Now years later my husband and I get the chance to go and I find myself having trouble describing the journey and what we found there. The cruise was luxurious and elegant - at times transporting us back to the 1920s and 30s when ships were the only mode of transportation outside the continental USA. Views from our deck were glorious, the food delicious, and the ballroom dancing to a live orchestra, a special anachronistic treat.
Arriving in Alaska we were in some ways visiting the past, small towns with few to no roads, where boats and small planes were the most common form of transportation. On our trip to a glacier we participated in dog sledding, an experience of the past that is still viable today, moving supplies and people from one place to another through the long icy winter. The helicopter we took to get to the glacier was the somewhat scary but beautiful contemporary part of our journey.
Through a native carver working in the back of a souvenir shop in Juneau, I learned something of the local indigenous culture, about the Raven and Eagle symbols quite ubiquitous in Alaska's public art. These totems are clan symbols of some of Alaska's first peoples. He explained that one must always marry someone from the other group. He spoke of the integration of Christianity into the indigenous cultures, in this case, the Russian Orthodox variety, as Russia occupied Alaska before they sold it to the US. Of course while Seward was buying and Russia was selling Alaska, any claims the First Nation people had to the land were totally ignored. But I was pleased to see that this fact was not ignored in travel brochures and tour guide speeches. And now, Alaskan native hunting fishing and gathering activities, (known as "subsistence" in Alaska) have a priority on federal lands. Rural people, whether native or not, can live off the land if they consume the bounty of what they acquire. They cannot sell what they shoot, catch, or collect.
Hints of the future were present as well. Since most of Alaska doesn't participate in a large electrical grid, we observed other options. On a rail trip to the interior we saw railroad crossing lights fueled by small windmills and solar panels feeding trunk-size generators. The Athabaskan woman we met at the Denali National Park spoke of the changes in the life style of four generations of her family and of things that have stayed the same. Members of her 200-person village still hunt and fish as their ancestors did, but now in her generation, the bounty goes in the freezer to get them through the winter. And learning that she has access to the Internet she and I and several other women discussed the possibility of connecting, perhaps through the park website, to purchase baskets created by the women of her village. A park ranger, overhearing our conversation agreed this would be a good idea and offered to help that happen.