Alaska - Western Canada Journey

Day 12

Anchorage & Seward Scenic Highway


We spent the day visiting the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Alaska Museum thanks to the rain, then headed South. The Native Heritage Center was fun with good performances and presentations, and the Anchorage Museum was a first class museum with great art exhibits and a huge collection of native Alaskan artifacts. We saw nesting eagles for the first time as we headed out of town, and were at awe with the scenery as we drove the Seward Highway that hugged the bay. The view of Turnaround Arm, part of Cook Inlet, the surrounding mountains and glaciers were truly magnificient, that words, photos and even video can't do justice. We camped on the bank of a lake on the way to Kenai.

Day Journal

Our day started with a great breakfast. Our host accommodated our request for an early breakfast so I could take my SUV in for service. The breakfast was wonderful, as we've now come to expect of this great B&B. Then taking the Acura SUV to a Honda dealership for an overdue oil change and also to check out a squeaking noise that our SUV made during deceleration. The service people was wonderful although they could not figure out the strange noise; my service advisor joked that they only behave for tourists, and return to their grumpy selves during the winter. With so much mud caked to the body during our long trips in the rain, I was pleasantly surprised to find my car looking new after a thorough carwash.

Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC)

After the car service , we resumed our tourist activities with a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. This worked out well since there were many things to see and learn under roof so we could also stay dry. This center provides visitors a broader understanding of Alaska native cultures than the focus on Athabascan culture in Fairbanks. Here, the center contains building structures representative of all major native cultures, from Athabascan to Yupik, Inupiaq, Aleut/Alutiiq, and Eyak/Tlingit cultures. Each area has signs describing the culture and how they survive the unforgiving environment. The center provides guide led walks through the villages and in each building representative of that region, a native presenter would give a talk about how they live and challenges they faced in survival. At the Welcome House, there were several separate areas with different activities, from demonstration of native games and dances at the Gathering Place, to live artisans demonstrating their works in the Hall of Cultures, and videos presenting various cultures in the Theater section.Beyond the obvious role of providing tourists a good overview of native lives, the center also serves as an educational institution. More information can be found at the official ANHC website.
Below were our impressions as we visited the different sections of the center.

Art Display Section: There is a small but interesting collection of art works created by native artists. The unique aspect of the artwork is they mostly use natural materials such as fur, hide and fish skin. What amazed us was more than the artistic values of the works, which by themselves were amazing. But the thing that made us pause and think was how the native Alaskans survived and thrived in such unforgiving environments.

My mild admiration of this mask grew much deeper as we read the description about how it was made. This mask was created by Justus Mekiana from natural materials - caribou hide and fur, and musk fur. Justus Mekiana, the artist, was famous with work spanning many decades and traveled to demonstrate the art of mask making. He invented the art of Alaskan skin mask some 50+ years ago.
Later research about the artist, I found a document written by Margaret Blackman (Department of Anthropology, SUNY College Brockport New York), with the following excerpts: "For 50 years the Nunamiut of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska have been making skin masks by a technique that they invented, casting wet caribou skins on wooden molds. For 50 years the Nunamiut have also been talking about their village’s distinctive art...For 50 years the people of this small arctic village in Alaska’s Brooks Range have made caribou skin masks of human faces cast on hand carved wooden molds. The masks are so characteristic of the place that a skin mask made on a mold by any Alaska native person is often labeled an Anaktuvuk mask...Fifty years ago Justus Mekiana of Anaktuvuk Pass invented the process for making skin masks. “I have idea,” he said, “to make little money some way. I was thinking of it for long time too. I cut a little piece of a tree, spruce, and I start carving it like human, alright.”His first attempt at attaching a skin to his mold was a failure; he hadn’t carved the features deeply enough nor had he provided a satisfactory way to hold the skin to the mold at the eyes, nose and mouth. When he peeled his first mask off the mold it was virtually featureless. “The first one does not really look pretty, “he said. “Next one, second one, much better; third one is much better; fourth one is much better.” Justus is modest about the ingenuity of his efforts at mask making, but they led one social scientist 40 years ago to write an article for the journal Science on the psychology of innovation (ATAMIAN 1966)."

These fish skin boots were even more amazing, since it seemed to be actually used in everyday's life.

"Fish Skin BOOTS We dry king salmon skin and we tear the meat off. Then we scrape it some with a dull ulu. Then we soak it awhile in soapy water. We hang them outside so they won't stink.Then we make fish skin boots. Whenever the east wind blows, weput them on. Artist: Helen Dick (Lime Village)"
"Fish supplied more than food; they also gave humans the skin off their backs, providing a flexible and waterproof material used to construct boots, mittens, bags, parkas, even thread. By smoking the fish skin, water is driven out slowly without changing the flexibility of the oily skins. The water loss also minimizes bacterial growth, which would let the skins deteriorate...Fish that was dried and smoked, after eating the meat, they'd save their skins. Then when they had several, they'd wash them [in urine]. Aged urine, men's urine, my goodness, it apparently can get very pungent! It worked just like detergent." (Imagine that!) Source: Yupik Science Website

At the Gathering Place: We caught parts of the demonstration of some native games which are also events at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO). The games looked simple at the beginning. However, as the athletes progressed to advanced phases, we were awed at what they could do. After the sport demonstrations, dance teams performed interesting dances with stories behind them to the tunes of native music. Below are some videos captured at the time.

The Games



I call this the Long Jump; I found a gamed called Toe Kick on the WEIO website, but with one major difference from what we saw here.This game involves the contestant putting both feet together and jump forward beyond a bar without stepping backward after landing. He jumped a good distance, more so than most of us can do.

Alaskan High Kick: This is a game of balance where the athlete sits on the floor below a target with one hand grasping the opposite foot. With his/her remaining free hand planted on the floor, the athlete springs up and attempts to kick the target with the free foot. After kicking the target, the athlete must show balance upon landing - he/she is at the original position before kicking. Height is the objective. Description from:

One-foot High Kick: The high kick event requires the athlete to jump off the floor using both feet, kick a suspended object with one foot, and land on the floor using that same foot demonstrating balance to the floor officials. It is supported that when a messenger from a hunting or whaling crew is within visual distance of the villagers, he will kick high into the air thereby giving a message that a whale has been shot, or the caribou are running near. Description from:

The dances

Tlingit Welcome & End of summer dance ?

I could not find the name for this dance...

Tsimshian salmon dance: The men portray species of salmon that are caught in the southernmost part of Southeast Alaska, while the women portray the people who are fishing. They spread their nets out, and in the end gather the nets together to catch the fish. The song has two verses: the first says, in Tsimshian, "Stand up in your canoe, big fish!" The second says, "Stand up in your canoe, big fish! I'm going to catch you and eat you!" Source:


Indian Village Guided Tour


Athabascan "village" : This basically included a log cabin and a storage cache. Since there were plenty of pictures in our previous Fairbanks post, no repeat is necessary. Howerver, we found a more accessible birch bark boat, and with that being rare even in Alaska, here is a close-up view.

Yup'ik & Cup'ik Village: This was the second village in the tour. Here, the housing got more interesting, unlike the Athabascan cabins which modeled after western structures. There were two main buildings - Ena (Women's House) and Qasgiq (Men's House). The Ena: "A mother and her married daughters, or several married sisters, lived in the women's house with their female children. They prepared food for their men and boys who worked and lived in the qasgiq. Though women owned their houses, men built and maintained them, and would visit their wives and mothers in the evenings. These houses have semi-subterranian winter entrance passageway which also provided space for cooking."

The Qasgiq: The qasgiq served both as the men's house and community center. It's where young boys joined older men to work and learn. Mothers and wives brought them food, and joined in community gatherings here.

Our next stops were the Inupiaq & Saint Lawrence Yupik cultures, where people continue to follow old traditions. Housing typically include a subterranean entrance and semi-subterranean housing structures. Their lives evolve around the sea and caribou. We then visited the Aleut/Alutiiq and Eyak/Tinglit/Haida/Tsimshian villages. The Eyak/Tinglit/Haida/Tsimshian houses were quite impressive due to the abundance of big trees. It's also where totem poles were pervasive. Links are made back to the Alaska Native Heritage Center website for more information.

Anchorage Museum

After departing the center, we headed over to the Anchorage Museum to learn more about Alaskan native cultures, and to avoid the lingering rain.This museum is world class, with a strong emphasis on Alaskan native arts, history, cultures and science. It also hosts exhibits from around the world. The building itself is also a work of art. Its panels of shiny glass facades and dull ones make it an interesting mirror for passerby's. I even found the stairwells on the left architecturally interesting. We spent most of our time at the native arts and history section, with several photos here.

The journey south toward Kenai

Once we we went through the exhibits to our saturation, we discussed our next move, and without being able to extend our stay, we decided to drive South to either Seward or Homer, without a firm idea of whether which direction we would go eventually. That's both the benefit and perils of traveling without a clear itinerary :). Our trip led us through several interesting stops: Potter Marsh, Seward Highway, Sterling Highway leading to Kenai/Homer (we finally decided), and ended at Watson Lake Campground.

Potter Marsh: On the way out of Anchorage at the suggestion of the host at the visitor center, we made a stop at Potter Marsh to see a pair of nesting eagles. Despite being far from the pair, we were still able to see the birds fairly clearly. It was pretty exciting since this was our first time seeing eagles raising their chicks.

It was interesting to learn that being the most popular wildlife haven, Potter Marsh was unintentionally created thanks to the railroad construction between Seward and Anchorage. The embankment of of some creeks impounded the water and created the marsh. Over time, vegetation grew and ponds formed. It's a rare example of human action leading to something valuable for wildlife!

Seward Highway: Our drive South on Seward Highway was full of fascinating views of glacier-filled mountains jutting out of the sea. The majestic scenery was even more dramatic as storms moved through covering parts of the mountain and the sea. This highway winds through the Chugach National Forest and is designated a National Forest Scenic Byway. The drive on this highway was definitely fitting for the phrase "the journey is the destination" as the views were more beautiful than words can describe. We made numerous stops to take in the beautiful views and captured images that did not give fair depiction of the grandeur we saw. I captured several road sections of Seward Highway on video, giving a dynamic sense of the highway and its surroundings that's truly deserved to be a national scenic byway.

Sterling Highway & Watson Lake Campground: We made an executive decision as we approached the fork to go toward Homer (instead of Seward) so we could see Russian heritage and give us a more complete view of key tourist ports - if we went straight to Seward, we'd probably not go the Homer on the way back. The drive on this highway, called Sterling Highway, was also very nice, although in no way comparable to the Seward Highway that we had just passed. As the day was getting later, we settled to camp on the side of a lake on the way to Kenai, not a moment too soon since heavy showers pounded us right after we set up our mobile tent. This was one night we had to eat cold leftovers. Our camping neighbors were in no better shape with one eating under the cover of a tree, and the other munching dinner under the van hatch back. But just as quick as the rain came, it cleared just in time for us to enjoy a glorious sunset over the lake!

Roads and weather

There was only one minor roadwork just outside Anchorage. Otherwise the roads were in good condition, allowing us the time to enjoy the scenery. The weather was wet through mid afternoon, then cleared up in time for our Potter Marsh walk. It stayed dry enough for us to enjoy the scenery as we drove the Seward Highway. As we turned toward Kenai, the rain became heavier, and was at its peak right when we set up camp.