Alaskan Pilgrimage

by Nancy Forest

We got home Monday afternoon, totally exhausted after no sleep on the plane which took us across ten time zones in ten hours, and were greeted by the tail end of a heat wave (temperatures in the range of 30 degrees centigrade — above 85 F — for many days). Luckily for us, the rain came last night. We got our laundry done (just in time, too, because the washing machine broke after the last load), all the mail opened, house put back in order, etc., and now feel we’re really back home.

Alaska is a wonderful place, mainly wilderness that stretches on and on and on. It still has a frontier-town mentality — strip malls with “dancing girls” signs, people who live in the bush and thrive on moose meat and berries, people panning and digging for gold who look like they gold miners of the 19th century. Major roads are few and generally don’t go far. The only way to get to many places is by air or ferry, though in the winter there is the option of snowmobiles and dog sleds. The museums are excellent. We found several good books stores. The food is great, as is the locally brewed beer, and the people are as friendly as you’ll find anywhere. And the mountains! And glaciers! And wildlife! Not to mention the fact that Jim had no hay fever there at all, not even a sniffle. We told our hosts we were thinking of making it a one-way trip.

The main event was the five-day Eagle River Institute. The conference was wonderful. What fine people. The choir director of the Orthodox church at Eagle River, Steve Alvarez, is an Apache who works on the staff of the Native Heritage Center not far from Eagle River. There were lots of native Americans of various kinds. A beautiful, colorful group. Fr Mel Webber from a Greek Orthodox parish in California — though his home is England — gave four challenging (and often funny) lectures on the mind and heart, drawing on the great teachers of prayer. Jim had four sessions, two on prayer with icons and two on icons that connect with the Beatitudes. I spoke on the home church, not so much as the ideal home we imagine other people inhabit, but the home as a place of prayer and hospitality.

Before the conference we had two nights at Denali National Park and the rest of the time in Eagle River, about 20 miles north of Anchorage. Denali Park was wet and cool when we went but still gorgeous. Jim had a close encounter with a grizzly with photos to prove it. This happened during a “Tundra Wilderness Tour” by bus (the only way you can get into the interior of the park except for those who have a permit to camp and can enter on foot), with all the others in the group back in the bus and yelling, “Who is that idiot out there with the camera?” “My husband!” I said proudly.

We made fast friends with Dick Dauenhauer, the former poet laureate of Alaska, and his wife Nora, who is a Tlingit native who is also a poet, linguist and scholar.

The Russians brought Orthodoxy to Alaska hundreds of years ago, and it’s still very strong among the native population. We visited the oldest building in Alaska, a tiny wooden Orthodox church at Eklutna surrounded by an interesting cemetery — Indian “spirit houses”, all beautifully painted according to family, with Russian crosses on them.

All in all, I hope we will one day have the chance to return. We’ve a lot to see — Alaska is 36 times bigger than the Netherlands with half the population of Amsterdam. Not bad. Denali (Mt. McKinley) is so huge that we could often see it from the living room of the guest house where we were staying in Eagle River, 150 miles away. That’s like being in our living room in Alkmaar and being able to see all the way to Brussels! The scope is astonishing.