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

Neah Bay

Neah Bay, close to the most northwesterly point of the contiguous US, was a bit of a detour for me but – as the home of the Makah Tribe – an important stop. Unfortunately, my short visit didn’t allow for me to meet any of the Makah Tribe but I found the Makah Museum fascinating.

Much of the museum is dedicated to the story of Ozette, a Makah village that was buried by a mudslide approximately 500 years ago, then increasingly exposed by coastal erosion in 1969. A huge operation was launched to salvage not just artefacts from the village but also confirmation of the Makah’s way of life at that time.

Taking photos in the museum was prohibited but these postcards give an idea of life in the Pacific northwest

As well as the Ozette operation, the museum outlined the seasonal patterns of subsistence of the tribe, including the springtime gray whale hunt. The hunt was halted in 1920 after commercial whaling had dramatically reduced the gray whale population. Since the eastern Pacific gray whale population was removed from the endangered list in 1994, the Makah have been keen to resume subsistence whaling. The discussions regarding this are still ongoing.

As well as the gray whales that pass close to shore during the northward migration in spring, some gray whales (the Pacific coast feeding group) remain in the Oregon-Washington-SE Alaska region until autumn and I was lucky enough to spot one from shore. I’d camped out at Hobuck Beach, four miles from Neah Bay, and had braved the mosquitoes to look for whales as I ate my supper on the beach. All was quiet. My luck changed in the morning though, when blows rose up from beyond the surf. A gray whale!

Check out the blow beyond the wave!

San Juan Island

Admittedly, sunshine can make all the difference and my stay on San Juan Island was gloriously sunny. However, even in the rain – which I experienced in impressive proportions as I left – it would be hard not to like a place where you navigate my old barns and fields of cows. For me, San Juan was an excellently calm stepping-stone from the bubble of the Alaskan ferry to the traffic and tribulations of my next destinations.

As luck would have it, my friend, marine mammal expert Dr Frankie Robertson, lives on the island and very kindly housed, fed and entertained me while I was there. As we drove around, Frankie brought me up to speed on the status of local marine mammal populations, ongoing studies and research questions still to be addressed. Our trip out to Lime Kiln State Park, where killer whales often cruise by close to shore, was cetacean-free but I was lucky enough to meet Jeanne Hyde, Lime Kiln’s resident killer whale expert, whose enthusiasm for all things marine was shared with energy and humour.

Friday Harbor’s Whale Museum contained an abundance of information about the Salish Sea, the local killer whales, gray whales and more. Jars of whale lice sat alongside baleen plates and patches of barnacles still attached to leathery strips of whale skin. A gray whale skeleton was suspended near that of a killer whale and, mindbogglingly, the skeleton of conjoined harbour seal twins found in 2013.

An evening walk on the island’s south coast gave us stunning views across a flat calm Strait of Juan de Fuca to the mountains of mainland Washington. Minke whales, the species we’d come looking for, eluded us. Instead, we watched synchronised teams of diving ducks, foxes in orange and black, a group of otters in the shallows, a bald eagle and grazing deer. Even better, Frankie assured me that – apart from a visitor earlier this year who’d promptly moved on – the island was bear-free. What a place!

Piece by piece

It was in May 2000 that Stacy Studebaker found a dead gray whale washed up on Pasagshak beach and saw an opportunity for the whale to become an educational project. Just four days later, she’d pulled together a team and the whale was buried beneath 10 ft of soil in a trench 45 ft long where it was left to decompose.

The real work began four years later. Piece by piece, the whale’s bones were excavated, cleaned, left outside to be bleached by the sun, then dried in a heated basement. Two years after that, the skeleton was ready to be reassembled, supported by a custom-made steel support system.

Next, the whale was carefully transported to the new Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Centre in five pieces and duly reassembled. In 2007, seven years after first being found, the whale’s skeleton was finally back in one piece.

Now, in 2019, the skeleton display is as impressive as ever, suspended in the visitor centre. I squelched around it in waterlogged shoes having just arrived from Pasagshak myself the day after kayaking with gray whales in the bay. Seen from a kayak or as a skeleton on display, these whales are huge. As big perhaps as the challenge of moving one, although that too was possible piece by piece.

Squirrels’ teeth & meteorites

Visiting the Alaska Heritage Museum was hands down the highlight of my stay in Anchorage. The single room on the ground floor of the Wells Fargo bank – inconspicuous and easily missed – houses a treasure trove of artifacts and is free to enjoy.

Models of umiak boats, made from walrus or seal skin stretched over driftwood frames, sat next to 1000 year old harpoon heads and blubber hooks. There were baleen buckets, baleen sleds and baleen baskets. Many of the baskets had carved ivory starter pieces of the heads of marine mammals, as they’re seen from a kayak. Woven from thin strips of baleen, the baskets were light as a feather and seriously robust.

A collection of carved tusks caught my eye. Incredibly intricate maps, scenes and animals had been etched into the ivory, whilst others also had three-dimensional figures on pegs that slotted in to holes in the tusk. The curator of the museum, clearly very knowledgeable and with a mischievous air, opened up the display so I could take a closer look. “The people would have traded metal tools for carving these designs”, he told me, “and they also collected metals from fallen meteors”. Really? “And, apparently, squirrels’ teeth are incredibly hard”, he added. Wait, what? If trying to find fallen meteorites seemed crazily unfeasible, what were the chances of happening upon squirrels’ teeth? It only occurred to me later that whole squirrels – teeth and all – are easier to locate, but I’m still not entirely convinced.