Alaska

The 1899 Harriman Expedition Retraced

Roberta Foster|October 20, 2001|Blog Post

Roberta Foster is a teacher of gifted and talented students in Mount Olive Township, New Jersey. She won a trip on The Harriman Expedition Retraced expedition by entering a drawing sponsored by the National Geographic Society through their Geography Bee and donated by Zegrahm Expeditions. We asked her for her impressions of the journey.

For two weeks this past summer, I was one of the luckiest women in the world. I had won a ticket on The Harriman Expedition Retraced, a voyage that combined much of the best scenery, wildlife, and history that Alaska has to offer with the reenactment of a historic venture undertaken a century ago. It's easy to come to Alaska and be impressed; it's another thing entirely to be informed at the same time.

A typical day included timely lectures or slide presentations on the historical or scientific significance of the landings we were about to make, wonderful meals and snacks, and trips ashore. Often we went by Zodiac. These nimble little boats provided speedy access to otherwise unreachable areas such as seabird rookeries, intertidal ecosystems, and remote beaches. In towns we generally had a pier landing and bus shuttle service from the ship to sites of interest. We always had choices described to us, all equally enticing: long, medium, or short walks focusing on history or nature and led by the experts on board.

A very untypical day occurred early in the voyage. It was the day that native artifacts, collected a hundred years ago by the original Harriman expedition, were to be returned to their rightful owners, members of the Tlingit tribe. Edward Harriman, in the spirit of anthropological inquiry common in his era, had taken totem poles, carvings, and other artifacts from what he assumed was an abandoned beachside village at Cape Fox. When it became known that the objects had spiritual and ancestral significance to the Tlingits, plans were made to return them. The importance of this repatriation was evident as we arrived at Cape Fox, many of us exhilarated by our first Zodiac ride, to find Tlingit representatives greeting us with stately and moving drum beats and chants. Each of us had the opportunity to add a piece of bread as an offering to the ceremonial fire that had been built on the very beach visited by the Harriman Expedition a century ago.

Later that day we docked in Ketchikan for the actual transfer of the ancestral objects from the ship. Quite a crowd awaited us, many in traditional native garments. Flags were flying, TV news cameras were covering the event, and there was a feeling of excitement. On our deck were many huge wooden crates containing the objects that had been collected from five museums. The crates were removed to the pier by crane where they were opened, inspected, and greeted by Tlingit elders. It was a very emotional scene.

Repatriation was clearly the most significant and solemn event of the trip, but many aspects of the expedition matched it in impact. One cannot exaggerate the stunning natural beauty of Alaska. Each morning brings a new and unexpected view out the porthole, from the startling color of glacial water (like milky jade), misty snow-topped mountains, lush forests of hemlock and spruce, astonishing glaciers of dazzling blue ice, and captivating creatures not commonly viewed in the "Lower 48": humpback whales, sea otters, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, brown and black bears, and a staggering assortment of pelagic and shore birds. I think I doubled my birder's life list during this trip.

Viewing and identifying Alaskan flora and fauna were not left to chance or speculation; expert naturalists were on hand at all times to direct our attention to the air, sea, or shore for a noteworthy sighting and to explain with infinite patience the difference between a seal and a sea lion or a horned puffin and a tufted puffin. Ashore, they led nature walks, and their explanations of sights along the way brought wonder to mosses and flowers and land features that could easily be overlooked without an expert to bring them to our attention.

Certainly one of the most valuable features on this trip was the presence of these naturalists, scholars, and other experts who were readily available to explain what we were about to see, what we were seeing, and what we had seen. This trip provided the unique opportunity not only to view the mountains and glaciers, explore the towns, tour the fisheries and oil pipeline terminal, but also to meet and talk with the native Alaskans, examine intertidal ecosystems at close range, walk on a glacier, and be able to identify wildflowers, pelagic creatures, and geological formations - certainly not the sort of activities associated with the typical Alaskan cruise.

These authorities presented many of the controversial and contradictory issues that confront Alaska: this beautiful and pristine region is also the source of precious oil and timber; the unspoiled nature of the landscape is also the very thing that brings in thousands of tourists; the delicate balance of Alaska's ecosystem is threatened by the industries that provide a livelihood to many of its people; the conservation laws that control hunting and fishing threaten the subsistence lifestyle of the natives who have lived in Alaska for millennia. There are no easy answers, and the editorial pages of Alaskan newspapers make for interesting reading.

As a teacher I will have much to share with my classes this year thanks to my lucky win. In addition to viewing dozens of my slides, my students will learn about the native cultures and wildlife of Alaska, simulate the frustrations and thrills of the Klondike gold rush, and debate the complex issues facing this state. Although I was the only winner of the prize awarded by Zegrahm, many students will get to share my prize, as well.

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