Sunday, March 06, 2016

Following Captain Cook

I was on a crowded bus heading north, my husband beside me, when the driver said "And on your right is Cook's Inlet." My mind blew up. Captain James Cook and his crew had actually sailed the Resolution into that bay--the very first Europeans to have seen it. And here I was, driving along its shore myself, a faint drizzle marring what would be a rather blurry photo. All of a sudden I was there, aboard the Resolution, awestruck by the way the land rose directly up from the sea, how the mist shrouded some but not all of ridges. I stayed in this state of suspended historical animation for the entire Alaska cruise, from Seward to Vancouver.
We began our Alaskan adventure in Anchorage, after an easy non-stop five-hour flight. (It took us 14 hours and 4 planes to get to Acapulco last January so we already were in heaven.) The Anchorage Museum, outside of which we would pick up our bus to Seward and the cruise ship, had on exhibit a fabulous homage to Captain Cook and his third voyage: Artic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage. It was brilliantly done, with original paintings, diaries, and other items on loan from Australia, England, and other places, as well as items from the museum's own collection. As a curator of rare materials who often mounts exhibitions, I was green with envy at the custom made cases and exhibit stands, the custom interpretative maps and models. My husband found it very amusing as I went around the exhibit mumbling "we have that," we have that, too," "Oooh, I wish we had that one," "Look honey, we have that at home!" The Bell Collection is super when it comes to Cook materials, but we don't have any of the original drawings or watercolors that were part of this exhibition. The image featured here is by artist John Webber: A Man of Oonalashka. From James Cook, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. London: G. Nicol and T. Cadell, 1785. Bell Library Call# 1785 Co  You can find it and other images in our online exhibition: Captain Cook's Voyages of Discovery.

Alaska is the most moving and beautiful place I have ever been. It was also the most surprising--from the world-class cuisine at Seward's The Cookery to the sparse population of even the largest of its few cities to the local history about which I was appalling ignorant. On March 30, 1867, the U.S. government, in the person of Secretary of State William Seward, reached an agreement with the Russian empire to purchase Alaska for more than $7 million. Called "Seward's Folly," opposition to the purchase didn't really die down until gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896.

The people of Alaska, descendants of the indigenous population and transplanted "southerners" alike, work hard to keep that history alive and to share it with visitors. Our visit to Skagway immersed us in history from the very beginning, when we boarded an old trolley car, converted to wheels, for a tour. 

Our tour guide posing at Reid's tombstone.
Our tour guide shared a variety of fun facts, history, and local sites, from the cost of a gallon of milk -- $7.00 -- to the story of the shootout between Frank H. Reid, a local businessman and city surveyor and outlaw Jefferson "Soapy" Smith in July of 1898. Control of the town was at stake.  Smith shot Reid, who died of his wounds eight days later.  We also saw Sarah Palin's childhood home.

I was hoping to see a lot of wildlife, but the weather often made visibility poor--if they were there, we didn't see them.  We did see amazing scenery at every turn, including this and other glaciers. 

Despite the distance of time, it was easy to picture Cook and his crew in every bay and along every shore. 

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