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The dominant group in the western Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutians is the Aleut Indians. The Aleuts came over the Bering Land Bridge, liked what they saw right there at its base and stayed, making a living from the rich seas and harsh lands of western Alaska. For linguistic purposes, Aleuts are split into western, central, and eastern branches, but the language differences are dialectical and, unlike the Koniags (the other coastal Eskimo group), an Aleut from Attu can understand another from Chignik.
When the Russians first arrived in the area, they applied the term "Aleut" indiscriminately to every native they found. Because of this usage, which survives to modern times, the coastal Koniag Eskimos were also lumped into the "Aleut" category, despite the fact of their being from quite a different group, speaking an entirely different language. Physical differences are less marked. Athabaskan Indians also inhabited large parts of Southcentral, though they were not dominant along the coast.
Before the arrival of the Russians, Aleut culture thrived. They hunted from baidarka (animal skin kayaks) for whale, seal, sea lion, and otter, using tools made from bone and stone. Their clothing was made from animal intestines, which made it waterproof.
Aleut dwellings were communal and, usually, subterranean, covered with the excellent insulation of growing grass. Some of these underground houses are said to have been as large as 250 feet long. The houses had hatches in the ceiling to allow light in and smoke out; the ceiling was often held in place by rafters of whalebone, instead of scarce timber. Windowswere made of translucent panes of otter intestine. In the hierarchy of society, the back of the house was always reserved for the most respected member of the dwelling. The Russians weren't very impressed with all this: "What is more revolting than all else is the filth around their huts, for the islanders do not go far away to do anything--and this gives one a very bad impression of their tidiness."
But while the Russians were out shivering in wool and living in houses entirely unadapted to local conditions, the Aleuts and Koniags were pretty comfy. In addition to the clothes made of intestines, the Aleuts had developed highly decorated and very practical garments. Parkas were made of sea otter skin or bird skin with the feathers worn on the inside, and so the down coat was invented. It took about 40 tufted puffins to make one parka, but cormorants were preferred for style and comfort. Aleut men wore wooden hats, shaped somewhat like a limpet shell, heavily decorated to show status and place in the community. The hats were especially important during visits to other villages. They also shielded the eyes to prevent the social gaffe of looking directly into someone's eyes (even the Russians noted how incredibly polite the Aleuts were, and how well their society ran). The Aleuts also wore complicated tattoos and labrets, small decorated ivory pieces stuck into the lips and cheeks.
In the eastern and central Aleutians, burial was usually by mummification. The deceased was buried with everything needed for the next life, from a baidarka and tools, to mats and eating utensils.
According to G.I. Davydov, who traveled the coast in 1802-1807 (an excellent translation of his voyage account is available from the Limestone Press), the coastal natives were fond of games, fairly indifferent to suffering, and extremely curious, always on the lookout for something new and diverting.
How badly the Aleuts fared when the Russians arrived is recounted elsewhere in this book. Davydov mentions that as of his trip, nobody had bothered to be interested enough in the locals to even make a collection of simple artifacts.
Here, suffice it to say that on August 21, 1732, when the Russian ship SV Gavrill headed for the "large country" they'd heard about (in an expedition that, incidentally, established that there was water dividing Alaska and Asia, fueling hopes for a Northwest Passage), the Aleut world came to a crashing end.
There are very, very few full-blooded Aleuts left today. The population was nearly destroyed by the Russian and U.S. exploitation of their hunting grounds, and it has been a long, slow road back. The Aleuts are back, however. The native corporations are helping the increasingly organized villages take care of business and fend off the outside world. With so much land in some of the richest fishing ports in the world, many of the villages are thriving--the Aleut village of Sand Point has one of the highest per capita incomes in the U.S.
Although smaller tribes of Indians abounded in the Alexander Archipelago--Tsimshian, Nootka, Samish, Bella Coola--Southeast Alaska was dominated by two groups of Indians, the Tlingit and the Haida. The Tlingit controlled trade routes well into what is now the Yukon, while the Haida largely stayed to the southern coastal regions--about the only place on the highway that you're in what was once Haida territory is around Prince Rupert.
It's pronounced KLINK-it by Americans. The actual native pronunciation of the word is closer to Khling-GET, but the sounds involved are unfamiliar to English speakers and the odds of saying it correctly are about zero.
As a general rule, the Haida occupied the southern reaches, from the Queen Charlotte Islands to the Ketchikan area, while the Tlingit lived on the islands farther north, as well as the inland areas of Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia.
Culturally, the Tlingit and the Haida are remarkably similar. Blessed with living in a naturally rich area, they dined well on deer, bear, seal, otter, duck, and five varieties of salmon. Bushes hung low with fat berries ripe for picking. Survival was never a problem--there was no word in the Tlingit language for starvation, but there was the traditional saying: "when the tide's out, the table's set," reflecting the rich variety of sea life in the local diet.
Making use of time that most cultures had to spend searching for food, the cultures of the Tlingit and Haida developed in some amazingly complex ways.
Southeastern society was extremely hierarchical. Villages were headed by a chief (in the case of the Haida, up to four chiefs oversaw a single village). Everyone in the community had a particular rank in life, almost a caste. There was free mixing among the ranks in daily life, but there was little intermarriage between the low and high strata of society. Chieftainship was hereditary, usually passed from the current chief to a nephew. But being chief had few material benefits. Chiefs had no power to order the villagers to work on their behalf and, indeed, paid more for services because of their high rank.
Until European contact (and, some historians maintain, until well after), both the Tlingit and the Haida kept slaves, although only the higher ranks were allowed slave ownership. Slaves were usually obtained from captives of the many battles that raged among the villages; however, if you were born to a slave family, you would remain a slave.
The battles tended to be fought over trade routes. Trade in Southeast was rich long before the coming of the Europeans (who continued fighting over exactly the same trade routes). Again, the Tlingit controlled the northern routes, the Haida the southern.
Home life revolved around communal dwellings. Haida structures averaged 100 feet by 75 feet. Inside, there was little "furniture." Possessions were kept in bentwood boxes, decorated with totemic designs. Cooking was done in containers made of spruce-fiber; most food was boiled. Clothes were also often made of plant fibers, including cedar tree bark and spruce root. Special occasion wardrobes were made of otter, seal, and marten fur.
Within the hierarchical structure, a village was further organized around a dual structure of clan and totem. Clan was extended family. Totem was a little more complicated, and assured a genetically mixed village. One could not marry within one's own totem. Totems were distinguished by an animal sign: bear, eagle, raven, and whale are the most commonly seen in totemic design. Children became part of the same totem as their mother.
Totemic design defines the highly geometric, starkly black and red art that the natives used to decorate their homes, canoes, and blankets. It's a kind of cubism, flattening out drawings of animals, with an iconography of every gesture and posture. The art of the coastal Indians is as sophisticated as the most detailed architectural drawing, while simultaneously looking as modern and spontaneous as a Picasso.
Contrary to popular opinion, totem poles were never objects of worship. They were a heraldic emblem as well as a method of storytelling, a means of keeping a community memory. Although the poles used common elements and figures, any attempt to "read" a totem is possible only if you know the family and the story the pole commemorates. Usually this is possible only if there were written records of the pole raising, or if a member of the family that commissioned the pole still exists.
Poles were usually erected after a family had achieved some measure of economic success. Part of the fun of raising a pole was to show off to the neighbors. The largest poles were reserved for chiefs of extended family groups and those of higher social ranks.
Totem pole carvers were among the highest-status residents of coastal Alaska. They were tested on their knowledge of religion and mythology, as well as their carving experience, before being retained to carve a pole. They were welcomed in every village, enjoyed unrestricted freedom to travel, and were often wealthier and more famous than tribal chiefs. The downside of being a carver was that, if you made a mistake, you could be put to death.
Carvers were apprenticed when young, and they were expected to have the spiritual abilities of a shaman. Although the poles were not religious in nature, their importance to the community required a great deal of sensitivity and stamina: larger memorial poles could take over a year to carve.
Poles were invariably carved of cedar wood; larger poles were often hollowed first to make them more manageable. Tools, before European contact, were made of stone or bone. In the farther northern reaches of the pole-carving cultures, hammered copper was used.
Poles were not brightly colored. Because of the nature of cedar wood, which must be able to "breathe," painting the pole was the first step to destroying it. Native carvers used simple pigments made of plant materials, charcoal, and some oxides. Few colors other than black, red, and blue were used, and poles were seldom entirely painted. Instead, the colors were used as accents, and many poles were not painted at all.
Poles fall into seven basic types.
Memorial poles were erected to honor a deceased chief. These were heraldic in nature and were considered the finest of all poles. Very few examples remain in a well-preserved state.
Grave figures are the most numerous of poles. Smaller than memorial poles, they showed the totemic figure of the deceased, identifying the grave site as that of a certain branch of a clan.
House posts and pillars were probably the first type of pole developed, springing from the design of the long houses used along the Pacific Coast. The houses in this area were heavily decorated inside and out, and the posts and pillars were part of the adornments. Most of these disappeared with the houses, but they were once probably more numerous than the grave poles. The only limit to the use of house posts was the wealth of the owner and the space available.
* Similar to the house post was the house front, or portal pole. This was purely a measure of status, fronting a house to show who lived there by incorporating the family's crest or totemic figures.
Welcoming poles were erected by the waterfront. These were usually unpainted, and in old pictures of villages in Southeast you'll see these standing in pairs. They were often constructed just for the occasion of a potlatch, or a large tribal gathering.
Mortuary poles are related to the grave figures, but are considerably rarer. Only the Haida made general use of these poles, which were erected at a memorial potlatch.
There were the special poles that didn't fit into the above categories. These could tell stories of a successful hunt, but more often they were erected by chiefs out for revenge. The poles were designed to ridicule a specific person or group; considering the cost and difficulties of creating a pole, it's easy to imagine just how mad you'd have to be to put up a ridicule pole.
Poles were a vital part of coastal culture. A single village might have a hundred poles, and the raising of one was always a cause for celebration. A singer was hired to relate the history of the family and to narrate their accomplishments. The singer also hired and trained dancers to perform at the pole raising. Despite stories to the contrary, slaves were not sacrificed to the pole, nor buried beneath the base. Only a single skeleton has ever been found under a pole.
Despite the joy at their raising, poles were not necessarily meant to last; when their function was done, poles were allowed to fall into disrepair. The settlement of Alaska by Europeans forced many native villages to move, and the poles were left behind to rot. When hiking in remote areas, one sometimes encounters a moss-covered tree with a face--it's an old pole, turning into forest mulch.
Pole raising often coincided with a potlatch. This term is a corruption of the Nootka word patshatl, meaning gift. Potlatches are famous in story as an opportunity for a family to give away all its possessions, showing its wealth, but they were a lot more complicated than that. A potlatch was given only with extreme protocol. Guests arrived on the shore in order, according to their status and rank. They were greeted by their hosts with great display. Then the feasting, which could last for several days, began. The pole raising was the height of the celebration. After the pole's story was told, the singing and the dancing finished, the gift-giving began. Gifts were carefully selected. An improper gift could be given as a purposeful insult and could lead to war. The generous spirit of the potlatch was not well understood by Europeans and the qualities of the poles were not generally appreciated. In 1884, Canadian law forbade potlatch ceremonies. This was merely another nail in the coffin for local villages.
Archeologists and anthropologists have done a remarkable job finding and preserving poles, but taken out of context they lose some of their beauty and become nothing more than museum pieces. Many such pieces suffer from the fact that early European efforts to preserve poles involved painting them, and so hastened the destruction.
After decades of neglect, totem carving is making a comeback. There are trained carvers working in several communities in BC and along the Alaskan coast, and the tradition is being revitalized with the incorporation of modern elements into standard designs.
TLINGIT RAVEN LEGENDS
According to the Tlingits, the raven is credited with stealing sunlight. At the time the world was created, it was all dark. The raven set out to obtain light, which was held jealously by a rich man. The raven seduced the rich man's daughter, and the resulting child was doted upon by the grandfather. The child began asking for larger and larger things. The stars were put into the sky at his request. Finally, the child made a grab for the sunlight, changed into a raven form, and delivered the sun to his father. In the earliest times, according to the legends, the raven was white. He earned his blackness when another scheme backfired. Escaping from a hut as he tried to steal water, he got stuck in the smoke hole. The smoke hole spirits held him there until his color had changed, and only then did they release him. There is also a raven story that is analogous to that of the biblical flood. The raven became curious about what was under the sea, so he had the Woman Under the Earth raise the waters so he could get a good look. The waters were raised slowly, so that the people could escape in their canoes.
Although the raven was the hero of most of their stories, the Tlingits were highly practical people as well. Their legends include this story about the first mosquito:
The sister to the chief was told she would never have children. Soon thereafter, however, she found herself pregnant. The fetus grew at an unnatural speed and was born after mere weeks. When he arrived, the child was covered with hair and had sharp teeth. His evil nature was proven when he was found killing animals for pleasure, not out of necessity. But, because he was the chief's nephew, nothing could be done. Finally, the chief himself got worried and fought the demon-child. The chief cut the demon with his knife, but no blood came out. Determined to rid his village of the evil, the chief began to wrestle with the demon. All night they wrestled. At the end of the battle, the chief managed to throw the demon into the fire, but the demon wasn't dead yet. From the fire came a voice declaring that the demon would drink the chief's blood for a thousand years. Ashes rose from the fire, and each ash became a mosquito.
At night, by your campfire, you may wonder how many of the thousand years are left!
Keep your camera ready, because this is where the North really shines.
Driving the highway, you've got an excellent chance of seeing moose, black bear, grizzly bear, Dall sheep, stone sheep, mountain goats, wolves, fox, beaver, deer, elk, and caribou, not to mention a host of smaller mammals, without ever leaving your car. The streams and lakes are teeming with king salmon, sockeye, Dolly Varden, grayling, char, and trout. In the sky, there are more than 400 species of birds: sandhill cranes, endless varieties of ducks and geese, the ubiquitous raven, and the near-legendary yellow-bellied sapsucker. Any time you stop for a picnic, a magpie is likely to land on the table and steal food. Bald eagles are so common in some cities that the locals don't even notice them.
Throughout this book, we have noted areas where you stand a good chance of seeing wildlife, be it caribou, bison, eagles, or bears. An in-margin icon indicates these spots. But it's best to be ready anywhere; animals go where they want to go. That's part of the fun of being a wild animal. Whittier has had bears inside its high school; Anchorage has moose warnings on major streets.
Catching A Glimpse
What you will see of this amazing variety of fauna is largely a matter of luck, partly a matter of timing, and partly a matter of looking in the right places and being able to see the moose hiding in the brush. But keep in mind that no matter where an animal is supposed to be, it's always going to be where it wants to be.
Traditional wisdom says that the bigger animals come out in the early morning and late evening. In the far North in the summertime, 5 to 8 am and 7 to 10 pm are prime animal-spotting hours. On the highway, these times are good because there are fewer cars to scare the animals off.
Traditional wisdom also says to keep a close eye out by water, where animals go to feed. The banks of ponds, streams, and lakes are great spots to see bears.
WARNING: The best way to see animals is from the comfort of your car. The signs saying "Moose Area" or "Caribou Area" are not jokes. The entire outskirts of Anchorage suffer from the road hazard of wandering moose. In a confrontation with a moose, both the moose and your car will lose, so drive with caution. All along the Kenai, you'll see signs of how many moose/car confrontations there were in the past winter; a number under 200 for any given town is a pretty good year.
The car is also your safest viewing place. The number one rule for safe animal viewing is this: Never get out of your car to follow an animal.
There are three simple reasons for this: first, as long as you're in your car, the animal isn't going to think you are food. Get out on foot, and guess what, you're back in the food chain, and you're a whole lot lower down on it than you're used to being. Even if they don't want you for food, you might set off their defensive mode. Every year people are attacked by moose. Invariably, the moose wins. Bambi does not live in the North.
Second, and a bit less extreme, is that even opening your car door might cause the animal to flee. Should you follow, you are endangering the animal's survival by taking it from its food source and possibly from its young, and by making it burn valuable calories. This is a crime, subject to arrest and fines. If you see someone hassling wildlife, take down the plate numbers and report them at the next ranger station.
Finally, you are depriving others of a chance to see the animal.
Never forget that these animals are wild and interested only in their own survival.
When you spot an animal, pull your car slowly to the side of the road. A Canadian Park Ranger told us that the biggest danger on the Alaska Highway is from people who do not follow this advice, thus causing accidents. Yeah, sure, park your car dead center in the road to gawk. The animals might get a kick out of watching a serious collision. It's more exciting for everybody to see a bear than to come around a corner and find someone stopped in the center of the road trying to watch a bear. So get your car off the road, and then shut off the engine. Make no sudden moves or sounds. Remember that you are invading the animal's home, and that its rights are foremost. The quieter you are, the more likely it is that the animal will look you over for a moment and then go back about its business, leaving you plenty of time for photos.
Never feed an animal (except the mosquitoes; there isn't much you can do about that), and keep all food at your campsite in scent-proof containers to discourage the curious. At all times, treat animals with respect; they, in turn, will treat you to a look at the beauty and the power of nature.
To keep track of Alaska's wildlife and the threats it faces, join the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, PO Box 202022, Anchorage, AK 99520. They've been fighting the good fight for more than 15 years.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game produces an excellent brochure, "Southeast Alaska: Guidelines for Wildlife Viewing." Its most valuable chapter explains how to tell when you're too close to an animal and need to back off. Again, remember that bothering animals is against state law, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Help the Fish and Game people protect the wildlife by reporting violators, especially boats that chase down whales. Get the number of the vessel, take a picture, and make them pay for disrupting wildlife.
The three most common animals along the Alaska Highway are the moose, the bear, and the mosquito. Perhaps the most sought-after is the wolf.
Moose are the largest members of the deer family, and the Alaska moose is the largest of all the moose subspecies: they stand from five to seven feet high at the shoulder, and the antlers, which grow only on the male, can measure six feet from tip to tip. Covered in thick, coarse brown fur, most people think moose are ungainly looking animals, but they can move with surprising grace and amazing speed, and we think they have a great amount of a kind of Zen dignity.
Moose are grazing animals, eating twigs, bark, grasses, moss, and water lilies. Willow is one of their favorite foods. Sometimes you can see where moose have been through because there will be a "hedge line"--all the plants cropped off at an even height.
Although moose live in small groups in the winter, during the summer months they tend to live alone, and the males are rarely sighted down from the mountains.
Moose breed in the fall. The males go through a fairly elaborate jousting routine, putting their antlers to good use while they try to establish dominance. Gestation period is about 240 days, with the calves born in May and June. Twin calves are not uncommon, and sometimes there are triplets.
More people are injured by moose than by any other wild mammal in the Americas. The only other large mammal in the world that can cause as much damage (besides people themselves) are the hippos of Africa. Moose are very territorial and protective, especially of their young. They are larger than you think, and their hooves are very sharp. Never think of a moose as a big, harmless galoot. Sit and watch them all you want, but do it from a safe distance. Only an idiot with a death wish tries to sneak up on a moose.
If the moose comes at you, run. This is the exact opposite of the advice for bear encounters. Moose just want you out of their territory. If they see you running away, they'll likely go back about their business.
We had a moose charge us once when we were on a motorcycle in Alaska. We came around a corner, and she was eating willows by the side of the road. She didn't know what a motorcycle was, but she was protecting her calf, and she was sure we were a threat; on our part, we were desperately trying to get the bike turned around and get out of there before she killed us. Seeing a moose, hackles raised, coming at you is not something you want to experience. Do not wait to discover what the moose breath feels like. Run. Run like you have never run before.
There's nothing quite like seeing a grizzly or a black bear walking in the woods or along the shore of a lake or stream hunting for fish. Or better yet, leaping into the water and coming up soaking wet, shaking itself.
Brown bears, or grizzlies, are rarer and considerably larger than their cousins, the blacks. Your odds of seeing a grizzly along the highway anywhere but inside Denali Park are minimal. There are quite a few on the islands. Kodiak Island is famous for its huge bears, some more than 10 feet tall, and Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska, near Juneau, has more bears than people. Grizzlies average seven to nine feet long, with males ranging from 400 to 1,100 pounds. Females run about 20% smaller. Brown bears can range from dark brown to blonde in color; the easiest way to distinguish them is by their hump on the back, just behind the head. Brown bears have a life expectancy of about 20 years in the wild.
These bears are bigger and faster and more dexterous than you can imagine. There is no thrill quite like watching a grizzly eat a fish, its claws moving as delicately as a pair of chopsticks. You can find t-shirts in some of the roadside shops in Alaska that show a grizzly paw the size of a dinner plate; the caption says "Actual Size," and it's not a joke. The biggest grizzly track we've found was 17 inches long, heel to pug. And that was in a place where there weren't really big bears.
Black bears are more common. You're almost sure to see at least one black bear (if not a lot more) along the highway. They range from three to five feet in length and weigh from 150 to 400 pounds. A good-sized black bear is easily mistaken for a brown bear because black bears are not necessarily black; their color can range from black to very light brown. In fact, two kinds of black bears are actually white: the kermodie, found around Princess Royal Island in British Columbia and around the junction of the Cassiar and the Yellowhead highways near Kitwanga, as well as the the gray-blue glacier bear, found near Yakutat.
Bear populations vary widely, depending on what the environment has to offer. Around Anan Bear Observatory, there are more than a hundred bears, living off the rich salmon stream; by contrast, at the North Slope, there may be only one bear (polar, this far north) per 300 miles. The average in the productive southern areas of the state in all the coastal regions served by the ferry, except the Aleutians, is maybe one bear per 15-23 square miles. Obviously, territories overlap, and a lot of bears may be sharing the same food reserves.
The life cycle of browns and blacks is similar. Cubs (one or two, very occasionally three) are born during the mother's hibernation. Black bear cubs weigh only a few ounces at birth, and their birth may not even wake the mother. They attach themselves to a teat, and mother keeps on sleeping.
In his 1555 book, A Description of the Northern Peoples, Olaus Magnus wrote that the "she-bear, a creature full of wiles, gives birth to shapeless cubs, which she licks with her tongue into a form like her own." Imagine a world full of such marvels.
Rising from hibernation, the bears spend the first week or two not quite awake. Their metabolism, shut down during the winter, is still pretty slow. They come out of their dens, dig up a few skunk cabbage tubers (which act as a laxative, helping to get things running again after the long sleep), and then go back to sleep for a while longer.
The bulk of the summer is spent eating, exploring, and teaching the young bears what they need to know. Bears are very playful and, while not particularly social, cubs can have a great time with each other.
Come fall and the first touch of colder weather, the bears seem to enter a kind of frantic mood, as they try to pack on enough fat to last them through the winter. They move down to salmon streams and start to gorge themselves on the return. A bear can eat part of 50 fish a day--stomach, brains, some skin, the roe, the parts with the most fat--leaving the rest behind for birds to scavenge.
Come winter, the bears hole up in their dens. One of the last things they do before hibernating is eat some clay if it's available--sometimes you'll see scratch marks in clay banks, where a bear has tried to find some better tasting clay. This is thought to help plug up the digestive tract for the winter.
Bears are omnivorous--they will eat anything. They are also highly intelligent and extremely curious. And, when threatened, surprised, or angered, they are extremely dangerous.
While virtually every story you've ever heard about bear attacks is likely to be untrue, you do not want to mess with bears in the wild. They are not like Yogi waiting to steal a picnic basket. They're animals with jaws strong enough to take off your leg, and if you provoke one, it will react.
However, the bears really have no interest in you at all. In fact, they're usually appalled that you're even there, and most of the time they'll do anything they can to get away from you. This makes it fairly easy to stay safe. All you have to do is make sure the bear sees you first. To avoid untoward encounters with bears, there are a few simple precautions you should take.