A city on the edge of civilization, Anchorage is situated at the end of the Cook Inlet, where coastal lowland gradually rises up to the Chugach Mountains. With a population of 301,000, Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city home of 41 percent of the entire state’s population – a big city by Alaska standards. By area (obviously the city planners were very liberal in their city limits designation), Anchorage is one the largest cities in the U.S., encompassing 1,961 square miles – nearly the size of the state of Delaware (whose population is nearly a million people).
“Now that I have definitely begun to live I find myself more and more convinced that civilization with its trappings and artificialities is not so good as nature.” ― H.S. Ede, Savage Messiah
Anchorage didn’t begin as a port or mining town but rather as a railroad hub. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson authorized construction of the 500-mile-long Alaska Railroad, stretching from coastal Seward up to gold-rich Fairbanks. The original Anchorage, circa 1915, was a group of tents put up to house workers on the Alaska Railroad. The men called their shanty town “The White City,” although then as now it bears little resemblance to its Chicago namesake. Anchorage has a single, solitary numbered state highway (as the state obviously doesn’t have any interstate ones), Alaska Route 1. Alaska routes are both numbered and named. There have been only twelve numbers issued (1 through 11 and 98), and the numbering often has no obvious pattern and most folks here refer to the highway by name rather than number.
So it was time for some city living – an opportunity to get some stuff done and it was time to pick up my Sister Deanne who was flying in to spend a week with me in Alaska. It was great to have her come for a visit as I have been missing family having been gone from home since January. I got in a couple of hikes and got some housekeeping done before my trip to the airport to pick up Deanne and start our sister in Alaska week.
Anchorage is a city worthy of Alaska, home to about 1500 moose (during the winter). Every year in Anchorage, over 100 moose are killed by reckless (or unlucky) drivers. But the moose don’t always take this lying down—several people in Anchorage have been stomped to death by retaliatory moose. Also home to around 250 black bears and 60 grizzlies that have so far been less homicidal than the moose. There are fences around town designed to keep the animals off key areas like airport runways (only important if you are on a plane!). It was fitting that the first animal Deanne saw on the way from the airport to the RV was a moose in the middle of the city along the greenbelt, no place to stop so no photos this time!
Also a fisherman’s paradise, there’s great salmon fishing right in downtown Anchorage. During late spring and summer months, the anglers line up along Ship Creek as they try to land king and silver salmon. From our campsite we could walk downtown to the Saturday Market and to Ship Creek to watch the fisherman in search of the perfect catch. Besides location, the RV park in Anchorage didn’t really have a lot going for it but the choices in Anchorage were slim to none so I ended up at Ship Creek RV Park for the week.
“Clearly, then, the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.” – Desmond Morris
Downtown Anchorage is a tourist mecca with a fun one hour trolly tour of the sights around town. Our driver was very entertaining having been a former actress and certainly could have been a comedian – the tour was a great introduction to the city with lots of funny Anchorage trivia and a few musical moments.
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Alaska Native Cultural Center located on the outskirts of Anchorage.
When I was working for State Parks in the Capital District one of the projects was figuring out how to build the Indian Heritage Center. The folks that have taken up that project would be smart to look at what they are doing here at the Alaska Native Cultural Center.
Before Russia owned the territory and Seward had his folly (the Alaska purchase), the original inhabitants of Anchorage were the Dena’ina, a matrilineal tribe of Athabascan Indians that had hunted and fished in the area for more than 1000 years. I have written about Native Alaskans in some of my previous posts and visiting this cultural center really gave me an even better appreciation for the Alaska Native history.
Today Alaska Natives represent approximately 16 percent of Alaska’s residents, and are a significant segment of the population in over 200 rural villages and communities. Many Alaska Natives have retained their customs, language, hunting and fishing practices and ways of living since “the creation times.”
The center does an extraordinary job at giving an in-depth look at Alaskan Native life—with a big focus on Alaska Natives. The center isn’t just a collection of artifacts behind glass: this is a living, dynamic culture that you can experience firsthand. Alaska’s Native people are divided into eleven distinct cultures, speaking twenty different languages. In order to the tell the stories of this diverse population, the Alaska Native Heritage Center is organized based on five cultural groupings, which draw upon cultural similarities or geographic proximity.
“Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbor is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.” – Paulo Coelho
They have hired young local Natives to interpret the outdoor life-sized traditional native dwellings—like a Supiaq, a semi-subterranean home built by the Alutiiqs to shelter themselves from the harsh Alaskan climate. Or, a Southeast Alaska Longhouse—large wooden constructions with no windows and only a smoke hole at the top—that generally housed several families. Inside there were four beautifully carved posts that each represented a different culture. Each post was carved and painted with a different theme of respect; respect for family, environment, culture, and self.
Visitors also have the opportunity to watch native dances (check out the video) and listen to stories by both elders and young people. Being able to interact with young folks and learn about their culture really brings home to the visitor the fact that this isn’t just history and that these cultures are alive and well in todays society. I was often told by California Indians that I worked with that the biggest message they wanted to convey was that they were still here. This center is certainly fulfilling that mission for the Alaska Natives.
“A concerted effort to preserve our heritage is a vital link to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, and economic legacies – all of the things that quite literally make us who we are.” – Steve Berry
Time again to visit local breweries and of course Anchorage has several to choose from. On a recommendation from the bartender at the Elks lodge in Palmer we had to check out the Moose’s Tooth pizza and brewpub. I had been warned that it was a very popular spot and they were not kidding. The crowds were spilling out the doors and we had about an hour’s wait to be seated. Fortunately my sources were not wrong and both the pizza and the beer were excellent.
The Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage is the busiest seaplane base in the world, hosting more than 1,000 takeoffs and landings on the most hectic days of summer—and it’s only three miles from downtown. We had originally scheduled our trip to Katmai National Park to fly by float plane from Anchorage but the weather did not cooperate and after waiting for an hour at the float plane dock they cancelled our flight. We were not going to be dissuaded from being the bears at Katmai so we immediately raced back to the RV and packed up to make the 5 hour drive south to Homer. More about Plan B and the bears in my next post!