An Alaskan to the bone
Jim Lanier, a physician from Chugiak, resembles some of Jack London's most powerful characters: a dedicated musher in the Iditarod (aka 'The Last Great Race on Earth'), a hunter, a fisherman, a baritone singer, an author, a baseball expert and finally... a true Alaskan!
Exactly 50 years ago Jim's peripatetic life journey brought him to Alaska where he dropped anchor for good. Half a century later, he looks back at some of the brightest moments of his life and forward to what lies beyond.
- How long have you lived in Alaska and why are you still here?
- I've been here 50 years, since 1967. I was born in Washington, D.C. and raised in Fargo, North Dakota. I am here because, from the very start, I loved the place: the people, the country, the mountains, the rivers, the glaciers, tundra, all of that. And the local activities. Initially, it was sport fishing. I couldn't get to wait a line in the water when I first arrived. I caught some fish. Then, in the 1980s, I became a commercial fisherman, caught hundreds, maybe thousands of fish with the big net. And that ruined my sports fishing. I became jaded. Why should I waste my time with a rod and reel catching one fish? Anyway, commercial fishing was a great experience for 10 years. And it overlapped with mushing. I do enjoy it when new people come alone, taking them fishing and watching them catch fish. So, that's somewhat an answer to this question.
- Alaska is…
- ...mainly a state of mind.

- What is the spirit of Alaska in terms of values people live?
- Alaskans think of themselves as independent, innovative and resourceful. And, to some extent, tough and resilient. How much of that is true I don't know. They think of themselves as part of the United States, which, of course, Alaska is, but also somewhat removed from it. Alaskans refer to the 'Lower 48', which is the rest of the country, as the 'outside'. That says it all.
I am here in Alaska because, from the very start, I loved the place: the people, the country, the mountains, the rivers, the glaciers, tundra...
- Since time immemorial the Native peoples of Alaska have lived here. Then the Russians came. Then Alaska became a part of the United States. In the end, who has the most claim?
- The Alaskan Native people. They have the most claim and they should have. It took many years for the United States government to fully recognize it. It didn't happen until the U.S. government needed to build the Alaskan pipeline and they needed concessions from the Natives to do that. So they gave the Natives their land claims. So the Natives have the greatest claim and they are still working on it. As far as the Russian and American involvement, historically it all happened but without very much recognition. But this year, 2017, on October 18 – and this year would be the sesquicentennial – there will be a bigger, than usual, celebration in Sitka. The Natives haven't been invited much and they haven't celebrated. They're still not celebrating it. Because to them it is: what to celebrate? The Russians came, the Americans came, they took what we had. It was very much like what's happening with Christopher Columbus now. When I was growing up as a school kid, Columbus was a big historical hero who discovered the New World. But for the Native American people… What do you mean, 'discovered'? We discovered it! They were not excited about it then and they are not now. The whole thing about Columbus as a historical hero is being downplayed now not just by Native Americans, but by Americans in general. So that's analogous to the situation here in Alaska, the Native people, the Russians and the Americans.
- The First Peoples of Alaska, including Inupiaq, Tlingit, Athabaskans, Yupik, Alutiiq and others, how large is their role in modern Alaska today?
- Well, I don't quantify it but much larger than it was when I first came to Alaska 50 years ago. Instead of being wards of the state, which they really were, their health care, for instance, I was part of that. Now they have their own health care system, hospitals and so on. And then, of course, because of the Land Claims Act, sometime in the 1970s, which allowed the Alaskan pipeline to occur, they now have their Native corporations all over the state of Alaska. There are 15 such corporations or something. These are independent business entities based on a tribal approach as part of that Land Claims Act. So right here, in Chugiak, on the other side of the railway track, where I am mushing, the land is owned by the Eklutna Native land corporation. And the shareholders of these corporations are Native people of that area. So it does business for the benefit of their shareholders, the Native people. Some of those corporations have been very successful, some are not.

- Alaska and the 'Lower 48': do people do things differently there?
- Well, a lot of Alaskans might think so but the short answer is 'no'. I think people live there pretty much the same as here. Maybe people here think of themselves as more independent but I don't know if that's true. Still, comparing to cities in the 'Lower 48', people in Alaska spend a lot more time outdoor: hunting, fishing, hiking, climbing, berry picking. All those things that in a lot of the 'Lower 48' are not accessible. You have to travel to get to such a thing. But I think the way the people live their everyday live is pretty much the same.
- Do reality TV shows genuinely portray Alaska or they distort it?
- No, they are distorted. It is real footage of Alaskan people doing something but a lot of it is really set up. I haven't watched a whole lot of it but I have watched some of it, like fishing and mushing series. I watched a little bit of 'The Deadliest Catch' too. The other one I watched was about people living in Tanana, running sled dogs and snow machines, the dog teams. It is a real thing. You can see it here, the footage is true. What is untrue is some of the commentary, the voiceover. It is so staged, and not even the voiceover. I mean, some dialogue you hear from the people doing this thing. I mean, I've been there. I've done all of that stuff as a musher and it doesn't seem like the real thing to me. There are some exceptions. For example, the Lance Mackey movie, 'The Great Alone'. It is not exactly a reality show though, it is a documentary. It is terrific! Mushing a race and living that kind of life, yes.
- Where, in your opinion, is the most beautiful place in Alaska? Why did you pick that place and why is it so special to you?
- The most beautiful to me… I can show it (brings in a framed landscape picture). There it is. I took that photograph myself. I used to get to that place by dog team. It is about 6-hour drive north of Chugiak and then about 18 miles off the road system. I went there with like a cart vehicle and dogs pulled me. You can see that picture is taken in the fall. I set up a camp there, and we went hunting and fishing. We had wonderful times and adventures there. This photo was taken by the camp site, right by this beautiful, very crystal clear and very deep lake, full of trout and grayling. And the moose and the caribou rolling all around… I am not gonna tell you what this place is called because I don't want too many people going there! It is my secret place. I had wonderful time there with my friends and one of my sons. A very special place for me.
My father was a very active Democratic politician. He was always telling me: 'Jimmy, remember this. Russia has got a screwed up government, but its people are OK. They are really good'.
- What are your favorite Alaskan foods? Do you have a special recipe?
- In Alaskan food my great favorite is king salmon or chinook. This is the biggest salmon. That's my favorite Alaskan food, no question. I have my special recipe to prepare it but I can't tell you (laughing)! But lemon pepper is part of it.
- What do you know about Russian America or Russian heritage in Alaska?
- I think, quite a bit. I've read about it, Vitus Bering and Alexander Baranov and all those people who came with Baranov to Kodiak and Sitka. I've met several people from the Orthodox church here. Over the years I've met a number of Native people who live in villages that were – and still are – Russian Orthodox. In the old days, like 50 years ago, when I came to Alaska, quite a few spoke Russian as a second language, their church language. I don't know if they do anymore… So, yeah, I know what happened then and the basic facts.
- This year is the 150th anniversary of Alaska purchase by the United States: are you aware of this event?
- Oh yeah! Anna, my wife, she is Russian. We were in Sitka a year ago, in 2016, for the Alaska Day celebration on October 18. So we helped celebrate during that event. We went with our singing group, the Russian-American Colonial Singers, and we – Anna and I, as part of this group – performed, both on the concert stage and on a cruise ship. We also took part in the parade on October 18 and in the ceremony on top of the Castle Hill there in Sitka, where the Russian flag came down and the American flag went up. My wife and I were founding members of this group back about 15 years ago. And that group, the RACS, still exists. Anna and I sing the music there, more Russian music than anything else, like liturgical music and Russian folk music, Russian classical music and, I guess, a little bit of Russian pop.
- How do you feel towards Russia as a country?
- I think it is full of wonderful people, let's put it that way. Because of my marital experience I travelled four times to Russia, meeting lots of people there who were my hosts. One time it was a singing trip so I met all those different artists. It was great, standing on a stage. It was my first trip, to Magadan. I sang the Russian folk song 'Blokha' on the stage! And then there was a mushing trip in 1995, the 'Hope' race or 'Nadezhda' in Chukotka. Then I made it two times to Stavropol, my wife's origin, meeting her family and friends. I made a trip to Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. It was more like a tourist trip. So the Russian people, those I met, are great. The Russian government maybe not so great. But what government is? It's the same all over the world: the people are really nice and the government maybe not.
- America and Russia: are we enemies? Or are we not?
- During the Cold War everybody said we were enemies. That's what people said here, that's what people said in Russia. During the 90s there was a great thaw after the end of the Soviet Union and relations became almost warm. It's like when we were allies in World War II, it was warm relations at that time. At the end of the war for a brief time it was a great celebration between Russian and American soldiers. That didn't last long. I grew up during the Cold War and in elementary school we had air raid drills. In case of nuclear attack all the sirens would go off and all the kids would get under their desks. So it certainly seemed like the Soviet Union was an enemy in those days. My father was a very active Democratic politician. He was always telling me: 'Jimmy, remember this. Russia has got a screwed up government but its people are OK. They are really good'. I have reason to say the same thing because of my experience with all sorts of Russian people both in Russia and here in Alaska. There are a lot of Russian people here in Anchorage. But after the 90s when there was the thaw, since that time the relationship worsened again. So now we don't seem to be as much enemies as during the height of the Cold War in the 50s and so on, but more than during the 90s.
- If you had an opportunity to meet and talk to an ordinary Russian, what would you say?
- I would say: 'Moi drug, kak dela?' (laughing).
- What is your version of the American dream?
- Well, first of all, I dream of an America without Trump. That tells you where I am. And then I dream of an America where we can realize as a country what we'd want to be.
17 years from now Alaska would be warmer. It is definitely going to be warmer...
- What a great single Alaskan person of past or present would you like to talk to?
- The single Alaskan person I'd most like to talk to, whom I cannot talk to, would be my first wife. Her name was Ann and she is deceased. It would be very rewarding to me, very interesting to be able to talk to her. Talk to her about the kids we had, how are they doing. You know, we've had good times together and she still means a lot to me. We spent together 25 years. She definitely was a very outstanding Alaskan, both in her personal life and her professional life which was medical research. She was very accomplished and I am pretty sure that she is in the All Alaska Women's Hall of Fame, or whatever that is called...
- What will Alaska be like in 2034, 17 years from now?
- Warmer. It is definitely going to be warmer.
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