The  Last Frontier
Wilderness, Glaciers, and Native Culture
July  11 – 25, 2000

A. Introduction:

The cruise was arranged by Elderhostel to visit and study the geological nature of the coastline of this vast state. The land is simply majestic in its mountainous terrain, rivers, glaciers, rain forests, fjords, waterfalls, and of course  snow and rain. Some places get 100 feet of snow and 20 feet of rain annually. I am glad I decided to join the trip. We had a pleasant surprise every day, like a sweet treat. Words are not enough to describe this unspoiled territory, and I hope it will stay that way.

I joined the 130 people from the Elderhostel. We were divided into four groups for better management, each with its own leader. Karen was the leader of the program managed by the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The Elderhostel group joined with other passengers for a total of about 640 from all states, England and few other countries. Our groups in general were educated professionals as is the Elderhostel tradition. They were, however, of different physical abilities, such that at times it was bothersome to others and me. We were transported to areas where we should have walked. I also believe we could have done more strenuous adventures.
The ship Arriving

The ship, the S. S. Universe Explorer, was operated by the University of Pittsburgh during the academic year for a semester-at-sea program. There was an excellent library, plus a sizable and modern computer room where I wrote this report. Computer and art classes were also offered. I took a class in water coloring from Charlie, a professor of Art from Ohio. We had lectures on the biological, geological and historical aspects of the state, given by competent professors. We also had visitors, who met us en route on their boats.   Our ship would slow down but not stop and the visitors would climb on board while we were moving. We had two visitors from the Park Service who talked about glaciers and as we came close to one, the guests narrated the scenery. We had three young Indian people who came on board and talked about their tribe’s culture. When we sailed in the narrows, pilots came on board to steer the ship in tricky waters.

My first water color, that's supposed to be a Galcier

Nightly performances were operatic, classical, jazz, singing, and light music, followed by games and dancing. One night a lady by the name of Gloria wanted to sign up for the upcoming talent show. She wanted to be an old Russian ballet instructor for boys. She asked me and two others to do the skit with her. We agreed. On the day of the show, we all met with Gloria who told us what to do. When our turn came up, she was introduced as a very old hunched-over lady with a cane. She introduced her pupils with me as the first. One by one, we came to the stage running and jumping one big step like a ballerina. We were dressed in socks with shoes. I was afraid to fall on the wooden stage. But we danced and there were big roars at our fancy footwork. During the next few days, people would stop to tell me how wonderful it was for us to dance.

The 22,000-ton ship is 600 feet long, staffed by excellent personnel whose service is the best.  They do not take time off more than a few hours at a time. They have no days off. There was also an adequately furnished gym room with an instructor, Theresa Hoder, who was helpful, showed us how to use the equipment, and how to breathe deeply. There were several daily land programs every time we arrived at a destination. The food, as on other cruise ships, was very good and plentiful.

It was easy to make friends on board and meet people of all experiences. One can talk comfortably with just about anyone else. I was surprised that when I introduced myself to anyone, the first thing they would say to me was that I didn’t sound Southern.

The weather was excellent for which we were lucky because this area is close to the Pacific Ocean and rain is ever-present. It rained slightly when we visited the Exit Glacier, but it did not hamper the visit. It also rained one day while we were at sea. The next day it drizzled all day when we landed in Sitka where I and Dick, a retired professor from University of Illinois, rented bicycles. I had already bought bicycle shorts earlier in the cruise from Ketchekan, when I learned that biking was possible. We toured the town and visited the National Historical Park (Totem Park). We did have rain gear and were prepared for rain, but it became uncomfortable later on and we handed our bikes in, and returned to the ship which landed in the sea away from the dock. Tenders shuttled us back and forth to the dock.

I wanted also to hike but no one would go with me. One day, Jo** from Gainesville, Florida said to me that she found someone to hike with me. The hiker was a peppy French woman named Pamela. Next day, I wanted to go bicycling, and thought Pamela might like to go. I called and she was expecting my call. She said that she does not bike but likes to hike. I agreed to hike and we met for lunch. She is the youngest 78 year-old I have ever seen. She told me that when she goes up the stairs, she takes two of them at a time. We went to the Park Ranger station and the officer gave us a map and told us where to go. He said that the trail was very steep and rugged for the first half mile. I asked him what to do in case we met a bear, and he said “raise your hands up so the bear can tell it is a man, speak softly and don’t run.” The trail was rocky and tricky, but we went up. Pamela was ahead of me. She turned around to me and said, “Ned, if you would like to stop for rest, it would be OK with me. Just let me know.” She talked all the time, and we met a few people. The hike was not easy even after the first hard part. Through the lush trees, we hiked for two and a half-hours. We met one woman who had a big backpack, beautifully weathered skin, an infectious smile, and a wide rim hat. She said that she hiked for exercise and she is meeting a friend to hike 33 miles on the Chilkoot trail by Klnodike mines in five days. Camping in this rugged terrain full of bears and other animals takes courage especially for two women. She said that she would send me email to tell me about their hike.

** Jo’s husband Warren is a retired Professor from the University of Florida. One day at dinner, Warren started to tell me about his roommate in graduate school who was from Palestine. His name was Amin Mwafi. I stopped Warren saying that “Amin was a high school mathematics teacher and he is from my hometown” Qalqilya. No one could believe the coincidence.

The cruise took us as far north as Seward, about 30 miles from Anchorage. The latitude there is 60 degrees north. The day light hours are very long and the sun was up till 11 PM and stays dusk after that time. It was strange to stroll on the ship’s deck at midnight and it was not very dark.

When I met the captain, I asked him for permission to visit the engine room, which is rarely allowed. He told me that it was between me and the engineer. I wrote a note to the engineer, who later called me in my cabin, and said that he would escort me through the engine room. He asked me not to tell any passengers about the tour. The room is full of machinery, pumps, boilers of super heated steam with temperature of 580 F. I saw the foot-and-a-half solid steel shafts driving the two screws. There were three electric generators to supply the ship. There was also a machine shop with a lathe, welding equipment and other machines, and raw metal stocks. I was surprised to see the large number of workers in the engine room. I also signed up along with other passengers to see the captain’s navigation bridge. It had dual controls, radar screens and GPS. The staff communicate with the engine room the old fashioned way using a three inch duct; I expected it to be more modern. There were also signaling flags that are apparently still in use, regardless of the modern electronics we have nowadays

Captain me (at the bridge)

B. Anthropology:

In Indian culture, art, such as music, songs, and totem poles is personal property. They cannot be used by others without permission, like a copy right. The culture is based on ownership. In Ketchkan for example, an Indian lady from one of the main tribes, the Haida, gave us a talk about their culture and sang a beautiful song. She said the song is from a tribe that is not hers, but she has the permission to sing it. When she introduced herself, she first gave the names of her grandmother then her mother.

Taking two families from the famous Tlinget tribe, as an example, one has the Raven as its symbol and the other, the eagle. These symbols are depicted on their attire. A raven person cannot marry another raven, but it could be an eagle person. For example, a raven woman marries an eagle man. The children are ravens. Their father who is an eagle does not take care of his raven children, Their uncle, the mother’s raven brother, takes care of the children.

Indian tribes in Alaska are many and they differ from one another depending on where they live. Coastal tribes used woven cloths made of tree fiber, and ate fish. They traveled long distances by the sea. Inland tribes wore animal hide and ate meat of game animals.

B.1 Raven, A mystical figure:

It is believed that the raven brings light, stars, and even humans, when it discovered man in a clam shell. Even in England it was believed that if the raven disappeared from the country, the Empire will disappear with it. Therefore, there is an Englishman assigned to the duty of taking care of the raven. To make sure that the birds do not disappear, he clips their wings. The raven is a very intelligent bird and can make good pets. They are great imitators. One passenger (Professor Leslie Parr, the Biologist) was having lunch, and trying to take a photograph of a raven on the deck. She discovered another raven pecking on her lunch in front of her while she was aiming her camera on the other!

B.2 Totem Poles:

The Indian culture includes totem poles that preserve their heritage. The poles are symbols of the tribe. The chief originally had a stick or staff with his colors and symbols painted on the pole planted in front of his home.  In time, it became bigger and bigger and carved elaborately and painted with three different colors, bluish green, brownish red, and black, and usually told the history of the tribe. When a chief dies, the new chief erects a totem pole for him telling the tribal story. The new chief also puts up one for himself. On occasions such as new chief, weddings, deaths, naming of a child or a house, a new pole is put up. This ceremony is called potlatch. Guests are invited for the festivity and the host gives gifts. Accepting the gift signifies certification of the occasion, and officially sanctioning it. Gifts include small items such as drums, and dancing paddles (like oars ), which are used in dances.

Indians drew human faces on the joints of their drawings to symbolize the spirit. There were also tongues sticking out as a symbol of knowledge. If the tongue’s picture is at the bottom of the pole, it means the person is receiving knowledge. If on top, it is giving knowledge.

On the top sometimes there will be a box which contains the ashes of the chief and the high ranking members of the tribe, but not of the slaves. The box can also be placed in a cavity hollowed out in the back of the pole. Other poles have a carving of the raven’s or eagle’s head, distinguishable by the shape of the beak. The raven has a long straight beak and the eagle a curved one. Other times they would have a fox, bear, frog, beaver, and other animals, depending on the symbol of the tribe. The beaver and the frog are common. The poles were never changed or repaired after erection. They are allowed to deteriorate and fall down.

There were also poles of shame. If one does a shameful deed like not paying a debt or disobeying the elders, then the tribe would erect a simple pole with animal’s head on top until the misdeed is corrected many times over. For example, a bad debt must be repaid 100 times.

When the Indians were converted to Christianity, totem poles and cremation were outlawed by the Christians and began to disappear. Preachers thought the poles and blankets that had drawings were idols and discouraged the people from making them. In fact people were punished if they made poles. They were also told that they would not go to heaven if they did not have a Christian burial.

We had three Indians (Tlinget) come on board the ship and give enlightening talks about their heritage and then narrated the Hubbard Glacier we were approaching. After the talk I asked one of them how the Indian tribes feel now about the Christians who denied the natives of their culture. He did not want to answer, but said he was not born at the time. When I pressed him, he admitted that they do not like it. And his own father does not want to talk about that experience, but when he does, he gets violent. He said that those of his father’s generation were whipped if they talked in their tongue. The Christians brought also the white man diseases for which the Indians did not have immunity. Now, only the old generation (grandparents) knows the true heritage and language. The new generation is trying to hang onto that culture and have an urge for re-establishing their culture.

Indians made clothes, baskets, and utensils from tree bark, such as the cedar, red and yellow. They would first thank the tree for giving the bark, then the outside layer is shaved and thin sheets were sliced off the trunk. They would do the slicing using only one third of the trunk so the tree would not die. The slice is then divided into narrow strips to make them ready for weaving. To make the slices soft for clothes, the people would first beat them. They made baskets tight enough to carry water.

Alaska experiences high tides on the order of 20 feet. At low tide the shore becomes a very muddy, wide rocky beach. Sometimes people get trapped in the mud and when the high tide comes, they would drown. The Indians use mud skis like regular skis but with sides like long spoons, which protected them while they are fishing.

Every living thing such as a tree, an animal, or a fish has a soul and must be respected.  From a tree they get the wood for fire or build a canoe or a house, and the tree must therefore be thanked.

B 3. The Chief’s House:

The one room house is about 100 feet by 80 feet and it is mainly for winter use. It has two platforms like large steps. The chief and his family slept on the top wooden platform and others were on either side of him in descending status with slaves the furtherest away. The second platform was for the women to attend to the chores and care for the children.

Indians had slaves who were captured from other tribes and were the ones who lived at the front of the chief’s wooden house. The slaves protected the house, which had low doors as guards. If an enemy attempted to enter, he would have to bend over and that would put the intruder at a disadvantage. The house has a center pit for cooking and heating. The main ceiling beams rested on totem poles of the chief and his tribe. They used an oily fish called hooligan for food. They discovered that it burned nicely like a candle and used it for light.

B.4 Rock Art, Petroglyphs and Pictographs:

Humans have painted or carved designs on rocks or walls of caves for centuries. They  give us a glimpse of the life of the ancient people. A pictograph is a design painted on rocks with colors made of mixing grease, or salmon eggs with charcoal, clay, or minerals. On the other hand, a petroglyph is carved or ground into the surface of the rock. Petroglyphs are found near the coastline below the tide mark. They are often located close to a salmon-spawning stream, which may have been to welcome the return of the salmon. Other pictographs could have been associated with burials. No one – neither natives nor archaeologists - is sure who carved the petroglyph or why.

C. Marine Mammals, Cetaceans:

Alaskan marine mammals are in decreasing size: whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Whales gulp, skim, or suck their food. They also bubble feed in which a group of whales corral a school of fish by circling the fish until they are in a small circle and the whales feast on them. Birds join in on the feast too.  Suckers lay on their sides in shallower waters and scoop fish and mud. They spit out the water and keep the fish and the mud. All whales spit the water from their mouths. Big whales eat more than 2000 pounds a day when they eat – but they don’t not on a daily. They migrate in the winter to warmer waters about 7000 miles away. Male whales sing, and the songs vary annually. Hawaiian whales sing differently from Mexican whales.

Whales’ eyes are low on the side. When they see people and want to play, they come out of the water vertically in order to see. If they slap their tails or fins on the water, they are in an aggressive mood and people should stay away.

The sea otter is one of the most playful sea mammals in these waters. They are plentiful in the Prince Williams Sound. When we visited the area on a local 80 foot boat, we saw otters that traveled alongside of the boat in the iceberg filled waters at the mouth of the Columbia Glacier. They knew we were watching and played more than we expected. When the skipper of the boat announced that we would be leaving, the otters dove into the sea and did not come up as if they knew that we were going away.

D. Geology:

Glaciers are frozen rivers which include rocks imbedded in the ice. The ice and rocks flow on a thin sheet of water. Glaciers form when the snowfall exceeds the snowmelt. Snowflakes turn to granules, and the sheer weight compresses it into solid thick ice. Gravity sets the ice into motion down the slopes at 2 to 8 feet per day. As the glacier moves, it carves  or scratches the landscape and sweeps the dirt in front of it. Actually glaciers sculpt the terrain. For that reason, the glacier often appears dirty like having soot over it, but not completely covering the ice. The ice looks very bluish due to the refraction of the sun light, where it is all absorbed except the blue waves which are reflected. One child once explained the reason for the blue color. He said it is because there are worms with blue eyes that live in the ice. It is correct that worms do live in the ice and feed on pollen. If one would hold the worm, it immediately dies because of the person’s body heat.

Glaciers are noisy, crackling sometimes as loud as gunfire. The noise is caused by the release of the trapped air in the snow crystals. When it melts, it fizzes. As the glacier moves into the sea, pieces fall off into the water making loud noises like thunder, and wakes develop and travel like a ship’s wake. The breaking of the glacier is called calving, forming icebergs of different sizes that float in the sea. If the glacier is not replenished by more snow than is melting, the glacier recedes, creating a valley which fills with water, called a fjord. In Glacier Bay, for example, there are several glaciers. The largest of glacier is the Grand Pacific which is dark and looks like a mountain because of the dirt the ice pushed ahead of it. Marjorie Glacier is huge and beautiful. We saw it calving with thunderous noises even though the calves were small. There were other glaciers like John Hopkins which was growing unlike most others for unknown reasons. The water of the fjord is 800 feet deep all of which was carved by the glaciers over the last two hundred years. The mountains are high, moss covered, with longitudinal carvings or scratches made by the flow of the ice.

We saw a group of about 12 kayaks each carrying two people in this hostile and desolate environment, like an endless desert. Usually hikers and other adventurers come by hydroplanes which drop them at a certain point and pick them up a few days later. I saw their tent on the edge of the water. The water is cold and nothing is marked and rescue is not readily available, as is the case in most of Alaska. In fact, the capital of Juneau can be reached only by air or water. No roads connect the city with other cities, as is the case in many places in the state.

When we entered Glacier Bay, two officers from the Park Service came by boat from the nearby station and boarded our ship, which slowed down to idle speed. They stayed on board most of the day and gave us presentations and other information about glaciers. As usual it was very interesting. They talked on the public address system explaining to us about the glaciers we were observing. Because the environment is fragile and the idea is to keep it that way, the Park Service allows no more than two ships to navigate in the bay a day which have certain noise and pollution levels. They came on board at 6:00 AM and left us at 4:00 PM. Because the bay is also changing, a pilot boarded our ship and steered while we were in the bay. This is like the Suez Canal and other difficult waterways worldwide.

D.1 Columbia Glacier:

Columbia glacier, like others in the Prince Williams Sound, is huge. The bay was filled with icebergs of different sizes, shapes, and colors. As we approached the glacier, the captain of the chartered 80 foot boat which carried all of the 135 Elderhosterlers, slowed down to idle speed, and plowed through it like a mine field. We heard the big chunks of ice rubbing against the fiberglass hull, making a growling noise. We also heard the compressed air in the ice popping like Rice Krispy cereal in milk. The boat continued until we reached a wall of big icebergs at which time we turned around. We saw clearly Columbia Glacier at a distance of 2-3 miles. We also saw calving of the ice, and at one time the iceberg flipped over end to end. The scenery is like all of Alaska, enchanting. High mountains with high waterfalls and lots of ice. The clear water is 35 degrees cold. We saw where the Exxon Valdez hit a clearly marked obstruction of a sandbar. The waters seem to look normal and there were no visible sign of the oil spill of 1989. It seemed irresponsible to have super tankers sailing in this narrow channel. Our ship, the Universe Explorer weighs 22,000 tons, and the Exxon tanker, 240,000 tons. Our ship captain wisely slowed down in this narrow channel, but to allow a supertanker here filled with crude oil is criminal.

We then went to Growler Island for a picnic lunch operated by the charter boat captain’s own company. The island is named after the growling noise icebergs make when they rub passing boats. The place is rustic and attracts campers and adventurers. In fact all of those who venture in Alaska and spend nights in the wilderness are truly adventurers worthy of respect and admiration. After lunch, we walked around on the rocky beach when the tide was low and several icebergs got stranded. The ice is brittle and breaks off like big crystals of odd shapes on the order of an inch. The snow over the years and its own enormous weight compressed the glacier into a crystalline type formation.

D.2 Snow River-Jokulhlaup

Jokulhlaup (yokel lop) is an Icelandic word meaning sudden water release from glaciers. Sometimes high on the mountain along the glacier, rainfall and snowmelts fill a valley on the side of the glacier forming a lake several hundred feet deep. When the pressure becomes high enough, water begins to seep down stream under the floor of the glacier and small tunnel forms at its base. The flow increases day by day, and a snow river develops. In a week or two the tunnel grows to a diameter of 30 feet. Water rushed down like a flood until the lake above is emptied. The tunnel then crumbles and a new dam is developed and the process starts all over every couple of years.

E. Life Succession:

When a glacier recedes, volcano erupts, or fire burns the forest, it bares the land beneath. The exposed land is barren rock. Then plants and animal life appear in succession. The pioneer species is moss that grows on rocks. The fireweed is the first to appear with its beautiful fuschia flowers. It takes root and makes nutrients in this rough poor environment by breaking the raw rocks into smaller particles. Others such as the lupin, willow and alder follow. These plants provide organic material from decaying leaves and nitrogen and the soil becomes ready for other species such as the Sitka spruce and western hemlock. The birds move in. Other large animals begin to follow. This is called primary succession.

   Retreating glacier leaves barren earth, Fireweed is a pioneer plant

The elements of the ecosystem is summed up in the word CABLE:
    Cryogenic: Glacier
    Atmospheric Oxygen and nitrogen
    Biologic Decaying plants and other nutrients
    Lithographic Rocks
    Ecologic resultant of the above
Note: This section of Life Succession will be re-written once I get a new material from Ranger Bob Satin in Alaska

F. Gold Rush:

In 1896 gold was discovered in the Klondike valley near Skagway. People rushed to mine the gold and to become rich. Many people perished because of the weather, rough terrain, inexperience, and greed. Many did not know how to care for the horses which carried the material and the horses perished. The road to Klondike was named dead horse trail, or the golden stairs. The stampede for riches, known as the Klondike Gold Rush, was predicted by three smart individuals who started the trek on the White Pass to Lake Bennett and Yukon River. The mounted police prevented any one from going there unless they had one year’s supply of sustenance, weighing about a ton. Some prospectors had to haul their stuff up the 33 mile trip many times to have the ton. Later, two other men decided to solve the transportation problem. The two Englishmen put up the money, and a famous railroad was built which was first after it was deemed impossible to construct in this rugged mountainous area. The White Pass and Yukon Railroad was established. It was built on a narrow gauge for two reasons. One because it takes less material and rail bed than the wide gauge. And two, this narrow gauge allows for smaller turning radius. The rail was completed in 26 months against all the odds of the hostile environment. At one point, one worker had to be lowered by a rope upside down holding a big drill bit and two other men with sledge hammers alternately striking the bit. It must have been hell to hold onto the bit feeling the vibration when the hammers struck.

The White Pass and Yukon River Train

We took the train up the mountain attaining speeds no greater than 20 mph in spite of the train’s two powerful engines. We saw trestles that were built to cross valleys, and two tunnels. The train was heated with wooden stoves, one in each car. Most of the time we felt we were  hanging over cliffs with deep ravines below us and steep mountains over us. It was interesting to see the trees so short on top of the mountain due to the harsh weather. To turn back at the top by Lake Bennett, the diesel engines were disconnected and moved back on a second track to the other end of the train to be reconnected. The round trip of the 20 mile route and a climb of 3000 feet took over two hours. It is inspiring to see the rail completed and one must salute the men and the horses who constructed it. If we were to build it now, I am sure it would take us no shorter time.

In a few years, after the completion of the railroad, gold sources dried up, but copper, lead, and silver took their place. The railroad became also an indispensable means for construction of the Alaska highway. When the prices of metals plummeted in the 1980’s, the train stopped its operation, and more recently restarted when the second gold rush started – tourism-, started, now a thriving business in the state.

Of the 100,000 prospectors who headed to the state, only 30,000 reached the gold fields, half of them actually looked for gold, and the rest were in support business as including the famous bars and brothels. Of those who searched for the gold, 4000 became rich, and a handful of those managed to keep their riches. One of the three men who started the rush abandoned his Indian wife and married another who operated a cigar store. She managed to get gold from the dust that filled the floor of the store. Today, many bars in Alaska continue to line their floors with sawdust. They moved later to California, establishing a thriving real estate business. The second prospector became rich in the hotel business. The third stayed in mining and he too became rich.

F.1 Soapy Smith:

Not all people enjoyed the gold wealth the honest way. Soapy Smith was the biggest scoundrel and a con man. Soapy was born to southern preachers, and was therefore bible-quoting and self-righteous. He helped the downtrodden and raised money to build a church. He was very quick with his hands and played tricks with people, especially the three shell game in which he put a seed under one of the shells. His audience would guess wrong and lose. He also sold soap for $5 a piece with a trick in which he wrapped the soap bar with real paper money and an the outer wrapping, then, with his slick hands, he would remove the money. The buyer would then find no money. That’s how he came to be known as Soapy. He formed a telegraph company and charged for his service. When the answer came back, he collected again because he told his customers that the message came collect. Skagway became known for its lawlessness and bad reputation, and someone called it Little-Better-than-Hell town. Soapy played dirty tricks on the miners who worked very hard for their money. He used to say that brains not violence is the best way to take man’s money. One day, his gang took $2800 from someone. As a result of this action, Soapy was forced to face Frank Reid, one of the town’s people who did not like Soapy. The duel ended with Soapy’s death. Frank Reid became Skagway’s hero. The town became respectable especially after constructing the railroad.

G. Conclusion:

Alaska was discovered by a Danish  traveler for the Russian king in 1741. Other Europeans, namely the English, followed years later and bought fur from the Indians which they traded in China for big profits. That was the first gold rush in Alaska. Russian clergy moved in to convert the locals. Therefore their influence is still present, and it was known as Russian America when it was sold to the United States in 1867, for two cents per acre. This is the best purchase the government has ever made. Alaska is a well-kept secret. I can see why people fall in love with this vast gorgeous place. The clear emerald waters, the rugged and steep mountains, the lush rain forests, the enormous glaciers, the birds, and the animals all make Alaska intoxicating. We were also lucky that we had very nice sunny weather most of the days of the cruise. The ship was friendly and cozy with its library, computer room, art classes and the quality of lecturers. The entertainment was not flashy and elaborate, but a small orchestra, two opera singers, two musicians, folk singers and the passengers made it the entire gala that I and others wanted. The cruise was just right, and I would do it again. For me, the trip was a success.

I should add here that the photographs accompanying this report do not include those of the Elderhostel groups or others I met. Even though I did not know any of the 135 Elderhoselers among the 640 total passengers on board, I felt at ease and developed a good rapport with many. I mery much enjoyed the experience.