Sunday, November 23, 2014

Is Anyone Else Sick of "Doing What's Best for Kids?"

A Platitude by Any Other Name Smells Just as Sweet. 

I‘ll admit it, I have had it up to here with doing what’s best for kids. I know as a teacher I am supposed to be warm, fuzzy and all giving all the time but this "doing what’s best for kids” thing has finally got to me. 

Just to keep things honest, I am one of those union big shots we hear so much about. I am the president of our local teachers union and my members pretty much march lockstep to my every desire. I own three cars, the swankiest a 2002 Volkswagen Jetta; I dine in the fanciest pizza joints that our community has to offer and I drink nothing but artisanal beer. Now that you know where I am coming from, I’m sure it’s clear that kids are way down on my list of priorities. But the fact that I obviously don’t give a hoot about kids personally, isn’t what drives me nuts about this “do what’s best for kids” mantra. 

What gets me is how the mantra is used by everyone from the president, to politicians, to voters, to administrators, to all of us educators ourselves, to show that our first concern always is with the kids whether it really is or not. I can't listen to the news, negotiate our contract or even go to a faculty meeting without just about everyone agreeing that education is always   about doing what is best for kids. 

But I'm first to admit it, I don’t always do what’s best for kids. I recently attended a teacher leadership conference sponsored by the Gates Foundation. I went in large part because I heard they put on a good lunch. And the lunch was good, with lots of snacks, chocolate covered rose petals, that sort of thing, and it was in a fancy conference center with waterfalls, valet parking and clean restrooms.

I was feeling a little guilty because I realized that if we really were serious about doing what is best for kids, wouldn’t all us teacher-leader types have met on the cheap? Wouldn’t we have brought our own sack lunches and met in some high school gymnasium or cafeteria? We still could have had the same conversations and discussions and sent that extra money to a homeless shelter or something else that’s really best for kids. 

Now of course I’m just a union lackey who always puts adults ahead of kids but there were a lot of non-union types there too, Bill and Melinda aren’t known for their support of big labor. And I would have thought they would have felt especially guilty being that they really want to do “what’s best for kids.” But it was nice, we got along great, eating chocolate, listening to the waterfalls and solving education’s problems all on Bill’s nickel.

But I really suppose I shouldn’t feel bad because who in the education business ever really does what’s best for kids? If we were serious about doing what’s best for kids, wouldn’t we all take a vow of poverty and live like Mother Theresa? Wouldn’t we be willing to step back to those good old days when teachers lived at the school, cleaned it and did the cooking too? And of course we would do it for a pittance.

 And as a country if we were really interested in doing what is best for kids couldn’t we do with one less $13 billion aircraft carrier or  a couple of $2.5 billion submarines and spend that money on early childhood education? If we were really interested in doing what’s best for kids wouldn’t we attack poverty instead of the poor? And if we were really trying to do what's best for kids, who would allow corporate America to set our educational agenda knowing it won't be good for anyone but their shareholders?

So I'm suggesting that we get real about helping kids and that means building new schools instead of new weapons systems, paying support staff a living wage and giving teachers the respect they deserve. And really being honest about just whose nest is being feathered. 

While I don’t think anyone is ready to start the “Let’s do what’s bad for kids,” movement, on the other hand, it's time to put this platitude to rest and do the best we can.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Good Story is a Terrible Thing to Waste

  As I was about to start my ninth grade physical science class a polite young girl raised her hand and asked me if I had ever been arrested. I was taken aback. Through the years I have been asked any number of personal questions, but never this one.

I responded, "No, not really. I mean I have had traffic tickets and things like that but no, I've never been arrested." Then I thought a little more and said, "Well maybe I have…"

If you want the attention of a classroom of ninth graders, telling them that you may have been arrested is a good way to start. I went on to tell them that I really wasn't sure. "What do you mean you aren't sure?" someone asked.
I explained that when I was ten or eleven, I had been picked up by the police and put in a little room for 2 or 3 hours until my parents came and got me, but I don't think I had actually been arrested.
"What were you picked up for?" several kids demanded. 
There was no retreating now, getting the class on task wasn't going to happen unless I told them the story. Which I did, honestly, and factually, and with little embellishment, at least as honestly and factually and unembellished as an event some fifty years earlier could be remembered. 
I grew up in a small town that we kids had the run of.  A new building that housed a drug store and a grocery store had been built out of bricks right downtown. As you entered the building the drug store was on the left and the grocery store on the right. In an effort to make a blank brick wall more aesthetically pleasing, the masons had laid every fifth brick or so standing about an inch out from the rest of the wall. This created a geometric pattern that ten or eleven year old boys could be pleased with and also a pattern that ten or eleven year old boys could immediately see was a pre-climbing-wall-era climbing wall. So that's what we did.  When we had nothing else going on we would wander down to the Nelson's Drug/IGA climbing wall and climb to the top, touch the overhang, climb down, and move on with the business of young boys in a small town. 
One Sunday morning my friend Dale Moore and I were roaming the downtown and came to the climbing wall. There were two other boys only slightly older than us there as well. We knew of them but we didn't really know them. And while we tackled the grocery store side, they started up on the drug store side. Dale and I both made it to the top and were headed down when we heard a crash off to our left. One of the other boys had touched the large plastic N of the Nelson's Drug sign and it had fallen to the sidewalk and shattered. 
There was a fellow sitting in his car reading a newspaper who had watched all this transpire. We stood on the sidewalk as he told the other two boys to go into the drug store and tell them what had happened. The man said nothing to us and we wandered off on our Sunday morning rounds. 
We were about two blocks away when a squad car pulled up and the policeman told us to get into the car. He drove to the police station and placed us in a small white room saying little. There was no sign of the other two boys and after an hour or so Dale Moore's parents came and took him home. I sat there for what seemed like a couple hours more until my folks picked me up. I don't remember being questioned about the event, but I am sure I was, and I was an honest kid so I am sure I told them just what had happened. 
"Were you scared Mr. Miller?" one of my students asked. 
"No, I what did I have to be afraid of? I hadn't done anything wrong except maybe climb a wall that every kid in town climbed." I replied. 
"So then what happened?" someone asked.
"Well not much. My folks took me home and I don't even remember being punished.  But when I got older I realized that those other two boys had gone into the store and told them that Dale and I had broken the sign, not them. We'd been framed. I was sent to the slammer for something I hadn't done."
My students all agreed that I had gotten a raw deal, and that those two boys were scoundrels and that I should have beaten them up. So finally I got the class back on track after this fifteen-minute diversion. 
About a week later, just as class was about to begin a different polite young girl raised her hand and asked if she could ask me a question. This  is always a red flag but I said, "Sure."
"So like when you were in jail did you get any tattoos?" she said with huge smile. 
I started laughing so hard I could barely choke out, "No! I didn't get any tattoos."
"Oh come on, show us your tattoos," someone shouted, "Everybody gets tattoos in jail."
Another kid chimed in, "Did you join any gangs, Mr. Miller? Did they make you join a gang?"
"What about the police, did you have to make some kind of deal to let you out of jail?"
The questions came rapid fire; I tried to maintain control but it was hopeless, a teacher doubled up laughing has no credibility. I don't know if my class had planned this ahead of time or not, but it didn’t matter, they had where they wanted me.  Kids love to get their teachers to this point. It's their ultimate victory, to make us join them. 
Finally after everyone settled down, I told them if I had ever imagined my little story would have made such a big impression I would never have stuck to the truth. I would have added the beatings, the interrogations under hot lights, the screams of the other inmates and of course the tattoos. 
But I guess I didn't really didn't need to, they made up their own version better than any that I might have fabricated.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sleepless In Iceland

Children, Camping and Insomnia in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Iceland summer 2:00 am
I have trouble sleeping, not so much getting to sleep but rather staying asleep. When asked, I euphemistically say that I have “sleep issues.” My son calls them my “night terrors.” But whatever you want to call the condition, nine out of ten experts agree that when one has trouble sleeping it is important to maintain a regular sleep schedule. So that is what I tried to do on our recent trip to Iceland. 
One thing that is really refreshing in Iceland are the children. They play outside. If it is cold, and this being Iceland that is not unusual, they just bundle up. You see them outside in the drizzle or the sun, or in the howling wind. They run and skip, and there is chalk drawn on the sidewalks where they play hopscotch. Our first morning in Iceland we watched a large group of kids sailing and rowing boats in a cold windswept harbor with just a couple of adults in inflatables keeping herd on them like goslings. I was wearing long johns while I watched them.

Arriving in Akereyri, the second largest city in Iceland, we learned there was a mixup on our room and it wasn’t available that night, so we set off for the local campground. It was a large one with fifteen grass fields for camping. Being the recluses we are, we found a nearly empty field with just one other tent. We set up camp well away from them and settled in. In my effort to stay on some sort of regular sleep schedule, at about 10:30 I got in the tent to read and then hopefully go to sleep. 

As I am winding down I hear a diesel truck coming roaring towards the tent. I am inside so I can only hear what appears to be happening.  It sounded like it circled our tent three or four times and then stopped and went back and forth at several attempts to find just the right spot before coming to rest. 

The doors slammed open and a swarm of children burst forth. Minutes later another vehicle comes dashing into the field  honking its horn at the children who were now running in all directions, apparently including in front of the second vehicle. This car stopped and another gaggle of kids jumped out joining their pals. Together they are all yelling, shrieking, bouncing soccer balls off each other, the tent trailers, the cars, and pounding the ground like a herd of wildebeests. They were having the time of their lives. Then someone starts playing a guitar badly.

I finally unzip my tent to see what is going on and there is one teenage boy, two or three preteen girls, and somewhere between five to seven first graders (they never slowed down enough to actually count) careening around like they are in a pinball machine, poking each other with sticks, going in and out of the cars and making sure the doors are slammed securely every time. There are three adults whose job seemed to be to yell at the kids now and then and at the tent trailers they were trying to assemble. 

The quietest one of the bunch was a big black lab that was tied to the first tent trailer. He probably knew that any noise he made was sure to be drowned out by the general din, so what was the point?

In Iceland in the summer at 10:30 PM it is bright enough to do brain surgery, so it was hard to blame them for all the commotion. I am sure they were just like my family when we went camping with my cousins as children. And they were dashing about with so much energy I expected them to crash at any moment from exhaustion. No such luck. At about midnight, it being still light enough to do an emergency appendectomy, they were still going strong. I wasn't. 

I gave them my best stink eye to no avail. I hated Icelandic children. I wished I could have handed out smart phones, earbuds and Big Macs to the lot of them so they could quietly text each other and play video games like good American children. 

Finally at about 12:30 a.m. I stuffed earplugs into my head, strapped on my eyeshade and while I felt a little like I was embalmed, I fitfully fell asleep with the thought that at least everyone would sleep in in the morning.
Well the dog wasn't having any part of it. At 7:30 am sharp he barked just enough wake me and several of the kids up and the whole thing started again. Ahh...traveling. Two naps later I was almost back to normal and we pressed on.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Learning to Swim- By Nearly Drowning.

After my sadistic PE teacher in high school ordered the class to swim the 50 meter length of the YMCA pool I should have realized I didn’t know how to swim. I weighed 145 pounds, was made of nothing but muscle, bone and stubbornness and I sank when placed in water. 

The rest of the boys quickly made it to the other end of the pool where they climbed out to watch me struggle slowly forward. I fought like a drowning dog and with nothing but a force of will I made it the end where the teacher glibly told me that he, “Wondered if I was going to make it.” 

Somehow I passed PE and graduated from high school and it was on Christmas break during my first year of college that I suddenly found myself upside down in in a world that literally takes your breath away. I had fallen into the winter water of Puget Sound. And while I may have convinced myself that I knew how to swim, the water didn’t necessarily agree.

I grew up with water. The beach was just a couple of blocks from my home and it provided my entertainment. There were three old boathouses lined up next to the ferry dock at the beach. They had little railroads sloping down that went out past the low tide line. Fishermen would rent kicker boats, roll them down on miniature flatcars out into the water. At the end of the day they would circle out in front until someone in the boathouse would send out an empty car to pick them up.

My friends and I built bonfires, made plans and explored under the old boathouses. Amidst the smell of creosote, we smoked cigarettes and explored growing up. We built rafts and would float on big boom logs in water so cold only young kids and grown ups in wet suits could stand it. We salvaged wrecked row boats, patched the leaks with tar and set out. We combed the beach and in a windrow of seaweed up to our knees, we found a burlap sack with six drowned pups in it. They were still fresh. You would have thought they were asleep after a bath except for how cold they were. 

My father had always admonished me to learn how to swim, to really swim. During World War II, the ship he was on had been bombed and he spent twenty hours in the water. Nearly 800 men died in that attack and one of the few stories he ever shared of that terrible day was of his shipmates in the water with him becoming quieter and quieter until they were no more. I assured him I knew how to swim. I sold newspapers on the ferry dock and when I was offered five dollars to jump from the dock with all my clothes on, I did it, splashed my way to shore and collected the five dollars. I was confident that I knew how to swim.

So it was on that winter break that I borrowed the kayak. It was fiberglass and homemade. Before kayaks became as popular as today, most of them were homebuilt. A mold would be passed from person to person and in a stinking mess in somebody's basement, the amateur boatbuilder would craft a kayak to the best of his ability.

This one may have been the best someone could do, but it only pointed out the builder's limitations. The kayak had never been finished or painted and had a translucent mildewed gray look. It was a bare shell, with no seat, no watertight compartments and the builder had simply jammed a couple of chunks of pink styrofoam in the ends for flotation.

In late afternoon approaching dark, I carried the kayak down to the beach. I had left my life jacket at home, so I just sat down in it, grabbed the paddle and pushed off. I had used a large sea kayak in the past, so I was confident of my abilities. But this wasn't a wide flat-bottomed sea kayak, it was a makeshift river kayak, narrow and rounded, built to turn quickly.

I pulled on the paddles, first left, then right, left... right...left... right. The water was absolutely flat with just a breath of wind. I made good time; left, right, left, right. Dipping first one side, pull... dip the other, pull... smooth water. I headed straight out from shore. In a short time I was past the ends of the little railroads, soon well beyond the end of the ferry dock, and finally outside the last of the black pilings stuck in the sandy bottom. About two hundred yards off shore in absolutely flat water all of a sudden I was upside down falling out of the boat. It had just rolled over.

Salt water stung my nose, the light above told me my head was at the wrong end for air. I spun and kicked toward the surface. It had 
happened so unexpectedly I hardly had enough time to hold my breath. My head finally burst through the surface, I gasped and tread water.

Maybe I had pulled too hard on one side, I didn't know, but I was out of the kayak in very cold water. The kayak was beside me. Lightened of its load, it rolled slowly over. A large bubble of air belched out of of the hatch, and one end of the kayak sank straight down. Air was trapped in the other end and it floated straight up and down, bobbing gently in the water like a single accusatory finger pointing to the sky. I spun around looking for the paddle. My first thought was that since I had borrowed the kayak I didn't want to lose anything. The water was painfully cold. 

I couldn't see the paddle but a chunk of styrofoam about the size of a Bible had become free and floated lightly on the water, gently sailing out of my reach. I now knew I was beyond my swimming abilities, I could easily drown out here, I thought. So I grabbed for the foam and my splashing pushed it out of reach. More gently this time, I moved slowly, got the foam and stuffed it under my arm. 

I looked towards shore, the boat houses were closed and nobody was going to send a flatcar out to pick me up. Lights had come on in several of the little cottages on the beach. Nobody was taking a stroll on this cloudy winter evening. I looked for the ferry, but it was closer to the other side and I thought about what to do.
Puget Sound is cold anytime of year, but in mid-December it is about fifty degrees. You have about half an hour in it before your body gets so cold that your mind doesn't care. I was familiar with hypothermia and debated whether to kick off my pants. Modesty influenced me and I kept them on. I knew I had to get out of the water. So holding tight to my chunk of pink salvation I started kicking and paddling toward shore. My pants slowed me down. I kept kicking, the shore seemed far away and more lights had come on. 

A girl I liked had written a quote from T. S. Elliot in my high school year book, "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper." I thought about that as I struggled toward shore and I wished I had followed my fathers advice. I never yelled, I was a shy kid, embarrassed, and I didn't want to trouble anyone. I didn't think anyone would have heard so I kept paddling.

The shore was slowly getting closer, the pain of the water had been replaced by numbness, almost to the point of warmth. It was dark when my dead feet thudded on the sand and I could stand up. I sloshed ashore, my wet cloths hung on me stiff and clammy, little strands of green seaweed stuck to my sweater. Still clutching the styrofoam I headed up the beach. 
A middle-aged woman came out on the deck of one of the warm, lit up cottages, and shouted at me. "It's people like you, who drown... I've seen it before." I thought it was an odd comment, did she just watch them? Was she related to my PE teacher? I squished through her yard, down the parking lot to my car and drove to my house as fast as I could, shaking like a wet dog.

I stomped past my surprised parents with no explanation. In the bathroom I stripped off my clothes . I looked the color of the kayak, gray. I stood in the steaming shower, first warming only enough to shiver uncontrollably, then warming more until I could feel the pain of the hot water on thawed skin. I stayed in the shower until its water finally turned cold. Dressed and still chilled, I offered an incomplete and insufficient explanation to my parents. 

My father, never one to miss making a point, didn't. This surprised me, his nature was much more like the woman in the cottage and I expected him to rail against my stupidity. I have wondered since if he was remembering himself, floating amidst the detritus of war, clinging to a seat cushion in the warm South Pacific water. The young men floating face down in their life jackets must have been about my age. This may have been one lecture he couldn't give. My mother asked me if I was hungry. 

Eventually I recovered the kayak, replaced the paddle and returned it to its owner. In a heated pool I spent hours with a patient lifeguard friend until I could do the Australian crawl, the breaststroke and rest on my back indefinitely. 
Now I’m as old as my PE teacher and my own children are older than I was when I took that swim in cold water. Both my son and daughter have boats of their own and I admonish them to wear life jackets and they do. My experience paled in comparison to my father’s so perhaps I talk about it more freely and perhaps that is why my own children take cold water seriously. I don’t know. I haven’t set foot in a kayak in years but my life still revolves around water on the quiet bay that I live on. And when I look at the beautiful water  my heart skips when I think what might have been. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Left Handed Hammers, Children and Herring Jigs

 The Right Tool For the Job.

I’m the first to admit that I am not much of a fisherman. I don’t have the patience or the skillI and I think I’m slightly ADHD. My friend Mark used to take me salmon fishing but when I spent my day propped up against the side of the boat reading old National Geographic magazines, and only casting an occasional eye toward my rod tip, he got disgusted and has seldom asked me again.

But I do like to eat fish. So when my wife and took our sailboat to Alaska for the first time I was excited, Alaska was a place where the salmon were so plentiful that even a rube like myself should be able to catch his dinner. And I didn’t come entirely unprepared, I had the fishing pole I owned since I was a kid, and an oddball collection of tackle, lures, spoons, flashers, hooks, lines and sinkers. And a few jigs.

But things didn’t go well. After a week of dragging assorted gear through the water and nothing to show for it except lost gear, I was getting discouraged. We had traveled almost 100 miles through pristine Alaskan waters and while I hadn’t fished all of it, I had given it some serious effort. No old magazines here.

We reached Petersburg, a bustling fishing town, and tied up among the fleet of commercial fishing boats, some clean and shipshape and others barely afloat. Right next to us was a dirty white troller its deck littered with gear, which while afloat, did not look like the highliner of the fleet. No one was aboard her when we arrived and we left and toured the town.

When we returned we heard the banging of tools deep in the bowels of the troller. Soon an older fellow, unshaven, hands greasy, in a dirty sweatshirt and pants emerged from the fish hold. We had met our neighbor. Like almost everyone in Alaska, he was ready to talk. After hearing our story, he spied my salmon rod attached to the backstay and asked me the fateful question,”How’s fishing?”

I actually felt relieved that I could unburden myself and tell him about my failure at one of the manly arts. He immediately offered advice. First he asked where we were heading, and I told him west, around Kupreanof Island.

He said, “Here’s what you want to do, when you get to Pinta Point, about this time of year the silvers should be there, you’re gonna troll with a white hoochie, six ounces of lead with a little piece of salted herring wired onto the hoochie. I guarantee you’ll catch fish. You can tell Mama to fire up the canner.”

He asked me if I had any hoochies, I didn’t. So he immediately took out a new white hoochie out of his gear, carefully measured a leader, tied a hook on it, took a piece of salted herring out of a Ziplock bag, cut off a thin strip and wired it in place.

He gave me this rig and said, “Now have you got any herring,? You’re gonna need some more.” I didn’t. He said, “Not to worry, just get yourself a herring jig and you can catch some right off the dock.”

Finally, here was my chance to show him I wasn’t entirely unprepared, I had jigs. I rummaged around in my tackle box and pulled out what I understood to be a jig and held it up for him to see. He gave me a look as if he had asked if I had a hammer and I’d handed him a wrist watch.

It turns out jigs have hooks that are sized proportionally to the size of the fish’s mouth. I’d shown him a halibut jig, a herring would have had to drive itself full speed onto this hook in a suicidal frenzy to even have a chance of getting caught. With this he handed me his Ziplock bag of salted herring with a sorrowful look that one might give to a fool heading off on an errand saying, “Here, you better have these. I can get some more.”

I thanked him and tried to assure him I would do just what he advised. But I’ve never been sure he was convinced.

We did go west and at Pinta Point I did troll that white hoochie with six ounces of lead and it’s little strip of herring tied to its belly and sure enough I caught salmon. We didn’t have a canner, so Mama never fired it up, but we ate salmon for the next few days and I am forever grateful for his help, advice and grace.

Now, I may not know fishing, but I do know woodworking. My fishing tackle collection pales in comparison to the tools I own. Had my neighbor actually asked for a hammer, he would have been impressed by one of the several I had onboard or the couple dozen I have at home. And like those who fish for the thrill of it, not the eating, when it comes to tools I struggle with just when enough is enough.

Recently we visited Japan and I came across a second hand store with a wooden crate filled with an odd selection of old tools. Since we had to carry anything we bought I limited my selection to just a small two ended square faced hammer that is used for carefully tapping on chisels. I already had a larger one but I liked this one for its size and more importantly because its wood handle had the silky polish that comes from years of use by some unknown craftsman.

At home I cleaned it, tightened the head and tried it out. The heft was perfect but for some reason I could never seem to hit the chisels just right. I fussed with it, roughing up the faces, and I tried other hammers to see if my aim was off. But it wasn’t me.

Examining it closely I noticed that the previous owner had carefully customized the handle. It had a subtle twist carved in it instead of the normal symmetry of a hammer handle. It was made to fit in the left hand. It was a left handed hammer.

I never imagined such a thing could even exist. And it made me think that there are a lot of other things, ideas, and ways of thinking out there that I’m just as ignorant of.

I am a teacher and to those of us who teach, our students come to us right handed and left handed, tall and short, beautiful and plain, troubled and content, rich and poor; and prepared for what we are trying to teach and unprepared, or at least unprepared for what we feel is important.

There are kids who fail in science class but excel in woodshop. For some a halibut jig may be more relevant or important than the difference between a proton and a protein. As teachers we know we should individualize instruction, and I try my best. But the hardest part for me is to notice, and accept in the first place, that there are kids who work best, not with the tools everyone else uses, but with the left handed hammers.

And for those kids, like the fisherman helping a hapless sailor, I also need to show patience, understanding and grace.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sitka, Land of Swimming Pools, Movie Stars....

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We head towards Sitka, the big city. We'll get our first shower after a week or so.  photo DSCN9867_zps79b06e50.jpg Mount Edgecumbe offshore from Sitka.  photo DSCN9868_zps8d0a356b.jpg After checking in at the harbormaster’s office we get a brochure of Sitka’s highlights and hit the town. A perfect day, about 75 degrees with a slight breeze. Our first stop is Castle Hill which was the site of the Tlingit fort that the Russians bombarded in 1804 in the battle that drove the natives out of Sitka. Then the Russians built their fort there. I read an interesting book “Fifty Miles from Tomorrow,” that had a lot of information about the Alaska Native Claims Act. In it the point was made that Castle Hill was the only territory that the natives ever formally ceded to another government (Russia) and as such it was also the only land that technically the United States bought when they bought Alaska. Interesting argument.
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On the advice of some teenage girls eating ice cream we made a stop at the Harry Race Drug Store and Soda Fountain and had real milk shakes made from real milk and real ice cream. Highlight of my culinary experience in Sitka.
 photo DSCN9884_zps9ddfec65.jpg The Russian Orthodox Church is still active, though the congregation is small, and right downtown.
 photo 65649f0e-cedc-43d6-bc2d-e0882b44b888_zpsca89b487.jpg It was late afternoon and we stopped in at the “Russian Bishop’s House” which is now a National Park site. Touring the downstairs is free but we paid a little extra for the upstairs tour. It turned out to just be the two of us and Michael Hess the ranger. He was very knowledgable and interesting. He got his degree in political science and was planning on returning to graduate school in journalism and he sort of fell into the ranger thing. He certainly knew the history of Sitka and the Russian influence. Afterwards I remembered that my Russian History teacher in high school was named Michael Hess. I wonder if they are related.  photo DSCN9887_zps3aedb3c7.jpg They still have services in this chapel at times.  photo DSCN9900_zpse22f348c.jpg After the museum closed we took a walking tour of the Sitka totem park which is on a stunning location along the bay and a river full of spawning salmon.  photo DSCN9935_zps4fb9cd54.jpg  photo DSCN9939JPG_zpse0f099b0.jpg  photo DSCN9922JPG_zps3d4b856a.jpg  photo DSCN9942JPG_zpsf53649ea.jpg This picture is in honor of a splendid photographer and friend Rob Yearling. I’m jogging BTW. Enjoy.
 photo DSCN9932JPG_zps53088e72.jpgzs Selfie!!!!!
 photo DSCN9914_zps2c4595db.jpg We spent most of the next day at the Sheldon Jackson Museum. It is an eclectic collection of Native American artifacts. Sheldon Jackson was a missionary who started a school and collected many of the pieces on display. He was concerned about fire and had the current building constructed. It was the first concrete building in Alaska. Besides the displayed pieces there are drawers all around the room which you can open to see more work.
 photo DSCN0080JPG_zps886426d2.jpg  photo DSCN0077JPG_zps6f5ef793.jpg  photo DSCN0041JPG_zpsf008754e.jpg  photo DSCN0002JPG_zpsb5752380.jpg  photo DSCN9964_zpsc684221e.jpg One of my favorite items was an old black and white photograph of the inside of a clan house. There were a group of people posing formally for the camera standing along side a man sitting up in bed. It said that the man in bed might be recovering from a bear attack.
After the museum closed we walked some more including across the bridge to the airport. This is a Bridge to Somewhere.
 photo DSCN0087_zps42d4288d.jpg  photo DSCN0089_zps5a38434d.jpg We hemmed and hawed whether or not to climb one of the mountains that rise from the sea right behind the town. We decided to go for it and chose the one which was the shortest and but was also the steepest, Mount Verstovia. It was about a 2500 foot climb in a little over two miles.
We rode a bus out to the trailhead where there was a young man on a bicycle waiting. As we started up the trial he asked us in broken English if he could join us. We said of course and he came along with us. He told us he was from Ukraine on a “cultural exchange.” It turns out that these cultural exchanges are a loophole in immigration law that allow places like hotels and canneries to hire foreigners for the summer for jobs they have trouble filling.
In any case he was a really nice kid though he had never been hiking before and he didn’t have any food or water. And the real reason he was waiting for someone to hike with was because in his job as a dishwasher everyone in the hotel had told him every possible horror story about grizzly bears, including where to put your hands if you are ever attacked. This he demonstrated, crouching down on his knees with his hands protecting the back of his neck. I’ll admit I worry about bear encounters but he made me look downright brave or cavalier.
We shared our food and water and he stuck to us like glue all the way up the mountain. He was young and in much better shape than us couple of duffers but he didn’t go ahead at all. He had never been hiking before period and he described the mountains in Ukraine as more like hills. It was pretty steep, but it was a good workout, especially after being on the boat so much.
 photo DSCN0105_zps6398113d.jpg  photo DSCN0099JPG_zpsdd8f1020.jpg  photo DSCN0111_zps4319841c.jpg  photo DSCN0115JPG_zps8c8cda7a.jpg
 And when he got to the top he was awestruck and I’ll admit we were too. These pictures only capture part of the effect. Once you come up to the last rise, mountains beyond mountains are laid out before you. You could hike in untrailed wilderness for a hundred miles, ridge running above timberline, which that far north is only about 2500 feet.
 photo DSCN0141JPG_zps33baccfe.jpg  photo DSCN0139_zpsfa149904.jpg  photo DSCN0133_zps760bd78b.jpg  photo DSCN0123_zpse1ad8043.jpg  photo DSCN0119_zps0ddedd9e.jpg And when you look backwards, Sitka and the water are shining like a jewel.
 photo DSCN0138_zpsb135097b.jpg The Ukrainian had to get back to his dishwashing job so apparently satisfied that there weren’t bears lurking behind every bush he high tailed it down the mountain while we lounged around on top. After a while we reluctantly went down and almost as reluctantly plan on heading out of Sitka in the morning. We make one last stop at the snazzy Sitka Recreation Center where for a few dollars you can swim,  take a sauna and most importantly take a shower. Last chance for a while.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Heading Towards the Big City. Angoon to Sitka.

After gassing up in Angoon I try fishing with a bunch of local boats just outside the harbor. After an hour or so with no luck we head across Chatham Strait heading for Peril Strait on the way to Sitka.  photo Angoontositka_zps044ac8e4.jpg I had picked up a paper in Angoon and was able to catch up on the news. It’s remarkable that when you get unhooked from the internet, the world goes on just fine without you, and vice versa.  photo DSCN9792_zpsbdb25ca1.jpg As we enter Peril Strait I stop to fish and in five minutes I get a nice silver. That’s my kind of fishing, so many fish that even a rube like me can catch one.  photo DSCN9801_zps30767dff.jpg We sail a bit and motor some more, after about ten miles we anchor in a protected spot behind an island in Hanus Bay. A couple miles away a big mega-yacht is anchored out in the open. Since we’re a mini-yacht I always go for protection. After a nice salmon dinner we row ashore to a little island as the sun goes down. God light, I call it.  photo DSCN9816_zps366a81b2.jpg  photo DSCN9818_zps289afc40.jpg The next morning comes bright and calm. We need to time passing through Sergius Narrows, just right. The tides can move through up to 10-12 knots on spring tides and an average of 6 knots otherwise. We didn’t see this picture, it came from this website.  photo Sergiusnarrows_zps190d1aa2.jpg As we motored towards it I thought I had it all figured out, in fact by my calculations I thought I had an extra hour to get there. When we were about an hour away, and I thought we had two hours to catch slack water, a couple fishing boats that had been waiting took off simultaneously towards the narrows. I tried to figure out why and then realized I had the direction of flood and ebb mixed up so we hightailed it behind them. The wind started out with a slight breeze coming against us. But the closer we got to the narrows the more the wind was building up.  photo DSCN9848_zpsf91bd49a.jpg The Alaska Ferries high speed boat, the Fairweather zoomed by us.  photo DSCN9849_zpsd2ae433f.jpg By the time we got to the narrows the wind was coming straight at us at about 20 knots. Luckily, since we started earlier than I had planned, we hit the narrows just right at slack water so there wasn’t too much chop. After the narrows though, the waves picked up and we took a dogleg off the wind and were able to sail at hull speed with about only a third of the genoa up. This fish buyer was anchored and to a boat that size the wind was nothing. We zipped past and anchored in a little protected bay behind an island that had a Forest service cabin you can rent by the night. We could hear the wind howling on either side of the island but we were snug in our little anchorage. All the excitement tired me out and I went to bed at just after 8:00. Viviann stayed up and read..  photo DSCN9857_zps86525aa4.jpg After starting early for us, 7:30, in low clouds and fog we motor the last leg toward Sitka. The fog burned off and we dodged seine boats all the way to Sitka. Everybody was making money.  photo DSCN9872_zps58a204ec.jpg  photo DSCN9876_zps226151de.jpg Pretty as a picture.  photo DSCN9874_zpsdf4b987e.jpg After tying up at Eliason Harbor, Sitka has five boat harbors, we take a walking tour of Sitka. RIght downtown overlooking the water is the Pioneer’s Home. I decided that’s where I am going to spend my last days. We were told that apparently not every day in Sitka is as pretty as this. But a fellow has to dream, right?  photo DSCN9878_zps32054ba2.jpg Todd