Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 1

When I was ready to leave Alaska, it seems that Alaska was not ready to let me go. I ended up being stuck in Alaska longer than I planned because of Alaska’s political crisis. I’m now back in San Francisco, though I am still working through some of the aftermath.

I boarded a ferry in Sitka, Alaska on July 23. I was supposed to take that ferry all the way to Bellingham, Washington. However, on July 24, at 2pm, when the ferry was docked in Ketchikan, Alaska, one of the three unions which represents the ferry workers went on strike.

The notice says "We are very sorry for any inconvienence but due to an impasse in negotiations between the state of Alaska and the Inland Boatmens Union we are directed by our union to leave the vessel at this time. Chief Purser'. A passenger wrote 'You awful union people!!!' and another passenger wrote 'NO - AWFUL GOVERNOR!'

This notice was left at the purser’s counter on the ship, with comments by passengers.

This blindsided practically all of the passengers on board, including me, since when we first docked in Ketchikan (at around 12:15 pm), all of the announcements indicated that the ferry was going to leave on schedule (at 3 pm). At first, we could hardly believe the strike was real, and then when we could see all of the crew members getting off the boat, we told ourselves that since the officers (including captain) and the engineers were staying on the boat, we would still depart. Maybe there would be no food or cleaning service, but surely we were still going to Bellingham, right? Continue reading

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Alaska, My Mother

When I was in Cooper Landing, a woman asked me why I wanted to visit Alaska. I gave some vague answer like ‘why wouldn’t I want to come to Alaska?’ She said that most people don’t think of traveling around Alaska. I pointed out the tons of tourists, and she said that most of them come on cruise ships. I think she is underestimating just how many tourists there are in Alaska (she lives in a small settlement on Kachemak Bay that is only accessible by water taxi or private boat), but her question was still a good one: why was I visiting Alaska?

As I’ve already said on this blog, I want to see and experience things which I cannot see and experience in California. But there are many places I can do that, so why Alaska and not somewhere else? My trip was partially inspired by watching the documentary Alaska’s Marine Highway (and that is a large part of why I am spending so much time on ferries). But even that is not the deepest reason.

There is my mother.

She had already been living in the United States (in the Washington D.C. metro area), but her first employer could not offer her a visa which would allow her to get a ‘green card’ (permanent residency in the United States). My mother wanted to live in the United States indefinitely, so she really wanted a green card. She was looking for a job which could get her one. The first job which she was able to get which promised her a green card just happened to be in Alaska. And that is how she ended up working and living in Alaska.

Eventually, her employer transferred her to San Francisco. When she was having trouble getting a mortgage to buy a house in San Francisco, her employer (who was the same employer she had in Alaska) stepped in and helped her get the mortgage (and they also paid her enough that she was able to afford to buy a house in San Francisco). That is how she became the owner of a house in San Francisco. And renovating the house (it was practically uninhabitable at the time of purchase) started a chain of events which led to her meeting my father. And then I came along, and I grew up (and still live in) the house that she bought. And it can all be traced back to the job she had in Alaska.

I have been to many museums in Alaska, and one of the pieces of Alaska history which sometimes is exhibited is the boom which happened after the discovery of oil on the North Slope. The oil boom created many jobs, including my mother’s job in Alaska (and even after she moved to San Francisco, her employer could afford to offer financial assistance with paying down her mortgage above and beyond her ordinary salary partially because they were making so much money from the Alaska oil boom). Thus, even though I wasn’t there, I consider that oil boom to be part of my personal history.

All my life, I’ve heard my mother make comments about Alaska. No particular comment stands out to me, but it conditioned me to think of Alaska in a certain way. In my thoughts, Alaska is a much more ‘major’ and ‘important’ place than, say, Minnesota, or Pennsylvania, or New Mexico, or Hawaii, not because it is objectively more ‘major’ or ‘important’ but simply because I grew up among people who almost never mentioned those other states.

As I’ve discussed travel with my mother over the years, she has a tendency to say things like ‘if you think [place] was spectacular, you should see Alaska!’

My mother has been more excited about me going to Alaska than any other travel I have undertaken. She enthusiastically tried to plan some of my trip for me, and I asked her to keep her armchair travel itinerary separate from my real travel plan. If she were twenty years younger, I’m sure she would have joined me and we would have traveled around Alaska together.

As I have traveled around Alaska, and learned so much about Alaska, I have also realized how little I know about my mother’s experiences in Alaska. This is especially obvious when Alaskans ask me about what my mother did when she was in Alaska. I hope I will have the opportunity to ask my mother more about what it was like and how she lived when she was in Alaska.

Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The Most Overcast Town in America, Dumpster Chickens, and Other Ports of Call

I’ve written about the vessel, and the people, and now I’m making a post specifically about the ports of call I visited on the M/V Tustumena.

This is a graphic from the Alaska Marine Highway website showing the routes in Southewest Alaska.

I’m skipping Homer and Kodiak to keep this post from getting too long; if someone really wants to know what I have to say about Homer and Kodiak, they may leave comments.

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CHIGNIK

We had clear sunny skies in Chignik. We could see all of the volcanic scenery clearly (including the famous Castle Cape; I shared a photo in this post). According to the crew and the locals, Chignik almost never has clear sunny skies. Some of the crew members, who have been on this route many times, were taking photos because they had never seen such weather in Chignik before. Continue reading

Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: People I Met

I had heard that the M/V Tustumena is a great place for tourists to mix with locals, and it turns out that is actually true. I would say roughly half of the passengers were tourists (international tourists, tourists from the lower 48 states such as myself, and Alaskans who had never been to the southwestern part of the state before) and half were people who live in southwest Alaska. On the boat, there is no internet, there is rarely cell phone service (though people sometimes got cell phone service in bizarre spots), and unless we were docked in port, we were all in the same confined space. Many of the passengers (including me) were on the ferry for multiple days. This encouraged conversation with fellow passengers. For example, I spent quite a bit of time chatting with this group from Anchorage who do a lot of hiking and backpacking, just like me. I also spent a bit of time socializing with some birdwatchers from Juneau.

Some birdwatchers who were on the ferry watched this bird. Perhaps this bird was watching even more birds.

A paraphrased quote from a birdwatcher from Juneau: “When you become a birdwatcher [she had no doubt that I would become a birdwatcher] the very first bird call you learn to recognize by ear will become special to you” (I pointed out that I recognize the calls of some wild birds in San Francisco, and I’ve known them for so long that I don’t remember which one I learned to recognize first).

I met one passenger who was born in Sanak, an island off the coast of the Alaska peninsula which is no longer inhabited by people. She said that she was probably one of the last people ever born on Sanak. The purser’s counter also has an entire book about Unga, another village which lost all of its human population (IIRC, the last people left Unga around 1960). There are many communities on the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands which have been completely depopulated in the 20th century. The U.S. government forced the permanent abandonment of a few villages during the Aleut Evacuation/Incarceration (which I will mention again in this post), and some communities which were the center of military activity during the Cold War were practically abandoned after the fall of the USSR. But for the most part, it seems that these communities lose their people after the local economy collapses (which I guess includes communities whose economies were based on Cold War military activity). Unga’s economy collapsed after both the mine and the fishery stopped being commercially viable. Continue reading

Voyage on the M/V Tustumena: The “Trusty Tusty”

The M/V Tustumena docked in King Cove, Alaska

On June 4, I departed Homer, Alaska on the boat M/V Tustumena, known by the nickname “Trusty Tusty”, as it headed towards Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian archipelago, a journey of about 900 miles (approximately 1400 kilometers) in one direction. The journey to Dutch Harbor took three and a half days, and then I got back on the boat as it turned around for the return voyage. I am sitting on the boat write now, typing the first draft of this blog post.

As I worked on the first draft of this post, I took this picture of the forward lounge (yes, that is my laptop in the foreground).

Where do passengers sleep on the boat? There are staterooms with spartan bunk beds, but they are expensive. Some passengers who did not pay for a stateroom sleep in the forward lounge or side lounge on the promenade deck. Others pitched their tent on the solarium deck.

A couple of tents on the solarium deck.

Continue reading