Origins: Alaska - #117

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

Fragments of the earth’s crust drifted together to form Alaska.  And they are still very much in the process of drifting and forming.  And what they have formed is already the largest state in the United States of America.  It’s twice as large as Texas and has fifty percent more coastline than all the states in the lower 48 put together.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The native tribes who lived here along the southern coast of Alaska had actually developed a rather capitalist society.  They believed that each family should own their own goods and encourage the family to pursue their own individual economic goals.  Amongst the Tlingits, the more stuff you had the more respected you were and the more privileges you received from the society.  America was really early into this entrepreneur thing.

The Spanish were probably the first Europeans to explore this coast, but the Russians were the first to try and take control.  The Russians showed up in 1741.  Actually, it wasn’t really a Russian.  It was a Dane named Vitus Bering who worked for the Russians, and eventually lent his name to the Bering Straits.  When his crew got back to Russia, they showed everybody the sea otter pelts that they had acquired -- skins that were immediately judged to be the finest fur that anyone in Russia had ever seen.  That did it.  The exploration and the exploitation of Alaska was underway.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The word Alaska comes from a native phrase that means “the object towards which the actions of the sea are directed.”  But it wasn’t only the Russians who were directing their actions towards Alaska.  The British were beginning to nose around.  Captain James Cook came through in 1778 and picked up a few otter skins of his own.  And to make matters even worse, the Spanish were thinking about coming back.  They’d been down in Los Angeles, and when they realized that the movie business wasn’t going to begin for another hundred years, they started moving up along the coast to see what was happening here.

Sure, Alaska was beautiful, and the sea otters made a great fashion statement, but by the 1860s Russia wanted out.  Well, actually what they wanted was to sell out before somebody just took Alaska away from them without making a payment.

A Russian agent went to see William Seward, who was then the U.S. Secretary of State, and somehow convinced him that buying Alaska was the deal of a lifetime.  And at 7.2 million dollars -- or 2 cents per acre -- it was.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For hundreds of years, the Gastineau Channel along the southern coast of Alaska was a quiet fishing ground for the local Tlingit tribes.  All that changed in 1880 when a Sitka mining engineer offered a reward for any tribal chief who could bring him a piece of gold-bearing ore and show him where that ore came from.  A Tlingit clan elder by the name of Kowee brought in the sought-after sample, and George sent a couple of prospectors down to check out the location.  One of them kept a diary that has the following entry:  “We knew it was gold, but we were surprised to see so much of it, and not in particles -- in large streaks running through the rock and in lumps as large as peas and beans.”  I like these guys.  Not only did they know about gold, they were into good eating.

Their names were Richard Harris and Joe Juneau.  They staked a 160-acre townsite and the gold rush was on.  Originally the town was called Harrisburg, apparently because Harris could read and write and Juneau couldn’t, so Harris did the recording of the claim.  Eventually, however, Juneau got his name back.

Unlike many gold rush towns, Juneau survived and even prospered after the gold rush was over.  Today it is the state capitol of Alaska, and home to about 30,000 residents.  Juneau is on the small side in terms of the number of people who live here, but in terms of area it is actually the largest town in North America and second largest in the world.  It covers 3,108 square miles.  The city clings to the base of two mountains that top out at over 3,500 feet above sea level and literally lock Juneau into its waterfront cove.

There are no roads or rail links into Juneau.  If you’re coming in or going out, it’s by plane or boat.  The boat part is particularly important.  Each summer almost half a million visitors come to Juneau on cruise ships.  Fortunately, they don’t all come at the same time the way the gold prospectors did in the 1800s.

As a tourist there are a number of things of interest in Juneau.

The easiest access to a spectacular view of the area is from the Mt. Roberts Tramway.  Its base is right in front of the dock where the cruise ships tie up, and its top is 1,750 feet above... overlooking Juneau and the Gastineau Channel.

For me, the single most interesting place in Juneau is the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church.  It was constructed in 1894 at the request of a Tlingit chief, and stands as one of the oldest original Orthodox churches in Alaska.  Subdeacon Basil welcomes visitors and explains the history and meaning of the structure.

SUBDEACON BASIL:  The interesting thing about this church is that this building was not built by Russians.  There were never any Russians here in Juneau.  Most of the time when people come here, they’re expecting that there was a Russian community here and Russian missionaries, and they built this church, and that there are possibly descendants of the Russians still here now.  But the case is, ironically, here in Juneau, the native Tlingit tribe themselves built this church rather than Russian missionaries.  And they did that because when the missionaries from the lower 48 were coming here, they were doing services in English and sort of decimating the native cultures.  The natives themselves contacted Russia because they wanted a church that would protect their culture, and encourage their culture, and do services in their language, and Russia responded generously by sending this church, a priest and everything necessary for services.

BURT WOLF:  The iconostasis is very interesting.  What does it mean?

SUBDEACON BASIL:  Well, in general, the iconostasis itself, you know, is usually the first thing that attracts anybody’s attention.  Whenever you come in, it -- the structure itself is actually built in Russia and shipped here.  And the meaning of the iconostasis is not as a wall of separation.  Usually when someone comes in and sees it for the first time, they think, “Well, why are you separating the altar from this area?  It must mean that the priests are more sacred or holy and the people are unholy.”  Which is not the case at all.  The iconostasis, which is this screen, and it actually still exists in Western churches as an altar rail.  And most of the people in the west have unfortunately probably forgotten the meaning of the altar rail.  What it is is when you look around yourself in creation, you see the created world, you see the cosmos, you see people, you see ravens, you see the grass, and mountains, and the fixtures in this church.  And it’s almost as though it’s on a screen before your eyes.  But God is always here present, too -- He’s perpetually present.  But you don’t see God.  What you see is creation, the cosmos.  Well, that’s what this iconostasis represents -- it is a model of the cosmos.

And then those doors, which we call the royal doors, are closed -- that is an image of what we see in the world.  But, if one allows oneself, the eye of your heart opens, and those doors open, and you see God through creation.  So that’s the goal of Christian spirituality, is that you should be seeing God in every blade of grass, in every person most especially.

And we have these six icons, these paintings on here, and they shouldn’t be seen as the iconostasis -- as a solid wall -- but actually a wall with six windows.  These we call icons windows into Heaven, and they are portraying people who are filled with the presence of Christ, and it’s portraying Christ himself.  And each icon is precisely that -- a window into Heaven.  And the reason why most of the time iconographic style or Byzantine art is very unrealistic, it’s very unwestern, European portrait style, is that in trying to portray Heaven, you’re actually showing something that’s a higher dimension of reality, because Heaven is not going to be the three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension of time that we’re familiar with.  You’re going to be looking into a world that’s going to be a higher dimension of reality.  So the iconographers have always used various techniques to symbolize that to us.  And one of them is that the people, the individuals on icons, tend to be almost two-dimensional -- kind of flat.  And then objects will be out of perspective or out of phase.  You’ll see especially objects that should be cubes or like books, you’ll see too many sides of the pages of the book, or various objects are all in wrong perspective.  And again it’s continuing to try to emphasize to you that you’re looking from a three-dimensional world into a higher dimensional world to portray that sort of idea. 

BURT WOLF:  The Orthodox Church has a very distinct cross.

SUBDEACON BASIL:  Right.  It’s not the only cross that’s used in orthodoxy, but it’s very, very much used and it’s very well known and we sort of become identified by it.  It’s an attempt to portray more detail of the crucifixion.  The top bar is the sign that was hung above Christ’s head under the orders of Pontius Pilate that says: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in the various languages.  Then at the very bottom, you see where His feet were nailed to the cross.  And it’s pointing out at an angle, that bar, because it’s pointing to the two thieves on the right and the left.  And it brings them to mind.  And on the right, there was the thief who asked Christ to remember him when he came into His kingdom.  And then Christ says, “This day, you will be with me in paradise.”  So, it points upwards because that means a soul ascended into paradise according to Christ’s statement.  And to the left, it points downward to the thief who rejected and despised Christ.  And so each time we see that cross, that sort of decision is being placed before us; are we accepting or rejecting Christ on the cross?

The top of the church is -- usually, people who drive by perhaps on a Sunday morning and just see the church would think of it as an onion dome, but of course it doesn’t have anything to do with onions.  What it represents is what it looks like.  It’s a candle flame, and it’s representing the flame of the Holy Spirit that came in the church at Pentecost.

Behind the mountains that form Juneau’s backdrop is the Juneau Icefield, over 1,500 square miles of ice cap, and the source of thirty-eight glaciers, including the Mendenhall.  Mendenhall Glacier is just thirteen miles outside of Juneau and it is one of the few drive-in, walk-up glaciers in the world.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Mendenhall in Mendenhall Glacier was Thomas C. Mendenhall, the Superintendent of the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey at the time that the border was surveyed between Canada and the United States.

As moisture-filled air comes in from the Pacific Ocean, it runs into the peaks of the coastal mountains.  The encounter causes the air to give up its water vapor and it does so in the form of snow... over one hundred feet of it each year.  Because the air is so cold up here, the snow never melts.  It just gets heavier and heavier, and packs together so tightly that the air between the molecules is lost.  In the process, it transforms itself into glacial ice.  Under this extraordinary pressure, the ice begins to flow.  The Mendenhall Glacier flows down the Mendenhall Valley for twelve miles at the rate of two feet per day.  But it never gets anywhere, because at the same time that it is flowing, it is also melting.  Each day, large chunks of ice break away from the glacier and float off into the lake at its base.  The process is known as “calving.”  In addition, glacial ice just melts away at the front edge.  When the rate of Mendenhall’s flow is compared to the rate of its melting, you end up with an annual withdrawal of about thirty feet.  And it’s been withdrawing since the 1700s.

My home away from home on this trip has been the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Legend Of The Seas, and its next port of call is the town of Ketchikan.  Some folks refer to it as “the first city” because it’s the first major city that you get to in Alaska when you’re coming North along the coast.  Like many communities in this area, Ketchikan started out as a fishing camp.  In this case, it belonged to the Tlingit people.  When European and American settlers came in, they built the waterfront area on pilings that ran out over tidal flats.  It extended the community’s life in many ways -- particularly during Prohibition, when smugglers would row in under the stilts and pass whiskey up into the houses through trap doors.

These days, however, Ketchikan’s fame rests on totally legitimate activities.  It is a major port for people who are interested in charter fishing.  There’s excellent salt water fishing for giant halibut, red snapper, cod and salmon.

Ketchikan is also a center for native art and culture.  About ten miles up the road from town is Totem Bight.  In 1938, the U.S. Forest Service began a program designed to preserve and restore the totem poles that were part of the native villages, and Totem Bight is the present center of their work.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A totem pole is not an object of worship; it is a silent storyteller that presents the folklore of the people who carved it.  The Tlingits tell a story of a carved log that washed up on the shore and inspired their people to create totem poles.  The Haida tell a story of a master carver who created a housefront and a number of poles during a single night and then taught the villagers how to carve.

This is the kind of community or clanhouse that was built during the early 1800s.  It would have housed between thirty and fifty people who shared the same family lineage.  Each individual family would have had its own space for living, but the fire was shared.  Household gear and blankets were stored under removable floorboards, and foodstuffs were hung from the rafters.

MARY KOWALCZYK:  The screen on the front is a stylized raven.  Paintings on the front of a house were usually just for people who had a lot of wealth.  This stylized raven has two eyes that are elaborated into faces.  First of all, if you can imagine taking a head of a raven, cutting it down the back, and pulling it open so that it would be on a two-dimensional surface, that’s how you would be looking at this.

BURT WOLF:  Oh, isn’t that interesting?  I never understood how they saw it that way.

MARY KOWALCZYK:  And the two eyes, like I said, are stylized, elaborated into a face.  The red u-shape that’s upside-down represents the beak.  The u-shapes on either side of the oval door there represent the tail and the sides represent the wing.  The native people utilized all their spaces when they did a design, so they didn’t want to leave anything uncarved, or anything undecorated, and so that’s how come they filled the face of the house in that way.

The low oval entrance through the totem pole was typical.  It was a good form of protection during periods of conflict.  The straight black beak on the top figure tells you that it is Raven.  A carved box at his feet contains daylight.  Below, there is a mink and a frog standing next to a figure of a man, who represents the story of how the man brought life to the killer whales by carving them.  The figure with the large turned-back beak at the lower end of the pole is Raven-at-the-Head-of-Nass, the powerful chief who owned the sun, moon, and stars.  Below the chief is Raven’s mother.  The legend represented here is the story of Raven creating daylight and bringing it into a darkened world.

Our last official area for exploration was Misty Fjords National Monument, which is just south of Ketchikan.  You can get to Misty Fjords by plane or by boat -- but that’s it.  There are no roads to Misty’s 2.2 million acres of wilderness.  Hundreds of thousands of years ago huge glaciers pushed down from the north.  As they moved along, they carved cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet into the sea.  The granite rock formations display black strips of magma that were formed sixty million years ago when earthquakes cracked through the rock.  Waterfalls pour down from sources hidden in the clouds.  This is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Having satisfied everybody’s hunger for nature, the Legend of the Seas’ crew turns to satisfying everybody’s hunger for dinner.  Actually, they have been feeding us five times each day -- breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and a late-night snack.

But there were a few recipes that I thought you might enjoy taking a closer look at.

Lutz Koch is the executive chef, and his first dish is for a Halibut with Wine Sauce.  Four halibut fillets are seasoned with a little salt and pepper.  A tablespoon of butter goes into a sauté pan.  As soon as the butter melts, the halibut goes in, followed by a quarter of a cup of fish stock.  A cover goes on the pan and the fillets simmer for eight minutes.  While the fillets are cooking, the sauce is made.  A tablespoon of butter goes into a saucepan and is stirred until it melts.  Then a quarter of a cup of shallots are added.

BURT WOLF:  You know, if you don’t have shallots, you can use chopped onions, it’s still fine.

A half cup of white wine goes in and everything boils for two minutes.  A half cup of fish stock is added, and simmers for two minutes more.  Then a cup of light cream goes in and cooks for an additional two minutes.  The liquid is then thickened with one tablespoon of cornstarch that has been blended into a half-cup of cold water.  A few drops of Worcestershire sauce.  A bit of stirring.  Salt and pepper.  A half teaspoon of lime juice, and finally a teaspoon of chopped fresh dill.  Everything is mixed together, simmers for a minute, and we’re ready to plate.  The fish goes down, the sauce on top, and a sprinkling of fresh dill.  This is a nice dish to serve with rice or boiled potatoes.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  Okay, we have some chicken breasts, we make a nice walnut sauce with it.  And what I have to do first -- I salt and pepper them, on two sides, of course, and dip them afterwards in flour.  If you have a nice family’s chicken [sic], you will see this will be excellent dish for the Sunday dinner.

Two tablespoons of olive oil are poured into a hot pan and then heated.  The chicken breasts go into the pan, skin-side down.  They’re cooked for four minutes on each side and then removed from the pan.  Half of the oil is then drained out, and a half-cup of chopped onions go in.  Then two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar are added.  A minute or so of cooking, and then a half-cup of white wine goes in.  A tablespoon of cornstarch that’s been dissolved in a mixture of water is blended in to thicken the sauce.  Next, three-quarters of a cup of chopped walnuts.  A minute or so of cooking to heat everything up, and the chicken returns.  Eight more minutes of cooking, and the dish is ready to serve.  Some chefs add a touch of cream and a little Scotch whiskey or port wine to the sauce.  The vegetables go onto the plate, then the chicken, the sauce, and a few more chopped walnuts on top.

Finally, there is Baked Alaska.  After all, we are cruising in Alaskan waters.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  ...and I will show you; you need three-color ice cream, and we cover this with sponge cake, and after the sponge cake we use meringue.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, that’s easy.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  Easy.  Very easy.

BURT WOLF:   Okay.

It’s kind of like aluminum siding.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  After the sponge cake you use meringue.

BURT WOLF:  Whipped egg whites with sugar.

CHEF LUTZ KOCH:  Sugar.  Plenty of sugar.

BURT WOLF:  Let’s put it on.


BURT WOLF:  The sponge cake and the meringue work as an insulator, so when the heat heats the ice cream, it doesn’t melt.

BURT WOLF:  Now, normally at home you would finish this off by taking a blowtorch and just browning it on top, but no open flames are allowed on ships.  So we’re going to do this by flaming some rum and pouring it on top.


Did I say “no open flames?”  I meant “no open gas flames.”  This is fine.

This whole dish has a glacier-like quality... especially the receding edges.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, those are some of the more beautiful and interesting parts of southern Alaska, and thanks to the cruises on the Inside Passage, they’re comfortable and easy to get to.  And I hope it will be easy for you to get to us next time as we travel around the world, looking at the ORIGINS of some of the things that surround us.  I’m Burt Wolf.