Ketchikan Airport (after leaving Wrangell) – whiling away a few hours between the short island hops needed to get from place to place in South East Alaska. A stuffed bald headed eagle watches me from a nearby glass case and there is, of course, a basketball game playing on the big screen in the little airport’s only food outlet. Two more hops tonight before we get into Sitka a bit before midnight and settle in.
Such a change to come from the ice and snow of upper Alaska down to the bottom of the state, not too far from Vancouver. The mountains still have snow on their heights, but there’s no snow in the towns. Temperatures have gone from minus 10 to minus 20C in Anchorage to hovering between -1 and about +10 in the day here in the south east – balmy to our hosts, still on the chilly side for Cas and me after the February heatwaves we left behind.
In Wrangell we visited Vivian and Howie, a couple we befriended in Sitka two years ago who’ve since shifted to Wrangell where Vivian grew up (and is related to three quarters of the small population). They live at Mickey’s Fish Camp (named for Vivian’s Dad who lives with them), five miles out of town, where the sea laps almost to the deck at high tide.
Subsistence living is everyday life out here – fishing for salmon, halibut and shrimp, gathering the vast assortment of berries that grow here, smoking, preserving, bottling and – most importantly – sharing with family, friends and tribe. We saw Mickey smoking salmon chunks in the smoke house out the back, and ate platefuls of the resulting product, rich with alder smoke. Plus commiserated with Vivian and Howie over Alaskan problems like getting sick of shrimp and running out of recipes for halibut.
Vivian is an artist as well as writer and poet, and we were desperately hoping she’d take us to where she gathers material for her mosaics – the old town dump, decommissioned in about 1950, accessible only at low tide, a treasure trove of ceramics, sea glass and weird metal items. I collected about 10kg of vintage glass, patterned fragments of ceramics, and superbly rusted and twisted bits of metal. Then had to discard 9.5kg of it, but have kept some choice bits and pieces to bring home, customs permitting. We also visited Wrangell’s petroglyph beach – containing around 40 of these stone carvings, around 10,000 years old.
Crikey the Kangaroo came out of his two year hibernation and entertained kids at Head Start – the local preschool for Tlingit and Haida youngsters – with tales of Australia and requests for help – he needed to know how to get warm in Alaska, and who to make friends with. That visit was also a chance for us to meet some of the local Tlingit people
and – led by Carol – ask permission to come onto their lands – a custom Carol feels strongly about, emerging from her work with Indigenous communities in Australia. The request was received very warmly and we were invited to come to a school celebration of Elizabeth Peratrovich Day – marking the civil rights campaigner whose landmark speech in the Alaskan Senate in 1945 saw the passage of Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Act – the first of its kind in the USA.
When Vivian reported our activities on Facebook she called us the Australian Ambassadors – which led the local radio station to call and ask for an interview. It’s a small town – we obliged!
Daydreaming, beach-combing, fish-eating, strolling. Smelling sea, salt, smoke, spruce, hemlock, fish.Soon we board again and hop to Juneau, wait an hour, then hop to Sitka and fall into bed. Tomorrow the writing begins! Diving into the new novel. Wish me luck.