Guns and scrimshaw

23rd September

My two main tasks for my full day in Anchorage were to buy supplies from an outdoor store and visit the Wells Fargo Heritage Museum. In the cavernous REI store, staff outnumbered customers and a woman with a pierced septum and broad range of tattoos approached as I considered bear canisters. She was surprised to hear I was going to be cycling on Kodiak Island.

                ‘Normally only fishermen and hunters visit’, she explained.

                ‘Do they ever camp in tents or do they have RVs?’, I asked, hopefully.

                ‘They all have guns’, she answered, and I stopped asking questions.

Heart still racing from my dash across six lanes of oversized traffic, I immediately started to relax in the quiet of the museum. In a single room beneath a tower block of banking offices, glass display cases house treasure. Collections of lances and harpoons, narrow baleen sledges, woven baskets and 1,000-year-old sunglasses hewn from rock surround the centrepiece; the curved tusk of a woolly mammoth that towered above me. Fascinated, I read every plaque, learning how the coastal Inupiaq, Yup’ik and Cup’ik people survived off seal, fish, whale, walrus and berries. Every scrap of every catch was used: seal meat was eaten, their oil lit lamps while their skins were turned into clothes, floats, ropes and tents. Stretched over driftwood frames, seal skins became boats. A umiak vessel 15 to 20 feet long could transport more than 20 people to summer fishing camps or be used to hunt whales in the frigid coastal waters.

A model of a umiak vessel in the Wells Fargo Museum

I slowly circled a glass-topped display, peering at the carved walrus tusks from every angle. Intricately etched scenes depicted walrus on ice floes, men in canoes and boats, and caribou, seals, birds and polar bears. Others had three-dimensional figures – polar bears, seals and Arctic foxes – on pegs that slotted into holes in the tusks and I imagined the hours they must have taken to carve, perhaps as ferocious winds raged outside, or northern lights wavered overhead during long winter nights.

Scrimshaw scenes