Oh, it was wild and weird and wan, and ever in camp o’ nights
We would watch and watch the silver dance of the mystic Northern Lights.
And soft they danced from the polar sky and swept in primrose haze;
And swift they pranced with their silver feet, and pierced with a blinding blaze.
They danced a cotillion in the sky; they were rose and silver shod;
It was not good for the eyes of man — ‘Twas a sight for the eyes of God.
– Robert Service, “The Ballad of the Northern Lights”
Sadly, the northern lights is one thing I’ve not been able to see these past few months. Apparently Fairbanks has too much light pollution (even up on a hill where the university is), plus one has to be up from 1-3 a.m. to see them, which is not the greatest hour for me. It’s been a huge frustration barely glimpsing them even though we live directly in their path.
For the past two weeks, we’ve been a bit far south to see them anyway. First, we took a train from Fairbanks to Anchorage on a Sunday (the one day of week they head south) and it was a l-o-n-g 12-hour ride. It was on the 21st, the shortest day of the year. Skies were clear in the morning. The heavens were a mix of periwinkle blue, purple and grey and the clouds briefly lit up with white fire when the sun rose. We rode past still white landscapes with moving black dots – moose – in the distance. Everything was frosty-icy-dusky except for the dark green river (the Nenana?) flowing beneath us with chunks of ice. The Healy canyon was the prettiest part of the trip and the train slowed to 25 mph. Ordinarily it’s a 2-hour train ride to Denali National Park but the train took four.
There were a bunch of foreigners aboard including two nice Swiss women across from us with whom I practiced my German. Why anyone would visit Alaska this time of year is beyond me but there they were. And some Japanese. The rest of the trip was in the dark. We flew to Seattle the next day to meet my parents at SeaTac. I was the only one of the three children to get home this Christmas; my brother Steve had
dropped by a week or two before and Rob only gets out west once a year. We mostly lazed about for a week, had a few visitors, ventured out for some shopping, a Christmas Eve service at St. Mark’s Cathedral and to see a production of Mary Poppins at the Issaquah theater – and that was about it. I spent some time looking at old family photos of my maternal grandmother and her 6 daughters and plowed my way through a bunch of books (described below) and mainly rested. It had been a tiring fall. I was teaching one course, taking two graduate courses and auditing an undergrad course, so I had a full plate.
We flew a bumpy flight back to Anchorage on a Tuesday, then spent the next few days at the Alyeska ski resort, about 26 miles south of Anchorage. Because of the icy roads and potential avalanches, it takes an hour to get there. Veeka/Ollie and I lounged about the pool and hot tub, had lunch at the spiffy Seven Glaciers restaurant (really good food) atop the gondola lift and spent New Year’s Eve watching fireworks and skiers snowplow down the mountain carrying red torches. One problem with Alyeska is there was very little snow! There was too little at the base to even run the lifts but
fortunately there was a lot more some 2000 feet higher up. So on Jan. 1 – a sunny day – we took the gondola back up to the ski runs on an upper bowl and I spent about 2 ½ hours sliding about while Veeka sat in the Bore Tide, an eatery with huge windows overlooking the slopes, reading her books. That may not sound like a lot of skiing, but I was very out of shape and my legs were killing me so I finally staggered inside. I had no sooner sat down for lunch than a nasty wind picked up on the slopes. I decided to call it a day. The skiing (before the wind picked up) had been pleasant although I’d call the blue runs advanced intermediate. They were not marked well, so one never knew if there was a nasty black diamond ahead or a kinder blue slope. Alyeska is an expensive resort, so I was a bit surprised to see basics like slope markers neglected.
Then it was back to Anchorage for the weekend. The B&B in which we were staying had a lovely view of Cook Inlet and the Alaska Range beyond that. We traipsed around local art galleries during a First Friday series of openings, then today we walked 6-7 blocks to the Anchorage Museum, a huge glass-walled edifice and the state’s largest museum. Veeka really liked the Legos exhibit but I was blown away by Voices of the Wilderness, a compilation of all the projects accomplished by people who had been artists in residence at the various national parks scattered about the state. Some of the photos of exotic climes such as the Gates of the Arctic National Park (there are no trails or roads there. A helicopter drops you in) were lovely. Then there was a huge gallery devoted to the various Native cultures in Alaska: Tlingit, Athabascan, Yupik, Siberian Yupik and so on. I thought I’d breeze through there quickly but I was fascinated with what I picked up about life on the ice. There were fur jackets made of 85 small animal pelts; waterproof coats made of seal bladders, all manner of dolls, ivory hooks and utensils, ceremonial masks, containers of birch bark (and having helped Veeka make an Athabascan shelter out of birch bark last fall, I know how tough it is to work with), all sorts of clothing and implements made with parts of bowhead whales; bowls made of driftwood (there are no trees and hence few wood products near the Alaskan west coast and Northern Slope); clothing out of seal skin as well as fox, wolverine and even birds. One thing I did not see were products from bears. Were none of them killed and their fur used for clothing? I realize polar bears live in Canada, not Alaska but I
thought there might be trading back and forth between coastal and inland tribes. There were touch screens next to the exhibits where you could get more details about these objects and I just stood there awed. Mindful that Veeka’s attention span was not forever, I got halfway through that exhibit.
Another thing I got to do during vacation was to read. I worked my way through a pile of Alaska books as part of my immersion into this state. I started with Conroy and Walshe’s Sarah from Alaska to get a grip on what really happened with Sarah Palin after the 2008 election. The book says she was way out of her league running for vice president; however, she could have come back here, finished up her term as governor and studied up for the next few years so she could have come back as a viable candidate. The GOP has no one all that thrilling for 2016. She could have been ready. She should have never stepped down as governor. Only millionaires like Mitt Romney can afford to be a former governor and run for president. She could have written some thoughtful books; she could be doing what Alice Rogoff (new publisher for the Alaska Dispatch News) is doing now in terms of developing Alaska to be ready for the increased shipping that will be sailing by its west coast toward a melting Northwest Passage. What I gather from my mere four months here is that she is almost a non-person in this state. As my hairdresser said (and we all listen to our stylists, right?), Sarah left the state in the hands of Sean Parnell, her lieutenant governor, who was hugely disliked and who was not reelected this fall. Even though her Facebook page labels her as a politician, she’s mainly doing reality shows and a new series for the Sportsman’s Channel.
I had already reread Coming into the Country. Although the book is 40 years old, it explained events from the 1970s that affect Alaska today. Also read Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event by Tom Rose. Then dove into biographies of Bob Atwood, Bill Snedden and Kay Fanning for an academic paper on Alaska newspaper barons, along with Bent Pins to Chains: Alaska and its Newspapers, by Evangeline Atwood and Lew Williams. I also read a Palin biography by the late Joe McGinniss called The Rogue: In Search of the Real Sarah Palin, which looked intriguing but which turned out to be a 318-page hit piece. First, how would you like to have an author publish a map showing people how to get to your house?
I kept on waiting for some kind of objective treatment of Sarah but that was not to be. There was not one positive thing about her in it. Instead of giving her some credit for not aborting a Down syndrome child, he goes on for pages wondering if she borrowed someone else’s kid to wave about as a prop during the 2008 campaign. McGinniss didn’t seem to have a clue about what’s involved in raising a DS child. Also, didn’t Palin’s church get burned down after the election? Why no mention of that? McGinnis’ reporting about religion was also pretty bad; he had no concept of what the Third Wave meant; he was wrong on some details about evangelist Todd Bentley and everyone who had the slightest evangelical views was in his mind an extremist. Plus, blaming Palin for wearing high-priced clothing during the campaign was disingenuous; the Sarah from Alaska book explained that it was campaign staffers who bought the clothing and basically told Sarah to wear it and that she and her family were brought on the campaign with what they could pack in a few suitcases. Just being in Alaska the short time I’ve been there has shown me that people really don’t dress up in these parts. So it’s understandable that she was underdressed for a campaign and McCain’s people needed her to look better – fast.
I also started on a series of Christian fantasy books by Lee Duigon, an author who lives in New Jersey and who’s writing 7 or 8 of these novels. I read Bell Mountain – the first in the series – to Veeka and she really liked the story, which is about a boy and a girl who set off to ring a mythical bell atop a nearby mountain. There was a legend that someone would ring it and and to the childrens’ astonishment, they were the ones supposed to do it. And so the tale is set along the familiar lines of The Quest. The story of how they got past various fantastical beasts plus an assassin to ring the thing kept me busy reading Veeka to sleep for several nights. (Although she refused to sleep – sigh because she found the story exciting).
I also made my way through Book 4 of the Game of Thrones series and I’m now working on the latest (A Dance of Dragons) that I got cheap in a fabulous Anchorage treasure called Tidal Wave Used Books. It was an absolutely huge place with unusual things like a 20-foot-long shelf of Christian fiction; 4 rows of Alaska books and a huge children’s section. I got Ollie a kid’s Bible and some other books (she’s really into reading these days) and I scarfed up some Alaska history plus the Dragons book. Afterwards, we found a restaurant of Indian and Tibetan food next door called Yak and Yeti Himalayan Restaurant. Their ads read along the lines of: “Sick of eating salmon and crab? Visit us!” It was a bit pricey but we stretched that meal into 3 meals because the portions were so filling. I have come to one conclusion about the Thrones books: They are depraved. They may be brilliant in their own way but I get the feeling the author has lost control of the narrative.
One of the last things we did in Anchorage is visit St. John’s Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral about 12 miles north of town in the hamlet of Eagle River. I think 99% of the people there were converts to Orthodoxy from evangelical Protestantism. Their church is by far one of the loveliest Orthodox churches I’ve seen in the States. Although not as ornate as, say, St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, DC, there was a purity of line and color there, plus the inlaid birch (?) wood ceiling was a delight to look at. The music was lovely too. One thing you can say for Alaska: If you’re going to visit Orthodox churches, there’s a bunch up there, thanks to the Russians, who were establishing missions there in the early 18th century.