Raindrops drum on the Cessna’s aluminum floats, adding an urgent rhythm to our mission as one by one we ease ourselves out of the plane and into the shallows.
Clad in waterproof jackets and rubber boots we splash to shore, but reaching land doesn’t improve anything as far as the rain goes; there is no shelter as we stand on a gravel bar beneath a lowering sky.
Nobody is complaining, because our attention has been caught by something more compelling than the weather: Someone has spotted a bear.
“Oh my God!” exclaims a young woman in our group, as the rest of us squint and strain to make sense of a blurry shape far ahead of us.
I fumble for my binoculars, scanning the mud flat at Pack Creek.
And there it is: A brown bear walking along the stream’s rocky banks.
A man carries a bundle of sticks to a fire built on the bank of a river, to a speck of yellow that barely stands out against a darkening streak of sky.
A lone log cabin is seen from a distance that reveals the depth of its solitude; it is surrounded by several Sitka spruce fading into a forest, one that deepens into mountains so vast they range out of view.
Finally, and most frequently, Mount McKinley rises from a swirling mist tinged with purple and blue, looming above the landscape, indifferent to the world below.
The paintings of Sydney Laurence depict an Alaska where nature is big, and people are small.
“That is a place where people are weak and insignificant, where landscapes are large and entirely invulnerable,” said Kesler Woodward, Professor of Art Emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and author of “Sydney Laurence, Painter of the North.”
Woodward notes that Laurence, who came here at the turn of the last century and became, by the 1920s, a well-known artist in Anchorage and throughout the region, was the first professionally trained painter to make Alaska his longtime home.
Although his work is relatively unknown outside of the Pacific Northwest, the scenes Laurence created can be hard to miss in Alaska; his paintings, and reproductions of those works can be found in museums, in the lobbies of banks and hospitals, and in galleries, gift shops and drugstores throughout the region.
“Because he was such a skilled painter and brought his training and skills to landscapes, his vision dominated not only that of other artists, but of almost everyone who saw his work,” said Woodward, who spoke about Laurence at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum last Wednesday,
Addison Field, Curator of Collections and Exhibits at the city museum, agrees that Laurence’s influence has extended far beyond the realm of art, shaping our perceptions of the Alaska landscape.
“His views documented our history; they became Alaska to us,” Field said.
Challenging Laurence’s vision
Woodward believes that certain themes found in Laurence’s work might be worth a second look.
“The idea of the land being so much more powerful than people, of people not having any effect on the land, can be dangerous,” he said. “We have learned that people can very much affect the landscape.”
Laurence’s model is a stalwart standby for many regional artists, who emulate his romantic images of Alaska as an untamed frontier.
“After Laurence, all of us who make images of Alaska landscapes have to make a choice — either to follow his model, or find models of our own,” Woodward said. “But I and many other contemporary artists are trying to look for other directions. There are as many different attitudes toward the land as there are people painting it. In my own work, I don’t see this as a place to be conquered, or tamed, or in conflict with — I see it as a place we are privileged to live in, a place where we will always be visitors.”
Christine Crooks, a member of the local artists’ group Plein Rein Painters, acknowledged Laurence’s lingering sway over how Alaska is portrayed, and his “in-depth impact” on our perceptions of Alaska.
“These days, we may see all the shows out there about Alaska and think, ‘Oh, no, not another dogsled!’” Crooks said. “In Laurence’s day, there just wasn’t the level of examination of Alaska that there is now. He made the rest of the world aware of Alaska’s beauty, its grandeur.”
There is something brave about bluegrass, about the honesty of a group of musicians who stand up on a stage, before a crowd, with nothing but their instruments and a story to tell.
And when it’s done right, a good bluegrass tune will make your pulse quicken and your blood rise up; it’ll be like a ride down a wild, rushing, twisting river.
What makes bluegrass different from, say, a standard country song?
Think hard-driving rhythms, fast-paced improvisations, and high-pitched vocals that wind up and down the melody like an inquisitive strand of kudzu.
“People ask me, does it have to be so fast? Well it does for us to get the point across that we’re bluegrass music,” said Jeremy “Junior” Kane, vocalist and banjo-player for The Great Alaska Bluegrass Band (TGABB). “Without the high tenor, the mandolin, the banjo, then it’s bluegrass style… but it’s not bluegrass.”
And traditional bluegrass, the way it was played back when it began, is what TGABB wants to epitomize, says Kane.
On those Juneau mornings when the snow falls with a denser-than-usual determination, slipping out of the seductive comfort of our sheets and stepping onto a cold floor, into a frosty day, can be a daunting proposition.
For Renee Hughes, the task is especially tough; while many of us dread the short walk from our house to the driveway, she gamely straps on her snowshoes, flicks on her headlamp and braves a 60-minute trek to reach her car.
“When I worked at Gastineau School, people would laugh when I would show up looking haggard,” said Hughes, who works as a substitute teacher at several local schools. “But I’d say, ‘Do you realize that I just spent an hour snowshoeing through the woods, in the dark, so I can get to school?’”
Hughes says that, luckily, some of the work she does for the school district she can do at home.
And when home is an apartment above the Last Chance Mining Museum, situated in the Last Chance Basin at the end of Basin Road, “working remotely” doesn’t just involve a flexible employment schedule; it often entails a geographic reality.
To reach downtown Juneau, Hughes and her husband, Port Engineer Gary Gillette, must hike down Basin Road and across the Basin Road Trestle Bridge.
But during winter storms, they are often snowed in.
“We have enough gear that we know how to get out,” said Hughes. “But it can be hard!”
And even when and if the road is clear this winter, Hughes still won’t be able to drive directly into town: The Basin Road Trestle, which was built in 1936, is undergoing a rehabilitation that began in October and won’t be finished until spring.
In the meantime, no cars are allowed on the bridge.
“They’re totally rebuilding the trestle,” Hughes said. “We’ll be out of commission until May, so basically what we’re going to do is to have a car on one side, and a car on the other. Gary brought in 12 cases of cat food, and a couple hundred pounds of dog food — we stocked up on everything to get wintered in.”
“Everything else we need,” she said, “we’ll drag from one side to the other!”
This isn’t the first time Hughes and Gillette have had to navigate a difficult journey home —when she first moved out to the museum about 20 years ago, they had to cross Gold Creek by boat.
When Ishmael Hope’s grandfather died, his family and friends gathered to pay tribute.
As they stood to share their stories, they spoke in a language that had, for thousands of years, served Alaska’s Native people: They spoke in Tlingit.
“My dad said, ‘Man, when an Elder gets up, and speaks from the heart, that is like soul food,’” said Hope.
When his own father, Andy Hope III, passed away in 2008, Ishmael Hope decided it was time to study Tlingit himself.
According to Sealaska Heritage Institute figures from 2007, Tlingit is spoken fluently in America by only 200 to 400 people, and is considered by many to be an endangered language.
For Hope, learning to speak it is a way to respect those who came before him.
“It truly does empower you to learn the language of your ancestors,” said Hope, who grew up speaking only English. “When you first learn a language, you think it’s just another way to say something. Then you realize that the way you put together thoughts and concepts is related to the language you are using.”
“Language is alive,” he added. “It’s an actual living thing.”
Hope’s previous plays include “Raven Odyssey,” “Cedar House” and “Gunakadeit,” which was performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
His newest work, “The Reincarnation of Stories,” opens tonight, and features four actors — Frank Katasse, Edward Littlefield, Erin Tripp and Hope himself — who will perform the story of Naatsilanei, the birth of the killer whale.
They tell the tale in Tlingit, as it was once told by traditional Tlingit artist Willie Marks. While everyone in the cast was raised speaking English, they have also each studied Tlingit.
“It takes a long time to memorize Tlingit,” Hope said. “It can be like pushing a rock up a hill! But everyone in the cast has Tlingit lines.”
Across the lake from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, a mountain goat forges a slow and steady path up a cliff that rises far above the center’s standard vantage point.
“Many of our visitors couldn’t see them,” said the center’s director, Ron Marvin. “So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we could see the goats up on a screen?’”
This summer, it’s possible — telescopes will track these and other animals, and transmit their images, in real-time, to a 55-inch screen.
The screen is one of two that has recently been acquired and mounted by the center, and each will show a variety of graphic
Laurie Craig, an interpreter with the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, said that such updated technologies are playing an unprecedented role at the center.Â
“They provide flexibility and an array of new opportunities for educating our visitors,” Craig said. “With large video monitors that are incredibly clear and brilliant, we can show off historic as well as contemporary photos. The blue ice images are spectacular!”
Fruits and flowers ripen into lush, succulent shades, bodies of water, gleaming and still, trees swaying rhythmically across a sultry twilight — such images are the stuff of holiday brochures and postcards.
These scenes also depict an environment in which most of the world’s 1,000 species of bats live and thrive, where they have everything they need: seeds, insects and a variety of places to roost.
Although 70 percent of bat species choose to live in tropical climates, there are five species that call Southeast home: Keen’s long-eared bat, long-legged myotis, California bat, the silver-haired bat and the little brown bat.
The most common of these is the little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus, which is the only bat species that not only resides here, but also ventures up to Southcentral and Interior Alaska. The little brown bat is about nine centimeters long, with fur ranging from cinnamon to dark brown and ears that, when laid forward, nearly reach the tip of the creature’s nose.
“It’s definitely a stretch for bats to survive and reproduce in this climate,” said Karen Blejwas, a regional biologist based in Juneau. “But obviously, some bat populations have done it.”
Blejwas, who works with the Wildlife Diversity Program at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, will be presenting “Bats in the Backyard: Flyers in the Forest” this Friday as part of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center’s Fireside Lecture Series.
Alaska attracts adventurers, people who come for the tall mountains and the deep rivers, who envision themselves discovering something new even as they lose themselves in an ancient wilderness.
Among these dreamers from down south are the artists who want to capture the less tangible aspects of the quest: An image, a rhythm, a phrase, that will evoke what it means to be here.
But for writers, describing a place so larger-than-the-usual-life can be hard to do; too often, the words and phrases used to convey Alaska’s vastness can dwindle into small stereotypes.
“I grew up in inner-city Portland,” said local poet Emily Wall. “It’s almost easier to write about nature in tiny restricted places. Here, oh my God, where do you start? It’s so large!
Wall, an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Alaska Southeast, will be reading her poems at next week’s Wildlife Wednesday, a lecture series sponsored by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a nonprofit organization committed to the conservation, protection and promotion of our state’s wildlife.
Her presentation is titled “Writing Eden: Looking for Home in the Natural World.” Wall will be reading poems from her previously published book, “Freshly Rooted,” as well as works from a new collection.
Many of the poems in “Freshly Rooted” explore Wall’s experience both as a new wife and a new Alaskan, and were written after she and her husband decided, almost on a lark, to come to Juneau.
They moved here five days after they got married; they planned to stay for a year or so.
But then they fell in love with the place, said Wall, and ended up settling in.
Wall believes many of us are searching for the archetype of Eden, for an unspoiled frontier.
“People will sell everything, will buy a boat and go, looking for that perfect cove where there will be no one but orcas, where they can be alone and content,” Wall said. “That can be very hard to do, to find that — but it’s amazing how many people have that dream.”
Wall’s poems, which often focus on our place in the natural world, recast our perceptions of daily life in Juneau by enticing us with a new take on what many of us see every day.
In her poem “Composition Ravens,” Wall writes, “Three black knives/cleave morning air./Snow has softened the sound/but even driving/beside them, we hear the slicing of wings./One has a bright orange/peel, the other two stroke,/young swimmers, toward/the concrete wall, kick/off at exactly/the right moment,/toward the highway,/guardrail left/quivering and greasy/in their wake.”
Tina Brown, president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and coordinator of Wildlife Wednesdays, said she is looking forward to Wall’s reading.
“I have always admired her work,” Brown said. “It’s so good that we want to share it with our community.”
Like Wall, Brown was initially drawn to Juneau because of the town’s proximity to the Alaska wilderness.
“My husband and I would come to Denali to backpack every summer,” said Brown, who moved here from Georgia about five years ago. “One time we came to Juneau for a night, on our way to Denali—it was raining sideways and was 53 degrees, and I said, ‘This is great!’”
Brown believes the character of Juneau’s people enhances its appeal.
“There is no pretense here,” she said. “You can’t tell a person’s occupation or level of education by his or her way of dress, for example — all you have to do here is be yourself.”
Developing a sense of self in relation to a natural landscape is a theme Wall has thought about while editing her work for her new book, “Liveaboard.”
“’Liveaboard’ can be used as a verb and a noun,” said Wall, who lived on a boat with her husband for four years. “It can also be a metaphor for how we live in the natural world, for communities, for issues of faith.”
As liveaboards, Wall and her husband would cruise for 2,000 miles up and down the coast, using a dock in Vancouver as their home base.
The experience taught her that nature’s untamed wildness, its fierce lack of predictability, can actually foster community; sometimes the farther into the wilderness we venture, the more we need other people to help us survive it.
“It’s difficult to dock a boat on a river without help,” said Wall. “When we saw people come into the harbor, there was an immediate connection. You count on people to catch lines, to give accurate information on the weather, on what’s going on out there.”
The need to help, and the desire for support, creates an intimacy that isn’t so common in the Lower 48, says Wall.
“You seldom need your neighbors in suburban America, when you’re just bringing in a bag of groceries,” she said. “Community is the way we live together, and don’t live together.”
In 1879 Libby Beaman boarded the S.S. St. Paul to venture across the Bering Sea toward the Pribilof Islands.
Her presence there wouldn’t be by accident; Libby had asked President Rutherford B. Hayes, a family friend, for permission to accompany her husband to what Russian missionaries once called, “the place that God forgot.”
The ship’s captain told the Washington, D.C. socialite that she would be the first non-Native woman to venture to the remote Pribilofs, where her husband would serve as Assistant to the Senior Revenue Agent.
And her husband’s superior officer told her her presence would be, as Libby later recounted in her journal, “the most unwise and foolhardy thing I’ve ever heard of.”
This week in Juneau, Libby Beaman, as portrayed by actress Elizabeth Ware, will tell audiences what it was like to live in a land that could be both hostile and hauntingly beautiful.
“Libby,” a one-woman play based on Beaman’s diary and sketchbook, has been performed throughout Alaska and the Lower 48, and has earned a four-star review at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. This week’s performances at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council will mark the first time the play has been staged locally.
“It’s about time!” Ware said. “I’m very much looking forward to coming down and performing for Juneau.”
The Anchorage-based actress has assumed the role of Libby numerous times over the past 13 years.
“This is the story of an adventurous and brave woman,” she said. “She goes into this experience with a colonial attitude, and comes out with the realization that there are others ways of living life, of living in the world, than the ones she’s used to.”
On St. Paul Island, Libby met the Pribilof Aleuts, who had been brought to the Pribilofs a hundred years earlier by seal fur traders and had, under first Russian and later American rule, endured tumultuous upheavals. They had also developed a unique culture, one that couldn’t help but influence Libby’s impressions of life on the island.
“She was drawn into the life and people there, into their community and values,” Ware said.
The director of the play, David Edgecombe, holds a Ph.D. in theater history and directing from Kent State University and is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Department of Theatre and Dance.
Ware says that she and Edgecombe first learned of Libby’s story in 1992, when they were working with a theater company in Vladivostok, Russia.
“My mother was planning to come over and asked us what we wanted, and we said, ‘Peanut butter and books in English, please!’” Ware said.
One of the books her mother brought was “Libby: The Alaskan Diaries and Letters of Libby Beaman, 1879-1880,” published in 1987 by Libby’s granddaughter, Betty John.
“The story was fascinating, and I had a sense of it as a one-woman show,” Edgecombe said.
He started adapting the book for the stage in 1997, in response to a request for a play that would commemorate Women’s History Month by celebrating Alaska’s pioneering women.
“Libby” was first performed at Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse in Anchorage.
But it is a performance on St. Paul Island, where Libby wrote her journals and drew in her sketchbook, which offered Edgecombe a rare insight into the play’s setting.
“Liz performed in a community center, and in the distance you could hear barking seals, right when she was talking about the seals!” Edgecombe recalled.
“The experience was thrilling to say the least,” Ware said. “Just to be able to go to St. Paul — I still get goose bumps! When we drove up to the place where we were staying, we found it was near one of the seal rookeries. And the only way to describe the sound was as a cacophony. I was brought up in the southwest on a ranch, and the barking of the seals sounds just like cattle — herds and herds of cattle, going nonstop!”
The play’s Juneau performances are being sponsored by the Friends of the Alaska State Museum, and the organization’s vice president, Renee Hughes, said a museum exhibit prompted her desire to bring “Libby” to town.
“Recently the State Museums hosted a traveling exhibit on the Pribilof Islands and the fur sealing industry. This brought back memories of reading the book ‘Libby,’ and then seeing Elizabeth Ware’s performance in Anchorage,” she said. “We discovered that she was still doing the performance and would enjoy bringing the story to the Southeast.”
“The Alaska State Museum is charged with being the stewards of all of Alaska’s history,” added Hughes, “and this is an opportunity for the Friends to showcase a small part of it.”