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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rain, Rain, Go Away

We all want to play - not just Little Arthur, as this illustration from William Wallace Denslow suggests. But May and June have been rainy months and our traditional view is that these are our DRY months, thus adding to our general sense of malaise. Our plans for golf and gardening and hiking are put off and those who look toward the future are already moaning about winter coming with no break from the weather. The best thing that can be said is that the weather - which affects all of us - is a unifying factor. The rain falls on all of us and I know no one who exults in it. We can't even say it is good for the farmers as we have none here. The nice thing about weather as a topic for conversation is that, unlike religion and politics, it excites no raging conflicts. The only rage is some fist shaking aimed toward the gray sky. The weather is testing our mettle, as usual. Perhaps that is why we have such an abundance of stamina here as well as vigorous character. So you see, the continual rainy weather is a good thing...

Monday, October 3, 2011


When I first saw the treeless island mountains of Unalaska and Dutch Harbor, all I could think of was the "terrible beauty" of Ireland. Unalaska is a magical place. Volcanic and covered in grasses and wildflowers, the islands rise straight up out of the Bering Sea. I caught my first sight of them at the end of the three hour flight from Anchorage. We came in with Pen Air, on a 30 passenger SAAB 340 twin engine where my head almost brushed the ceiling. When the plane started bucking on our approach, the only thing that kept me from yelling was not wanting to scare the little girl in the seat near me. (And keep in mind that Juneauites are used to "bumpy" approaches.)

I confess to ignorance about Unalaska. I hadn't known that Dutch Harbor is its international port. (And I don't understand why the airline destination is DUT for Dutch Harbor rather than an acronym for Unalaska.) As the sign below attests, Dutch Harbor is the #1 fishing port in the nation. Enormous amounts of fish are caught in the Bering Sea, processed in different ways and shipped out. Ever eat "krab?" Imitation crab is a form of surimi, a seafood product made in Dutch Harbor by workers from all over the world. While waiting for my return flight, I heard four other languages spoken besides English.

But Unalaska!  The hiking, fishing and birding opportunities there are world class. The community is lively, welcoming and engaging. I counted five beautifully equipped playgrounds for children - this for a population of 4,000. The Unalaska Junior/Senior High School just won the Blue Ribbon, a national achievement award! The hiking, fishing and birding opportunities are world class. Unalaska also has a rich and ancient history, as the Unangan (Aleut) people have lived there for at least 9,000 years. During World War II, during the Aleutian Islands Campaign, the battles with the Japanese over the Aleutian Islands, the US military evacuated the Unangan citizens to substandard camps, where many met with illness and for the most vulnerable, death.  Both the Museum of the Aleutians and the Aleutian World War II National Historic Site in Unalaska document this important history.

I love the way the houses nestle on the treeless hills.

I didn't take this photo, but this is what MY fox looked like!
The natural world is extraordinary. I was thrilled when I spotted a red fox one morning while it was still dark. When it ran in front of my car, I could see its plume of a tail so clearly. I had never seen one so close. When I told people about it in Unalaska, they were sanguine since it is a common sight there - and as winter approaches, the foxes start looking for garbage, like our black bears in Juneau. To me, seeing that fox was part of the magic of Unalaska - I felt so fortunate to have visited this remote part of Alaska.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Chilkoot River Brown Bears

Our family has been going to Haines for close to forty years to spend time in the summer near the Chilkoot River, about ten miles north of town. The lower corridor of the Chilkoot River was the site of the L'Koot (Tlingit) Village and is becoming an extremely popular bear watching area as it is on the road system. When I took my mother there, several weeks ago, we happened to arrive in the evening and within 20 minutes of driving off the ferry had seen nine bears. We saw a mother with three cubs, another mother with two cubs, and two other bears crossing at separate times in front of the car. As we drove along the road, we saw people strolling next to the river where the bears were catching fish twenty feet away from them, as if in a zoo with a plate glass window between them and the mother bears and their cubs. Unbelievable.

Look at the length of her claws! Photo taken by Amy Vlastelica
The next morning we saw even more bears - and many more people. I counted more than two hundred people who had arrived in large buses, in vans, on bicycles, in campers - all of them standing on the road along the river, holding cameras and grinning. You can't help grinning when brown bears are that close. It's a natural high. The viewers did maintain their distance, however, herded by the tour guides who cautioned them to avoid stressing the bears by getting too close.

How do the mother bears do it? For two to four years, they have to protect their cubs from the male bears who will kill and eat the cubs (somebody has to explain to me how that could possibly be a species survival strategy), feed them, teach them to fish and forage and survive. And keep them from drowning, falling off a cliff, starving, or getting shot - just plain keep them alive. 

Bear cubs like to play as much as any young creature. We watched as one of the the mothers fished in the swiftly flowing river, while her cubs played by the shore, tussling with each other, until they would get caught up in the current and float by us, their little bear heads held up high. It made me laugh. Apparently, it happened often enough that it was no cause for alarm to the mother, who didn't even look up.

Despite the crowds watching and the number of bears who show up every summer, there have been no incidents of injury to people. Although the bears seem oblivious, they also react by moving quickly when people get too close, a reminder that they can run up to 35 miles per hour. Their strength and speed and aggressiveness make them formidable inhabitants of the world we all share.

Note the collar used for tracking her. Photo taken by Amy Vlastelica

A group in Haines has established an organization, The Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation, in reponse to the growing numbers of visitors to the bear viewing grounds. Check it out.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Wedding Reading for My Daughter

Wedding cake toppers used in our family for three generations.

Several people asked for a copy of what I had written for my daughter and son-in-law's wedding ceremony recently in Juneau. So I've posted it here on my blog.

Not much can make a parent happier than being asked to participate in a daughter’s wedding ceremony. Sarah and Mitch asked me to say a few words about marriage and I feel honored that they have widened their circle to allow us to be a part of this sacred ceremony. Because sacred it is. Marriage is a step that people take that declares their intention to create and enter into a safe harbor - one that allows them to continue to grow as human beings.   

A wise person once said that marriage is:
“A lifetime commitment to constantly provide emotional intimacy to your spouse, thereby uncovering your true self and, ultimately, your unique purpose for being created.”

I have learned many things in 36 years of marriage and I know (at least I hope) that I have much more learning ahead of me.  We’ve all seen or perhaps experienced some of the worst and the best of what marriage can offer.

At its best, it can be a place where we can be our most vulnerable and can learn to be our strongest, where we can be our most authentic self, where we can be most at home and where ultimately, within that sacred space, we can the manifest the purpose that we were born with.
I believe that Sarah and Mitch each have their own purposes.  When I see them together, taking their union seriously, I know that they each have the other’s best interests at heart, and that they will nurture and challenge, support and steady each other, helping to manifest what each of them was born to do here.

As parents, we not only want our children to be happy, we want them to take their place on the stage of life and share their unique gifts with the world. A good marriage, the kind of marriage I believe they will share, will facilitate this, to their benefit and to the delight and benefit of us all.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Making a Movie about a Psychopath in Alaska

More than a year ago, I created this blog to reflect on the state where I live and what happens here. Most of what I write about is triggered by delight or curiosity or a sense of wonder. But what I'm writing about today was triggered by a rush of negative feelings a few days ago when I read in the Anchorage Daily News that there are plans to film a movie in Alaska about the Anchorage serial killer, Robert Christian Hansen, a baker who preyed on women as if they were game. Worse than game. You don't rape and torture game before killing it. He flew his victims in a small plane into the wilderness and then hunted them down. I was here when the Butcher Baker was active in the 70s and 80s and may even have crossed his path unknowingly. Alaska is a small state. And there are many people still here who bought doughnuts from him, and others who discovered that they knew his victims - he confessed to 17 murders. Some people think there were more. He was tried and convicted in 1984 and he may have been abducting, torturing, raping and killing women for 10 years by then.

OK, so back to those feelings about a movie being made: disgust, anger, and yes, fear. How can making a movie about a psychopathic killer who took pleasure in killing women improve the human condition at all? Would it be a cautionary tale? Don't trust anyone, especially someone with a plane who wants to fly you into a remote place? Don't become a prostitute or a stripper because that makes you a target? Sadly, as women, we already know that we are targets from the time we are very young.

And yet, I used to write murder mysteries myself and still enjoy occasionally reading one. So am I a hypocrite? I also believe in artistic freedom and abhor censorship. I am caught wondering what is the function of art anyway?

So could this film about a serial killer who killed with such an absence of humanity make a positive difference in the world? By reassuring us that killers are always caught? That good triumphs over evil? That some men protect women from other men who like to kill women? Or might we learn that men who are bullied by their fathers as Hansen was turn out badly? I could see that boys watching this film might identify with the Trooper. Boys do have wonderfully protective hearts that can be encouraged by good role modeling. But who could the girls identify with? The murder victims who were terrorized before they died? I don't even like to think about that.

The idea of this movie is troubling, not least because it sullies for me in such a vile way the beautiful wilderness of Alaska and the unique ways we get around it in small planes. I want to say that this is NOT who we are, this is not us.

This is who we are:

Like I said, a rush of feelings.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Googling in Juneau

OK, so who wouldn't be thrilled to see the Google Car driving toward you on your street with its space age camera?

The delivery guy and I were jockeying for position to take pictures of it. When we talked to the driver who was clearly used to the attention, he only asked that we not take pictures of him. He said he had been on too many Facebook pages. No problem, I said. I wasn't thinking of Facebook anyway. This is blog material!

So, this is not the first time that the Google car has been to Juneau because I remember seeing our house on Google Maps Street View back before almost any other place in Alaska had been mapped. It was a strange phenomenon then. And now? We almost expect it. We would feel affronted if all of our streets were not mapped. Yet, do you remember the privacy concerns then? I don't hear those anymore. But some people still find it an invasion of privacy and sort of creepy. For many of us, it has become just another tool. And we now expect more. They even mapped the tiniest roads in Haines, population 1,811 people. I suspect they haven't made it to the villages yet - prohibitive in terms of getting a car to a roadless place - but that is probably not far off. We live in a time of wonders that soon become commonplace.

Look at that camera. I can't even begin to imagine how it works to take photos up and down and all round to form a whole. And yet, it does. (And why couldn't someone just carry that on a small plane into a village? And attach it to a four wheeler and drive around. Just wondering.)

You get a better look at the amazing camera this way. And I only took a picture of the driver's arm, not his face. See, I kept my promise to him. And anyway, when you take a job like this one, you have to realize that you are a kind of rock star to the nerdiest among us and you have to accept that if you take pictures of us, we get to take pictures of you. Fair is fair.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Stairway to Heaven?

One day recently I watched as two women with a clipboard examined the staircase across from our house. Being naturally curious (nosy), I wandered over and asked them what they were doing. Counting stairs, they said. What a great idea, I thought. We have so many stairs in Juneau. Why shouldn't someone count them?

Do you work for the city, I asked. No, they shook their heads. That silenced me. They didn't offer an explanation right then. Very friendly, they were. Well, I thought I should help them so pointed out stairs they might have missed. The one near the Youth Hostel that brings you up to another street right next to an astonishing rock garden? Yes, they found that one. The one at the top of Starr Hill that leads even FURTHER up the mountain? Yes, they got that one. After all, they had canvassed downtown three times now in their efforts to count them all. Three times??? What about the ones on South Franklin that the bears used to startle tourists? (Perhaps not on purpose.) Oh yes, they had found all of those. In fact, they said, now that they had counted all of the stairs, they had decided to start counting steps between stairs.

Wow, I love this kind of research. You get to be outside, explore, notice everything, and best of all, you can carry a clipboard! They were doing it for fun. FUN. So often we think about an extrinsic reward as a motivation. We work to get paid. We fix up a house to sell it. We make a speech so that people will praise us. The truth is that there is no motivation stronger than what is inside of us. Check out for what Daniel Pink has to say about what really motivates us. It isn't what we think.

Back to my counting friends. They looked so happy, having counted all of the stairs. It was obvious that their project had given them a great deal of pleasure and having completed that, were on to counting the steps between the stairs. Oh, and before I forget - they counted over 1,200 stairs on staircases in downtown Juneau.