University Museum
University of Alaska

Fairbanks, AK

August 16th, 2002

They say that when the all the flowers have fallen from the fireweed, the summer is over. We have been seeing whole fields of fireweed stems with no flowers. We are beginning to wonder if there will be enough time to get everything done that we originally planned. It is also the beginning of the rainy season and rain is what we have, several days of it. No matter, on our first day, we took off for the Museum at the University of Alaska. This one is written up as being about as good as it gets. We found it a great general category museum covering much of the State in small doses. The entrance, of course, was protected by a sentry bear. Here, I finalized my understanding of the big bear of Alaska. Brown, grizzly and Kodiak bears are of the same species. The specific name does not pertain to the genus but to the location that the bear is found in. The coastal brown bear is the largest land carnivore in the world and can weigh 1400 lbs. The bears from Kodiak Island of the southern coast of Alaska can go even larger. The Grizzly Bear is found in the interior parts of the State. It is generally smaller and lighter as it lives on berries and whatever it can catch, not having the large amount of salmon available. They should not be approached by humans because they are unpredictable animals. Brown bears are strong and can easily run 30 miles an hour. They have a keen sense of smell, good hearing, but poor eyesight. Spectacular concentrations of these huge bears gather along some of the coastal salmon spawning streams to feed on the dead and dying salmon. This bear is 8' 9" tall and weights 1250 lbs. The entrance hall to the museum covered the ancient history of the State. At the time when the Danish  adventurer, Vitus Bering explored and laid claim to what is now Alaska, the indigenous populations had already been well established for many thousands of years. Efforts have been made by scholars to detail the early pre-history of these people, but the archeological record is far from complete. Most scholars agree that the earliest Americans came from Asia into North America sometime between 10 to 70 thousand years ago. This was during the time of the late Pleistocene or Ice Age and the Bering Land Bridge was frequently exposed which permitted the migration of animals and plants to Alaska. People followed these animals and eventually spread across the New World. These ancestors of the American Indians kept their habits of hunting mammals and gathering what they could from the forests and grasslands to themselves. No archeological evidence has been found which is older than 12 thousands years. Some artifacts have been found in deposits containing large Pleistocene fossils suggesting people inhabited Alaska simultaneously with Ice Age mammals. There were probably additional migrations of people into Alaska from Asia with prior populations being dispersed to unclaimed areas. Thousands of years passed as they perfected their survival skills and developed regional languages. Eventually they settled into  the recognizable cultural groups that were found by the early Western explorers.
The Russian-American period began in 1741 when Vitus Bering, a Dane serving the Russian Czar, sailed through the Aleutian Islands, sighted the Alaskan mainland and claimed it for the Czar. It ended in 1867 with Russia's cession of the Great Land to the United States. The economy of Russian America was based on the exploitation of the sea otter and other animals whose furs were much in demand by Russian merchants trading with China. The first Russian fur hunters were a rough and rugged lot of men called "promyshienniki" who left no lasting settlements. In the 1780s the Russian merchant Grigorii Shelikhov finally established the first permanent trading post at Kodiak Island. His company was later reorganized as the Russian-American Company and given a monopoly of all trade in Alaska. Under the leadership of Alexander Baranov, the company moved its headquarters to Sitka. The purchase of Alaska left the land in legal limbo. Neither a state nor territory, there was no legal jurisdiction. It quickly became a lawless land. The discovery of gold and the onslaught of the "stampeeders" (gold diggers) made the towns like Skagway as wild and raw as any Arizona gold town. As Alaska's population and economy grew, the newly arrived Americans began to demand some form of self-government. Congress made the first response in 1848 by extending the laws of Oregon to Alaska and establishing a federal court system. The move toward self-government gained new momentum in 1909 when the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle alerted other Americans to Alaska's wealth and desire for home rule. A few years later in 1912, Congress gave Alaska an elected legislature. 
In the first section set off by itself was a story I had never heard. In 1941, the Imperial Japanese saw in the 1,100 mile Aleutian Island chain, a method of controlling the Pacific sea-lanes while threatening the west coast of the US mainland. The Aleutian rocky coastline, with its volcanic mountains and inhospitable weather, was the scene of the northern military theater in the Pacific campaign. On June 7,1942, Japanese troops landed on Kiska and Attu Islands. The 45 Attuans and a schoolteacher were captured and taken to Japan where they were held as prisoners until end of the war. Around half died in Japan. The Aleuts were very concerned about the cremation of those who had died while there, because the Orthodox faith does not approve of cremation. Nevertheless small boxes were given to the families to hold the cremated remains of those that died. After the war had ended, when the surviving Aleuts were at Okinawa waiting for the transport boat to return them to the United States, a storm came and all their baggage was lost at sea including the cremation boxes. Twenty-five Aleuts returned from Japan. Twenty Aleuts died during the internment period in Japan. The twenty deaths included four infants who had been born during that period. The one child born in Japan, Alfred Prokopioff, Jr. who survived to return to Alaska grew up to become a first chief.
The Japanese fortified the islands with over 5000 troops and dug in for a long siege. When the WW II Pacific campaign focused on a remote part of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, the Native Aleuts and Pribilof Islanders became unique among Americans. They became the only ethnic group to be interned by both the United States government and the invading Imperial Japanese Military Forces. In response to the threat, and fearing civilian casualties during combat, the US government rounded up all the Islanders in the immediate area and removed them forcefully to internment camps in the interior. Like the Japanese-Americans, they were allowed only a few minutes to gather whatever they could carry in a single suitcase. They were put up in abandoned canneries and other improvised accommodations. Food was inadequate and medical attention almost non-existent. They were not a potential enemy like the Japanese-Americans, they were just Indians who were in the way. 
On May 12, 1943, the US Military invaded Attu at a great cost to both sides. Allied reports grossly underestimate the weather and terrain, and the troops arrived poorly equipped. Many troops died from exposure. For three weeks infantry troops fought the only land battle on North American soil. Japanese resistance ended on May 29th. Ships from the Kurile Islands successfully evacuated over 5000 Japanese troops on Kiska. Because of heavy fog these ships avoided Allied detection and maneuvered past the US naval blockade to return to Japan. Although the removal was emotionally devastating, it was nothing to what waited for the Islanders upon their return. When the USFWS allowed the men to resume sealing in the early summer of 1943, the military also agreed to the return of all the Pribilof women and children by the end of the summer. However, the men quickly realized that after a year of occupation by the military, the homes and facilities on the islands weren't ready for their return. The return to the other Chain villages was also cleared but AIS officials did not supply the repair materials and supplies until the summer of 1945. All of the Aleut villages sustained damages from looting and vandalism. Military troops occupied homes during the evacuations or in the case of Nikolski and Akutan solders were stationed nearby. Two villages were completely destroyed. Atka was burned by the US Navy, and Attu was bombed by the Allied forces during the battle to reclaim the Island. Even though a war was going on, the service afforded these indigenous people was sadly lacking in all respects. In hindsight, I noted that the internment and subsequent return has been both chastised and praised. Looking back it is easy to see where fear of a foreign invader and racism often went hand in hand to deny civil rights during the war.
There were other things that I hadn't quite understood about Alaska. I found a delightful stuffed Sea Otter. We had seen these fun loving creatures frolicking just off shore in Homer. Sea Otters are the smallest marine mammals. Unlike their amphibious relatives in the weasel family, they live almost entirely in the sea, coming ashore only to rest and bear young. Males weigh up to 100 lbs and females average 70 lbs. They need large daily food supply, consuming about 20% to 23% of their body weight. They gather food on the ocean floor with their forepaws, store the catch in a pouch or loose skin under the forelegs and eat while floating on their backs at the surface. Sea otter use stones like anvils to break open the shells of large clams and mussels. Unlike seals and whales, sea otters do not have a protected layer of blubber, relying instead on the thick fur for insulation. This unfortunately made them a prize catch for the early Russian fur hunters. Another creature which we have not seen and have no intention of looking for is the Wolverine. This is one of the largest members of the weasel family. I can remember reading a novel about the northwest where a wolverine takes on a trapper and destroys his cabin and food supply because he is trapping. Their larger than life reputation is founded on their pugnacity, boldness and physical strength. The extremely durable fur of wolverines is long, smooth and tapered allowing it to shed frost easily. For this reason inhabitants of northern regions value it for parka trim. The last area of exploration was the display on the Aurora Borealis; those wondrous glowing northern lights that frequent the winter skies in Alaska. While in Denali, we took in a show, which claimed to be the only motion pictures ever taken of the northern lights. The anomaly was explained but left many questions. Here I got all the answers. The phenomenon begins with a large explosion on the sun called a solar flair. This throws off a diffused plasma of protons and electrons which race out through space; in 24 to 48 hours this plasma reaches the earth. Known as a solar wind it is deflected around 40 thousand miles away by the earth's magnetic field. This causes a cavity called the magnetosphere to be formed around the earth. The magnetic fields of the solar wind and the earth link up along the edge of the magnetophere. An immense electric generator is created when the charged particles of the solar wind move through the earth's magnetic field. The electrical power associated with the auroral discharge is about ten million-megawatt hours annually, which is more than 10 times the current annual consumption of electricity in the United States. This discharge, similar to the electrical discharge in a neon sign, produces the visible light we see as the aurora. As it can only be seen at night, it is a winter phenomenon. But winter unofficially comes early in Alaska so it can be seen in the Fairbanks area anytime after August 15 between 11:00P and around 2:30A. Hopefully, we will get a glimpse of it on our way back to Tok or up to Dawson in the Yukon.

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