Life | A Dish Called Alaska

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A Dish Called Alaska
Text by Neha Gupta
Published: Volume 22, Issue 2, February, 2014

On a cruise along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska, Neha Gupta picks from Ketchikan, Juneau and Scagway where she fished for salmon, cracked open crabs, took a bite of a glacier and travelled to the settlements of Tlingit natives

There is always something exciting about cruises. The whole idea of rushing through the oceans to a destination gives you a Rose-at-Titanic’s-edge-like rush, hopefully sans its fate, of course! Heeding to a, ‘Button till the top and layer like an onion,’ we stepped on board Radiance Of The Seas from Seattle – the last Alaskan cruise for that year in September.

The best part about a voyage like this is that you’re not compelled to jump out of bed early, each morning, for the sheer excitement of combing through yet another city. Our ship took her own time to get from one port to another. And so on the third day when our alarm clocks woke us at 6 a.m., we sprung with charged energy levels.

FISHING OUT FABLES
Walking through Ketchikan is as good as an amble through the thick pages of a book in sepia print from the 20th century. On observing their population that is limited to an approximate of 10,000 persons, your head just might suddenly hum to the theme song of the 1980’s sitcom Cheers – Everybody Knows Your Name. It’s amazing how many times our tour guide’s speech was interrupted with greetings from the locals before we hit a salmon farm.

There is nothing pretty about watching these fish slap each other to swim upwards, against the water current. There are plenty similar sights along the Ketchikan Creek, which was once known for its fishing camps in the summers, where they have more room to swim. Now that strip has evolved into a tourist hub with gift shops, et al. Despite that, a visit to The Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center isn’t altogether redundant. They have this whole Animal Planet vibe going for them with a visual presentation taking you through the various stages of the salmon from egg to adult – all preserved in their actual form. And if birds are an item of fancy, they even have an enclosure, which is more like a hospital for the wounded and endangered feathers.

But the real excitement on Ketchikanian land is one that pulls you into an introduction with traditional Native Americans. It’s not like their heritage has been altogether wiped out. There are plenty of Native Americans living their lives in western garbs, who have adopted the boons and banes of technology and are very much in step with progressive cultures. It is actually at Potlatch Park where you literally travel back to the 19th century to live the lives of Tlingit natives of Southeast Alaska – the first inhabitants of this settlement. And to get to this means zigzagging through tall rainforests on foot. And this also means being watched by curious squirrels who should have been accustomed to a barage of visitors by now. Suddenly the trail opens into an ancient fishing ground, now populated with totem poles, the tallest being 42 feet in height!

That each pole is an emblematic erection is a known fact. But to decipher them is a study by itself. It could very well be to honour a deceased, boast about achievements, thank a generosity and even speak of a supernatural confrontation. We witnessed one pole in the making by a Ketchikanian who had already spent a year carving out her piece of cedar. No amount of imploring got her to share even a glimpse of what her story may be about. She was saving the narration for their annual festival.

With a shrug we moved on to play house in imitation of the Tlingit natives. Edifices are built after their lifestyles. One was a tub of sorts with coal to depict the kitchen. Another was a hole with a log where they dried fish. A squared wooden space held a rug, a painted wall hanging, handcarved furniture and some more to make a sample home. By the end of it all there was a yearning to own something authentic, something tribal, something symbolic. From the hundreds of shops that sell souvenirs in dozens, few source genuine Native American handicrafts. Spotting a true native boutique is easy because you will know one when you see one. And don’t for a second think that these artefacts come cheap. When days are spent toiling over creating something wrapped in chants, there is a high price to pay.

Finally after scouring the town for dreamcatchers, with no time left for crab hunting, kayaking and snorkelling, the day wrapped up in a delicious salmon feast prepared in many simple ways.

ICY WAY THROUGH
You may as well adorn the Indiana Jones avatar when entering the Inside Passage fjord. Tall green-brown mountains on either side seem to close in on you as your ship inches forward through glacier-pieces astray, forcing you to wrap up tight against the nippy breeze stinging you while you sip on hot chocolate, Irish style, for warmth. Topping this drama was a little seal gawking in annoyance for interrupting his peace. Environmentalists worry for the flora and fauna breeding in this space, blaming ships who insist on sailing through here and creating unnecessary heat in the process. And indeed, a sight it was – every bit worth prolonging if preservation isn’t likely. The glacier stood frozen in magnificience as if it was once a cascading flow, against the icy blue waters and clear azures. The flanking landscapes only gave it more character, making it a dreamy backdrop for a proposal.

Pulling out of the fjord meant diving back into bed for toasty warmth. And that was interrupted with the captain’s announcement of a pair of humpback whales swimming beside us. More fauna in the form of mountain goats came into view as we approached Juneau. Effortlessly they defied gravity, grazing on slopes that were ostensibly at a precipitous 70 degree angle.

This is one of those cities best enjoyed on foot. Most buildings here still hold architecture from two centuries ago. There isn’t much to see here except maybe the local church and museum. But a short drive from the town centre promises more glacial familiarity at the Mendenhall Glacier, where holding a piece of this gigantic ice block in your mouth is a possibility. The whole idea of being able to ingest something that is quickly dissolving into global warming was terrifying. But such is the purity of the waters here – the only capital city in all of USA that can be accessed solely by an airplane or a boat.

We were told that the Tongass National Forest engulfs this waterbody where bear sightings are usual. That explained the many dustbins certified with a ‘bear-proof’ stamp around the city. Luckily it was hibernation season. To actually face a stray eight feet tall grizzly wouldn’t exactly be thrilling. And when on a stroll, there lay a barefaced pile of bear poop, nicely labelled with the date of its creation and possible ingredients. We couldn’t decide which was more appalling, that the bear left a little something on the pathway or the labelling of it.

Helping us push this image out of our minds was the redolence of kennel corn, on our way back into the city, which was being freshly prepared in oversized woks. But to visit Juneau without indulging in its quintessential giant red crabs would have been a shame. Apart from just immersing the creatures in boiling water for a few minutes, there isn’t much that goes into preparing it. This is why one can take pleasure in cracking the shell for its wholesome, unadulterated flavour.

THE LAST JOURNEY
Before hitting the city of Victoria, not much different to any metropolis in the world, Skagway was our last breath of barely-fiddled-with-beauty. Warm weather, colourful buildings, berry trees and striking flower beds lend a charm to this vibrant township. Interestingly, its first ever building, now a Mascot Saloon Museum, was a brothel. Bringing back that feel, playfully staged hookers hoot at blushing pedestrians. The thoroughly laid-back vibe extends to train tracks running right through Skagway’s centre. Locomotives don’t usually cut through the city, but when they do, people tend to manoeuvre around them, because waiting for the carriages to pass is painfully slow.

Everybody insisted on us buying tickets to the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad tour, a little walk to the city’s edge. While the upward journey was spectacular, with a clear view of the White Pass at 2,885 feet, the return journey was routed through the same tracks again. There is only so much one can enjoy of the Glacier Gorge, Dead Horse Gulch and Bridal Veil Falls – unless you’re on a hike in these parts. Tugging at the parlour cars at a faster speed would have been much more enjoyable.

In spite of skipping the aerial view of the glacier, a boat ride closer to whales and a trip to a huskie farm, Alaska offered us everything in tiny doses in its own natural form. And when it comes to huskies, who could resist such adorability – which is why these pets were seen everywhere on pampered leashes!

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