Friday, August 31, 2007

Channels of Memory, Lineage and History


During the busiest days in Alaska, there is a deep sense of peaceful rest that is always available. You just have to glance out a window or walk down to the edge of the water to feel its quiet gentleness reach out and comfort you.

As I do laundry, or dishes, or wrap my mother's birthday gift, as I did this morning, I take brief breaks to find a window that can still view the Gastineau Channel from between all of the trees that once planted in their infancy, now tower and often hide a view that was once considered normal by the island inhabitants, and is now considered extraordinary by visitors who come up by plane or cruise lines.

I was fortunate to grow up on this island, raised by my pioneer Alaskan father and my Cajun French mother, his high school penpal he went down to meet, then marry in Louisiana. I grew up listening to other languages and many accents and dialects and never considered that to be unusual. I tell people now that I didn't even know I lived on an island and they find that hard to believe...but it's true. We didn't study local history or geography in the fifties or sixties and I moved to Oregon to attend Oregon State University in my late teens.

It was then that I realized I might have been a bit of a novelty, especially when I discovered that others asked if I was an 'Eskimo'. Now, going to Alaska is a common destination and we teach,and learn,about much more than far away places or continents.

I walk the sandy beach of my childhood.... out to this area where the old remnants of the once famous Treadwell Mine now lay in ruins. The mine was once the largest gold mine in Alaska but caved in during a blast in 1917. That was the day my Finnish Grandmother refused to let my grandfather go to work in the Treadwell Foundry. She had a 'bad feeling' and wanted him to stay home. He was a strong and independent man and was set on going anyway. The story goes that she refused to pack his lunch. No self-respecting man of that generation would pack his own...so he did stay home.

The records say that no one lost their lives in that cave-in, only were injured, but more than 200 Chinese mine workers were never seen nor heard from again. So, it can only be assumed that some, if not all must have perished, they simply were not recorded amongst the recognized workers, a sad commentary on the times.

I am grateful that my Alaskan roots are strong and sensitive at the same time. Grateful that as I walked this beach 90 years after that cave-in, I can still pick up broken pieces of pottery...dishes that were used to serve the those workers who lived on site...unlike my Grandfather who couldn't go to work that fateful day without his packed lunchbox.

2 comments:

  1. Lovely, thoughtful post about your heritage. Cute story about Grampa. Little things can make such a difference!

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  2. A strong and touching piece. I can feel your love for and tie to your Alaskan roots. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing. Your photos are great, also. Alaska is so beautiful.

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Michele Bilyeu blogs "With Heart and Hands" as she journeys between Douglas, Alaska and Salem, Oregon.