adventures, AISES, Alaska, Anchorage, Case Western, culture, dancing, Doritos, experiences, frozen, gas station, glacier, ice, lake, Matanuska-Sustina, Native Alaska, Native American, popcorn, solo travel, student, Taco Bell, wolf
It was the last day of the Conference, already. And yet, it was only three days long, so was that truly all that surprisingly how quickly it had passed?
I showed up at the Egan Center nice and early, looking forward to some breakfast before the session began. I made the mistake of not picking up some coffee on the way. For the next few hours, I was fighting my eyelids. After all, I’d only had a couple hours of sleep. As I wandered downstairs, I found that not many people had arrived. I did, however, see Doug. I grabbed a plate of food and sat down with him at a vendor’s table. Our seats lasted long enough for Josh and Dean to join us before the vendor came to set up and we were moved to another table.
“What session are you going to see?” asked Josh. “’Building Sustainable Roads’,” I said, “At least for the first one.” He had something else in mind, so we went separate ways. The gist of my lecture was that no road is really sustainable, but we do what we can do to deal with our high energy demands in transportation as well as road construction. After the session, I took off running for the coffee shop. I returned just after the start of the next presentation, ‘Sustainable Technology Initiatives in Hawai’i – Department of the Navy’. The room was crowded, but I quickly found two rows of Hawai’ian friends with a seat beside Albert and Nathan. I looked up and recognized Alysse and Christine, who smiled and waved at me. Nathan and I jokingly filled out a survey about the Hawai’I presentation (he was biased!). The talk was interesting; they discussed wave energy and ways of managing waste at the Navy base.
There were two more session slots. I only had one other talk I was considering, one about Tribal Water Rights. However, my friends were eager to leave. They had met a Native Alaskan student from the University of Anchorage who had his vehicle at the event. Albert had just run out with him to pick up a rental for the last day and my friends were hoping to go find the glacier up north. They invited me to come. As much as the lecture intrigued me, I decided I had already sat through two and that I could afford to enjoy a little more of Alaska with my friends. I walked back to their hotel with them and waited for Albert to return.
Eventually, Albert was back. We divided up and I took the backseat of his car with Isaiah. We followed the others up the road out of Anchorage and into the Matanuska-Sustina Valley. They wanted to find the glacier where I had been my first day. On the way, I explained how this might be a problem. As we kept driving, the problem because more clear to them. Even if we made it all the way there, we would have trouble coming back before the cultural events on time… and we probably wouldn’t even be able to make it past security to the glacier itself.
We stopped at a gas station that had a Taco Bell (yes, even in Alaska) where we bought Doritos and popcorn snacks and decided to give the reins over to the lead car. They’d drive as far as we could, then we would turn around. For the next hour or so, we drove, drove, and drove. We ate, laughed, took pictures, and joked. Then, the car in front of us veered to a pullover. We pulled in behind.
“A wolf!” Everyone jumped out and started taking pictures of a wolf and some birds fighting over a carcass on the ice below. As we stood there, another truck began to pass us. The people saw us and, despite being locals, then veered over as well and got out to take pictures. Then the others came over. “We’ve decided to turn around,” they said. My friends were bummed. At least I’d gotten to see the glacier, but I still felt sad for them.
We made up for it, though. A few miles down the road on the way back, we pulled over again. We had found a large, frozen lake. Approaching it, no one wanted to get too close and fall in. That didn’t last long. We each got a little more and more brave. Before we knew it, we were running across the entire lake, sliding on our feet and laying down to look at the incredible thickness of the ice and the bubbles trapped on the grasses below. Nathan and Jeffrey counted to three and pushed towards each other, sliding in backwards opposite directions. Isaiah ran and slid on his belly across the ice, like a comical penguin. We took many pictures and Tylynn even built a tiny snowman.
We were freezing, but we were in a winter wonderland. “It’s going to be getting dark soon,” someone said. Sadly, we knew we had to go. We packed back in the cars and made our way back to Anchorage. Everyone in our car fell asleep except for Albert, who was driving, me, who felt bad sleeping in front of Albert (even though I was in the back), and Nathan, who was in the passenger seat and also didn’t want to sleep if Albert had to stay awake to drive us. We admired the colors in the sky as the sun set.
Before we knew it, we were back at the hotel. There were cultural events planned at the Egan Center, so we hurried off to see some, all the while discussing plans for how we would spend our last night. We wanted to see the Northern Lights. We put those thoughts on the backburner once we saw how filled the Egan Center was, teeming with Alaskan Native experiences. “I’ve never seen anything Alaskan,” said Karina, and the rest of us nodded, mumbling the same notion.
In the first room, we watched a series of men, women, and children beat on drums and dance. Their dances were just like one you might see in any of our cultures, except they were representing animals unique to Alaska. One dance was a walrus dance. The dancers even got on their sides and hopped like walruses at one point. There was another dance, the “Ice Bump”, where dancers spun in circles and bumped hips like clashing icebergs. Before leaving the room, we looked around at the various booths with jewelry made from tusks and bone.
The next room was hosting the Alaskan Olympic demonstrations. Yes, Alaskan Natives have their very own Olympics. Sports include activities their ancestors did to both keep warm, survive, and strengthen hunters and warriors. Many events were complicated jumping events, requiring ridiculous amounts of core strength and balance. The demonstrators, some of who held titles in their events, would balance on a hand then swing up and kick a ball suspended high above their heads. In one three-person event, two men balanced a pole between the two of them while their partner hung from it by his crooked wrist. The two pole-bearers then sprinted around the room until either they tipped off their companion or he gave out from fatigue. That event is measure by successful distance covered. But the winner of the night was the trampoline-like event, an activity once used to scan the tundra for food or enemies. About thirty people crowded around an old seal-skin tarp and one person climbed on top. After given very specific directions on how he was and wasn’t allowed to propel himself from the tarp, the people in the circle swayed in and out with “3, 2, 1…” and flung the man in the middle a couple stories into the air. Looking up at the high ceiling, the woman running the event announced, “Now, this ceiling would not be nearly high enough if you were all competitors!” and we marveled at the height achieved, not able to imagine going higher. “Sign a waiver for your turn!” she said, and people quickly rushed over. Some of my friends helped pull the tarp, but none of us made the list to ride the ride.
I was ready to move on. I was tired and excited for our evening expeditions. I wasn’t alone. Karina followed me out. We stood in the hallway, looking back into the room that had just held the dances. It was approaching 11pm by now and there was a woman in the room wearing a ridiculous hat. The hat looked like something from outer space. Karina burst out laughing, and I knew I wasn’t the only who found it strange. I observed as lots of people gathered, cocked their heads, raised their eyebrows, and stared as these woman with the weird outfit began rapping in her Native tongue. It might have been really cool if her language were conducive to the sounds of rapping, or even if she herself were capable of rapping well, but it clashed with the music and sounded like nails on a chalkboard. We laughed and laughed and laughed, as to ourselves as we could, and were relieved when the others were finally out of the other room. We pointed the lady out, the others laughed, and then we moved on to our outside adventures. All I could think was, I hope I finally see those darn lights!!! It’s one of those things I’ve had on my Bucket List forever, and I was ready to check it off!