The Last Frontier
The first time I went to Alaska was while I was working for Exodus Moving and Storage. I was in my mid-20’s and putting my new BFA to good use. In Seattle was a 20’ U-Haul, packed and waiting to go to Anchorage. An opera singer had gotten a job at the Anchorage Opera Company (who would have thought). The Exodus employee who packed the U-Haul couldn’t leave the country so the company flew me to Seattle to drive the truck.
If things go well, the 2,264 miles takes around 50 hours. The two-lane highway takes you through some amazing country as you traverse through British Columbia, the Yukon Territory and into Alaska. You don’t see much other than snow covered mountains, thick spruce forests, and seas of tundra. I distinctly recall pulling into an overlook and seeing nothing but untouched forest as far as I could see, no roads, no towns, nothing. This region has remained the same since our Native American` ancestors crossed the Bering Strait.
When I did run into people at the few and far between gas stations, I’d often be asked where I was moving. Secretly fantasizing it was me really moving, I’d say Anchorage. During one such transaction, the guy replied – Are you ready for that? It’s a whole different world there; it is really the last frontier.
So in 2001 it was my sister Andrea who moved to Alaska, not me. Packing up her car, she left Denver, made a pit stop in Burning Man, and then drove to Haines, Alaska. Didn’t know a soul there except a college friend who ran a fishing boat from Sitka about 150 miles away as the crow flies.
During her 15 years there, Andrea has done a variety of jobs from counting living and dead salmon, working at the Fish and Game office, nature guide to tourists fresh of the cruse ships, museum curator, museum registrar, artistic coordinator, and archeological assistant. She’s also flown into some of the most remote areas via bush plane and helicopter to search for historic remains along potential pipeline routs. On top of all that, she’s also a fantastic artist and DJ at the local radio station. Needless to say, Andrea has seen and done some amazing things.
The second time I traveled to our 49th state (admitted in 1959), it was to see Andrea. Surprisingly that was nine years ago in June, when there’s about 18 hours of daylight and the temperature is in the 70’s. It was rewarding to see Andrea in her environment and see her part of Alaska. Haines has a population of about 2,500 but it fluctuates greatly between the summer and winter months. Its heyday (30,000 people) was during the Klondike Gold Rush when it became a supply center for the Dalton Trail, which led prospectors to the Yukon between 1898-1899.
In 1904 Fort William H. Seward became the first and only army barracks in Alaska before WWII. Much of the Fort is still standing today in Haines, and is a National Historic Landmark. Another landmark, though not historic, is the set for Walt Disney’s White Fang film based off of Jack London’s book. The set has now become artist studios and the location for the Southeast Alaskan State Fair. One of the buildings even housed the Haines Brewing Company until they moved into town. There’s even a Frisbee golf course just outside the set.
There are a good number of artists and crafts people in Haines as well as many natives from the Tlingit tribe. And like many places, has its mix of right and left wing people. But because it is a small town, politics are kept at the dinner table, there’s enough gossip as it is.
During my summer visit, Andrea and I did some great hikes, net fished for salmon, sailed, canoed up to Davidson Glacier and hung out with many of her great friends. Why it took me so long to come back I don’t know. But while Alexis and I were in Washington and Oregon, I felt I was so close to Andrea that I had to take the opportunity to see her. So I booked my flights for Haines in early November.
Unless you drive in from Canada, the best way to get to Haines is either by bush plane or ferry. Most people fly into Juneau and from there you can take a four-hour ferry ride or a 30min plane ride. I paid the extra to fly in. A scenic flight for sure but a bit nerve racking as well. An emergency landing would either put you into the frigid water or smashed into a mountainside. It didn’t help to overhear that a plane did go down earlier that day, forcing a family to swim to shore and be air lifted out by helicopter, all survived with minor injuries. During the flight, I kept trying to remember where my flotation devise was.
Worries aside and having arrived safely, that evening Andrea took me to the monthly story telling event where locals share an entertaining story based around a monthly theme. Sure enough, my pilot was there and his wife ran the ticket counter…small town indeed. The stories were very entertaining and made me reflect how this used to be our main source of entertainment and education. It brought images of stories being told around campfires and candlelit pubs. This form of personal bonding and socializing should be done more often.
That evening was just the beginning of a pleasant stay with my sister. Being November, the temperatures were near freezing with rain and snow and little sun. Little sun meaning not only cloudy skies but only seven hours of light per day. Winter is a tough time there for that reason and I can understand why. But that didn’t stop us from hanging out at the new distillery and brewery. Or taking some nice walks and drives to look for brown bears (during the drives, not walks!). Andrea even put me to work at the local museum where she works, to help hang an exhibit.
Just by chance, while I was visiting, it was also the start of the Eagle Fest. This is when Haines has the largest bald eagle population in the world as they come to fish for salmon on the Chilkat River. I don’t know what was more entertaining, watching the eagles or the photographers and their giant telephoto lenses. These photographers, both amateur and professional, would line the banks of the river, waiting for that perfect shot.
It was our luck to view the eagles in a more personal way by floating down the river. Andrea’s friend Steve, who is an avid canoeist, invited us (with some coaxing from Andrea) to go for a paddle down a section of the Chilkat. This was by no means a summer float down the Connecticut. The Chilkat is mostly glacier fed water and though the section we did was flat, the water was swift. This river is constantly changing because of the spring floods; moving sandbars around like a chess game on a big wide board. You needed to try and follow the main channel as well or else run aground in the shallows. On top of that, you had to keep a lookout for snags that could tip your canoe, or worse puncture it. You also kept an eye out for bear and moose. The name of the game was not to get wet. Though it was a sunny day, it was cold. I was layered up in all my polypro and had my rain jacket over my winter fleece. No, you did not want to get wet in this environment. It was a technical ride and we had to be on our toes, but still enjoyable nonetheless. Leaving the camera behind in fear of getting wet, I’ll have to remember this adventure in my head. We saw our share of eagles but it was the trip that really was memorable.
But what I’ll really remember is just being with Andrea and staying in her cozy little house. Under 400 sq. ft., it’s perfect. You can learn a lot about a person by how they live in their house. Clean, messy, inviting, cold, decorative, minimal, dark, or light. Andrea’s place invites you in and makes you feel warm and protected. Full of art, plants and nick-knacks, it’s nicely balanced with visual excitement without seeming cluttered. These objects represent friends and family, the past and the present, the old and the new.
Andrea has that gift of arranging things just so. You can see that not only in her house, but her studio as well. Taking odd, usually old relics from a past time, and assembling them together. This is much like the art she does, and I believe life and art merge into one for her. I spent several hours just taking photos of Andrea’s studio, in awe at how everything was arranged (see Andrea’s artwork here) It’s that kind of studio people expect to see when they visit an artist’s sacred domain; a glimpse into how they view and organize their world. It is always a treat to get that glimpse of Andrea, my sister.
The week went fast and before I knew it, I was worrying about the flight out. This time the weather was worse. The channel was bogged down with low clouds and gusty winds and rain. The chances were good that the flight would be cancelled but the airport called saying things were a go. Waiting at the airport (basically a trailer home with non of that airport security stuff) we start talking to one of Andrea’s friends who was also flying out. He did not help in boosting my confidence, saying this flight has taken years off his life. It got worse after he saw the plane arrive and questioned its technology. He immediately walked out to talk to the pilot and ask how the flight was coming in from Juneau. Apparently this plane wasn’t equipped with radar to detect obstacles in the way, relying on the pilot to avoid any mountains. I just kept reassuring myself that flying is safe and if they didn’t cancel the flight, than it would be fine. And it was.