Category Archives: Teaching at UAF

From Poo Poo Point to the Palouse


Opa's 91st birthday. From left: Opa, Oma, Veeka, Susan and me.

Opa’s 91st birthday. From left: Opa, Oma, Veeka, Susan and me.

Lately I’ve been realizing I must update my social media accounts, which all have pictures of me in some cool Alaska locale. However, I am Down Here but I’m inbetween jobs, so it’s hard to categorize what I am right now. I’d like to stay in academia but I may have to go back into “the industry,” as they call it. Yes, I’m working on several unfinished projects but in terms of living as a freelance writer, been there, done that. It does not pay the bills. So I’m blogging part time for and I hope to return to teaching. I am not wild at the prospect of being an adjunct, as there are already lots of them around here and it’s not the happiest existence. There were great professorial spots elsewhere in the country but I chose not to apply, as I so wanted to move closer to home. And so we are here.

Atop Poo Poo Point. Notice the gorgeous view to the west of us.

Atop Poo Poo Point. Notice the gorgeous view to the west of us.

And so I’ve been networking with some old friends and new contacts. Was on the University of Washington campus speaking at a journalism day for high school students when I walked into the offices of the Mass Comm dept. I saw this on the door of the department chair.
SAFE ZONE – This is a safe place to talk about lesbian, bisexual, queer, intersex or transgender issues. Disrespectful or prejudicial language or actions will be addressed.
Seriously, folks, what are the chances that the ultra-lefty UW campus is a hive of anti-gay sentiment? I could see this on the door of a counseling office or psych department, even. But journalism? Why not something about this being a safe place for all opinions, as journalism is a place for truth seekers? This department chair had made up his mind as to which issue was uppermost for him.

The WSU campus and Miss Veeka.

The WSU campus and Miss Veeka on a fall day.

Two weekends ago, I attended a conference of local college professors (the Pacific Northwest Association of Journalism Educators) meeting in Pullman. Now Pullman is in the far southeastern corner of the state. Veeka and I drove east four hours to have dinner with a friend in Spokane, then south for another 90 minutes to Pullman, a small town that houses Washington State University. I’d never been to WSU and it was a nice campus albeit in an isolated spot. One of the broadcast journalism profs was from New York and she was wryly commenting on how there is so little to do there. No kidding. I got to the journalism buildings, wander about campus, then quickly dash east a few miles to Moscow, to see the University of Idaho. All this was in the “palouse,” a huge area of rolling hills and farmland over lava from ancient volcanoes. Eastern Washington is so unique because of the sand dune nature of its farmland. Most breadbasket regions are flat, but not here. On our way back, we stopped by Palouse Falls, a waterfall in the middle of nowhere that appears in the basalt canyons that bisect this territory. There is such a beauty to this region that

Veeka in the foreground; the Palouse Falls in the background and lots of rolling hills all around.

Veeka in the foreground; the Palouse Falls in the background and lots of rolling hills all around.

you don’t see in places like Kansas where there’s no topography to speak of. Tons of winter wheat grows here along with vines, which was the reason we stopped at several wineries on our way to Walla Walla, to spend our last night in the region with a friend. It’s not the Napa Valley, but the state has some 700 wineries, so it’s getting there. A lot of them were getting started when my family moved out west in the 1970s and some of them have lovely show rooms. We discovered one winery in Benton City that produces not only Gewurztraminer, my favorite kind of wine, but also ice wine, an unusual drink where you let the grapes sit on the vines well into winter and where the weather must be 17ºF or lower three nights in a row before you harvest frozen grapes in the middle of the night. I am not making this up. The Canadians produce this stuff, but I was glad to find a winery nearby that does so as well. They were nice enough to open an hour earlier for me on Columbus Day as I was trying to get home and didn’t want to hang around until their official opening time of noon. Later that day, we were in Ellensburg, where we dropped by the home of my niece and Veeka’s cousin Carley and her cutie pie daughter Brynley.

Brynley and Veeka

Brynley and Veeka

Brynley is talking now, so the two girls played together.
Compare all this with Fairbanks, which had its second snowiest September in history this year. They closed school in Fairbanks because of it (which is very unusual). Note the link says schools are never closed in the Denali borough, home to the just-renamed mountain. Usually it’s in the 40s during September – as it was last year when we were there. Looks like all that snow that went to Boston in 2014-2015 may end up back in Alaska this winter although friends of mine up there say the September snow quickly melted. On several levels, it seems like the timing was right for us to be in Fairbanks last year. My mom’s health is better than it was a year ago but my father is far more fragile. He just turned 91, so Veeka, my sister-in-law Susan and I were there to help celebrate.
Veeka/Ollie and I miss Alaska more than we thought we would. When I left New Mexico 20 years ago this fall, I had bonded in a similar way with that wonderful state and I returned there for many years. Alaska changed me more than I thought it would. I am still writing about it; just re-did an academic article on Alaska’s newspaper barons that I hope to

During one of our walks along Lake Sammamish.

During one of our Sunday walks along Lake Sammamish.

publish in an academic journal although the first editor I sent it to ripped me to shreds for not having a literature review! (For those of you not familiar with academic papers, it’s an overview of the scholarly materials the writer will use for his/her paper). I reminded him that other journalism history papers at the recent journalism profs convention I attended in California didn’t have lit reviews either. Anyway, it’s not just the landscapes but the people in Alaska who are such a mixture of darkness and light. It’s a state where domestic abuse is sky-high and sexual abuse of children is six times the national rate, especially in the villages where there’s no police and nowhere to go for help. But it’s also a state where if your car breaks down, there’s a ton of people who will stop to help because they know that getting stuck outdoors is a matter of life and death. I can see why the reality shows can’t stop filming there. Anyway, the disconnect I feel being in the Seattle area is balanced with the fact that we got to explore a wonderful place for a year. A week ago, there was a meeting of UAF alums in downtown Seattle that I got to attend. Ollie, who is newly afraid of heights, didn’t like being on the 34th floor in the offices of the law firm that hosted us but eventually she was entranced by sunset over Puget Sound. The news at this gathering is that budget cuts are continuing at UAF, so it’s not the happiest of places at present.

Carley presenting Veeka with her new bike.

Carley presenting Veeka with her new surprise bike.

On Oct. 16, Veeka turned 10 ½ years old, which pleased her to no end. We celebrated by going to a park on Lake Sammamish and buying her a small desk lamp at a crafts sale. Being that it’s officially fall, we’ve gone on some hikes. One was called Poo Poo Point (no joke) aka the Chirico Trail and it’s a steep climb up Tiger Mountain to a spot where the hang gliders jump off the mountain. Once we finally got there at about 3:30 pm, we saw two of them take a run and glide off the mountain. The views were lovely. But it nearly killed us to get up there. It’s been a really nice fall here so I’ve been trying to get out.
And then a few days ago, I got a call from my sister-in-law Susan who had been trying to find a used bike for Veeka. She works at a nail salon, where one of her customers said she’d order a NEW bike for my daughter. And so last Sunday, with an unsuspecting little girl talking with Susan and Lindsay (together with Brynley and Wyatt, age 1), Carley snuck up to the back door wheeling this 24-inch aquamarine bike. Ollie was stunned at this huge gift. Now she doesn’t want to go a day without riding her new bike. Of course she has to get her homework done first…

From left: Brynley, Carley, Susan, Wyatt, Lindsay and Veeka.

From left: Brynley, Carley, Susan, Wyatt, Lindsay and Veeka.

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, 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.

In which Veeka turns 10

The Big Event of the past two weeks has been Veeka’s 10th birthday. It’s amazing to realize that 10

My blue Cinderella is about to blow out her candles.

My blue Cinderella is about to blow out her candles.

years ago on April 16, 2005, I was wandering about the island of Capri taking a rest from pope coverage. Three days later, Joseph Ratzinger would be elected Pope Benedict XVI and I’d be there in St. Peter’s Square watching it all. Meanwhile in Rudny, Kazakhstan, a little girl was born two months premature in a drab concrete bunker hospital. And 22 months later, she and I would meet.
The 16th was pretty quiet other than the obligatory cupcakes I supplied to her class. Then on the 18th, about 11 kids gathered at a local movie theater to watch the new “Cinderella” film and then march off to a birthday room where Veeka blew out 10 candles on a birthday cake with white coconut icing. She wore her blue Cinderella dress and crown she’d gotten at Disney World, so everything worked, thematically. Members of my family sent her gifts and in so doing, they got a whiff of what I’ve put up with all year in terms of slow mail delivery. Packages sent Fed Ex took DAYS to get here, partly because I have a PO Box number, as does everyone on campus. Meanwhile, the days here just keep on getting longer and longer as we gain 7 minutes of light per day. I snuck out this morning at 2 a.m. and darned if the western horizon wasn’t still light. And there’s two more months to go until summer solstice.

Veeka and her friends at her party

Veeka and her friends at her party

The rest of my stay in DC was lovely, by the way. Had brunch with Rob and Jan, then visiting with some of Veeka’s friends (and mine) plus a lovely evening prayer service outdoors in the cool spring evening air. Veeka and I always used to go to these things every Sunday evening and we loved seeing all the families and kids and Veeka would be running off and playing with them. I went back – it was Divine Mercy Sunday so there was a huge gathering of people I’ve known for the past 7 years; friends who’ve had new babies and old friends who like me are a bit older and heavier! It was so wonderful being in a place where the temps were over 50º! All the flowering trees were out. We don’t get those in Alaska.
The next few weeks are pretty crazy as I work on the second draft of a large article I’m doing for the Washington Post plus wrap up several classes. Finals week is the first week of May – and the time when my WaPo draft is due – so lots to do. The weather in Fairbanks lingers in the ‘40s but it’s sunny outside so who minds that?
As I write this, I’m in Anchorage for an Alaska Press Club gathering where I have to deliver a speech as the Snedden Fellow is expected to do. They’ve brought in speakers from around the country, so it’s a nice opportunity to hear journalists talk about our craft. My field is so endangered these days. The University of Alaska system is contracting quite fiercely and the journalism department where I’m resident has been put on notice to increase enrollment within the year – or else. UAF announced this week they’re cutting whole departments – including philosophy – because of the loss of oil revenues. Was talking with someone tonight about whether Alaska and other oil states have planned for a future where oil stays $40/barrel or under. “The oil industry counted on selling 150 million barrels/day; the top this year has been 90 million,” he said. All Greek to me but clearly Alaskans are used to a fantasy existence of not paying sales or income tax. So now they’re talking about laying off tenured teachers from my school district because of no money from the state and partly because of shrinking enrollments. Fairbanks is losing population, sadly. Including us. We have less than three months to go here.

Of dogsledding and ice carving

First you have to get positioned on the musher's tracks

First I had to get positioned on the musher’s tracks.

Although it is March here, it seems like we’ve had more snow than ever these past few days. Which is good for us in that tomorrow, the Iditarod (a famous 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Nome by dogsled) will take place and for that they need snow. Usually it starts near Anchorage, but this year’s warm temperatures up here has made Anchorage a no-snow zone. So the race start was switched to Fairbanks. I’ll be with my daughter’s class tomorrow helping to chaperone – and for selfish reasons – because I figured that school buses will be able to park closer to the starting line than the general public will. To get in the mood, I did some dog mushing myself a few weeks ago. Someone brought a team of dogs to UAF to let students have a run around a field next to the rec center, so that’s me in the

Then - off you go!

Then – off I went!

very back, in the white jacket. Once you get the hang of balancing yourself on the runners in the back, it’s a lot of fun.
I’ve been filling my days with several classes, one of them a Scandinavian history class I’m taking for fun. Hadn’t realized how many Danish kings were called Christian or Gustav or Carl; ditto for Sweden. Did not know a thing about the history of that part of the world, except I am sort of the class expert on Iceland, having been there twice. Now we’re reading The Emigrants to get a feel for 19th century life in Sweden, which was grim.
For the religion reporting class that I am teaching, I’ve been having a steady stream of guest speakers. So far there’s been a Catholic priest, Baptist minister, Jewish writer, a Muslim grad student and a UAF professor who practices Zen Buddhism. Because of the influx and outflux of military residents, the Baptist church has a turnover of 50% every five years, its minister told us. They average 80 visitors each Sunday, a surprise to me, as I have seen some real lacks in their outreach to visitors. The median age there is 28. Fairbanks has lots of independent churches, he said, and the incidence of sexual abuse among the general population is so high, they have to have extra-vigilant tests for childcare people. The Muslim speaker said there were 120-150 Muslims in Fairbanks (which I thought was a high estimate as there were only a handful at one of the services a student attended) and 3,000+ in Anchorage.

Miss Sunglasses Cool poses by an ice house sculpture

Miss Sunglasses Cool poses by an ice house sculpture

Last Sunday, we visited a real treat: the World Ice Carving Championships, which are here. There was a children’s park of ice houses and sculptures you could slide down or climb on, then a forest full of single-block sculptures done in the most beautiful fashion. I have no idea how some of these folks carved the mermaids, dolphins, horses and other shapes there were. When we visited, the folks carving the multi-block sculptures were just getting started with their chain saws and chisels plus a backhoe to haul in all the ice blocks. It was a sunny afternoon when we visited and it was so much fun.
One announcement: A few weeks ago, I was asked to be one of several contributors to, a 10-year-old blog that critiques religion writing from around the country. I started March 1. My introductory post was here and subsequent posts have been here and here. I’m concentrating on media from Denver and points west and my first piece was on how the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angles Times have treated Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. Thanks to low news budgets and massive layoffs, there are several states without one religion reporter and some of the major media have no one on staff covering the beat that I can figure out. I’m very happy to be joining a really good group of analysts and getting paid for reading religion news pieces.

Seen in the twilight, this lovely ice carving of a horse's head caught my attention. It was an entry in the World Ice Carving Championships in Fairbanks.

Seen in the twilight, this lovely ice carving of a horse with its foal caught my attention. It was an entry in the World Ice Carving Championships in Fairbanks.