Far side of the world
Viktoria Chilcote, an Alaskan guide, shares her vision of Alaska's past, present and future.
What is so unique and beautiful about Girdwood, a small resort town 40 miles from Anchorage? What does it take to be an Alaskan? And when, finally, will America and Russia again become friends, as they were through most of the two country's histories?
- How long have you lived in Alaska and why are you still here?
- My family came to Alaska from Oregon 6 years ago. Before that we lived in Oregon for 10 years. We moved here because of my husband's work, he is an ichthyologist and he's got a job at Girdwood's division of the Chugach National Forest. Girdwood is a ski resort town located 40 miles to the south of Anchorage. It is situated on the edge of the Chugach National Forest. My husband and I wanted for our kids to experience a different lifestyle, not so urban that they used to. First we came here for 3 years but now, though we could have left already, we continue to live in Alaska. We like it here, we're now a part of Girdwood community. This process has taken around 3 years to finalize. It was kind of hard in the beginning for us to get in. So now we don't want to change the world around us already. Besides, I see now that I can be useful here in Alaska and it could be much more fun for me than anywhere else.
- Alaska is…
- ...a scale! As a guide I keep telling my clients: you can feel Alaska only if you can imagine its vastness. If we talk about mountains, it is not just one peak, it is a lot of ridges, with 11 peaks being the highest in North America. If we talk about lakes, it is not just one but 3 million, not even counting the smallest ones. If we talk about fauna it is not just one national park but 8, including two largest in US by size. There are also plenty of islands located near very long coast line. There are the oceans and the seas surrounding Alaska. If we talk about highways there are countless hours of driving. It is a vast land that you have to fly over, to explore by foot and to discover through the water.
- What is the spirit of Alaska in terms of values people live?
- I would talk about the 'spirit of Alaskans'. Alaskans identify themselves as part of the state, they're born and bred with it. I've never seen anything anywhere else before. Not in Oregon neither in Khabarovsk, Russia, where I come from originally. It is only in Alaska you can have that deepest feeling of being a part of this land. I believe you get this 'I am an Alaskan!' thing from childhood, from school. I believe there's a connection between understanding Alaska's scale and identifying yourself as a small part of nature. Wild animals such as moose or bears walk the streets here and get into our backyards. This is why in a more urbanized community one can imagine himself as 'nature's master'. Here in Alaska it is 100 per cent clear that the nature rules, it is over us. From the other hand, Alaskan know how to co-exist with the wild. I mean they don't overcome it, they do co-exist. It is not the bear comes to my place, it is me coming to his place. It is my place is on his territory. So you have to learn to co-exist with bear and with the wild. This is what I call the 'spirit of Alaska'.
Here in Alaska it is 100 per cent clear that the nature rules, it is over us.
- 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 first and natural claim belongs to the Native people of Alaska. So when we say what is the 'sour dough', a true Alaskan, we first mean a Native Alaskan. The Native peoples of Alaska make up about 10 per cent share of the state population which is not a lot but considerably higher than in the rest of the country. I think these people can be proud that their ancestors have been surviving here for 15,000 years. Nobody else can claim it. Everybody else is a newcomer. From the other hand, the white men have invested a lot into Alaska. As to the Russians here, they're a small part of Alaska now. They do not have a big say in Alaska life but still they're a small part of Alaska's 'melting pot'.
- The First Peoples of Alaska, including Inupiaq, Tlingit, Athabaskans, Yupik, Alutiiq and others, how large is their role in modern Alaska today?
- It is massive. I even think it is disproportionally massive. And they're fighting for more rights, for example, for their right to continue living sustainable lifestyle, harvesting off the land. I think it is probably right. They also want to rule their own lands themselves. They haven't been granted this right yet. Some Native corporations arguing with the state government that they are now capable to rule themselves. They want to solely decide how much fish should be caught in the rivers or how much game should be harvested in the woods. They want to decide it instead of the state government as it is now. They would like to have even more autonomy than they have now. They might be complaining that the state government takes decisions without their involvement but this is not true. The fact is that the state government takes lots of decisions taking into account their opinion at the main factor. The Native people's opinion really matters now in Alaska.
- Alaska and the 'Lower 48': do people do things differently there?
- Here in Alaska we live without rush or crazy competition that prevails in the 'Lower 48'. I think people in Alaska are more balanced when somebody else is more successful. We, the Alaskans, are not in such a rush for money or some fancy education unlike people in the 'Lower 48'. In this regard people here take life more philosophically. From my personal experience, the people of the North-West coast in general live a simpler life, not trying to be fussy. It is even more so in Alaska.
- Do reality TV shows genuinely portray Alaska or do they distort it?
- As a guide I try to do Alaska myth-busting. All this mythology has been initially created by the local tourism industry more than 100 years ago. Yeah, Alaska is 'The Last Frontier'', you walk the 'off-beaten path' here. So TV reality shows capitalize on that. Because of the internet today it is easier to check out what it true and what is fake about Alaska. Take 'The Last Frontier', for example. What do you mean 'Last'? It is actually 'The First Frontier'! It was the 'First Frontier' for the humans coming to North America! So, from this point of view, 'The Last Frontier', though it sounds nice, is a fake. If you don't know that you won't get what Alaska is. During the 15,000 years of continuing human presence here is there any place that can be called an off-beaten path? People have been hunting, fishing, surviving here for millenia. They have walked all over the whole place! I am not saying about the highest peaks or some inaccessible rocks. And now as the glaciers step back, archeologists discover there spears, arrows and remains of the ancient people...
- 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?
- What a hard question: just one! I would still choose two places. There are places in Alaska where I feel like at home. I feel I belong to these places. For instance, the Turnagain arm. So I can spot two locations there that I call my favorite places in Alaska. First, it is Hope village. The local community there cares a lot about its heritage, it has a gold mining past. This place somehow resembles a Slavic village to me. They've got bird-cherry trees hanging over the roads there. There are fences just like ours, in Russia. There are old wooden cabins, still inhabited. Sometimes I even think that the sun is hanging a bit longer over this village. It is a rainy and cloudy area in general but it seems that this village enjoys some kind of microclimate. There's always a bit of clear skies over the village, maybe because of the mountains configuration there. And the second place there is Crow Pass. It is a trekking trail that starts at Girdwood and goes right to Eagle River via Crow Pass. It is the Gold Rush historical trail, a part of the legendary Iditarod trail. It starts just in 10 minutes walking distance from my place so my family often goes there. It is a marvelous place.
Here in Alaska we live without rush or crazy competition that prevails in the 'Lower 48'. I think people in Alaska are more balanced when somebody else is more successful. We, the Alaskans, are not in such a rush for money or some fancy education unlike people in the 'Lower 48'.
- What are you favorite Alaskan foods? Do you have a special recipe?
- It is fish pie! In the Yupik Eskimo language it sounds almost like in Russian, 'pirok', with that overdone glottal 'k'. This word has been taken from Russian. It is now considered to be a traditional meal of Alaska's Native people. So it's got a Russian name just like plenty of other things taken from Russian. Some say that up to 30 per cent of the words in the Yupik language are of Russian origin! So glasses is 'ochki', skirt is 'yubka' and kerchief is 'platok', just like in Russian.
- What do you know about the Russian America or Russian heritage in Alaska?
- The Russian heritage in Alaska is tangible. It is obviously present in architecture, in religion, in history. It is present genetically. It is, of course, present in toponymy, too. It is still alive though it's been 150 years already. Taking into account the wild Americanization that happened after Russians left Alaska when Native languages have been rooted out as well as the Russian language. And taking into account that any relations with Russia were stopped in 1917 when funding of the local Russian Orthodox church came to an end. They were practically no contacts with Russia till late 1980s. Still the Russian heritage here is alive.
- This year is the 150th anniversary of Alaska purchase by the United States: are you aware of this event?
- Absolutely. Though people here in Alaska share various views at what happened 150 years ago, during 2017 there has been several events dedicated to the Alaska purchase. I've taken part in several key events such as Kenai Peninsula historical conference, a series of the Russian-American colonial singers concerts as well as the Alaska Historical Society conference. Alas, contemporary Russian-American relations has affected this anniversary: just a few people came Russia, mostly historians. So I'd wanted to see a rise of cultural, sports and educations exchange but that didn't happen...
- How do you feel towards Russia as a country?
- It is my homeland. It is my family and friends. When I think of my homeland I always think about Nelkan, my home place, just a small village located on the bank of Maya river. Much later, having moved to Alaska already I've found out that in the second half of the 19th century the Russian-American company was conducting active operations at Ayan, central town of our region, transporting various goods from Alaska to China and further to the European Russia. Ayan was an important transfer point at the time. From Yakutsk to Nelkan you could get by water then at Nelkan all the goods were moved to sleds and, via the Jugjur pass, delivered to the shores of the Okhotsk sea. So there was such a strong connection between Alaska and my hometown during the Russian America epoch! Ayan was visited by the Russian-American company merchant ships and sometimes by its top management. At that very time the famous Catherine trail has been extended up to Nelkan: I've heard lots of stories about it in my childhood.
- America and Russia: are we enemies? Or are we not?
- Recently, I've seen a book by some Sergey Kremlev, I think it is a penname and I was horrified by it. In this book the United States has been represented as the 'evil axis'. Usually we think of the 'evil axis' as Iran, some other Islamic states and North Korea. In this book America was historically represented as the 'evil axis'. According to the author's theory, the United States has always wanted – and wants it now – to make harm to Russia. And Russia, from the other hand, is a so-called 'good axis'... I do deny both of these definitions! Russia and the United States can be – and should be – allies. When Alexander Baranov, Alaska's first colonial governor, said that we 'may dwell in amity and peace forever in this region', he meant Alaska. This is written on his monument in Sitka. He said it based on his experience of living there. He had to deal with people from various countries including the United States. Back then Sitka – or New Archangel – was the capital of the Russian America, it was also known as the 'Paris of the Pacific'. It was visited by many vessels, including American ones. I mean he knew what he was talking about. I am sure that in the future Russia and America would find lots of common points to actively cooperate. I really think so.
- If you had an opportunity to meet and talk to an ordinary Russian, what would you say?
- Welcome to Alaska!
- What is your version of the American dream?
- To be self-sufficient. It is also freedom when nobody tells you what to do. So you, with you brains and sensibility, can turn your life into whatever you want it. The American dream is the belief that a person can rule his or her destiny. Not the fate. Not the state. But a person that rules his or her life and succeeds. I think this point, I can change my life - it all depends on me, is the basis of the American dream.
I am sure that in the future Russia and America would find lots of common points to actively cooperate. I really think so.
- What a great single Alaskan person of past or present would you like to talk to?
- I would like to talk to the first chief manager of the Russian-American company, Alexander Andreevich Baranov. He spent 28 years here in Alaska and was the head of the company all this time. His kids have been raised here. He had to be tough sometimes. I also believe that he has been kind to people, too. This side of his life is not so well-known nowadays and people tend not to talk about it. The thing is that it was a completely different historical epoch back then. So to me as a person who loves history it would have been very interesting to ask him my questions.
- What will Alaska be like in 2034, 17 years from now?
- I hope that Alaska would find its way of the sustainable economic growth as this is the most important issue for us now. The oil prices are low and Alaska's budget is 90 per cent oil-dependent. Because of the low oil prices the state of Alaska has a billion-dollar budget deficit. We're dependent on our natural resources. At the same time the wild nature is Alaska's most valuable asset: our waters, forests and mountains. It is all discovered by humans but not spoiled. We still don't understand how to sell this resource in the most effective way. I mean what we can and what we cannot do on our land. Just recently I've heard the news that almost all of the Alaska's oil reserve is now being open for oil exploitation. There's also a big chance that in the nearest future there would be a start of the oil drills in the Arctic National reserve. So we get into the Arctic at full speed. With Trump's election we're starting to exploit Alaska's natural resources at much bigger scale. Now there is a conflict between economical and ecological reasons. Historically, both sides occasionally take the upper hand, changing each other. So in 17 years from now Alaska has to find a balance between these sides. We really need it. I do believe our planet's well-being is dependent on this issue.
Made on