A to Z Alaska Style: C is for Computer (of the Evil Ilk), D is for Delivery, E is for Earthquake

If only my computer had shot this message at me first, I wouldn’t be so annoyed… While “Computer” isn’t EXACTLY an Alaskan type of thing (I’d actually toyed with “Chinook” the fish and “Chinook” the wind), it’s weighed heavily on my mind. I’m hoping the computer remains among the living while I post this… but, what the heck, even though Fed Ex doesn’t come to my island, HP claims that Fed Ex’s “Expedited Service” will work for me. *sigh* It’s at that point I just give up and say, “Yeah, well, whatever honey, and the last part took two weeks to get here, not the two days you promised…” Enough whining … in Alaska, C is for CHINOOK!

No, no … not THAT kind of Chinook….

 

 

 

 

There’s THIS kind of Chinook that we all love and adore –Oncorhynchus–The Chinook Salmon (better known as King Salmon). They’re tasty and you can eat ’em. That’s the first thing an Alaskan would want to know–being all subsistence-minded as we are. They are Anadromous Fish, which sounds kind of kinky until you realize that that only means that they’re sea-going fish that migrate up the freshwater rivers to breed (from the Greek word meaning “running up”). These fish can grow up to 58″ in length and can weigh up to 130 pounds. Once they spawn, fry and smolts usually stay in freshwater from 1 to 18 months before travelling downstream to estuaries, where they remain up to 189 days. Chinook salmon spend 1 to 8 years at sea before returning to natal streams to spawn. All science aside, they’re fun to hook, fun to catch, and great smoked or grilled on a cedar plank.

But… Chinook can also mean this: a Chinook wind. We don’t have them so much in Craig as far as I can tell, but we would get them in Copper Center and even up in Fairbanks. It’s a deceptively warm wind, usually in the middle of winter, breaking the seemingly endless days of

-40°F and sending the mercury rocketing up to the teens above …. at which point, Alaskans will decide it’s shirt-sleeve and shorts weather. The Chinook winds are fun while they last, but they never last as long as we’d like. We all know too well that soon, the wind will shift and the cold temperatures will descend … again. It’s not Breakup yet…

D is for DELIVERY. Well, it WOULD be, but I should stop whining about the whole computer and shipping thing, and concentrate on something more Alaskan … like…

Daylight …. Some people think, Wow! 24 hours of daylight! How cool would THAT be?? Well, then they think of the reverse, a world of darkness and how uncool that would be… I’m here to tell you, you’ve got it backwards. Really.

When we came to Alaska back in 2002, my son was 5 and we arrived in the warmth and light of July. We learned a lot about room-darkening shades, and I remember my boy saying, “I’ll go to bed when the sun goes down!” “Well, honey,” I replied, “That’ll be October…”

Well, not October, but we quickly learned how oppressive 24 hours of “visible light” actually is. Even with room-darkening shades, there’s really no escape–the light oozes around the edges. It’s there when you go to bed, it’s there when you get up in the morning, and while I loved the effect all the light had on parts of my garden, I could tell it was having a different effect on us. Darkness, though. Dark is different. People think that it would be the dark that would make a soul depressed. Our dark was a blue-cast dark and it washed away the colors. I describe Copper Center and Fairbanks as a “black and white existence” in winter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was also beautiful in the starkness. If you’re inclined, in the darkest times, you can sit in front of a SAD light, you can turn on every light in the house. You can always find some kind of light. In the full of an Alaskan summer, it’s hard to find the dark. The hardest month on kids is February into early March. That’s when the sun returns, and it’s as if kids are solar-powered. They become antsy, irritable. It has everything to do with shifts in light.

E is for March 27, 1964 at 5:36pm. Good Friday. The 9.2 magnitude Alaska Earthquake that shattered the state with a force equal to 10,000,000 (yes, million) Hiroshima bombs. 143 people died. Valdez was obliterated by a tsunami. If you visit Valdez now, you’re not visiting the original townsite. That’s further up the road and on the right. The ground shook for four full minutes. I was nearly 8 months away from being born far south of Alaska when this happened, but I’m embedding a film taken aboard a ship that rode out the tsunami in Valdez. It’s worth a watch. My daughter was saddened to realize the dogs didn’t make it…

 

We still have earthquakes. We were in Alaska for the November ’02 (November 3, 2002, a 7.9 magnitude that rocked the Denali fault north of Glennallen). It took out major hunks of the Tok Cutoff (that’s a road), and ponds that had frozen over by that point were shocked–their surfaces looking like shattered glass–like a giant fist had punched down from above. My office was in a  basement. The aftershocks were unnerving, to say the least, and they went on for days.

I’ve caught up now, and my computer hasn’t blue-screened out on me! Of course I’ll say that and then —

 

 

 

A To Z Alaska-Style: Day 2 B Is For The Bears of The Bremner

There is no place more beautiful on Earth than The Bremner Gold Mining District. I say that and the National Park Service (the land manager for The Bremner) will hate me forever for it. Why? Because you might want to visit and that would be counter to their management plan…

So, for starters, I should mention how I came to know The Bremner and why Bears are the other “B” of this post. I’m a former Parkie. I’m a recovering Parkie, but that’s not the point of this post. In 2004 I went out to The Bremner with NPS Historian Geoff Bleakley and NPS Landscape Architect Samson Ferreira to conduct a preliminary analysis of artifacts curated on the sub-arctic landscape and assess how monitoring processes and procedures could preserve these mining artifacts while allowing visitors a “sense of discovery” (NPS-speak) when coming upon places like Yellow Band Mining Camp and the Lucky Girl and Sherriff Mines.

The Bremner is remote. Access is either on foot—walking the 35 miles outside of McCarthy, Alaska, or by bush plane that lands on one of the more unnerving landing strips I’ve ever encountered (just south of the one that gave Alaskan Bush Pilot “Mudhole” Smith his moniker). Timing is everything, and as the clouds move in and the fog descends, sometimes getting out of The Bremner is as tricky as getting out of Southeast in the winter.

It’s tundra (and alders), the main drainage is Golconda Creek, which contains some of the sweetest “you don’t have to boil this stuff” water I’ve ever tasted. I was able to go back in 2005 with a conservator (and to pick up the data from my monitors) and NPS Mining Historian Logan Hovis.

We stayed at the Yellow Band Bunkhouse, and that was part of the real beauty of The Bremner—a wonderful Artist & Writer was the Site Hostess. I packed in eggs (because she needed eggs) and broccoli, sugar snaps, spinach, and rhubarb from my garden, and spices and, um, sun dried tomatoes, and everything else she requested. Hikers who happened upon the Yellow Band Bunkhouse after days and days of eating freeze-dried and powered and jerked whatever were in for a treat at what became known as The Bremner Café. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the recipe for the Broccoli Sauté from The Bremner Café.

Beyond everything, The Bremner is a gold mining landscape. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, having been landed there by the National Park Service in March of 2000. For a quick history—there were two historic mining periods in the area—the earlier epoch, dating from 1902 until about 1931 was primarily placer mining (streams), while the second epoch, from 1931 until 1942, was characterized by lode mining (diggings).

The Lucky Girl Mine and Mill dates from that later period, as does the Sherriff Mine (1939-1942). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mine I didn’t visit is The Yellow Band Mine (not to be confused with The Yellow Band Camp).

Dating from the early 1930s, the Yellow Band Mine’s structures include a tramline (if for nothing else, you have to go there to see the insanity of the tramlines) and tent structures stretched above low-lying rock-piled walls. As for the earlier mining areas, the most prominent is The Golconda Mining Cluster (1911-1914), which is a hydraulic site along Golconda Creek (where they used pressurized water to blast away the rock—not with the “Giants” you see in the old photographs, but pretty close).

There are bears in The Bremner. They’ve got both kinds—Black Bears and Brown Bears.

In 2004, my then-four-year-old daughter, before I boarded the plane in Chitina, put her hand on my arm and whispered, “I scared of bears.” I knew what she meant. She meant she was scared a bear was going to eat her mom. I kissed her cheek and whispered that line I always paraphrase from Gone With The Wind: “Mama can shoot straight if she doesn’t have to shoot far…” Actually, as a prerequisite to going to The Bremner, our team had to shotgun-qualify under the tutelage of the NPS Rangers. Turns out mama can shoot straight even when it is quite far and she has to combat load that last round….

The appeal for the bears in The Bremner is two-fold: there are blueberries EVERYWHERE. Unholy hell, that was a draw for me, too! But, the second draw is Brown Bear-specific: Parkie squirrels.

Now, I always thought they were called “Parkie Squirrels” because they lived in a National Park (yes, I’m an idiot). It turns out they’re called that because they’re the type of squirrel the Natives use to make parkas. The reason the bears so desperately need them is one of those “nature-is-kinda-warped-like-that” things: without the Parkie Squirrels, the bears will die. Yes. Die. The squirrels contain an enzyme the bears need in order to survive. Get a lot of Parkie Squirrels together and you’ll find a place crawling with Brown Bears—especially toward Fall (which begins in late-July in The Bremner) when the bears are gorging themselves on everything. As it turns out, I only saw one bear (a little black bear), and it was far away on the side of a far slope. I did, however, learn a little bit about hiking etiquette when I called out to Geoff and Samson as we hacked our way through a tangle of alders, “Hey! Is that a bear?!” They started and spun back toward me thoroughly alarmed, and then looked off to where I was pointing. I smiled sheepishly, “Um…waaaay over there…?” Not since Samson had run off through the tundra, bouncing across the stones of one of the creeks with Geoff muttering something about “shooting that boy in the kneecaps” had Geoff greeted one of us with such an icy stare. I probably should send another email to apologize …. Again…

The Bremner is (ahem) the location of the Online Novel I’m writing. There is a hike that takes about 10 days from Iceberg Lake into Yellow Band Camp. I got the 1,000 calories/day idea from Geoff because he and a friend of his made the hike doing something calorically similar.  Somehow, I don’t think they had these results. Here’s hoping it’s as scary as I’m seeing it at the moment. And, here’s hoping I’ll be able to go back out there and not be terrified as the fog closes in and the critters come out….

Broccoli Saute from The Bremner Café:

2 heads of broccoli separated into florets

2 TBPS olive oil

3 cloves garlic, smashed

Tumeric and Kosher Salt to taste

¼ cup of sun dried tomatoes (with some liquid)

½ cup of shelled walnuts (chopped)

Best cooked over a pocket-rocket, best served in the wilderness with lots of laughter & friendship.

 

A to Z Alaska-Style: Day 1 A is for ALASKA

(Yours Truly, for the next 26 days, will be relegated to a link in the menu above. It’s still going and getting stranger and stranger)

It’s a nearly month-long romp through the alphabet Alaskan-style! Twenty-six letters, twenty-six days to learn something new about ALASKA “The Great Land;” Okay, there’s the first thing you learned—that “Alaska” actually means “The Great Land.”

Let’s start with a bit of history….. okay … prehistory (mostly because I’m on Prince of Wales Island, which has the highest concentration of 10,000 year-old (BP)+ sites (human habitation) in the New World. Prince of Wales has the famous Shuka Kaa (formerly named “On Your Knees Cave”).

If you paid attention in high school, you know  a bit about  Beringia and the land bridge. Dan O’Neill wrote a fantastic book about it called “The Last Giants of Beringia.” It’s worth picking up and reading, and if you ever get to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (which is, unfortunately NOT in Alaska), you should make time to visit The Beringia Center because it’s all sorts of wonder and awe. Now, we can move forward a bit.

The Spanish were here in Southeast. Really. You think I just make this stuff up? The Spanish did explore in Southeastern Alaska (just north of Haida G’waii) waters in the mid- to late-1700s. The last of their exploratory voyages was in about 1794. There’s an excellent book entitled “Through Spanish Eyes,” which contains large excerpts of journals and primary source documentation about the voyages. Sadly, it’s out of print, but if you ask your local library, I’m sure they can find it through Inter-Library Loan.

The Russians were here as well. They came in around 1740 and established themselves as traders. Sort of. They were also a blood-thirsty lot, and, in 1784, Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov cemented this image at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island after he set about slaughtering hundreds of the indigenous Koniag in order to set up the first permanent Russian settlement. The draw was sea otters. Prized for their pelts, the sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction. Conservation laws have brought their numbers back. Actually, we now have an over-population of the cute, furry “chubby-tummies” of the sea, and they are, truly, the bane of fishermen.

But, I digress… Russians… Baranov—he’s probably a guy you might have heard about. His full name was Alexandr Baranov, and he went by “Lord of Alaska.” Needless to say, the Tlingit would have none of that, so they destroyed his settlement of Arkhangelsk on, um, Baranof Island in the, um, Alexander Archipelago (apparently, he had an ego), in 1802. By 1804, he had rebuilt and rechristened the settlement Novo-Arkhangelsk. After we got the place with Seward’s land deal on August 1, 1867 (called “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Ice Box,” but, looking back should be called “Best. Real Estate. Deal. EVER) for $7.2 million, we renamed it “Sitka.”

Alaska was a District until 1912 (I’ll go into the Syndicate and more of the history as I go through the alphabet), There’s ANCSA (Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act) and ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act – say THAT three times fast!), which could both come under “A,” but I’m saving them… just wanted you to see them coming. “A” could also be for “ANWR” (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), which contains the NPR-A (National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska), and that’s another kettle of fish in the offering.

One thing we Alaskans hear from people Outside (meaning, everyone in the Lower 48…usually) is how Alaska is a “Spiritual Home” or that they somehow feel an ethereal connection with Alaska—even if they’ve never set foot in the state. I blame National Geographic. Actually, if you visit Alaska unprepared, Alaska will become, in a very real way, your “Spiritual Home,” because Alaska actively tries to kill you. Daily. Chad Carpenter, brilliant cartoonist of all things “The Great Land” drew this comic that I have emblazoned on a refrigerator magnet … you know, lest I forget. It shows a group of tourists wandering around their bus and snapping photoraphs–completely unaware of any danger. The caption is: “Alaska: Step out of the bus and into the food chain.”

Alaska is a land of contradiction. We’re friendly and community-minded, we’re insular and wary of strangers, we’re the kindest, most giving people I’ve ever seen, we’re the most grasping and greedy of humans on the planet. We love the wilderness, but don’t see a problem using Super Cubs, snowmachines, and ATVs to access it. Even in the cities, the idea of subsistence runs deep—ask anyone who’s dipped a net in Chitina. The resources are ours. The U.S. Government expends a lot of money in Alaska and creates jobs, but we grumble how ANILCA locked up the land in an epic land-grab in the 1970s…

This will be an epically Alaskan twenty-six days on the blog. I’m going to be brutally honest. You want to see Alaska? I’ll show you. The Sierra Club might hate me for it, but so will Pebble Mine. You may love it or be offended by it. I’ve been in Alaska for a decade–not born here, but got here as fast as I could. There’s no other place on Earth I’d rather live. Back and forth and up and down, it goes back to the psychosis of protectionism verses the concept that people have to have jobs, and how the needs of many should outweigh the needs of just a few.

If you want a reading list for this part, try:

The Last Giant of Beringia: The Mystery of the Bering Land Bridge, by Dan O’Neill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travels Among the Dena: Exploring Alaska’s Yukon Valley, by Frederica De Laguna

 

 

 

Northwest Coast: Archaeology as Deep History, by Madonna Moss

 

 

 

 

 
Through Spanish eyes: The Spanish voyages to Alaska, 1774-1792, by Wallace M. Olson

 

 

 

Baranov: Chief Manager of the Russian Colonies in America, by Kiril Khlebnikov

 

 

 

Anooshi Lingit Aani Ka, Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804, Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard L. Dauenhauer (Editors) (This one is a collected Tlingit Oral History)