In the past week the weather has bounced from winter to spring – the ‘winterless winter’
as a member of Blue Canoe Writer’s Group phrased it last night. Swan Lake, in a little valley below our house, froze over enough for ice skating on the weekend (it went down to -6 celsius). On Saturday afternoon it was packed with parents and kids (some wobbling on their skates, some graceful), slithering excited dogs, the end of an ice hockey game. Light snow dusted the surface, the skaters carved patterns in it. Saturday night, in the dark, it was teenagers gracefully skimming the ice, some out on the lake with headlamps glimmering, some close to the shore where the street lights bounced down. Sunday morning it was deserted. The snow dust had melted off, the ice was dark and slick and forbidding, too thin to support human weight. This morning I woke to grey, drizzly warmth and the lake looking decidedly watery. It’s six degrees. That was probably the one day of the season that Sitkans could ice skate.
I’m having a completely different experience to my usual writing retreat. I’ve had quite a few of them in the past and they’ve involved writing marathons – mostly solitary times where I’ve gone deeply into the writing and produced many pages of work. Last time I was in Sitka – seven years ago – I wrote thousands of words and in fact finished the first draft of The Raven’s Heart. Yes, I met people and participated in community life, but there were many long days at the desk and some loneliness through being so deeply in the work (and having many nights alone).
This time I’m here with Carol, my beloved aunt, and everything is different. Firstly – no loneliness. Having a buddy means I’ll go out to the pub or out to eat dinner – things I’d hesitate to do by myself. Secondly, there’s camaraderie in the work. In the mornings we’re often both tapping away at the keyboards in the wide-windowed room of 402 Hemlock St, looking down at the lake and across to the mountains known as ‘The Sisters’. We scamper out together, walking through the forested cemetery to the Back Door Café or Larkspur Cafe for coffee and bread pudding or berry pie. We walk together through the forest down at the sea, or along the Sitka Cross Trail in the woods. We talk about what we’re working on, and we’ve started reading it to each other.
But thirdly – and this is largely to do with Carol – the days are full of remarkable meetings. She arrived here deeply committed to paying respect to the local indigenous people and, if possible, sharing culture with them – having spoken about this at length to her indigenous teacher and long time friend in Australia, Uncle Max (Dulamunmun) Harrison, an elder of the Yuin Nation. Carol made the at times difficult effort to find and connect with people from the Tlingit culture of Sitka to pay her respects. Her willingness to do this – and to ask permission from traditional owners for us to be here – was inspiring to me and encouraged me to not always settle for the easy path. And as a result we have found ourselves warmly and generously welcomed.
The Blue Canoe Writers Group has become important for both of us – joining the weekly meeting of this incredibly talented group of writers is creatively inspiring (I’m in awe of some of the poems that have been shared) and we are making some great friendships. Plus many of them supported us by fronting up to our creativity workshop last Saturday.
Carolyn Servid, who until last year was director of the Island Institute (she and husband Dorik founded and ran it for 30 years) had us on her program on the lively local Raven Radio station. She’s been running the Sitka Anthologies program for many years and over the course of an hour, with her warm, gentle and intelligent questioning, drew out all sorts of interesting conversations.
On Monday night we joined two members of Blue Canoe – Cultural Educator Blossom Twitchell and poet extraordinaire Vivian Faith Prescott – at Mount Edgecumbe High School, a selective boarding school that takes native kids from all over Alaska. The plan was for us to join the Teen Writer’s Group, but we ended up with 15 kids interested in hearing about Australia from the two crazy Aussies with the life sized blow up kangaroo, now christened Crikey. (Crikey
has become an integral part of our public appearances– another “Stay” in the making). The students told us where they came from and a bit about their lives. Some came from tiny villages, some from big cities. Some hunt, some fish, some gather. At school they’re learning about making regalia, traditional languages, and traditional food.
After yarning for an hour and a half we feasted on traditional Alaskan foods: sea lion roast, muktuk (raw whale skin and blubber), seal oil, herring eggs, akutaq
(berries mixed with fat – I think it was cream in this instance), smoked hooligan, shrimp, rice, mixed berries, spruce tip/blueberry lemonade, smoked salmon strips, salmon spread, pilot bread (like a big biscuit), thimbleberry jam, blueberry jam, and more. There were a few things on that list I wasn’t quite brave enough to try – Blossom told me later they were watching to see if I’d have a go at muktuk, ready for a good laugh if I didn’t like it. I stuffed myself with berries instead and hoped I didn’t cause offence by avoiding it.
On Monday, following our meetings with educators Nancy Douglas and Heather Powell from Sitka Tribe of Alaska (a tribal government organisation), we joined the after school program to talk to grade two kids about Australia and share stories with them. Crikey once again proved his worth, as after training kids to say ‘Gidday mate’ in broad tones, we taught them the important cultural skill of yelling ‘CRIKEY’ in unison when anything surprising happened. And yes, I hope you’re seeing the yawning chasm of cultural richness between mainstream Australia and strong indigenous culture. This was brought home to us when the kids, having happily hop-hop-hopped around the room and sung a made up song about kangaroos, performed a traditional Tlingit dance for us at the end. The boys had feathered handpieces and the girls held painted wooden paddles. They knew every word and move. All the adults in the place came out to participate. The drum beat, the song and the way those kids carried themselves, so strong and proud – it brought tears to my eyes. I watched with an awed smile pasted from one ear to the other.
Last night Vivian sent us home from Blue Canoe with deer meat, berries, smoked salmon and the promise of a tour of her art studio. Today we’re going back to work with the next age group of Sitka Tribe kids after school. Tonight there’s a rumour of vodka with Blue Canoe member Eugene Solovyov, a local Russian who runs Sitka Rose Art Gallery and writes like a stand up comic, and Blossom, whose softly spoken words always make me want to lean in and hear more. More remarkable meetings are on the horizon – with a high school memoir writing group, with the kids who come to our “Whale Dreams” workshop this Saturday, with Island Institute Board member Brooke Schafer who is hoping to take us out on a boating adventure to look for tsunami debris, with the scientists from Sitka Sound Science Centre, and more.
Writing is going slowly but well. I’m hoping it will be quality rather than quantity that tells. All the other experiences and meetings and friendships blooming in this residency are the things I will carry home, as well as the words.
Thank you (Quyanna Taiku) for listening. One day I hope WordPress will come into this century and make it easy to insert photos without making the whole post look like a huskie’s breakfast.