Great Alaskan Adventure: Part Six

22 07 2011

Since there would be no fireworks display in Nenana or elsewhere in Alaska (doesn’t ever get dark enough!), we headed on down the road, the thought of leaving in a few days heavy on all our minds.  Yet the adventure wasn’t over yet.  We passed by Denali National Park and continued south to Denali State Park, where we finally pulled off at Byer’s Lake Campground.  On an evening walk down to the lake, Brian spotted a ptarmigan with five or six chicks walking beside the road.  Mother bird flew off, landing in a nearby tree.  I’m hoping she did that to distract us from her babies.  After dinner, Annalise and Brian went on a long walk, returning with a story of a long, scary suspension bridge.  Whining mightily that I might miss it, I got Annalise to promise to take me there in the morning.  Sure enough, she woke up early and took me there, although she walked so fast I had to beg her to wait up.  Indeed, it was quite a fun bridge, bouncy and high enough over a creek to give me the willies.  And on the other side, in the sandy creek bank, I found recent moose tracks, adding another level of excitement to our walk/run back.

On the road again (yes, I did regale everyone with my version of Willie Nelson’s song), we continued south to Anchorage.  Just outside the city, we stopped at the Eklutna Historical Park to see the St. Nicholas Russian Church.  Although the Russians as a whole used and abused the natives and the land, missionaries did leave behind a legacy of religion.  As told by our guide, Russian Orthodox beliefs were not much different from native beliefs, so they were readily adopted.  The graveyard there was quite a sight, with spirit houses placed over the graves of the Yupik natives each decorated with colors representing their particular family.  The small, crumbling houses over the graves of children were particularly touching.  The disrepair of the spirit houses was not indicative of a lack of concern for the memories of their elders, but rather a sign of their belief that all goes back to nature.

Our next stop was at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.  Tickets were expensive, but after watching a group of Yupik teenagers perform traditional dances, we felt good about supporting this endeavor.  These teens spent two hours a day, five days a week for four years to learn the dances, songs, and instruments of their native culture.  Heartwarming.  Inside the main building was a small museum, but the real deal was outside.  Around a small pond were replica dwellings of all the major Alaskan tribes.  Inside each was a native of that tribe who talked with us about his or her culture, traditions, and what it was like living in Alaska today.  The more questions you asked, the more interested they became in sharing their experiences and opinions with you.  I won’t forget the fire in the eyes of one elderly woman who gave us an earful about how the Russians treated the natives.

Throughout the whole trip, I kept daydreaming about sharing this experience with my students.  I know, I was on vacation and shouldn’t think about my job, but that’s just the way my mind works.  Constantly.  It’s scary, actually.  I would love to take a busload of students all over Alaska, giving them the same hands-on experience that I had.  Realistically, that would be a nightmare, but how exciting it would be to share the history and natural world with young eyes!  So I’ll do the next best thing: encourage parents to share the world with their children, away from electronic devices, and try to share my excitement with my own students back within the walls of my classroom so that they might be motivated to explore the world on their own.  In our downtime, as we were driving long stretches or in the evenings, we read voraciously of books we picked up along the way.  One such book, The Only Kayak, by Kim Heacox, told how the author had been a totally unengaged student, unaffected by any and all attempts at his teachers to teach him.  Only two teachers left a mark.  One was a college professor whose deep knowledge and off-the-wall techniques awed him, but the other was a lowly fourth grade teacher who, knowing Kim’s love of the outdoors, had placed a large poster of an ecosystem on the wall, solely to interest him.  A simple act, but it worked.  These two teachers reached the author, inspiring him to become a forest ranger, speaker, and writer.  Even more importantly, they enabled him to find happiness in his life’s work.  A teacher’s dream.