Thursday, March 5, 2015

How Alaska Inspires My Writing

My twenty plus years in Alaska from 1948-1970 provide the setting for much of what I write. There's a good reason Alaska is called "the Great Land." I've been in forty-six states and several foreign countries. I've seen many beautiful sights. But in Alaska, everywhere you look is grand and big and and beautiful with plentiful and varied wildlife! I have lived most of my adult life in beautiful New York State, but I'll always be an Alaskan at heart.

Growing up in Alaska, surrounded by the beauties of creation, I was very aware of God. The Psalmist wrote, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork" (19:1), and I was constantly reminded of His presence, no matter where I went in Alaska. I was never much for organized sports, but I loved to hike, climb mountains, row a boat, ride my bike, and enjoy God's handiwork.

Pelican, Alaska, in 1953
We walked a lot in Alaska. Walking home at night, I loved to study the sky with the Bear, the Dipper, the great North Star, undimmed by glaring lights that wash them out in big cities. The heavens portrayed a God bigger than His vast domain. Often, the aurora borealis flowed across the winter sky with its mighty swags of glowing, colorful bands as though God was painting with sweeping freestyle strokes, inspiring awe that the great Creator would care about me.

My parents operated a children's home during my early years in Juneau. We had a dog we named Taku. She was part wolf, Malamute, and German shepherd. On cold winter nights she would howl to the wolves in the woods, but with us children she was as gentle as a lamb. The little children would climb all over her, even stick their fingers in her eyes, and she never snapped or growled at any of us. One day she disappeared. We suspected the neighbors did away with her. They were afraid of her because she was part wolf. They didn't know her like we did. 

Big dogs sometimes ran loose in Alaskan towns. My grandma told stories of their early days in Alaska when they lived in Klukwan. The Tlingits allowed their sled dogs to run loose to forage for their own food when they were not needed for travel. They always carried big sticks and shouted, "Chook!(the Tlingit word meaning "go away"). I was afraid of big dogs, so I always carried a large purse in case one came at me. I would swing it between the dog's muzzle and me, and trying not to act afraid, I'd shout, "Chook! Chook!" And I'd pray!

A highlight of my childhood was the times spent on boats. When I was two and a half, I arrived in Alaska on my uncle's mission boat. My earliest memory is of that trip. (That memory shows up in my book, Till the Storm Passes By.) While we lived in Juneau, my uncle often stopped by to visit us on his way to some village or cannery to hold church services. Gastineau Channel was too shallow on one end, so he would sail the mission boat down the channel and around Douglas Island to (or from) Auke Bay, on the other side of the shallow part. It took a half day. We jumped at every opportunity to sail with him. Often, we spotted whales, orcas, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and bald eagles. Sometimes we'd throw out a line, but I never caught a fish. But people often gave us fresh salmon or halibut. That was one way God supplied our needs.

When my father became the pastor of the church in the tiny fishing village of Pelican on Chichagof Island, one of the large Islands that formed the Alexander Archipelago and the Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska, we owned a dinghy. The town was strung out above the water along the cliffs on a boardwalk that stretched a mile or more from end to end. Rugged mountains that stood regal in their ermine capes rose on either side of Lizianski Inlet. When they reflected in the still waters at their feet, my foster sister and I would take the dinghy out and take turns rowing on the inlet in front of the combination church and parsonage where we lived on the hill above. When ferocious winds blew off icy blue glaciers, whipped up frothy whitecaps, and sent clouds racing, rowing would be folly. One time we were out rowing when the wind suddenly whipped up whitecaps all around us. We had some frightful moments rowing against the wind and waves back to the neighbor's dock. Again, I prayed!

One summer my dad worked on a salmon troller. The owner had to have a spinal fusion mid-fishing season, and his eighteen-year-old son needed a fishing partner. They would leave Monday morning and return on Saturday so my dad could preach the Sunday services. My dad took me along as chief cook and bottle washer one week. We sailed out Lizianski Inlet into Cross Sound, and the weather was cross! Again and again, the boat rose high on the crest of a wave and dove deep into a trough. (This experience informs incidents in several of my books.) Even though the seals robbed the lines of every salmon, I had a great time--and made memories I'll never forget and inspiration for novels I write.

In high school I began writing about the sights I'd seen and the experiences I'd had. When I began writing short stories for Sunday school curriculum, It wasn't hard to fictionalize stories of faith set in Alaska, stories that are carriers of truth about God's love, forgiveness, grace, and mercy, because I learned to know God in Alaska. 

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