From my home on Vancouver Island in Canada’s Caribbean to Alaska’s Emerald Isle. Islands of salmon, bears, warming currents, and independent spirits.
As a participant in the Bouchercon Authors in the Schools program, I learned during the orientation to stock up on fresh produce for gifts. Two sugar-baby watermelons, a bag of apples, ginger root, an avocado, and bananas rode in my pack. Soon after the prop plane touched down, I noticed a large supermarket. Everything arrives by container ship. Dial Costco, and your order’s boxed. How much more expensive? If you have to ask....
Kodiak Island is America’s largest island and the first in the Aleutian chain. Kodiak (the city) has only one hundred miles of paved road, though that doesn’t deter the use of radar detectors.
I was billeted at lovely Sprucehaven B and B, run by Dr. Bob and Marian Johnson. Dr. Bob and his father before him had been taking care of Kodiak since 1938. The Johnsons described how the tsunami after the 9.1 earthquake in 1964 decimated the coastline and destroyed several native villages. The fourth and largest wave crested at 35 feet above mean low tide. Had the tide been high, the damage would have been even more catastrophic. Kodiak took an earlier blow in 1912 when Mt. Novarupta on the peninsula erupted and covered the town with ash for three terrifying days. People ran amok, imagining the end of the world. And more recently, who doesn’t remember the Exxon Valdez, sinking in 1989 in nearby Prince William Sound? Citizens pitched in to save the wildlife and clean the beaches.
That night, after a sumptuous Alaskan crab-leg dinner, Dr. Bob took me to balalaika practice. Russian culture runs deep here, even though only one of the musicians had Soviet roots. Some strummed various sizes of balalaikas, others had lutes, and the two white-haired Dorothies and I played clackers and rattles and sang along. In the improvised songbook, some words appeared only in phonetic Russian. Typical of a brutal climate, lyrics often displayed a nostalgia for blossoming trees and their sweet fruits.
The next day at the high school, a stuffed bruin in a glass case greeted me. I spoke to two English classes, who were reading Lord of the Flies (“Kill the pig!”), and an environmental group. I described the ecological disaster and historic regreening in my former region, Sudbury, the Nickel Capital, where for nearly one hundred years the land was raped, burned, and reduced to black rock. They told me about the Pebble Mine project 225 miles southwest of Anchorage, where a Canadian company planned to start the world’s largest strip mine in quest of over twenty-six million ounces of gold. Despite the company’s assurances in their expensive propaganda (Jobs! Grow with us, Alaska!) about safety procedures, “accidental” spills can happen on mine sites. Citizens were massing to protect their precious salmon resource as well as preserve two adjacent national parks.
The librarian, Laurie Madsen, was a strong advocate for reading at the school. A list of formerly banned books led the display, and many classrooms had a sign on the door with the teacher’s name and the book he or she was currently reading.
I spoke later at the college after a luscious meal of sushi and white king salmon at a restaurant run by Sun Myung Moon’s folk. At first, they had been greeted with suspicion, but the high quality of the food prevailed. Many ethnic groups are employed in the canneries, the town’s mainstay aside from tourism. Filipinos, Hawaiians, and Far Easterners cross the ocean to find work.
The next day I held a writing workshop. Twenty-one students attended, eager to tell me their favourite authors. Harry Potter topped the list, along with young-adult books. Several students had begun to create their own fantasy sagas. As a mystery author, I described my special interest in poisons, including the fact that common botanicals around the school (lily of the valley, monkshood, foxglove) could be fatal, and that ordinary potato sprouts could make someone very sick. For an assignment, they wrote a paragraph beginning with “When I entered the room, I knew that something was wrong,” happy to read their efforts aloud. One student described finding his brother hanging from the rafters. I hoped that this was not autobiographical.
Then my hostess Marian took me to the Baranov Museum, housed in the oldest Russian-era building in Alaska, a three-story log wonder. For one hundred years before the “Seward’s Folly” sale, the Russian and American trading companies shaped settlement and exploration in Alaska, cooperating in government, law, and social relations, an amazing feat. This building, originally a “magazin,” once warehoused furs for the corporation. Sea-otter pelts were most highly prized, and hung in the Baranov with river-otter and rabbit skins for a tactile comparison.
Of equal note was the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in downtown Kodiak, celebrating the ancient peoples who fished these waters, passing down their language, music, art, and traditions. Last summer over thirty-eight sites around the Kodiak National Wildlife refuge were evaluated and protected. Through the Community Archaeology Project, anyone interested could pack rain gear and bug spray and join the scientists in uncovering the Salonie Mound, an ancient settlement.
Though I didn’t see a live Kodiak bear, they are king of the island. For observation by nature lovers or photographers, special use cabins can be reserved through the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. The legendary bears migrated from the mainland about 12,000 years ago, and due to the abundant food supply, have become the world’s largest land carnivores (though actually omnivores), measuring up to ten feet standing and weighing up to 1500 pounds!
Birders also have a field day on Kodiak with up to 80 species in winter and over 200 in total. Eagles congregate in the fall to reap scraps from the fishing boats, and comical puffins are a frequent sight along with emperor geese and tundra swans.
Last on the tour were the remains of Ft. Abercrombie with its bunkers and gun emplacements. The Aleutians have always been the back door of America, and few realize that Japanese forces occupied the most southwesterly Kiska and Attu before they were turned back by American and Canadian troops. Axis submarines evacuated nearly all the Japanese from Kiska, but on Attu, only thirty out of over two thousand soldiers survived, the majority having committed suicide in their shame.
My speedy jet returned me to Anchorage, and as the green peaks in that two-cents-an-acre territory dissolved into clouds, I left the best bargain in history.