boat to see something particular—he didn’t tell us what it was. We joined a couple of other little boats—one was particularly tiny, considering the size of the whales nearby—and waited a few minutes. Then a couple of whales surfaced—it looked like two or three at first—and the naturalist began explaining this phenomenon. Remember, humpbacks are solitary animals; they don’t travel in groups and they don’t work together—except in this one instance: a “bubble-net feed.” This is a behavior that’s not only rare, but it’s unique to Juneau. Not just Alaska, but Juneau. No one knows why that’s so, but it not only doesn’t happen in Hawaii, it also doesn’t happen in Sitka or Ketchikan, either. And it’s rare even in Juneau. A bunch of whales—this group turned out to be about a dozen in the end—get together and instinctively set up a cooperative effort to get more fish. One whale dives deep and makes noise to frighten the fish, especially the herring, which are apparently the most susceptible to fear this way. Another whale—and no one knows how the roles in this co-operative are assigned or how the whales decide it’s time to switch jobs—makes a kind of net of bubbles by blowing air out of its spout and swirling around as it swims upward. As the noise frightens the fish toward the surface, they get hemmed in by the bubble-net and channeled right into the waiting mouths of the rest of the group of whales. These whales just dive and surface to scoop up as much of the fish as they possibly can, making simultaneous arcs that look like a whale water ballet. The arcs of the surfacing whales, from the head, through the hump, to the tail—which is the only part to fully break the surface and fly up into the air—are often absolutely parallel, three or four or five whales diving in a sort of choreographed succession. If you didn’t know better, you could think you were watching Disney animatronics—it’s that perfect. Needless to say, we watched this for some time before moving away. (Boats aren’t supposed to hang around too long—I don’t know if there’s a specific time limit or if it’s just up to the captains to decide—so as not to inhibit the whales as they feed, and also to allow other boats to come in and have a look, too. Feeding is their one and only chore in Alaska, to build up their blubber supply for the trip back to Hawaii, where they breed and calve. If they don’t eat their fill while they’re north, they don’t survive the journey south.) I don’t know how long this behavior went on, but it was a remarkable sight—paid for the whole day in Juneau, I can tell you. One remarkable aspect is that, on top of being a fascinating phenomenon, the whole activity was absolutely gorgeous aesthetically. (And, in case you can’t picture them, humpbacks aren’t especially beautiful creatures—not like killers or blues. They’re quite ugly, really—out of the water.) What a treat!
After the whale-watching, we drove up to the Visitors’ Center of the Mendenhall Glacier, the most accessible glacier in Alaska (maybe even North America—I’m not sure). As I told you, not only can you fly over it in a plane, but you can land on it in a helicopter. You can also drive up to it—-well, to the Visitors’ Center; then you can hike out to the actual glacier. As I said, I didn’t see the need to stand on the ice—seeing it from as close as the grounds of the Visitors’ Center seemed quite enough of a visit. Not that the glacier isn’t a natural phenomenon worth the attention, you understand, but being this nearby seemed good enough for me, not being a glaciologist. The Visitors’ Center provides a lot of information about the glacier (and glaciers in general), as well as panels that describe the parts of the glacier you can see from the building and its grounds. Then you can go out and walk to as close to it as you like, depending on your stamina for hiking. Mother elected to stick around the Visitors’ Center—she has trouble walking sometimes: she runs out of breath for reasons no one has been able to explain so far—and I walked a couple of dozen yards along one of the paths to a photo outlook—essentially at the edge of the glacial Lake Mendenhall, which is where the glacier terminates. (Mendenhall Glacier feeds Lake Mendenhall, which in turn is the source of the Mendenhall River—the one that runs out into the bay. Gets monotonous in terms of names, doesn’t it?) From across the lake, with the binoculars, you can see many of the features of the glacier quite well—though, of course, you only get the features that are at the end of it. Just as a river is different at one point along its flow than it is at another, so is a glacier. (I sound a little like Heraclitus of Ephasus, don’t I?) Nevertheless, I felt I could get enough of a sense of it from an easier vantage point for my needs. (Remember, I don’t care much for roughing it. Hiking and climbing aren’t really my cuppa—though I did a little in New Mexico to see some Anasazi caves and even in Quebec to walk across the top of a frozen waterfall.) I won’t describe the glacier in any detail—it’s much like many of the others we saw earlier, except that this was closer and it terminated at a lake rather than the ocean. Mendenhall is a hanging glacier (it doesn’t end in the water) and it’s receding—several yards a year.
Glaciers advance and recede naturally—though they may be helped along by such things as global warming—and the earth is in a part of the cycle that causes many glaciers to recede because we’re actually coming out of a mini-ice age. The reason glaciers advance is that new snow falls up the mountain in the ice field where they form, pressing the air out of the snow beneath the new fall, eventually pressuring the old snow into nearly airless ice. (Contrary to what many people think, a glacier is a river of ice, but not a frozen river. It was never liquid that froze—it was snow that has been compressed into ice over decades of accumulation.) As new ice is formed in the mountains, gravity pulls the ice that’s formed down the slope. A glacier recedes, contrarily, because less new snow falls at its source than melts down below—and that’s mostly a natural, and cyclical, phenomenon. The crystalline structure of the snow-formed ice is why many glaciers are blue or bluish green in appearance: the crystals refract the light so that only the blue spectrum passes through. Mendenhall is very blue. At the terminus, where the ice melts, the blue color dissipates and vanishes because the crystalline structure breaks down. (Icebergs can be blue or green in color, too, but that’s from algae in the ice, not from light refraction.) In all other respects, Mendenhall is just like the other glaciers in Alaska—it has streaks of moraine (the dirt the ice picks up along its edges as the glacier grinds along) and it pulverizes the bedrock into glacial silt that clouds the waters of the lake—it’s a kind of blue-gray, with huge chunks of ice floating in it (one of which looked exactly like a giant ice canoe)—which, in turn, makes the river opaque (allowing you to distinguish the river as it flows through the bay). Curiously, if you’re like me, you’d guess that it takes many centuries for all this to happen, from snow above to iceberg below. If so, you’d be wrong, much to my surprise: the ice that falls off the end of the glacier is only a couple of centuries old. That suggests that the glacier moves pretty fast, relatively speaking. I mean, you can’t see it, of course, but you can measure it. If you put a stake in the glacier at some point, you can come back in several months and see with your naked eye that it has moved down the mountain.
Following the glacier visit, we went to the salmon bake for lunch. The rain had picked up again (or we returned to it, whichever), which was too bad. The salmon bake is in a sort of picnic grounds—it’s commercial: you can just go there, pay $5 or whatever it is, and eat your fill—which would be quite lovely in its wooded setting, but we had to stay under the plastic tents which took some of the charm out of it. Otherwise, the people were very friendly and personable, and they had a folk singer/guitarist to accompany our meal. And a dog that ran around and barked occasionally—just to make me feel at home, I think! Except for the salmon, all the fixin’s were at cafeteria tables (albeit, outdoors), and there was plenty of the usual side dishes—cole slaw, potato salad, corn, cornbread, yada-yada-yada—all fine and plentiful. The salmon was being prepared continuously on a series of large grills, and it was a kind of Alaskan barbeque—there’s a sauce on the grilled salmon that we saw several times elsewhere, too. It’s slightly sweet, though not unpleasantly so, but I don’t know what it’s ingredients are. Some people suggested that it contains brown sugar, and that would be possible (though there’s obviously other stuff in it—it’s not that sweet). Since I love salmon anyway—which is why we went for this particular inclusive excursion—this was all fine with me, except the rain, of course.
(It was at this lunch that we first heard the news of the blackout in New York, Canada, the East, and the Midwest. You eat at long tables, taking seats wherever you can find them, and our nearest tablemates turned out to be from another ship and had just heard the news. It was about 1 p.m. Thursday, 14 August, in Juneau, making it 5 p.m. on the east coast, so our informants didn’t have any details—just the names of the cities that had been hit. They didn’t even know then that terrorism or sabotage had been ruled out. We wouldn’t find anything more out until we got back to the ship at 4—8 p.m. in New York—and turned on CNN in our cabin. I waited until after Governor Pataki’s news conference before I called the young woman who was dog- and apartment-sitting for me—that must have been about 9 p.m. EDT by then. It turned out that she was providing shelter for her boyfriend, her dad—my friend Kirk—and several of his co-workers from their midtown office who were all stranded in Manhattan. Apparently my dog was having the time of his life with all the attention! I told my house-sitter where to find matches, candles, flashlights; they’d already found the old-fashioned, non-electronic phone I had in my living room that worked without Con Ed’s power.)
Between the rain, which had let up some by the time we got back to the ship, and the blackout news, we never did get back out to walk around Juneau. That was disappointing—though we can’t blame HAL for this one. It’s a shame, though, because the way all the Inside Passage towns are laid out—along the coast, with very little depth because of the mountain range just above them all—almost everything is within short distances of the ports. Since we were docked in Juneau, we could go on and off the ship pretty much at will (as long as we were on board when she sailed, of course). In fact, since the ship’s phones are satellite, and very, very expensive to call from, I hopped back off the ship to make the call to New York from the dock. (It was only drizzling a little by then.) Essentially, I could see all of “downtown” Juneau from the Statendam’s moorage—it would have been pretty easy to walk around town a little under other circumstances. (Once again, as would be the case in Ketchikan as well, there were shops after shops, all catering to tourists, and most of them jewelry stores! There were a few restaurants and bars—including the somewhat famous Red Dog Saloon, a short block up from the ship.) After I called home and returned to the cabin, it was too close to sailing to go back ashore. A missed opportunity because of the weather and a technical mishap in the Midwest. Still, this shore excursion, especially the whale-watching, was worth the time and money. (Despite the rain and plastic cover, the salmon-bake lunch was both fun and tasty. Under a sunny sky, it would have been excellent!)
The next morning, Friday, 15 August, the Statendam put in at Ketchikan, a coastal town of just over 7,000 inhabitants. Like Sitka (and many other Alaskan coast towns), Ketchikan is essentially a fishing village. It’s also the unofficial totem pole capital of Alaska—there’s a park with scores, maybe even hundreds of them. We got off the ship in the morning and it was pouring rain—much harder than in Juneau. We were making up for all that good weather from Anchorage to Sitka, and with a vengeance! (Unlike Juneau, this downpour did not let up much—the lightest it got was a steady drizzle. And just to make it all worse, this was the first day of rain in two weeks! Ketchikan was having a “drought” until the day we arrived.) But this was our last port of call in Alaska, so we sort of had to suck it up, and plan to walk around a little later anyway. But first, we had booked a town tour in the same vein as Sitka—expecting a little survey of the town, the totems, and so on, and then some time to look around on our own. Once again, we had been sandbagged by the descriptions of the shore excursions provided by HAL. (If we had been a little more secure about what we were doing, we might have opted not to book any excursions in advance—you can do that individually in each port if you want to, or just wander around on your own, or hire a car or otherwise make your own arrangements. But, unless you have some idea what’s up in each town, that’s hard to plan on, and the HAL-booked excursions, though they’re operated locally by the same companies with which you can book privately, are all guaranteed to meet you at the pier on time and deliver you back to the boat before it sails. You makes other arrangements, you takes yer chances. Remember what happened to the couple flightseeing in Denali (Part 1); it’s much harder to rectify that on a boat that’s sailed!)
Anyway, excuses aside, the tour was a drive through town, pointing out as we passed, the famous street-on-stilts (Creek Street, which is where many of the little shops are today—though it used to be the red-light street back when) and the marina with the commercial fishing boats—though most were out at work by this hour. Our destination was a salmon cannery—like the gold-dredge in Fairbanks (Part 1), it was no longer operating (it had been a Libby cannery), but was now owned by a company that was preserving it as a sort of historic site—which required a short trek through the woods. Fortunately, the trees created a kind of natural umbrella (and there were a stash of regular ones on the bus, too), but it still wasn’t a big thrill to walk through the wet forest. Like the gold-dredge, the cannery visit is extensive, with detailed explanations of how the fish is caught—there have been different ways through the history of commercial fishing in Alaska, but I doubt this would really interest you; it didn’t me beyond a modicum—how the fresh fish is prepared for canning (both our guide’s parents—she, herself, is a 5th-grade teacher—worked at the cannery; so did her grandparents), how the canning itself is accomplished, how the cans are steamed (the fish is packed raw and “cooked” in the can), labeled, packed, and shipped. And, like the gold-dredge tour, we were ushered into the souvenir shop at the end! (Gotta move them tchotchkes!) To be fair, the shop does sell a variety of salmon products, from several kinds of canned salmon (there are 5 species of salmon, not to mention the numerous ways you can prepare them all) to salmon pâtés, salmon jerky, salmon chowder, and so on and so forth. Most of this is quite good, depending on your taste, but we weren’t in the market at this moment. (Actually, Mom was sort of looking for a kind of canned salmon Dad had brought back from his business trip to Alaska in 1960. She was never able to find anything she thought might have been the same thing. We also used to get a packaged smoked salmon chowder from a mail-order house which Mother hasn’t been able to get anymore for some time now—we kept trying to see if there was any equivalent around. In the end, though, carrying that kind of thing back home just seemed too much hassle.) Salmon’s really big in Alaska, as you might gather! In fact, the king salmon is the official state fish. (We did see the salmon running upstream to spawn and lots and lots of dead salmon, the aftermath of that activity.)
Oh, and one other little detail from the cannery tour. One of the ways fish were caught in the past was trapping. It’s a practice that was prohibited by the state constitution in 1959 when Alaska gained statehood, but a fish trap is essentially a maze of nets out in the ocean into which the fish are lured. In the center of this net labyrinth is a tiny, floating cabin in which lives the trap master—all alone at sea, 24/7. Well, they had one of these little cabins—they’re no more than 6′ by 6′ at most, with a little bed, a shelf, and a wood stove for heat and cooking—in the cannery. It was just sitting in one of the big rooms (the disused cannery space is rented to local fishermen to store and repair their nets and equipment—this room had piles of nets stored), a large wooden box, really. As we approached it to leave the building—it was sort of near the exit—the door flings open and a young man (a teenager, obviously a highschooler) bursts out with a pistol in his hand. He’s wearing trousers held up by suspenders over an old-fashioned undershirt. He starts a spiel—he’s sorry to have frightened us, but he thought we were fish pirates. He’d been robbed a few nights earlier, you see. Then he tells the story of how he came to be trap master and what his work is like—it’s a little performance (and not bad acting, either, all told), amusing and kind of clever, all in all. Kind of a funny summer job, though. (Later in the shop, the kid was working the counter, so I guess he has other responsibilities, too.)
So after the cannery, which wasn’t uninteresting but, like the gold-dredge, was an insufficient glimpse of the town as a whole, we drove back down into Ketchikan (the cannery’s several miles outside of town, as you might imagine—it is a factory, after all) and stopped briefly at a place called Saxman Native Village. Now, my understanding was that Saxman was an artificial “village” set up as a sort of living diorama—with native craftsmen and dancers living in houses sort of the way people “live” in Plimouth Plantation, or maybe Colonial Williamsburg (though people do actually live in Williamsburg—they just contract to dress and behave as if they were in the 18th century). I thought it was a way to see native arts and crafts in process, see some more totems (they’re really everywhere in Alaska—you see plenty of them, both old and new, original and reproductions). It turns out that all there really is is a clan house, which you can’t go into if there’s anything going on inside (it’s authentic in the sense that the local beaver clan actually uses it for ceremonials and rites) and a large workshop where several native carvers are making totems, masks, and other objects. There are, of course, several totems standing outside, too. But the “village” turns out to be regular, ordinary modern homes—they just are inhabited by Indians! It’s like a subdivision of Ketchikan, reserved for Tlingits who want to live there. (It’s not a reservation or anything, though I don’t know if the homes are subsidized—like a Manhattan Plaza for Native Americans.)
Now, the clan house, which is traditionally also a residence for several families—sort of like a big dormitory—as well as a ceremonial structure, is all painted on the outside, in that same Northwest Indian motif that I like so much (except, of course, it’s a much bigger scale—duuh!), identifying the clan, and there are naturally totems outside as entrance posts, so it isn’t a complete waste to see it. And it’s always interesting to watch the artists and carvers work, but these guys were especially closed-mouthed and unresponsive. There were two carvers working that day, and when people asked questions—not even rude or stupid questions, which you could understand might turn the artists off; they were appreciative and honest questions about the work—one guy never opened his mouth and the other gave some vague, short answers. There was also a young boy, the nephew or grandson of one of the carvers, and he had a potlatch mask on display—one he wore at the ceremony, not one he had made. Someone asked if it would be all right to model it for us, and when his uncle/grandfather (I just don’t remember—it wasn’t unclear at the time) said there was no reason not to, the boy, about 11 or 12, just didn’t much want to do it. (He eventually did, briefly and sort of grudgingly.)
A potlatch, if you don’t already know, is a ceremony of thanksgiving. It can be for any number of reasons—to celebrate a birthday, a wedding, an engagement, a recovery from illness, or just gratitude for something good—but the person doing the celebrating arranges the potlatch, and gives gifts to everyone who comes—food or crafts and such, though today I think they give store-bought stuff, too. Part of the ceremony includes dancing, and the dancers wear these immense masks—they’re worn on top of the head, like a hat, rather than over the face—which are not only very large (and held in place by the dancer’s hands; they’re way too big to balance on their own), but elaborately carved, painted, and decorated (with feathers, cloth, and any other medium that’s available). The one the boy had, a bird—a thunderbird, I think—with elaborate feathers as well as the painted carving, included eyes that moved and a beak that opened and shut. As to why these folks all seemed reticent, considering they were working in a place intended to be on display to the public, we never figured out. (I talked to other native artists later that day, in their studio-shops in town, and they were quite voluble. The native artist on the ship also liked to talk about his work—though, of course, that’s part of his gig, to explain his culture to others like us; he works for the state. He also teaches traditional art to Indian children. One of the Ketchikan artists I spoke to was a modern artist who used the traditional iconography in his non-traditional works. He had one beautiful glass plate, for instance—something new he had begun experimenting with—that incorporated an eagle motif that was sort of his trademark, appearing as it did in his prints and lithographs—and his T-shirts and totebags, too. I’d have bought that plate if it hadn’t been too big for my apartment. I even asked if he planned to make any more like it, but smaller—he’s got a website, and I might yet check in to see if he does.)
So, Saxman Village turned out to be less than I had expected—maybe because of the tour operator or maybe because it just isn’t how it’s described. After the somewhat frustrating visit to the workshop, we stood in the rain briefly—under umbrellas, to be sure—and looked at the totems while the guide pointed out the interesting aspects of these particular poles.
Totems, in case you don’t already know, serve several different purposes—none of them religious, by the way. Some people apparently think totem poles are kinds of idols, but they’re not. They’re story-tellers. Some tell the history of the clan or the village or the family for which it was made; some tell legends; some commemorate a historical event, either from the distant past or a contemporary one; some memorialize a dead person or honor a living one; and some are actually funeral totems, with the deceased’s remains in a box incorporated into the pole. Another fact that isn’t widely known is that totems are seldom old—the wood just rots and the paint weathers eventually, and they are replaced constantly by new ones—either replicas of the old one or a new one with a new purpose. It is still a living art, though now the artists who carve them get well known and are often commissioned to carve poles for private or public display. Parks all over Alaska and British Columbia, for instance, often have many totems ranging in age from half a century old to a couple of years; new ones get added and old ones are removed from time to time. In many cases, the explanatory plaques for the poles give the name of the artists who carved them—like any other public art. (The names of the carvers were on the totems in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, just like Henry Moore’s name was on a sculpture in Queen Elizabeth Park. Only fair, I guess.)
It’s also true that though there is traditional iconography for many of the figures that go into a totem—the clan symbols have the same kind of identifying elements as, say, Greek gods (if it’s a female with a bow and arrows, it’s Diana; winged sandals, it’s Hermes) or Christian saints (arrows in his side, it’s Sebastian)—the form of a totem is pretty much up to each individual artist. It doesn’t work like hieroglyphics—if you know the symbols, you can interpret the story. A knowledgeable viewer can make good guesses, but without the input from the artist, you can’t be sure. In other words, they’re more like contemporary works of art than tribal icons that are eternally the same to the initiated. The ones on display outdoors in public spaces aren’t particularly old, as I said, and they were never intended to last forever like Greek statues or Roman arches. However, because they’ve become recognized as cultural and artistic treasures, old ones are now preserved indoors, often in museums (but sometimes, just in a town hall or cultural center). In Vancouver, we made a special point of going out to the Museum of Anthropology, which is part of the University of British Columbia and is way outside the main part of town, because it has a remarkable collection of totems and other native art which is old. (Few things made of wood are really, really old, of course. We’re talking a century, a century-and-a-half, tops here.) Much of the paint had weathered off the works at the Museum of Anthropology, and they are sometimes decaying in places, but they are both aesthetically striking and very much like the ones being made today.
Obviously, some of the figures in newer ones represent people who’d never appear in ancient times—Lincoln, for instance, and Seward—but the more traditional figures are very alike in the old carvings and the new ones. It’s truly still a living art tradition. (The modern artists do use metal carving tools—though they’re modern adaptations of the original stone tools—and they paint with modern paints instead of the traditional organic colors—though most artists still use the hues their ancestors used. I never saw any totems painted in pink or violet, though in some of the art and craft shops there were other kinds of carvings in unlikely colors.) As striking as the totems are when you see them displayed, I was less taken with them as pieces of art I might want in my home (they do make small ones for souvenir and art consumption, and some are as well-carved as any of the other art—though there’s also a lot of junk, turned out by the hundreds) than I was with some of the other forms. (I already have a mask—and I never saw one, aside from museum displays, that I liked better than the one I bought in Seattle anyway—but I began looking at drums, paddles, and “plaques”—which is what I eventually bought.)
After the stop at Saxman, then, the tour was over and we went back to the pier. It was still raining, but since this was our last port in Alaska, Mom and I decided we had to walk around a little anyway. Like the other ports, most of the town is splayed out along the waterfront, right near the pier. We took our umbrella (we came prepared, you see) and set out to look around a bit. Once again, it was store upon store, mostly souvenir and jewelry, except along Creek Street (the former brothel street, which is built on stilts—it’s not a vehicle street—over . . . well, a creek, wouldn’t ya know). The little shops along this funny little street were a little different. There were a couple of actual artist’s studio-galleries, a bookstore—and a former brothel called Dolly’s House that’s a museum. (There’s a greeter, or whatever she is, who hangs out at the doorway, dressed like a madam, and invites—entices?—passers-by in. At least I think it’s a museum!) Anyway, this is where I saw the glass plate I mentioned before—in the gallery of an artist who does modern work but uses his native imagery as a vehicle. His prints were very nice, and if I hadn’t bought a print in Taos—and if I thought I had any more wall space left for something like that—I might have brought one home as my souvenir. The plate, which was blue and red in a stylized eagle pattern which, as I said, was sort of the artist’s trademark, was beautiful, but far too big for my apartment, as I told you. He also had some pottery items and some sculptures—as well as the T-shirts, bags, sweatshirts, and such that were obviously his tourist items, though they had his identifiable imagery as the design. They’re probably what pay his rent—and they weren’t at all bad for what they were. Hell, Keith Haring made postcards and buttons even after he became famous and stopped doing his subway panels. Art for the pedestrian: Can’t afford a painting, buy a pin!
(You know the story about Picasso? He got a letter from an admirer with a check for $100 enclosed. The letter explained that the writer loved Picasso’s work, but couldn’t afford any of his paintings or sculptures. Could the artist do something for the writer for $100? So . . . Picasso endorsed the check. Badum-bum.)
Well, I never found my absolute right souvenir. I had an idea what I wanted, in a general sense, but I never saw the exact thing. It looked like I was going to have to get lucky in Vancouver—a lot of the native artworks we saw in Alaska were made by British Columbia artists; it all crossed the borders anyway, so I figured I could just as easily find an Alaskan piece in Vancouver. (When I was in Taos, New Mexico, which is an artists’ colony anyway, I passed up a nice print I saw in one gallery because the artist, though a Native American, was from Colorado. I wanted a New Mexico artist—and found him in the best of all locations, in terms of the appropriateness: at Taos Pueblo. He was a contemporary artist who was a Taos Indian—the shop was his mother’s house, though his year-round home and studio is in Hollywood, Florida.) The rain finally got to us, and it was getting close enough to sailing, so we headed back toward the ship, detouring a little past some other shops on the way. These were the usual tourist shops, however, and though there were often a few pieces in all of them, I never saw The One. (My mask was ultimately from a tourist schlock shop—I shopped around in Seattle and the same artists were available at the same price range in both art galleries and souvenir stores—even at the Space Needle, the ultimate tourist destination. This one shop—a real junk shop in all other respects, had a display of a few dozen masks and totems, and they happened to have the one I liked. You never know. As a matter of fact, the carving I finally got in Vancouver, I got in another junk shop after shopping in all the galleries that specialized in native art, and even the museum shop. In Vancouver, though, the prices varied greatly.) Anyway, we ended up back on board after a somewhat disappointing day—though not entirely, as usual.
[Next stop: Vancouver, B.C. The last part of our trip to the Pacific Northwest was a visit to the largest city on Canada’s west coast where the Statendam ended its voyage through the Inside Passage. Part 4 of “The Last Frontier” will cover our stop-over there and our final trip back home to New York City. Be sure to come back to ROT for the (exciting?) conclusion to my Alaska travelogue whenever I decide to publish it. (I have no predetermined schedule for this series, so you’ll just have to take a shot in the dark.)]