Thursday, August 23, 2012

North to Alaska!

Been more than two months since I’ve posted here. First, it was a heavy load of work at the office that took up my time. But that was to give me a window of vacation time for….

I’d never been to Alaska before, and I’d never been on a cruise ship, either. Maybe I never would have, except that the cruise through the Inside Passage in mid-August included a program organized by Reason magazine, a libertarian publication Marcia and I have subscribed to for several years now. I knew about Reason a long time before that, having written an sf column for the magazine in the early 1970’s, and I’ve long been sympathetic to libertarian ideas although I’ve never been an activist.

Here’s the thing: I’d never had the slightest interest in cruise ships like the Holland America Westerdam, the one we took from Seattle. I imagined that being aboard one would be about as much fun as sitting in a football stadium, surrounded by 50,000 people you don’t know, watching a game between two teams you don’t give a shit about. But Marcia had been on two cruises, one to Alaska – it helped that the latter included a contingent of alumni of Carnegie Mellon University, her alma mater. In the present instance, I figured it would help to travel among people I knew about even if I didn’t know them personally.

That indeed turned out to be the case, and I met some wonderful people. One, John Tooby, an evolutionary psychology theorist who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, turned out to share a love for one of my own favorite sf stories, Cordwainer Smith’s “No, No, Not Rogov.” But I’m interested in evolutionary psychology anyway as a layman, because it touches on the origins of art, music and literature (oral at first, only later written). Several others seemed to be intrigued about sf, once they knew I was on board, among them Reason editor Nick Gillespie, Columbia economics professor Eli Noam and his wife Nadine Strossen – past president of the American Civil Liberties Union. Among the most intriguing speakers (to me, at least) were Richard and Jane Stroup on free market approaches to environmental issues and Thaddeus Russell (author of A Renegade History of the United States) on the positive influence of “slackers, rebels and outlaws” as opposed to respectable people (including supposed progressives) on American culture. I’m not going to list all participants here, but I want to make it clear that these libertarians are not Tea Party conservatives – they’re opposed to endless wars, condemn crony capitalism as well as socialism, and support women’s rights (including abortion). Strossen was really tough on the abuses of government surveillance of anyone and everyone in the name of national security, and the arbitrary powers granted to the president (supported by both parties) to declare anyone a terrorist and imprison them without trial.

On a more pleasant note than the growing threat of Caesarism to our liberties was the Inside Passage voyage itself. To begin with, of course, it was all new to me. But there was also our luck with the weather: usually, it’s dank and even rainy in the Alaska panhandle, but for us it was bright and sunny most days, and if it was overcast in the morning the clouds would usually part later in the day. That meant we could get a much better view of the mountains, islands and glaciers. Closer up, we could watch the dolphins “escorting” the cruise ship and, later, a small boat we took to the site of an old salmon cannery in Ketchikan.

Our first stop in Alaska itself was Juneau, the state capital, and our tour guide on shore was eager to tell us where the red light district had once been, and that the state capitol building had been voted the ugliest in the country. But we also had a boat ride to go whale watching. Marcia hadn’t seen a single whale on her previous visit, but this time there were about 20 – 14 of them hunting together in one group, which is really unusual. Another stop by bus on the way back to the ship was the Mendenhall Glacier. We got to see a lot more glaciers the next day; the weather was so good that the Westerdam decided to add an extra stop to its cruise up Glacier Bay. I can’t say for sure, but since a previous announcement had mentioned the Johns Hopkins glacier at the end of one inlet, the extra stop might have been the Margerie glacier up another inlet, and that was the best of them – a ship photographer took a shot of us against that, and it was the only ship-taken picture we decided to buy.

At Sitka, we got to see a Russian Orthodox church built back in 1844. It burned down in 1969, in a fire that had started across the street, but the architectural design had been preserved by the Library of Congress, so it was rebuilt almost exactly like before. Not only that, but the faithful had managed to rescue all the icons, so those you see today all go back to the original church. Other stops included the Visitor Center, where a group of amateur dancers (all women; the men just weren’t interested when the troupe was formed decades ago) performed traditional Russian dances.

There was also a salmon stream 600 feet into the rain forest (In the shade of the trees, it really gave me the sense of a rain forest), and the salmon were running. Well, trying to run: none I saw seemed to be making any headway, and the spawning area was seven miles upstream. Somebody told me the next day at a historic salmon cannery that it was late in the season, and that the salmon strong enough to make it already had – those left behind were out of luck. Survival of the fittest…

Lots of totem poles, of course, including some indoors at the local museum. Totem poles often honored prominent Tlingit Indians, and a number of them are shown wearing what appear to be stovepipe hats. But a guide at the museum said the resemblance is purely coincidental; those hats (and others with sloping as opposed to flat brims) are potlatch hats (potlatches are gift-giving ceremonies) and the stovepipes are actually series of rings indicating how many potlatches the person honored had given. On the other hand, the next day at Ketchikan, we saw a totem pole with Abraham Lincoln and his stovepipe hat – this had been erected in 1867 after an American gunship called the Lincoln had come to the aid of local Tlingits who had been attacked by a rival tribe.

That cannery in Ketchikan had closed in 1957, after the salmon had been trapped out. One of the first things Alaska did after it became a state was to ban salmon traps, and the salmon industry has since been revived with hatcheries and sustainable catch policies. But that was too late for the George Inlet cannery, which had been operated by a subsidiary of Libby – others based in the town itself, rather than at the remote inlet, were more efficient, and could handle all the catch. But the abandoned plant has been fitted out with duplicates of the original equipment – including a machine unfortunately called the Iron Chink because it handled a part of the processing previously done by Chinese laborers. By the way, if you’re wondering why canned salmon has bones and canned tuna doesn’t, it’s because tuna is canned only after being cooked and deboned. But why tuna is treated that way and salmon isn’t, even the tour guide didn’t know.

As is often the case, there were little things that fascinated me. In Glacier Bay, it was the frozen brooks you could see snaking down the mountainsides, something not mentioned in tour books. In Sitka, it was the slanted bars on Russian orthodox crosses (I learned that had to do with the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus; one of them had reproved the other and been promised a place in Paradise; the upslanting end of the bar represents him; he was canonized as St. Dismas.). In George Inlet, there was orange seaweed on one side where sheer rock rises from the water, and on which starfish feed – popweed is what they call it, our guide told me, because it has little air sacs like bubble wrap. There’s something like Spanish moss that hangs from some of the tree branches it has various names, including Methuselah’s Beard and Witch’s Hair.

We had a fine stateroom aboard ship, with a picture window, and all the amenities. The food was great, except that the scrambled eggs were sometimes mushy. I was able to get in some laps on the Promenade deck – really needed the exercise. One terrific extra was the option to have our luggage taken right from outside our stateroom to the plane after we docked in Seattle. The only really annoying thing on the ship was the cruise director being required to interrupt the Reason seminars with announcements over the PA system, mostly to promote onboard lotteries, bingo and casino gambling. Ashore, it often seemed as if there were nothing downtown except jewelry stores, most not even selling locally-made jewelry. The ship urged the passengers to shop at these stores and didn’t bother to tell us where we could buy genuine Alaskan made souvenirs, but Marcia found one where they had a native-carved whale fluke, made from whale bone, a great reminder of our excellent whale sightings.

At the outset, there had been the hotel the cruise people had recommended for our stay in Seattle for a couple of nights before the voyage itself. Our room turned out to be cramped, and the place had falsely advertised on its website that it had a dining room – it didn’t even offer a Continental breakfast. (The website described it as a “boutique hotel” and we wondered what that meant – we found out that it meant small and overpriced.) Well, we found other places to eat, and having an extra day in Seattle with a rental car gave me a chance to take Marcia in a scenic drive through Snoqualmie Pass (one of my favorite places in the world) and on to Roslyn – the picturesque town once used as the setting for Northern Exposure.

There was always something wonderful to see, or do, or hear, from first day to last.