August 9th: Alaskan State Museum and Mendenhall Glacier Tour

Paige Campbell

Today we started off the day visiting the Alaskan State Museum. Upon first entering the facility, I was impressed by the architecture of the building. Everything was clean and shining, as if brand new. I was not surprised to hear from our docent that the museum was only a year old— they had recently gained a great sum of money from the state to build their new facility, and they certainly put their money to good use. The overall architecture resembled a large eagle with it’s wings spread, but the corridor we came in was only covered by one wing structure.

Two totem poles guarded the entrance to the first section of the exhibit. As we took the first step into the room, the first thing that strikes our eye are two mammoth tusks hung on the wall to the right in a glass metal rectangular case. To the right of the tusks was a collection of ancient human artifacts, many of which the title and purpose are still unknown. To the left was an old, degraded basket with a newly weaved basket beside it, mimicking what they thought the aged basket might have once looked like.

Continuing further into the exhibit, we came across a small hut-like building which represented what the indigenous people of Alaska used to build as shelters. Inside were more artifacts, one of which was a frog hat. I was surprised and delighted to hear that this hat is still used in sacred rituals today— the museum allows indigenous tribes to “rent out” this extremely old and priceless item. Also in this shelter were reconstructions of what the indigenous people used to wear. The outfits were colorful and detailed, with red being the main color used.

Past the hut was fishing and whaling equipment. A large boat that would have been passed down through many generations hung from the ceiling. Just past it were two kayaks secured to the wall, and a third kayak with a mannequin inside a glass case below them. This mannequin wore thick clothing which their fishermen would typically wear out at sea. He was holding a wooden club-like object in his right hand and looked as though he were midway through a throwing motion. We learned from the docent with a rather humorous demonstration with volunteers from our group that this was how the fishermen threw harpoons to effectively strike wales— a large spear would be stuck in the end of the club, and the thrower would use the extra leverage to thrust the spear forward with more force than they could have with their bear arm.

The most surprising part of this exhibit was the section on World War II. I had no idea Alaska had such a large part in the war, but nearly half of the entire exhibit was based on this era. There was an old mining train, a wooden ship, uniforms from both the Americans and the Japanese, and exquisite clothing from the common people of the time. This was a whole other side of Alaska which I had no idea existed until now. Alaska was a vital part of this war, and so many people, local and non, perished in this part of our country during that time.

Following our time at the museum, we drove over to the Mendenhall glacier for one last visit. We got a special tour from one of the park rangers who expressed his concerns about the salmon population and how the road to the glacier has affected them. Due to the placement of the road, the stream for the salmon is currently too strong for salmon to successfully make their way up it, and it is too rapid for females to safely lay their eggs. The ranger told us that if given the chance, moving the road a mere 30 feet would help the salmon population of that area greatly. Unfortunately, this does not seem worth it to many, so they may have to way a long time until the road needs significant repairs in order to make this change.

After our tour with the ranger, we were able to visit the park which was built with the purpose of viewing and appreciating the glacier. The sight was beautiful, though we were not as close to the glacier as we were on day one. Patches of ice were floating around the base of the glacier, and some even strayed far enough to reach the shore we were standing on. To the right of the glacier you could barely see the roaring water of nugget falls. I used this opportunity to take one of my favorite pictures from the trip (pictured below). I acquired a postcard of a cartoon drawing of Mendenhall glacier at San Diego Comic Con, which I attended a few weeks before leaving for Alaska. I saw this as a sign that I was meant to be doing this research in this particular place.

With a couple hours of down time, I decided to observe the many tourists who were being shipped in by the bus-load. It made me think, what do these people see during their visit? Do they just see a pile of old ice, or do they see the direct effects of global warming tearing off chunks of what used to be an immoveable object? Do they realize that their travel to this very spot helped contribute to this effect that is global warming? Do the cruise ships that bring these people in educate their customers about what is happening to this glacier (and glaciers everywhere)?

I left the glacier with these thoughts in mind, worrying about whether the tourists were getting the full story and experiencing the whole history of global warming. Were they also learning about the antiquity of the land, and the indigenous people who used to live on the land they now roll over in bus loads? According to our docent, the cruise ships do not even advertise the existence of the Alaskan State Museum to their customers. I believe that tourism is hurting the world in more ways than one, but if we use it as a tool to educate the rest of the world about the dangers of global warming and to keep the history of indigenous cultures alive, the lasting impact on visitors would be worth the cost of their travel.

Cartoon of Mendenhall Glacier.

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