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The “big city” life of Anchorage (pop. 280,000) provided a nice balance to all of the campsites and small towns that we had stayed in over the past few weeks.
We took advantage of some sunshine and pedaled along the coast on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
The paved trail took us through the Westchester Lagoon.
Less than a hundred years ago, the lagoon did not exist. Instead, there was a tidal estuary with a creek and large grassy areas where the Native Alaskan people (the Dena’ina) built fish camps and cabins in order to harvest the salmon each year. The creek was called “Chanshtnu,” meaning “Grass Creek,” and the salmon were vital to sustaining the Dena’ina through the winter. In 1934, however, the Alaska Railroad built an embankment and trestle across the mouth of the creek, altering the flow of water and disrupting the fish migration. When the trestle was damaged in the 1964 earthquake, it was rebuilt along with a dam that created the Westchester Lagoon. Recent improvements have attempted to restore a small part of the estuary and flowing creek, and to reduce the barriers to migrating fish.
Continuing along the trail, we entered Earthquake Park, which had exhibits about the devastating 9.2 earthquake in 1964.
The park sits on the edge of a huge landslide that had occurred during the earthquake, destroying 75 homes and killing four people.
Further down, we reached Point Woronzof, a high bluff that extends out into Cook Inlet.
The Point offered a distant view of the Anchorage skyline, showing us how far we had pedaled.
Best of all, the Point sat directly under the flight path of jets taking off from the Anchorage International Airport.
We found the perfect spot where the planes flew directly over our heads, and then hooted and hollered like wild creatures as each one thundered above us!
Seeing the massive 747’s in the sky was even more special in light of our tour of the Boeing Factory last month.
Another great feature of the Coastal Trail was that it included part of the Lightspeed Planet Walk—a scale model of the planets in our solar system, all laid out in relative sizes and distances from the Sun. Here is Genevieve, with Jupiter:
We backtracked so that we could find the giant Sun that marked the beginning of the Planet Walk, in downtown Anchorage on 5th Avenue.
Each of the planets was then located at a place that reflected its relative lightspeed distance from the Sun. For example, light takes 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to Earth, so the Planet Walk designers placed the Earth model in a spot where a casual walker would take 8 minutes to reach it from the Sun. Likewise, since light takes 5 ½ hours to reach Pluto, a casual walker would finally reach Pluto after 5 ½ hours.
I must admit that we never made it to Pluto.
However, we did reach the 7th planet, Uranus, out by Point Woronzof on our bicycles.
And we were really surprised at how small the planet Earth was in comparison to the Sun.
After a vigorous ride, we were ready for some hearty nutrition. Although we don’t eat out too much on our RV journeys, we discovered a café that had such delicious homemade soup and sandwiches that we came back a second time. For anyone visiting Anchorage, we highly recommend the Muffin Man (aka Café 817), located at 817 W. 6th Avenue.
Genevieve, with her large bowl of creamy chicken and mushroom soup, and Sebastian, with his bagel sandwich stacked high with a generous mound of bacon.
The café also had exceptional muffins, sandwiches, and giant cookies. And everything was always served with a smile (thanks, Mary!).
On another day, we lost track of time in the Anchorage Museum:
On the ground floor was an art exhibit, with scenes from Alaska. Here are a few of our favorites.
A 3-dimensional work called “Break of Day” by Koyukon artist Kathleen Carlo-Kendall:
One of the birch tree “portraits” painted by Kesler Woodward, called “No Wind, Fairbanks Snow”:
A large painting called “Mt. McKinley”, created in 1929 by historical painter Sydney Laurence:
The second floor held a multi-media exhibit about Native Alaskans, including videos, clothing, masks, tools, and many other intriguing items. We found a water-proof “gut parka,” similar to the one we had first seen in Valdez—made from animal intestines that had been blown up, dried in the sun, cut into strips, and sewn together with sinew thread.
At the end of each exhibit case was a touch-screen computer that allowed us to quickly locate any item in the case and learn more about it. Here is Genevieve, accessing the gut parka details:
Other interesting items from the display cases included a Yup’ik mask with moving parts:
We saw a distinct face in this hunting boat seat--the carved whale looked like a large nose, with fin "eyes" and a tail "mouth":
A warm parka was made of animal skins and fur:
While the museum exhibits were undeniably engaging, another area of the museum—the Imaginarium—had been designed to challenge our minds in a different way.
Among the oodles of fun activities, we hoisted ourselves in the air and learned how little muscle power was needed when combined with pulleys, drums and other devices:
We took a “family portrait” with infrared light:
The soap bubble area was quite exciting. We used 2-foot metal rings to swirl large oval bubbles through the air, and then we took turns encasing ourselves in tall bubble tubes.
With another exhibit, the shadows from our bodies created tall mountains that would generate snowstorms or explode in volcanic eruptions.
We were also captivated by the super-slow-motion camera that would record our jumps and then play them back at such a delayed speed that we were suspended in the air as if we were “flying.”
Another fascinating place in Anchorage was the Native Alaska Heritage Center:
Out front was the sculpture “Raven the Creator” by artist John Hoover:
The Native Alaskan Heritage Center had so many wonderful displays, discussions, demonstrations and dance performances that we could easily have stayed an entire day.
Here are some dancers dressed in the ceremonial garments of southeastern Native Alaskans:
One of our favorite presentations was the Native Games demonstration in which athletes showed some of the traditional games played indoors during the long winters. Because the indoor spaces were small, the games did not take a lot of room, but they were extremely challenging physically. The athletes had to combine balance, strength, and skill.
The hardest game seemed to be the one where participants would sit beneath a dangling toy seal, grasp their left foot, and then launch the right foot high up into the air (like a rocket) to kick the seal.
Another presentation we especially enjoyed concerned how communication styles differ between Native Alaskans and other people. The talk was given by a woman named Yari, and she called Genevieve (and later, Sebastian) onstage to demonstrate how shaking hands was a relatively new concept to her culture.
Behind the Center, we walked around a small lake and visited dwelling reproductions from six Native groups.
Inside the Yup’ik and Cup’ik qasgik (men’s house), we found a set of slitted masks that protected people’s eyes from the blinding glare of sun on snow:
Each home had a cultural representative inside who explained about the various features and answered our questions.
Here is the entrance to the Iñupiaq community house:
On the opposite end of the house was an exit tunnel that was much smaller than the entrance, to discourage back-door visits by large animals:
The southeastern Native Alaskans have solid-looking plank houses:
They are also the only Alaskan culture that carves totem poles, which convey family histories and identities:
At one end of the small lake were two towering jawbones from a gray whale:
Whales have been very important to Native Alaskans for centuries—providing them with food and materials that they need to survive, as well as connecting them to the sea and to each other.
We learned that each of the Native Alaskan communities embrace common values—e.g., respect for others, sharing what you have, knowing who you are, honoring your elders, and finding connections in everything.
Inside the Heritage Center was a display identifying what the Native Alaskans believe to be “Ten Universal Values”:
I found myself nodding my head while reading each one. These truths are perhaps the ties that bind all of us together.
Our time in Anchorage was topped off by a superb theater performance at Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse downtown.
Before leaving home, we had purchased tickets for a comedy/musical called “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
When we arrived, a woman approached our family and asked if anyone was interested in participating in the show as a spelling bee participant. Genevieve eagerly volunteered. Here she is being interviewed:
One of the questions was “How do you feel about being made fun of?”, to which Genevieve answered, “I’m okay with that.” She was ultimately selected as one of the five lucky audience members who got to play a small part on stage. The show was witty and hilarious (with even some very touching moments), and Genevieve’s role got quite a few laughs.
We really loved our time in Anchorage—the bike trails, the museum, the family-friendly atmosphere, a great lunch café, Native Alaskan history and resources, a bit of theater, and . . . most of all . . . a whole lot of fun.
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