Alaska - the land of ice and the Northern Lights. I was looking forward to the weeklong visit to Anchorage, but I had no idea what to expect. I imagined that it might be very cold and I envisioned a lot of snow, but beyond that and the fact that we had the luxury of staying in one place for a week, I refused to let my mind speculate on what might be in store.
Nevertheless, my mind could not help but wander. I dreamed of polar bears, Eskimos, mountains and glaciers. I dreamed of the Northern Lights.
Time to get real. It was time to read a little background history:
Alaska lies at the extreme northwest of the North American continent and is the largest peninsula in the Western Hemisphere. Its 591,004 square miles include some 15,000 square miles of fjords and inlets, and its three faces to the sea have about 34,000 miles of indented tidal coastline and 6,600 total miles of coast fronting the open sea. It borders the Arctic Ocean on the north and northwest, the Bering Strait and the Bering Sea on the west, and the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Alaska on the south. The land boundaries on the east cut across some 1,150 miles of high mountains to separate the state from the Canadian Yukon Territory and British Columbia province. Rimming the state on the south is one of the Earth's most active earthquake belts. In the Alaska Range north of Anchorage, Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet is the highest peak in North America.
As early as 1700, native peoples of Siberia reported the existence of a huge piece of land lying due east. An expedition appointed by the Russian tsar and led by a Danish mariner, Vitus Bering in 1728 determined that the new land was not linked to the Russian mainland, but because of fog, it failed to locate North America . On Bering's second voyage, in 1741, the peak of Mount St Elias was sighted, and men were sent ashore. Sea otter furs taken back to Russia opened a rich fur commerce between Europe , Asia , and the North American Pacific Coast during the ensuing century.
Russians at Three Saints Bay established the first European settlement in 1784. It served as Alaska's capital until 1806, when the Russian-American Company organized in 1799 under charter from the emperor Paul I, moved its headquarters to richer sea otter grounds in the Alexander Archipelago at Sitka. The company governed Alaska until its purchase by the United States in 1867. Alaska 's first governor (then termed chief manager), Aleksandr Baranov was an aggressive administrator whose severe treatment of the native Indians and Eskimos led in 1802 to a massacre at Sitka .
A period of bitter competition among Russian, British, and American fur traders was resolved in 1824 when Russia granted equal trade rights for all. The near extinction of the sea otter and the political consequences of the Crimean War (1853–56) were factors in Russia's willingness to sell Alaska to the United States. The Russian minister made a formal proposal in 1867, and, after much public opposition, the U.S. Congress approved the purchase and the U.S. flag was flown at Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867 . In 1906 the first representative to Congress, a nonvoting delegate, was elected, and in 1912 Congress established the Territory of Alaska , with an elected territorial legislature. Alaskans voted in favour of statehood in 1946 and adopted a constitution in 1955. Congressional approval of the Alaska statehood bill in 1958 was followed by formal entry into the Union in 1959.
The seven-hour flight from Chicago to Anchorage was longer than I had expected - the same time as a flight from London to New York. We landed in Anchorage in the dark and three hours behind the time we had just left. A group of ladies - the same welcome set-up as Bermuda - was there to ferry us and our set and costumes to the theatre and hotel. Andrew and Lindsay had been sent ahead from New York to teach a four-day clutch of masterclasses, and I was looking forward to seeing them and catching up with all the news from the Big Apple. We eventually bumped into each other in the street as they were coming out of the only bar in Anchorage to stay open until 2 o'clock in the morning. We danced and hugged each other.
"We're in Alaska!" we shouted to one another. Sometimes one can become immune to the many places we visit. This was different. We were so far and in such a remote spot and this time it was not going to pass us by. Falling back into the bar, we hungrily devoured each other's news and gossip. Eventually tiredness overcame us and we dragged ourselves back to the hotel. It was now 4am on our body-clocks. I was so tired I fell asleep fully clothed on top of the bed and when I woke up in the early hours, I had to have a quick mental check that I was not in fact drunk, but just extremely tired.
Lead on by Jay's single-mindedness, we were determined to make the most of our one day off. The rest of the week is a combination of morning guided tour shows and evening performances meant there would not be too much time for exploration during the rest of the week. Although we were all tired, February was now over, and there was the hint of a Spring and a world elsewhere in the future. Therefore, it was most of the company that met early in the morning to figure out where to go and how best to utilize the time. We decided that a cruise on the Kenai Fjord to look at the wildlife and the glaciers would be most stimulating. Life in a van or seven hours on airplane gives you a taste for the wide-open spaces. In two rented cars, we set off for Seward a small harbor town that was a two-hour drive from Anchorage along the Seward Highway, rated in the top ten of the US most scenic highways.
Seward is on Kenai Peninsula, at the head of Resurrection Bay. Founded in 1903 as a supply base and ocean terminus for a railway to the Yukon Valley (since 1913, the Alaska Railroad), it was named for William H. Seward, the secretary of state who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Its ice-free port provides an important freight dock for interior Alaska. It has a large vocational training facility and is the site of the University of Alaska's Institute of Marine Sciences. The town was severely damaged by the 1964 earthquake. During the 20th century, nearly 40 earthquakes measuring at least 7.25 on the Richter scale have been recorded in Alaska. The huge devastating earthquake on March 27, 1964 (9.2 on the Richter scale), affected the northwestern panhandle and the Cook Inlet areas, destroying parts of Anchorage. A tsunami that followed wiped out Valdez; the coast sank 32 feet (9.75 metres) at Kodiak and Seward; and a 16-foot coastal rise destroyed the harbour at Cordova. A tsunami is a catastrophic ocean wave, usually caused by a submarine earthquake occurring less than 50 km (30 miles) beneath the seafloor, with a magnitude greater than 6.5 on the Richter scale. Underwater or coastal landslides or volcanic eruptions also may cause a tsunami. The term tidal wave is more frequently used for such a wave, but it is a misnomer, because the wave has no connection with the tides.
The boat was due to leave at noon and we were pushing it to make it on time. We managed to phone the cruise company once and to garner the information, but subsequent phone calls to let them know we were coming were unsuccessful. Jay, who was driving our car, drove at speed and with aggression. In no time at all we were out of Anchorage and driving through sleet and mizzle around the edge of Cook Inlet. I thought back to my schooldays. James Cook was always one of those historical figures who genuinely seemed to jump out of the page at you. Reading about him made you ache to go and seek adventure.
Few people have ever seen the places the British explorer, James Cook, has ventured. Cook sailed around to far reaches of the world reaching all seven continents during his lifetime. He traveled on three very lengthy journeys with two different sailing ships, encountering hardship and triumph along the way. Not many people ever get off their own continent today, little less back in the 1700's, but as the world would discover, Cook was ahead of his time.
James Cook was born in the village of Marton, Yorkshire on October 27, 1728; he was one of seven children born to a day laborer. Cook received basic schooling at the village school and was then sent to work for William Sanders in the nearby fishing village of Staithes. Here Cook developed a love and fascination for the sea, but he was not especially happy with his job amongst the hard working people of the land. In July 1746, at the age of 17, Cook gave into his temptations for the sea and became an apprentice to the Walker Family, ship owners, at the port of Whitby. Whitby was a bustling place, always full with many varieties of ships. Cook's job as an apprentice required him to become very familiar with the coal ships of the area and he soon learned the ins and outs of the colliers type ships. He worked hard and soon had his first voyage aboard the Whitby collier 'Freelove.' The coal ships or colliers were of sturdy construction, strong sailing abilities, and could handle a great deal of cargo and weight. Cook's expertise in this type of ship would bring him to use this type of ship for all three of his major voyages of world exploration. While Cook was at Whitby, he educated himself a great deal in navigation and mathematics. By 1755, after nine years, and much service as ship's master, Cook left his ship and enlisted in the Royal Navy as an ordinary sailor. He boarded the Eagle, a 60-gun ship, and was sent to the North American Coast. This was the beginning of a prolific career of one of the all-time great Navigator/ Explorers. Between July 1772 and July 1775, Cook made what ranks as one of the greatest sailing ship voyages, again with a small former Whitby ship, the “Resolution,” and a consort ship, the “Adventure.” He found no trace of Terra Australis, though he sailed beyond latitude 70° S in the Antarctic, but he successfully completed the first west–east circumnavigation in high latitudes, charted Tonga and Easter Island during the winters, and discovered New Caladonia in the Pacific and the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia Island in the Atlantic. He showed that a real Terra Australis existed only in the landmasses of Australia, New Zealand, and whatever land might remain frozen beyond the ice rim of Antarctica. And, once again, not one of his crew died of scurvy - a disease that usually decimated ships' crews at that time.
There was still yet one secret of the Pacific to be discovered: whether there existed a Northwest Passage around Canada and Alaska or a northeast one around Siberia, between the Atlantic and Pacific. Although the passages had long been sought in vain from Europe, it was thought that the search from the North Pacific might be successful. The man to undertake the search obviously was Cook, and in July 1776, he went off again on the Resolution, with another Whitby ship, the Discovery . This search was unsuccessful, for neither a northwest nor a northeast passage usable by sailing ships existed, and the voyage led to Cook's death. After his voyage to Alaska he journey south into the Pacific. In a brief fracas with Hawaiians over the stealing of a cutter, the Polynesian natives slew Cook on the beach at Kealakekua.
We drove inland away from Cook's Inlet and the dirty packed ice and the cobalt sea beyond and up into the mountains. Suddenly we were in a blizzard and a whiteout. Whirling clouds of snow blew across the road and huge snowflakes fell onto the windscreen. Jay slowed the car down as he struggled to see the road ahead. We now anticipated it would be unlikely that we would catch the boat that was due to leave at noon, but we consoled ourselves with thinking that the view on the drive had already been worth getting up early. Nature was giving us quite a show and I was astounded by its power and beauty. Then down again, out of the snow and into rain, sliding down the western side of Prince William Sound. The sound was named by the British navigator Captain George Vancouver in 1778 to honor the third son of King George III. It was the site of a massive oil spill in 1989, when an Exxon Corporation tanker, the Exxon Valdez, ran aground on Bligh Reef at 12:04 AM on March 24. Because of delayed efforts to contain the spill and because of naturally strong winds and waves, about 10.9 million gallons of North Slope crude oil poured into the sound and eventually polluted thousands of miles of indented shoreline, as well as adjacent waters, as far south as the southern end of Shelikof Strait between Kodiak Island and the Alaskan Peninsula. An intensive effort was subsequently mounted to clean up the oil spill and restore the sound's damaged ecosystem.
There was no visible sign of the oil now.
I idly ruminated on two books I had read recently. They both believe that we are misguided in two areas, farming and agriculture - a recent development in the history of the planet - and trying to feed the Third World and ourselves the way we have been. Simplistically explained - We used to live in a society that was at one with nature and then the agricultural revolution came along. The industrialized countries are now geared towards excess food production. In a place like Iran, farming has turned the land into a desert. Giving food means more people to feed, as the population will just keep on increasing. In the Third World, where people are starving, giving these people more food will only increase the population in an area that already is unable to sustain it. Our society is one that concentrates on providing a food surplus. The resources of the world are being worn away. Ultimately, they say if we do not change our thinking, our conditioning, then nature's law will take over and the human race will, naturally, cease to exist. We will be unable to sustain the population growth. The response to all this is that this is either out-of-date thinking - as in communism - or an unattainable utopia or just plain unpatriotic. I continue of course to try to remain apolitical.
"It is a privilege, apparently, even to know that nature is out there at all. In the summer of 1996, human habitation on earth made a subtle, uncelebrated passage from being mostly rural to being mostly urban. More than half of all humans now life in cities. The natural habitat of our species, then, officially, is steel, pavement, streetlights, architecture, and enterprise-the hominid agenda.
With all due respect for the wondrous ways people have invented to amuse themselves and one another on paved surfaces, I find that this exodus from the land makes me unspeakably sad. I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant's way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in. I think of the astonished neighbor children who huddled around my husband in his tiny backyard garden, in the city where he lived years ago, clapping their hands to their mouths in pure dismay at seeing him pull carrots from the ground. (Ever the thoughtful teacher, he explained about fruits and roots and asked, "What other foods do you think might grow in the ground?" They knit their brows, conferred, and offered brightly, "Spaghetti?") I wonder what it will mean for people to forget that food, like rain, is not a product but a process. I wonder how they will imagine the infinite when they have never seen how the stars fill a dark night sky. I wonder how I can explain why a wood-thrush song makes my chest hurt to a populace for whom wood is a construction material and thrush is a tongue disease.
What we lose in our great human exodus from the land is a rooted sense, as deep and intangible as religious faith, of why we need to hold on to the wild and beautiful places that once surrounded us. We seem to succumb so easily to the prevailing human tendency to pave such places over, build subdivisions upon them, and name them The Willows, or Peregrine's Roost, or Elk Meadows, after whatever it was that got killed there. Apparently it's hard for us humans to doubt, even for a minute, that this program of plunking down our edifices at regular intervals over the entire landmass of planet earth is overall a good idea. To attempt to slow or change the program is a tall order." Barbara Kingsolver
It was easy here amid the glorious landscape of Southern Alaska to think of our history not just over the last thousand years, but back to distant millennia, when we were aware of the interconnection between all living life, when we didn't consider ourselves number one - el supremo of this planet. It's funny what you think about when you're on a car journey.
I was brought abruptly out of my reverie by Jay pulling sharply to a halt and the sight of flashing police lights on the road ahead. A state Trooper came over to us.
"'I'm afraid the road is going to be closed for a while. We have two articulated over on their backs and it's going to shut this road down for a couple of hours I'd say. Best you go back to Moose Pass and grab some lunch."
Realizing that there was no chance now of catching the boat, we took his advice and headed back towards Moose Pass. As we once more climbed up into the mountains, it suddenly dawned on us that the vehicle in front bore the name of the cruise company. It turned out to be their shuttle bus ferrying passengers from Anchorage for the same noontime cruise we hoped to catch. When we stopped at the pass, we spoke to the driver who told us that the captain of the boat was going to wait for us. We passed the time buying snacks from the Moose Pass General Store from the rather startled owner who had probably not had as many people in her sleepy store in the previous week. A man walked in, a local, and informed no one in particular that someone had died in the crash on the road ahead. There's nothing like being close to a death to put the world into perspective. From now on time was not going to be of the essence - if it was, it was an essence to savor and enjoy and to appreciate the joys of life. Eventually we drove back down from the pass and once more came to the crash site. A huge lorry was flipped over on its back. The cabin was crushed and the steering wheel mangled. A woman officer came to our car window. "We got some state troopers coming down to measure things. It shouldn't be long. They got to measure though because there's been a fatality."
A fatality . The words hung in the air.
fatality >noun (pl. fatalities) 1) an occurrence of death by accident, in war, or from disease. 2)helplessness in the face of fate. Someone's husband, someone's father lay dead on that road. Helpless in the face of fate - we all die at some point and many by hapless accidents or a twist of fate. It is useless to plan too far ahead when life is so transient. My mood had definitely become more sombre as we finally drove into Seaward.
The Renown's boat - the SeaView - was waiting for us at the dock of Seaward. It was one of the smaller cruise boats there. The captain told us that they were very pleased to have us onboard. They resented the bigger cruise boats we had passed on the jetty, that had come along recently after them to steal away their business. After being given a brief safety talk, - "try not to fall off the damn boat!" - we maneuvered out of Seaward Harbor and out into Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords. The oceanic abyss was a deep turquoise, tainted by the minerals from the glaciers that toppled into its waters. Surrounding the water were mountains, snow-capped, immense, imposing, and grand like nature's guardian cathedrals, looming over the water 3000 feet above our heads. As we headed out of the harbor, we passed two sea otters swimming on their backs. David Delgrosso interpreted what they were saying for the benefit of those who didn't speak sea- otter.
"Hey Jack, that's a R25 'ain't it"
"No R28 and a small little critter."
"Did you see the big boat that came past the other day?"
"That was impressive, but some odd looking people onboard."
"These people are strange-looking and look pretty dumb too."
"Hey! Haven't you seen a sea otter before?!"
Sea Otters ( Enhydra ) are very very cute. They are tool-using mammals. Their diet consists of abalone and other shellfish, which it opens rather ingeniously by cracking them on a rock held on its chest as it floats on its back. They also chat aimlessly to one another about the stupid human people that come in boats to gawk at them.
On a platform just outside the harbor, I got my first view of an American Bald Eagle. It sat imperiously overlooking the serene view. Close up its beak looked menacing. After we had gently steered round it for a while, it suddenly took off, the powerful wings making a whooshing sound as they flapped to lift the powerful hunter into the air. The captain informed us that the eagle had exceptional eyesight and could spot a fish in the water up to a mile away. In Alaska, during the last century, eagles perched on fish traps and scared away the salmon - not a good move because the salmon industry is big business here. This annoyance was eventually overcome by fitting the traps with devices to discourage perching. Alaskan bounty hunters killed more than 100,000 eagles in the period 1917–52.The U.S. government made it illegal to kill bald eagles (with Alaska exempted) in the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, but the birds' numbers continued to decline, primarily because of the effects of the pesticide DDT, which came into widespread agricultural use after World War II. This pesticide accumulated in the birds' tissues and interfered with the formation of the shells of their eggs; the thin, weak shells laid by heavily contaminated birds were easily broken, and fewer young were produced. By the early 1960s, the number of bald eagles in the conterminous United States had dropped to fewer than 450 nesting pairs. In 1972 the use of DDT was banned in the United States, and in 1978 the U.S. government declared the bald eagle an endangered species in all but a few of the northernmost states. By the late 1980s, these measures had enabled the birds to replenish their numbers in the wild. The bald eagle was reclassified from endangered to threatened status in 1995, by which time there were an estimated 4,500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. By 2000, the population had increased to more than 6,300 pairs, and the species was being considered for removal from the Endangered Species List.
We crossed over the bay above into one of the Fjords.
"Reading the depth here, I can tell you that the water is 952 feet deep, so you know what to do..."
We replied in unison.
"Don't fall off the damned boat!"
The skipper pointed out a glacier that tumbled down the mountainside and into the water. It was tinged with blue, as that is the only color it cannot retain. A glacier is any large mass of perennial ice that on land by the recrystallization of snow or other forms of solid precipitation and that shows evidence of past or present flow. A glacier occupying an extensive tract of relatively level land and exhibiting flow from the centre outward is commonly called an ice sheet. The skipper went on to bombard us with glacier facts.
"Snow that has survived one melting season is called firn (or névé); its density usually is greater than 500 kilograms per cubic metre in temperate regions but can be as low as 300 kilograms per cubic metre in Polar Regions. The permeability change at a density of about 840 kilograms per cubic metre - everybody still with me? - marks the transition from firn to glacier ice. The transformation may take only three or four years and less than 10 metres of burial in the warm and wet environment of Washington state in North America, but high on the plateau of somewhere like Antarctica the same process takes several thousand years and burial to depths of about 150 metres. Glacier ice today stores about three-fourths of all the fresh water in the world. Glacier ice covers about 11 percent of the world's land area and would cause a world sea-level rise of about 300 feet if all existing ice melted. " I considered that if I did move into Manhattan, it might be better to find the top floor of a skyscraper for the time when the waters rose to engulf the city.
Our journey continued across the bay. We would venture outside for a time before the cold defeated us and sent us back into the warmth of the inner cabin. At one point, the water became choppier and a swell sent our boat bobbing up and down like a cork - don't fall off the damned boat! Pointing out an area of sea and land, the captain told us that this was where surfers came to catch the waves.
"Not your Hawaiian surfer types here. We got a hardier bunch and they have to wear dry suits."
Looking across the waters there did seem a great deal of good surfing waves to catch.
The waves started to climb higher. I walked outside and forward to the prow to watch us tackle them straight on. Memories of The Perfect Storm were in my head as we climbed up 10-foot waves and fell down the other side. The captain started to turn the boat to the side.
"Hey, you guys, I don't know about you, but I feel like some surfin'. Hawaii ain't got nothing on this."
He steered the boat around and now the swell was behind us.
"All we got to do is get a little speed up and start paddling."
With that, he kicked the engine up a gear and we shot forward. The next wave caught us and we were flung forward. Others who had joined me laughed with the exhilaration. We were literally riding along on the crest of a wave.
Our two and a half hour cruise continued to delight us. We were given a small packed lunch which was interrupted when a pride of sea-lions broke above the surface. Their sleek backs reflecting the water as they slid like torpedoes beneath the greeny-blue water. They have a coat of short, coarse hair that apparently lacks a distinct undercoat. They are able to rotate their hind flippers forward to use all four limbs in moving about on land. Breeding in large herds, the males establish harems of 3 to 20 females - which probably accounts for their grumpy demeanor.
"What the hell is this guy doing?"
In front of us a small boat was navigating across the increasing waves of the Fjord.
"You know what; this guy is crazy to be out here in this kind of weather. I'm going to ask him what he's doing."
The next moment we were bobbing up and down 30 feet away from the small fishing boat and a wild-looking man who was smiling back at us. He turned out to be a commercial fisherman.
"Yes, he doesn't care it seems, and, believe it or not, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have seen that little boat filled to the brim with fish returning to harbor. However we are going to follow him now because I have to do a little public service."
A little while later, the small leaky-looking boat pulled alongside with the fisherman, now joined by an even crazier-looking man and... a woman. Her clothes were soaking and her hair matted to her head. She clambered awkwardly aboard.
"It seems with the weather and all, she wasn't going to make it back in that little boat of theirs, so we are doing a small favor and taking her back with us," the captain informed us over the PA system. "That's the Alaskan way. If anyone finds themselves in trouble they can call up anyone and we will always help them. All we ask that some time when you need the help yourself, that you return that favor back to someone else that needs help. The weather here is so unforgiving."
We continued our voyage rejoicing in the wild weather and the beautiful scenery and eventually arrived back in the harbor. On the jetty were the two wild-looking fishermen. One was smiling a toothy grin; the other at his side was taciturn and inscrutable. They had beaten us back and seemed happy in their triumph.
On the way home, we changed the group around. Most of our group needed to get back for the load-in and were going to be late. However as we passed the still un-cleared wreckage of the mangled lorry, the urgency seemed to whither and die. I was in a car with Lloyd, Jay and Tom. Lloyd announced how pleased he was to be surrounded by men. I suspect that Lloyd finds women somewhat perplexing, part temptation and part Jezebel. Jay with his New Jersey roots seems to be well at home with male camaraderie. Tom and I are somewhat similar not quite knowing how to relate to males in a group situation and finding women somewhat more interesting. We then played a silly game deciding which famous woman to sleep with if one was given the choice - Michelle Pfeiffer or Catherine Zeta Jones - Nicole Kidman or Cameron Diaz... and so the list went on. Tom was horrified when I mischievously touched on women in the cast. I replied that they would have discussed the various sexual permutations of the men in the cast in the first week. I know not if this be true, but I for mere suspicion in this kind, will do as if for surety.
An hour from Anchorage in the town of Girdwood we stopped off at a restaurant called The Double Musky Inn. It was recommended by most of the locals and we were in the mood to celebrate a glorious day and to continue our male bonding! Inside the Inn was packed with people. Since this was a Tuesday night, we were sure we had to the best place to eat and the smell from the various trays of food that passed us by seemed to say this was true. Told that we had a wait of 30 minutes we settled in the bar. I was talking with Tom and noticed he looked rather distracted. I followed has gaze and saw a two women at the bar, one of whom was strikingly good-looking with hair that was shining gold which every now and again she tossed carelessly. Her friend, though not as obviously attractive, had an interestingly pretty face hidden behind her glasses. She glanced over in our direction, smiled, and turned back to her friend. I realized that I was looking at them as one might look at gazelles grazing by a waterhole, dispassionately, but admiring their natural beauty.
"You should go over and talk to them," said Tom following my gaze.
"Not my style. I never have and never will, Tom."
"Nor me. I have no interest in chatting up someone. I have to know them over a period of time and usually we're friends first."
" With me it's just fear of rejection and ridicule."
I was being flippant of course!
Another book I'm reading, and this time the Dalai Lama being asked on relationships. The interviewer, a psychologist, asks him about the idea of romantic love saying that our Western culture, in movies and literature, is geared towards seeing romance - the idea of falling in love, of being in love with one's partner, as being exalted.
"I think that leaving aside how the endless pursuit of romantic love may affect our deeper spiritual growth, even from the perspective of a conventional way of life, the idealization of this romantic love can be seen as extreme. Unlike those relationships based on caring and genuine affection, this is another matter," he said decisively. "It's something that is based on fantasy, unattainable, and therefore may be a source of frustration."
As we sat down at the table, Tom suddenly rose to his feet.
"I'm going to talk to them. I have never done this kind of thing before and now, goddamn it has become a challenge. I'm going to talk to them."
He then strode straight over to the two gazelles.
"There he goes," said Jay. "He's now putting on his broadest Australian accent and giving them the 'Tom' look."
The three left of us left at the table, laughed together as it dawned on us that we had returned to some some long ago teenage playground. However, I soon lost interest as the menu arrived. I read down the page at the various sumptuous-sounding meals. All of them looked extremely appetizing. A month of fast food had taken its toll, but now my senses were anticipating good food and my mouth was watering at the prospect. I decided I needed some good red meat and settled on peppercorn steak with steamed vegetables, with some coconut salmon as an appetizer. Third World be damned and bring on the end of the world! I then took a sip from my glass of merlot. It had been a good day, and there were still polar bears and the Northern Lights to see.
Anchorage : After a guided tour in the morning, I explored Anchorage Museum of History and Art. Inside there was a wonderful exhibition of the history of Alaska. I was most interested in those pioneers that came out here - mostly prospecting for gold. They had pictures of families and their origins and the story of their time in Alaska through the mast 100 years. Moving on, I saw the history of the native Alaskans, the Eskimos. They are kept alive by subsidies for the government. Alcohol and European disease has plagued them and with being given food to eat, they have not much else to do. Before, they would be forced to go out and hunt for food - walrus and seal. Now, they are given everything and so have become listless and bored. I am full of admiration for those pioneers who braved the conditions up here. This is still an untamed frontier. There is practically no road system. To get to Nome for example from Anchorage, you have to fly or go by dog sled or snowmobile.
After looking at some beautiful paintings of Alaskan landscapes, I stumbled upon an exhibition which celebrated Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic. It was a brilliant exhibition which had toured the States and of course the exhibition was well appreciated here in Alaska, the last frontier and the gateway to the Arctic Circle. As I walked around looking at film and photographs, the story of the man gradually pulled me in.
Shackleton was an Irishman who had accompanied Scott on his Discovery expedition. He felt that the first crossing of the Antarctic Continent, from sea to sea via the Pole, apart from its historic value, would be a journey of great scientific importance. The distance would be roughly 1800 miles, and the first half of this, from the Weddell Sea to the Pole, would be over unexplored territory. Shackleton intended on taking continuous magnetic observations as the glaciologist and geologist studied ice formations and the mountains of Victoria Land. While the Trans-continental party worked its way across the continent, other scientific parties would operate from the base on the Weddell Sea. One sledging party would travel towards Graham Land, making observations and collecting geological specimens while another party would travel eastward toward Enderby Land conducting the same types of studies. A third party would remain at the base to study the fauna of the land and sea and the meteorological conditions. From the Ross Sea base in McMurdo Sound, another party would push southward to await the arrival of the Trans-continental party at the top of the Beardmore Glacier. Shakleton's ship Endurance, got caught in the ice and one night sank as the pressure from the icepack overcame her. December 20, Shackleton decided to abandon Ocean Camp and march westward to reduce the distance to Paulet Island. Christmas was celebrated on December 22 with their last good meal for eight months. Two of the boats were now man-hauled, in relays, from Ocean Camp: If their ice floe disintegrated, the 28 men would jam into the two boats, each measuring 20 feet in length, to be at the mercy of the Weddell Sea.
On December 29, with the ice too cracked to carry them, they set up camp on a solid floe, but it cracked during the night as well. They shifted to a strong, old floe, surrounded by ice too soft to sledge over, but with not enough open water to launch the boats. Adrift on their new "home", they crossed the Antarctic Circle on New Year's Eve. The next day the boats were pushed into the water and by 11 a.m. they had reached a stretch of open water. On April 12, Shackleton discovered that instead of making good progress to the west, they had actually drifted 30 miles to the east. Elephant Island, in the South Shetlands, appeared to them in the north-northwest. Shackleton then made one of the most incredible voyages ever made at sea. In a small open life-boat, Shackleton, along with Worsley, Crean, McNeish, McCarthy and Vincent, began a voyage of a lifetime. Some 250 pounds of ice was gathered to supply fresh drinking water. As for instruments, they had a sextant, aneroid, prismatic compass, anchor, some charts and a pair of binoculars. The rest of his men stayed on Elephant Island and Shackleton promised them that he would come back to rescue them.
The ocean south of Cape Horn in the middle of May was known to be the most storm-swept area of water in the world. On May 15, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley set out on their adventure. In a great feat of seamanship they navigated the 800 miles with just the sexton for navigation. In the exhibition they had a mock-up of the lifeboat with a raging sea backprojected behind and you were invited to try and use the sexton to see how hard it was to keep it steady keeping the horizon and the sun in alignment. One degree out of alignment would have set them 100 miles off course.After Afetr three weeks they eventually landed in Georgia, but they had landed on the wrong side of the island and so they set out over a formidable mountain range to get to the whaling station on the other side.
They climbed over icy slopes, snowfields and glaciers until reaching an altitude of 4500 feet. Looking back they could see a fog rolling up behind them. The ridge was studded with peaks and since they had no sleeping bags or tent with them, it was imperative they find a lower elevation before night set in. They managed to descend 900 feet in two or three minutes by sliding, like children, down a snowy slope. Their climb over and down the mountain on Georgia was replicated by three climbers with full modern gear about three years ago. They couldn't believe that these men had made the trip in just 36 hours. Eventually they arrived at the Whaling Station and were greeted by a startled whaler who saw four long bearded wild men approaching him.
Yes," he said as he stared at us.
"We would like to see him," said I.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"We have lost our ship and come over the island," I replied.
"You have come over the island?" he said in a tone of entire disbelief.
The man went towards the manager's house and we followed him. I learned afterwards that he said to Mr. Sorlle: "There are three funny-looking men outside, who say they have come over the island and they know you. I have left them outside." A very necessary precaution from his point of view.
Mr. Sorlle came out to the door and said, "Well?"
"Don't you know me?" I said.
"I know your voice," he replied doubtfully. "You're the mate of the Daisy."
"My name is Shackleton," I said.
Immediately he put out his hand and said, "Come in. Come in."
After five futile attempts to get back to Elephant Island and being turned back by the pack-ice, they finally struck lucky.The Chilean Government now loaned the steamer YELCHO , under the command of Captain Luis Pardo, to Shackleton.
As the steamer approached Elephant Island, the men on the island were approaching lunchtime. It was August 30 when Marston spotted the YELCHO in an opening in the mist. He yelled, "Ship O!" but the men thought he was announcing lunch. A few moments later the men inside the "hut" heard him running forward, shouting, "Wild, there's a ship! Hadn't we better light a flare?" As they scrambled for the door, those bringing up the rear tore down the canvas walls. Wild put a hole in their last tin of fuel, soaked clothes in it, walked to the end of the spit and set them afire.
The boat soon approached close enough for Shackleton, who was standing on the bow, to shout to Wild,
"Are you all well?".
Wild replied, "All safe, all well!" and the Boss replied, "Thank God!" Blackborrow, since he couldn't walk, was carried to a high rock and propped up in his sleeping bag so he could view the scene. Within an hour they were headed north to the world from which no news had been heard since October, 1914; they had survived on Elephant Island for 105 lonely days.
On the Saturday I got up early to meet Ryan and his friend Rick. Ryan was on the last tour with me of course. He has spent a good deal of time in Alaska. Before he came to join the Earnest/Dream tour, he had spent a year in Nome, Alaska working for a radio station. He was here to come and see us and also the ceremonial start of the Iditarod.
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, annual competition held in March, in which mushers (dogsled drivers) race teams of up to 16 dogs on a grueling course between the Alaskan cities of Anchorage and Nome. The dogsledding event, which covers about 1850 km (1150 mi), is called “The Last Great Race on Earth” and demands strength, endurance, and courage from mushers and their dogs. The difficult and challenging conditions of Alaska's winter wilderness can include deep snow, unpredictable weather, and encounters with wild animals.
Each year 55 to 75 dogsled teams start the Iditarod from downtown Anchorage on the first Saturday of March. Most teams reach Nome in 9 to 12 days, although each year about 10 to 20 percent of the participants drop out somewhere along the course. Since 1995 the Anchorage start has been a ceremonial occasion, after which mushers truck their dogs 48 km (30 mi) northeast to the town of Wasilla for a restart. The Iditarod then takes racers past 26 checkpoints, over the Alaska Range, into steep-walled and narrow gorges, through alpine tundra, and onto the shores of the Bering Sea, where wind-chill temperatures can reach -73° C (-100° F). To commemorate sled dog history across a broader portion of Alaska, the racecourse splits into two 480-km (300-mi) routes in the interior so that more communities can host race-related activities. The northern route is used on even-numbered years, and the southern route on odd-numbered ones.
Racers face numerous hazards along the course, ranging from violent storms that can strand teams or force them to backtrack, to thaws that make travel on frozen rivers dangerous. Moose have literally stomped out some racers' ambitions by destroying their equipment and injuring their dogs, and some mushers have spotted polar bears along the course. The natural hazards are compounded by the stress that mushers feel as they average about two hours of sleep each day.
To prepare for the race, serious Iditarod contenders train year-round, selecting and training their dogs, and developing their team's endurance and stamina. They log hundreds of miles over different terrain and refine feeding and resting schedules. Once the race begins, mushers must pace their teams to achieve peak performance. Most follow a run-rest rule, running and resting the dogs for equal time periods. When the team stops to rest, the musher attends to the dogs before eating or sleeping. After feeding the dogs, the musher checks them for fatigue and injuries. Mushers pay close attention to the dogs' feet, which regularly suffer cuts and bruises from the snow and ice. Mushers treat the feet with salves and other medication and protect them with fabric booties.
The history of the Iditarod dates from the winter of 1925, when Nome was hit by an epidemic of diphtheria, a highly contagious disease. A diphtheria serum was transported from Anchorage to Nenana, Alaska, by train, and mushers then relayed the serum almost 1125 km (700 mi) to save the residents of the town. Today the Iditarod celebrates the accomplishment of these mushers. The race also honors the Iditarod National Historic Trail, which for decades was one of Alaska's main mail routes. The first Iditarod was held in 1973. Dick Wilmarth won by completing the course in 20 days. By 1995 American musher Doug Swingley had lowered the record to just over 9 days. Technical advances in sleds, equipment, food, and technique have made mushers and their teams faster, but the Iditarod continues to be an adventure.
It was a cold sunny day as we ventured out of the hotel. On the corner was a street where a lot of the dogs were being taken out of their transportation vans. They were howling - with excitement I imagined. The compartments in the vans looked pretty small, but since the animal rights people had questioned the way the dogs had been treated, a major attempt had been to negate that image by having a huge team of vets on hand and inspectors to monitor the dogs' treatment. Eventually we wound up at the start. Ryan's old boss from the Nome radio station was there covering the event and he came over to talk to us. Suddenly he looked past us.
"Senator!" he cried.
A woman of a certain age made her way towards him. She was dressed in a long fur coat and long blonde hair fell on to her shoulders. This happened to be the Senator for Alaska. Ryan was thrilled to be standing right next to her, and Rick borrowed my camera to take a surreptitious picture.
As the cold crept up upon me and I lost feeling in my feet, I watched as the excitement built. A group of four ceremonial guard caring the American flag were standing in front of us, shivering. Eventually they attempted to move their frozen limbs and step forward in a ragged unison as a man prepared to sing the national anthem. A woman behind us asked us to move to one side so she could take a picture. It transpired that the man about to sing was her husband. We congratulated her and then held our breath as he began to sing unaccompanied. It sounded shaky at first and we wondered if he was being affected by nerves or the cold or both, but then I suddenly realized that he was singing it with a wonderful sensitivity that made it a fragile yet wonderfully emotionally moment.
As the cold was starting to creep up my body the race was suddenly on its way. A team of 87 mushers and their dogs got the thrill of being waved on their way by their supporters and friends. It was sometimes difficult to see through the crowd of well wishers and back-up team and media that were positioned inside the rope that separated the public from the track. A cheer would go up and then a flash of dog, the barking of the team, and then a glimpse of the fur of the musher, a hand waving to the crowd. I had the feeling of stepping back in time. Alaska as the last frontier is still untamed. As I found out later, there was no road to Nome, some 500 miles northwest of Anchorage. The road stopped well short. There was also no railway. The only way into the town was by Air, snowmobile or dogsled - or by ship in the summer. Alaska has more planes and pilots than any other state,. I can imagine the pull of wanting to fly if one lived here. Nature here allows humans, but there is always that threat of avalanche or storm or earthquake or tidal wave. here more than anywhere else I have been, did I feel the raw power of the natural world, and I was overcome with its beauty.
Later in the evening after a very good performance of The Man Who Would Be King I met Ryan and his friends for a drink. Two of them worked for Nome's Health Care. They told me that the Eskimos were kept alive by government subsidies. It was strange, after reading Daniel Quinn's book "Ishmael" recently to hear them say that because they had been given food, they were now bored and listless, for before of course, they struggled to survive and were master hunters of the sea and land of the northern wastelands. I also heard that most of the cast of The Fast Runner - a film made and acted by the Eskimos and that I had very much admired - had died.
My green card saga still goes on. I now hear that a letter is being sent which will tell us what the latest problem is. Homeland Security has the reigns now and they also have new rules. It is quite a hard thing to do - prove that you married for other reasons and not just to get a green card. Who makes the final decision I wonder and what does he make his ruling on? Still, one can only soldier on and trust all will be turn out for the best. It would be good to know which country I am going living in... in the future.
Our week in Alaska was a success. The review of Othello was great and we have been asked back next year. I would like to come back and explore more of this incredible wasteland. Our flight down to Oregon was via Seattle, which made for a long traveling day. I have now covered nearly every state. Eugene, Oregon, is very pretty and laid back. There seems to be a lot of hippies here. It reminds me of that description of Hastings, England. "The place where old flared jeans go to die." The temperature was 70 degrees here yesterday. A far cry from the frozen northern state of Alaska. Yesterday after eating lunch outside, I came back to my hotel room, opened the window that leads out on to the balcony, pushed the big Lazy-Boy chair and read and slept in the sunshine. Sometimes touring isn't so bad.