Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Inside Passage Elderhostel

Passage to Skagway

It was a dreary and foggy day, when the two erstwhile Elderhostelers eked out an earnest edge into the eponymous echoes of hostile Elders.
H&H strode manfully (and semi-womanly) during the summer of 2006 toward their destiny- hopefully not their Doom- on the good ship Malaspina. The entire name of the Alaskan State Tub was Mal-asp-in-a-vessel. And it was aptly christened, since a onerous snake was necessary to Roto-Root the commode of the statuesque stateroom in student’s steerage with its first usage.
The geological half of the Dynamic Duo observed immediately that Bellingham, where the Alaskan Marine Highway (AMH) originated its voyage, was founded upon Lummi Sandstone (eponymously named after the town where Lummi natives had previously subsisted). This Tertiary stone was to give way to mostly metamorphic rocks along the Inside Passage toward Skagway at the edge of the Lynn Canal- a 50 mile linear feature oriented almost north-south along part of the route. This, of course, is in accordance with rules of equatorial contraction caused by shrinkage of the Earth’s ellipsoidal bulge, as the daily spin rate of the earth decreases with Time (less than one milli-second of time of rotation per year, which would yield a shortening of about 17 minutes per million years of rotation of the earth-which would shrink the low latitude diameter of the Globe).
The Elderhostel ergonomically-expressed egregious earthlings were led by a resident of Adolphus, Alaska (thank salvation for a celebration of alliteration) - one John Scheerens. The group consisted of 38 professionals- mostly teachers and medical workers- representing states as distant as Florida and Maine. Little did they realize that they were embarking through a slice of the biological community where they were to see Death and Destruction on a massive scale- heretofore un-witnessed by themselves.
After sunny frivolity through British Columbia, the ship crept eerily through fog banks, mizzle, and drist, where low-hanging clouds seeped into the very marrow of their perspicacious personalities. It was only at ol’ Russian Sitka where they would be restored by ol’ Sol.
Although this gregarious group was physically able to walk lustily through the towns encountered along the route, they were somewhat inhibited by the fact that the good ship would only stop for a short time in each port. The Elderhostelers would have to be content to gaze expectantly through the portholes and windows at the villages. They were rewarded at the larger towns of Sitka, Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, with tours of at least an hour each, where roads and buses were provided for touring. The most invigorating tour occurred at Sitka, where a hike was taken through the National Park. Here there could be seen the migration of the salmon and some geology in the cliffs. Fortunately, the AMH had provided time for lectures and films to be shown onboard. The two Tongass Forest Service Naturalists- Andrea Mogil and Lori- each had specialties which they indulged, and the cultures of the Tlingits, Haida, and Tsimshians were accentuated.
Lori was very gregarious, and started several ventures, soliciting Trivia and Tongue twisters to stimulate writing. Below is my contribution:

During the 19th century, Haida natives made incursions as far south as Whidbey Island in Washington state, and once in retaliation for the execution of a chief, sought a notable in the town of Coupeville, Island County, Washington, for execution. Finding no medical doctor (which they thought to be on the order of a shaman), they took the mail carrier- a rising political star. He was beheaded, after which the Haida retreated to SE Alaska.

Haida Hid Hacked Heads Here; Had Hapless Heathen Harangued Helplessly?

The voyage through the Inside Passage is a working trip, with no frivolities. It is the main method for accessing SE Alaska, except by air, and it affords an inexpensive way of scanning the geography of this out-of-the-mainstream part of North America. College students, oil workers, military people, and transients use the ships of the Alaskan state system to access the area. One miner told me this story:
“The easily panned gold has been taken, but one can dig deeper in the old river channels (now covered), for by-passed placers.” He selects an area where gold has been panned, and digs a few feet below the worked-out claim, or alternatively, nearby in a now dry abandoned channel. Since this was previously the path of the stream which later produced shallower waterways, buried gold may be occasionally found in fossil stream beds which earlier had been carrying gold from the same area- as is now contained in the active streams. He was full of enthusiasm for his 60 year age, and his bedraggled appearance belied his intention to “Strike it Rich”.
Although the allowed meal expenditure was less than $180, this figure was substantial, since the food was worker-oriented and copious. The ferry crew offered many choices of calorie-rich food, and one might certainly eat less than is allowed. Breakfasts were always enormous, and as the English say “one may gain a few pounds, with the gruel-ing exertion”. Folks could walk off the increase by use of the passenger deck at a rate of 8 rounds/American mile, providing in addition a watch for tsunamis. More likely one would see white-sided dolphins, humpbacked whales, and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses). Occasionally there were hundreds of the dolphins, where salmon were excursioning toward their spawning grounds. It seems that Life is more vigorous and active, whenever the waters are cold- counter to one’s intuition. All life is aggressively expanding in this cold water environment (40-50 degrees temperature), and there is food for all- including Man. The societies flourishing here had no need to fight, but nevertheless they did. Both Haida and Tlingit were aggressive cultures, having more time to plot battles with their easily-obtained food sources of fish, berries, vegetation, and marine mammals. These were stone-age cultures, with no metals or machinery, but they early on developed sea kayaks, war canoes, stone weapons, and leather protection. Gold was not of interest to them, but they did use ornamental stones- such as copper outcrops (malachite and azurite).
Now for my story:
The Malaspina crept stealthily through the Alaskan waters just south of the first port-of-call in Ketchikan, passing British Columbia’s Dixon entrance, just north of the Strait of Georgia and the last Canadian town (where roads access the sea) of Prince Rupert. The fog obscured the archipelago, with an aptly-authorized appellation of Alexander - and only foghorns could be heard in the eerie surroundings near the vague vessel. The lusty crowd peered expectantly toward the supposed shores, but only pea soup could be seen.
This ominous beginning of the transit through Alaskan waters was a prelude of things to come- there would be no gaily-clad maidens on the shore, no menacing mermaids, nor dancing damsels. These expected entities would exist only in the collective minds of the eager participants; they would have to use imagination to relate the story of the incipience of the Alaskan culture (and that is what you will subsequently read).
The shoreline (whenever it could be seen) became ever closer to the slithering Malaspina, as the Inner Passage was transited. All eyes were focused on the now-approaching rain forest, with all hoping that the Captain was now doing his thing- side slipping adroitly through the churning channel, as he made abrupt turns to avoid rocks and shoals in the path. At times the tide of 8 knots ripped uproariously around the vessel through these narrow channels; this magnified the speed of the diurnal demons, caused by in-rushing waters attracted by the pull of the Moon.
My neighbor in Washington related a story about this very location, via his dad, who had been a lighthouse keeper on the nearby Island of Duke (just south of Ketchikan). It seems that his father lived by his wits, to obtain his food, in this isolated location where only a keeper and occasional supply boats would venture.
One day, between passages of boats which would be warned of the dangers of shallow waters by the man-operated lighthouse, he ventured out into the rain forest to get his weekly ration of venison. He took only two shells for his rifle, thinking that this was sufficient, with the abundant game nearby. However, before reaching a deer, he was suddenly surrounded by menacing wolves- coming into his clearing to attack. One wolf was selected by the pack to bring him down, but this wolf was dispatched instead with one shot. Quickly another worker wolf was sent to bring down the intruder. This one was downed with the remaining shot, by his Dad, and now it was Man against the Pack!
At this point the alpha wolf determined that the intruder would have to be taken by himself, and he charged toward the now firearm-less man, With teeth bared, nostril flaring, and fangs ready for sinking into the flesh of the intruder, the alpha wolf lunged toward the supposedly defenseless prey,. However, the alpha did not reckon for the wit of the quickly-thinking loner. At the last moment, as the leaping wolf hurled toward the lighthouse keeper, the man backed off a half step, grabbed the barrel of the weapon and cracked the wooden stock over the muzzle of the lunging wolf. An audible crack was heard as this most sensitive part of the wolf’ anatomy broke. There followed an eerie howl with paroxysms of pain, as the wolf writhed in misery. Oooo-Uhhhh! I can hear it and feel it in my bones even now, what with a similar event happening to me in Turkey while hunting Hungarian partridges. The other wolves milled around in confusion with the plight of their leader, and after a short period disappeared into the surrounding shrubbery to console the leader- they vanished!
My neighbor tells me that he was given this now-broken rifle, and that he kept it to show the prowess and courage of his Dad, who lived in this now forsaken part of the Alaskan Culture.

But what about the others in the Food Chain? The lower animals, down to the lowly bacteria and Krill- those gulped daily by the whales and others?


The fish eyed my lure warily, showing no inclination to envelope it;
He flicked his tail at me contemptuously, knowing that he was in a vastly different world from mine.
In return, I showed great admiration for his adroitness at avoiding my barbeque grill, but there was no social interaction there.
He was indeed cold-bloodied, perhaps with a dash of warmth for the oncoming spawn.
But he appeared to relish this significant time of his life, when he would make tremendous preparation for his moment of bloom and doom. He was at the apex of his existence.
I looked at his majestic form, and exhibited no wariness of my own, still expecting that my vastly larger nervous system would be superior.
We were both looking for an immediate satisfaction of our physical selves- perhaps a bit less slime for myself.
But while my digestive juices were waning, the salmon's desires were at their peak.
Without a salute, he was gone- back to the dark stillness of the deep. Back to primal instincts, but not for myself- I was filled with the joy of sensing my early self.
I remembered the time of my boyhood, when the ancient bowfin or grinnel entranced me.
How he would envelope my dough-ball, slyly pulling down my bait without so much as a signal on my line.
How he would fight, when he found that the treat was attached to a small boy- who would fight back.
But his mouth was soft, as was his entire body, and if you "caught" him, you had to eat him before the bacteria beat you. I would have a fire ready on the creek bank, and savor him immediately (or else give this "low class" fish to a similar class).
But not the salmon- he was at the top of the class, and men would fight to master him. He was indeed a champion.
And he remained so, as did the erudite one- the one with superior intellect and empty plate.

Now, I have to tell and retell the story, the story about Life (and Death) in the cold northland. And indeed I will, since it is embedded deep within my psyche. That’s Soul to you uninitiated, or those so old that they have not embraced the new Nomenclature.
Our ship continued to penetrate the dreary wastes of the land of Cold Life- the land where only a younger mortal could endure. Only those who had laid the groundwork from 50 years previously would appreciate the lure of the North- up to the land of Gold. My wife and I had felt that lure at our impressionable age- during 1959, with new statehood for the young area- which now encompassed more land than twice Texas. And it was taunted that if Alaska were divided, Texas would then become the third state in order of size.
We were new graduates from an unmentionable University in Texas, just embarking upon the venture into the life of the ambitious. Naively we made our plans to live off the land in the new State of Alaska. Unfortunately (or fortunately, viewed from the prism of practicality) we lost Heart after finding that only the US Government ran everything of importance there in those days. This took away all of the Spirit of Adventure, and doomed the effort to embark. Alas! That was the termination of the trek into the new Life of Promise!
And now (and only now) have we returned to the land of our dreams- now that the fires of Life are most extinguished, and the Testosterone Fuel is low. Now we can see the whole Entity- from the Porthole!
Further along the present voyage, we stopped at a port, where we could find a stream making its circuitous route down to the sea. One where salmon could make the reverse journey, one where Eagles, Grizzlies, and Osprey lurked- where the slightest deviation from the proscribed plan was doom for the Salmon pregnant with Life and Fat for the tortuous journey.
We began to see the muscular fish all aligned in the creek- all waiting, waiting for their mate, and for their Doom. These were Humpies (pinks) and Chum (dog salmon), who were not the best eating, but who would be relished by the waiting predators. If they could just outmaneuver the ever-waiting bears and eagles, for just a few days, they could disgorge their next generation, and then they could all die in peace, They could die for refurbishment of the rain forest, while tending the fertilized caviar, placed in shallow gravel beds. O’ just give them time, then their flesh could carry on the Divine Order!
The Order had already anticipated this orgy, and sufficient salmon had survived to the point of new birth, that the ones sacrificed to predators were minimal. The species could be successfully re-generated, with just half of those making this important journey having been fortunate enough to disgorge and fertilize. Life was assured!
Grizzlies and Eagles began to gorge and do their own survival routine, by using the resources of the dead and dying fish. Life was good, for both the higher animals and for the Salmon species, with the roe having been successfully planted in the gravel beds. Man could feel psychologically good also, for Not having interfered with this ancient order of things.
This is part of my Story of Alaska- the land of Gold (and Ghouls).

Slicing through the Tongass (Elderhostel, Malaspina, Sept 5-12/06

O’ my heart’s ever young, as the soggy trap’s sprung,
On the prowl to Lynn Canal- through the Tongass.
But you gotta lay waste all your plans to stay chaste,
When you feel the appeal of the Tongass.

For the Polaris North Star is never quite far,
When you’re verdure for the lure of Alaska;
When you re-live the days of the fifty-nine craze,
With a scheme and a dream of Alaska.

For the trek was not rational
To heed the mighty Need national
And head for a new state of mind.
But all Youth will eschew
The strong Drugs and sly Brew
Of their Elders, who succumb to the fashionable.

Now my years are seven-seven, and my Sourdough’s leaven
With the lure and the cure of the Tlingit.
But once more I stow gear, while abandoning the Fear
For a new state of mind, and likely dubious find (just a trinket).

O’ the hidden midnight sun, where the Muse has just begun
To lure me back, to an old squatter’s shack- in the Tongass.
Where I’m once more in my prime, livin’ a heady simple Time
Of Siskine- a river scene- in the Tongass.

\ Harold L. Overton