Goodbye Alaska, hello Seattle

From left: Robin, Jerry, Ezra and Christianna Hunt; then Veeka and then Shariah Hunt - the wonderful family next door who gave us our last meal in Fairbanks

From left with watermelon: Robin, Jerry, Ezra and Christianna Hunt; then Veeka and then Shariah Hunt – the wonderful family next door who gave us our last meal in Fairbanks.

Our last few days in Fairbanks were an orgy of packing. We arrived here with 17 boxes shipped via post. We left with 15 boxes – plus a tube containing my nice circumpolar map — to be shipped south. The Hunts, the next door neighbors who’ve been such a blessing to us, gave us dinner once I’d cleaned the apartment and sent off the last box. Then at 7 pm, we headed south. We were doing some sightseeing around south-central Alaska before catching the ferry, so I had this crazy idea that we’d spend the first night in Hatcher’s Pass, which was in the mountains over Palmer, a city about an hour north of Anchorage. I didn’t realize it was at least five hours to get to the turnoff at Willow. Then one drives 10 miles on paved road, then 20 miles on a dirt road up a mountain.
The evening was a lot darker than I was used to in Fairbanks, as we were nearly 300 miles to the south. Finally at around 1:30 a.m., I was climbing up this steep gravel road and passing gold mines on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. When I reached the summit, I could not find the lodge (that Google Maps said should be there). At that hour in the morning, one is exhausted, so I was about to bail and head for Wasilla when I saw some teenagers in swimsuits walking about. There was a lake right there at the summit. By this time it was 2 a.m. They told me the lodge was just a bit further down the mountain. We pulled in around 2:20 a.m. to a very nice set of cabins that we discovered the next

The view from the lodge dining room at Hatcher's Pass

The view from the lodge dining room at Hatcher’s Pass

morning had stellar views. The cirque we were in was so green, it looked like Ireland. The main lodge was super nice and had a panoramic view of Palmer just below. We took off from there and headed to Anchorage for lunch, then drove down Turnagain Arm all the way to Girdwood while the wind blew our car around and it POURED the rest of the afternoon. We had a 5-hour drive to Homer, a town at the south end of the Kenai peninsula. To get there, we had to drive along the Cooper River, which was lined with fish camps. I decided to splurge on our hotel in Homer, getting a place that was on the beach, a good decision as Veeka headed for the tide pools as fast as she could.

Fireweed, the state flower, near the place where Veeka got temporarily stranded by tides.

Fireweed, the state flower, at Bishops Beach in Homer where Veeka got temporarily stranded by tides.

I tried warning her about the tides but figured we wouldn’t need that kind of information in that we were only in town two days. But the next day, where the weather was a bit better, we headed for Bishop’s Beach, a pretty spot in Homer. On an inside cove were some sandbars that Veeka wandered over to just to explore. I sat on a piece of driftwood just to think and then I realized with a start she’d been on that sandbar for awhile and we needed to be off. She began to shriek that there was no way off and to my horror, I realized that tide had come in and that she was indeed trapped on this tiny island. And the water was two or three feet deep and cold. I led her to the spot that was probably the most shallow and she walked in about two feet toward me, then stopped, terrified of the current. So I took off my shoes and hiked up my jeans and waded in. The water was well up to my thighs but fortunately I could walk across, grab Veeka and bring her back. Once she was toweled off, she thought it a great adventure and I will say it was a lesson about tides she won’t forget.

Dressed as babushkas at the Russian cafe

Dressed as babushkas at the Russian cafe in Nikolaevsk.

The next day was sunny, so we headed north up the west coast of the Kenai, stopping at numerous historic Orthodox churches along the way. We saw four in all but with the exception of the one in Homer, they all seemed to have miniscule congregations. They had names like Holy Assumption, Transfiguration of Our Lord and St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. The latter was located in Nikolaevsk, a Russian village supposedly inhabited by Old Believers who dressed like they had just come off the boat, but we didn’t see any women with long skirts and scarves wandering about. There was one café run by an enterprising woman called Nina that was packed with imported Russian goods. She draped babushka scarves over our heads. We could also see the gorgeous mountains across Cook Inlet, several of them dormant – or recent – volcanoes. As we retraced our steps back across the peninsula, we saw tons of people out with huge gill nets. Apparently this was the day that Alaska residents could fish with such nets. It was also the first day of the salmon fishing season, so there were tons of people in waders and fishing poles.

The Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration, a historic congregation on the west coast of the Kenai peninsula.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord Orthodox Church, a historic congregation in Ninilchik, on the west coast of the Kenai peninsula. The cemetery was gorgeous.

We stayed the next two nights near Seward at a hostel (the place in Homer was expensive, so one must make certain economies) and the weather was incredible. Totally blue skies and upper 70s weather. We spent the next day wandering about town and the SeaLife center where Veeka bought a toy octopus that she calls Ruby. We didn’t take the Kenai fjords tour because it was quite expensive and many hours on a small boat – maybe we should have – but currently there’s no job awaiting me in the Lower 48, so …. The next day we went to a small hamlet called Hope which is across the water from Anchorage. Some folks call it one of the towns that still reflects old Alaska. It certainly had nothing touristy about it and it had a stunning view of the Chugach mountain range. It was my last chance for a decent Internet connection for the next 5 days and I had stories to file to www.getreligion.org, so unfortunately I couldn’t fully relax at that point. We then drove back towards Anchorage, but took the exit to Whittier, briefly visited the visitor center at the Portage glacier, then headed through a very weird one-lane tunnel that is shared by cars and trains alike. It leads to the port of Valdez where we caught our ferry and sailed off at around midnight.

This utterly cool Tolkienesque sign on the road to

This utterly cool Tolkienesque sign on the road to Nikolaevsk.

The Alaska Marine Highway system has a ton of ferries going between the various coastal cities in southeast Alaska. The next day, we pulled up to Yakutat, a tiny hamlet. Next day was Juneau, the state capital. Being that the ferry landing was 15 miles out of town plus my parents had lived 2 years there and so I’d seen the area, I decided not to take a taxi into town. Later I regretted that, as I should have shown Veeka where we used to live. So the next day, I decided we’d tour Ketchikan, albeit in driving rain! That part of the country is a rain forest, so it rains way more than Seattle – which incidentally hasn’t had much rain this year. So, armed with umbrellas, Veeka and I got to run around Ketchikan for a few hours as I’d never seen the city during the years my parents lived in Juneau. (I had visited Sitka, however). Seeing all the totems and totem art in the tourist shops reminded me of how big a deal that symbol is in southeast Alaska. Totems are almost non-existent in central Alaska. They’re not big in Nome or Anchorage either. The various quadrants of the state differ greatly from each other. The only thing people seem to agree on is how clueless and bungling the state legislature in Juneau is.

Veeka and her friend Christianna Hunt playing one last time before we took off the evening of July 15.

Veeka and her friend Christianna Hunt playing one last time before we took off the evening of July 15.

Naturally I’ve brought along a lot of books to read, including God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. I’ve been wanting to read Rodney Stark’s 2009 book for a long time. When I worked for the Washington Times, I got tons of free books and this is one of the pile I’ve kept with me, intending to read at some point. I found his book fascinating, beginning with the point that the Crusades didn’t start in 1095 when Pope Urban II put out the call in Clermont, France. They started in the 7th century when Muslim armies overran Christian territories in Turkey, Palestine, North Africa, Spain, Cyprus and elsewhere. Far from being an early version of European colonialism, they were a defense mechanism by the Europeans who saw much of southern Europe lost to the Christians for four centuries. The massacres of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land by Muslims was getting worse and worse by the 10th century which is why the Byzantines began asking for help. The author doesn’t think much of Karen Armstrong, an author and apologist for all things Islamic and neither do I. The crusaders weren’t after gold, spices, precious stones, etc., he said; actually many of the knights who went severely mortgaged their families’ properties to afford the trip, as it took four to five times a knight’s annual income to make the trip. And that 85-90% of the Frankish knights did not take the cross (as going on a crusade was called) because it was well known that such travel was so expensive and there weren’t much in terms of earthly riches to be gotten from it. After all some 60K crusaders set out for Jerusalem, but only one quarter – about 15K – actually reached the Holy Land. The other three-quarters died along the way.

What our loaded up car looked like before the ferry. The snow tires on the top were there because I couldn't sell them in Fairbanks.

What our loaded up car looked like before the ferry. The snow tires on the top were there because I couldn’t sell them in Fairbanks.

Stark also has some fascinating statistics on how many years of occupation it took to convert at least 50% of the population of conquered territories to Islam. This ranges from 200 years for eastern Persia (present-day Iran) to North Africa (264 years). He has some fascinating anecdotes on the various Byzantine emperors in Constantinople who started the Crusades by begging for help to defeat the Seljuk Turks, who had conquered Jerusalem. The Turks were massacring Christian pilgrims brave enough to visit Christian sites and were also within 100 miles of Constantinople. These emperors ended up turning against their European helpers and aligning with their Muslim enemies which explains why – out of desperation and fury – the crusaders sacked Constantinople during the 4th crusade in 1204. And how the Greek Orthodox bishops were helping Saladin, the Kurdish hero of the Muslim forces, instead of the Latin-rite Catholic crusaders and that Saladin wasn’t quite the noble and chivalrous fighter as he’s been portrayed. There were a lot of things about the 12th and 13th centuries – for instance how the newly invented crossbow was such a formidable weapon – that I had not known.

The Kennicott, the ferry we rode for 5 nights and 4 days.

The Kennicott, the ferry we rode for 5 nights and 4 days.

Along with that, I’ve been reading The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins about the Nestorian churches that thrived in places like Tibet, modern-day Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and western China – places where Latin and Orthodox Christians had not been able to go. The Nestorians co-existed with the Muslims for a time until the 14th century when Islam went on rampages against Christians, wiping out entire countries worth of churches until even the memory of Christianity in those parts is gone. In his book, Jenkins is gentler with Muslims than is Stark, as he says Muslims were quite tolerant during the early centuries of their existence – which Stark disputes – but that around the 1300s, everything changed. He points out that while Western Christians have been criticized for the sack of Jerusalem in 1099 that killed 40,000 (for which there’s been much criticism and subsequent apologies over the millennia), the Turks had killed just as many in the 50 years prior to that in Syria and that in 1140 in Edessa (present-day southern Turkey), 47,000 people were massacred. I don’t know anyone in present-day Islam apologizing for that. Moreover, the 14th century was devastating for the once prosperous Christian community scattered about central Asia and extending as far as China. The Mongols, who had invaded the area a century before, had become Islamicized and turned their sights toward churches and monasteries and Christian populations from Tabriz, Mosul, Baghdad, anywhere in Armenia and Persia, Georgia and even well into Africa, including Egypt and Ethiopia. Whole populations were just slaughtered by Islamic governments. Mesopotamia, which had been heavily Christian, was desolated. I know that Tamarlane had slaughtered up to 17 million people during that century, finishing up what Genghis Khan had begun. I hadn’t realized how he’d killed off Christian populations as much as the Muslim ones.

The Seaside Cafe in Hope, Alaska. A very slow-moving town.

The Seaside Cafe in Hope, Alaska. A very slow-moving town.

Another book is Fighting for the 49th Star: C.W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaskan Statehood by Terence Cole, a fabulous historian and UAF professor that I got to meet several times. I got to know him at a faculty Christmas lunch – by accident, in fact, as I’d heard of the man but had no idea of what he looked liked – and then we had lunch together a few months later. The 2010 book is the behind-the-scenes story of how Alaska became the 49th state and how the publisher of the Fairbanks News-Miner was one of the unseen movers and shakers behind it all. Of course my fellowship at UAF was named after him; the Snedden Chair. One of the theses of the book was how segregation was the hidden reason behind continued delays in Congress making Alaska a state. An influential minority of Southern Democrats were against any civil rights legislation and they feared the admission of two new senators from Alaska – and from Hawaii as well – would diminish their influence and allow federal civil rights legislation to succeed in Congress. And that one of the reasons Alaska did attain statehood was that then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had his eyes on the White House and he wanted to pull off a coup that would create an alliance of more forward-looking Democrats plus do something (admit Alaska) that would satisfy northern liberals. At the time, remember, Alaska was considered a liberal Democratic bastion and Hawaii was pegged as conservative and Republican. Today Alaska is very red state and Hawaii is the in the blue camp, which goes to show how oddly things can turn out.

Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in old town Kenai.

Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in old town Kenai.

The book is Terence Cole’s effort to set the record straight on who should get credit for Alaska’s statehood more than 50 years ago and deliver lots of fascinating details about that era. I had no idea that the famous columnist, Drew Pearson, was such a lout and that he sued Snedden for libel after Snedden called him the “garbage man of the Fourth Estate.” I grew up seeing Pearson’s column in the Washington Post. For the past year, I’ve read a string of books on Alaska, as it takes close to a year to get up to speed with what’s happened here in the past 100 years. Veeka and I felt depressed about leaving the 49th state, as we know it will be impossible to duplicate the beauty, the wildness and the mystery we found there. Washington state, which is probably where we will settle, has its lovely parts, but it’s quite domesticated compared to Alaska.

People told me that the five-day ferry to or from Alaska is fun to do once. I agree that it’s a lot less wear and tear on your body than driving the AlCan. The weather was mostly bad, so we only saw the magnificent mountains along the route during one day. People who work aboard the ferry talk of budget cuts and for a time, the state legislature did talk this year of eliminating the entire system but fortunately that didn’t happen. However, certain things like large computer screens that ordinarily show the ferry’s progress day to day were not working. I was told there had been a breakdown with the software behind the screens and there was not the money to fix them. That’s a real nuisance when you’re traveling south for such a distance and you have no real idea where you are. And in the kitchen, there was one short-order cook handling dozens of requests. People stood in long lines to get

Veeka "steering" the ferry assisted by one of the captains on the Kennicott.

Veeka “steering” the ferry assisted by one of the captains on the Kennicott.

their food while other employees (ie the guy who hands out the pizza and tends the salad area) pretty much stood idle. The division of labor was odd. There was no method of busing tables. Instead, an employee walked around to see if you’re finished with your tray, usually well before you truly are done. I lost my morning coffee in this fashion when I had to chase after Veeka for less than a minute and returned to the dining room to find both our trays whisked away. There wasn’t much in the way of instructions given as to how things are done. Notices of times when we could visit the car deck were posted by the purser’s office on a floor that most of us did not visit. Fortunately there were several movies a day, which has helped keep Veeka amused and the staff was pretty friendly and it was clear they were understaffed. Most of us hung out in a forward lounge area where there were puzzles spread out on several tables and a case full of free books. Outside, there were whales following us from time to time but you had to really look to spot them. During on our fourth day on the ship, we were invited to come up to the “bridge” which is where the captain and his mates were. (I had put in a request for a visit). I had not realized how complex steering this vessel is and how many little islands there are sticking up along the strait like so many icebergs. The captain told me they either work in 4-hour or 6-hour shifts that somehow works out to 12-hour days.

Veeka in rainy Ketchikan

Veeka in rainy Ketchikan’s former red light district on Creek Street.

We arrived in Bellingham on Saturday the 26th and showed up at my parents’ place 84 miles away just before noon. We will be with my parents for a time. My brother Steve just wrote a column about their trip to Minnesota several weeks ago which is quite a good read about my father and his 100-year-old sister Alice. Both are quite healthy and the Duin genes are making long livers of us all. Assuming I live at least as long as my 90-year-old father does, I am reflecting about how I am nearing the end of the second third of my life. The last 30 years have encompassed much of my journalistic career, the earning of two master’s degrees, the publishing of 5 books, living in eight states and the adoption of one daughter. I am done with living in parts of the country I dislike (Alaska doesn’t fit into that category but west Tennessee does) and so I plan to stay in the Pacific Northwest. Much of my family and many of my long-term friends are there and at this point in life, friends and family are meaning more than they ever did. It is so lovely to be here in Seattle and not have to count the days when we take the next plane out.

3 thoughts on “Goodbye Alaska, hello Seattle

  1. John Morgan

    What an adventure! Thank goodness Veeka didn’t commandeer that boat. You could have ended up in a different country and had a much bigger adventure 🙂 I’m glad you had a safe journey. I’m still trying to pronounce the names of some of those towns.

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