Kodiaks Scandinavian Heritage – Reindeer herders

Lois Stover in Sami dress

People were drawn to Alaska for various reasons. Some arrived almost by accident, others came on a mission.

In 1882, the United States government initiated a program to aid the native people who were starving in southwestern Alaska. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister who had established many schools up and down the Alaskan coast, was appointed to lead the project. In Siberia, he had seen herds of domesticated reindeer kept by the Chukchi people and thought that it ought to be possible to raise reindeer in Alaska. With government funding, he purchased 171 reindeer and arranged for a group of Chukchi herdsmen to accompany the animals across the Bering Sea to Alaska and teach the Yupik people how to raise them. It wasn’t easy to teach the Yupiks to herd reindeer, however, and when relations broke down completely between the Russian Chukchi and the Alaskan Yupiks, the project was terminated.

In 1894, they tried again. This time they hired Norwegian Samis, promising them a three-year contract, good wages, and free room and board. A group of 13 Sami reindeer herders left Kautokeino in Norway to come to Alaska and teach the Yupik people how to raise reindeer.

Four years later, a second group of 113 Samis were contracted and 537 reindeer were purchased from Norway. The project was a success and continued for several years. The animals increased in number and were divided into several herds. When their contract was fulfilled, some of the Norwegian Samis returned to Norway or moved elsewhere in the United States, while others married native women and stayed in Alaska.

Lois Stover and her sister, Mary Eyman, are descendants of the Norwegian Samis from Kautokeino. Lois moved to Kodiak from Bethel, Alaska in 1959. When I met her at a Sons of Norway meeting, I asked if I could visit her and hear more about her ancestors. Her house, ensconced in a grove of beautiful spruce trees, was located on the outskirts of town. We sat on the deck, and she and her sister, Mary Eyman, showed me their collection of Sami clothing and handiwork.

Lois and Mary’s grandparents came from Norway with the reindeer herd in 1898. Their grandmother, Ellen Sara, was only 15 years old when she arrived in Alaska and was pressured into an arranged marriage with a considerably older Norwegian Sami man. Ellen cried throughout her wedding day. “It made me so sad to hear about her marriage,” said Lois. “Grandma had three children in her first marriage. Then she divorced her husband, married another Norwegian man, and had four more children.”

“I’ve heard that the Russian Chukchi were rather rough on the reindeer, especially their milking technique,” continued Lois. “They would throw the reindeer on the ground and then suck the milk out, spitting it into a bottle. The Yupik couldn’t accept the way the Chukchi treated their animals. It was easier for the Norwegian Samis to teach their milking techniques – using their hands much the way you would milk a cow or a goat. The Samis from Norway had a much better relationship with the Yupik people than their predecessors from Russia, mostly because they showed respect to both people and animals.

“I think another reason was that the Samis and the Yupik people had similar cultures. They ate similar foods and clothed themselves in a similar fashion. The Samis adapted quickly to the Yupik way of life.”

Lois remembers that her grandparents often spoke Norwegian to each other “When my father started school he refused to speak English, and had to repeat first grade three times,” she said. “My grandmother told him that, if he didn’t learn to speak English, he would be in first grade until he was 30! That didn’t sound very good, so he learned English really fast!”

Tim, Lois and Mary’s father, continued his studies and, in 1937, became the first Sami-Eskimo to graduate from the University of Alaska.

“We were taught to be proud of our Sami-Eskimo heritage and to fight anyone who teased us!” Lois laughed. “But, of course, we didn’t really fight anyone.”

The girls learned both Yupik and Sami traditions, including how to preserve fish and dry reindeer meat. “I still love reindeer jerky. We were raised on reindeer meat and cloudberries. Cloudberries grow all over the tundra around Bethel where we lived.”

It wasn’t easy to raise reindeer in an area where caribou roam. They inspected the herd every morning, looking for the larger caribou bulls, which had to be chased off or shot. If they were not quickly removed, they might take off with several of the reindeer cows and weaken the herd.

“Many of the Yupik didn’t really want the responsibility of taking care of the herd,” explained Lois. “They often abandoned their herds during the fishing season. You can’t do that. The herds must be protected from caribou and wolves. Many lost their herds that way.”

In 1922, a herd of reindeer was transported to Akhiok on Kodiak, but no one took care of them, and they turned wild. There are still reindeer roaming the hills of southern Kodiak. “It would be fun to round up a few reindeer and start a new herd,” said Lois, her eyes glowing with excitement. “Grandfather always said that we were not here for the reindeer, the reindeer were here for us.”

Mary remembered all the good food they made following the slaughters. “Mother filled the intestines with blood, oats and spices to make blood sausages that we boiled and ate either hot or cold. She also made bread from reindeer brains, brain bread. It was hard and brittle, like Rice Crispies.”

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be ordered from Camera Q.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be premiering a new films about the Scandinavian-Sugpiaqs of Kodiak.  See festival site for more information.

Burton’s Ranch

Narrow Cape, the beach at Burton’s buffalo ranch, is a place on Kodiak I return to often. This is, without a doubt, the end of the road – as far out into Kodiak’s wilderness that you can come by car. Indeed, before the Kodiak Launch Complex was built in the late 1990s, the road was sometimes impassable. Back then, the 45-mile trip from Kodiak to Narrow Cape could take two to three hours.

In the late 1980s, the only paved roads were in the city. “The Road,” as it is called, was only gravel, and often riddled with deep holes and large rocks that had to be carefully avoided. The trip was long and tedious, and very few people ever bothered to visit Narrow Cape.

To get to Burton’s ranch, you drive east from the city along the winding road that follows the rugged coastline, rounding three inlets, Womens, Middle and Kalsin Bay. With all the twists and turns, the distance is more than doubled, but behind every curve awaits a new awe-inspiring view. The steep mountain slopes are blanketed in plush, green vegetation, dotted with wildflowers in white, blue, red, and yellow.

Just before turning off toward Burton’s ranch, the road passes Pasagshak Bay, a cove that, in the right light, resembles a tropical sea. There are always at least one or two people fishing in the Pasagshak River, which empties into the bay. During the Silver salmon run, the riverbanks are crowded with eager fishermen from Kodiak.

After Pasagshak, the road turns up into the mountains where the buffalo graze. Twenty years ago, when the road was at its worst, it was necessary for someone to walk ahead to guide the driver past the worst of the holes and rocks. Just before reaching the ranch, the road crosses a small creek. Today there is a bridge, but when I first came out here, there were only a few logs thrown across the ravine on which to cross.

Visiting the ranch used to mean a lot of extra wear and tear on the vehicle. Several times I’ve had not one but two flat tires driving from the ranch. Once, when I was approaching Narrow Cape, we heard a loud crash followed by a nasty crunching noise under the car. Jumping out to inspect the damage, I saw that the exhaust system had caught on a huge rock. Carefully, I put the car in reverse and backed up slowly, but the exhaust pipe was torn loose. After that, the car sounded like a Formula 1 race car.

The first time I visited Burton’s ranch, I felt like I’d entered a time warp. Animals wandered freely between the rugged buildings. Horses stood, saddled and ready for use. Until the late 1990s, the horse was the primary mode of transportation on the ranch. Ranch owners Bill and Kathy Burton and their son, Buck, were living the life I’d dreamed of as a boy. The first time I met Bill, it was like reuniting with a long-lost friend. For Bill, no one was a stranger.

Bill Burton came to Kodiak from Florida in 1966, to work at Joe Beaty’s ranch by Narrow Cape, which at that time was a traditional cattle ranch. The following year, Bill and his wife, Kathy, decided to buy the ranch from Joe and stay on Kodiak.

“It was a constant struggle against the bears,” Bill explained. “Raising cattle on Kodiak is hard, they are easy prey. When I bought the ranch, bear hunting was not very regulated, and poaching was fairly common. But there are fewer cattle owners today, and shooting bears to protect livestock is no longer accepted.”

“In 1979, bears killed 127 of our cattle,” he continued. “We had to make a difficult decision – quit or try something else. We decided to stay, and the following spring, we bought 40 head of buffalo.”

Unlike cattle, buffalo retain their natural instincts and are better equipped to defend themselves against bear attacks. A bear that has once approached an angry buffalo will seldom make the same mistake again.

Exchanging cattle for buffalo proved to be a profitable venture. Not only can the animals protect themselves, but the meat is also more valuable, and the bulls are attractive trophy animals for hunters. Today the herd has grown to over 500 head and is the largest buffalo herd in the state.

The ranch is enclosed by a high mountain range that meets the ocean. There is no need for fencing and the buffalo roam freely. The road out to Pasagshak Bay is the only breach in the natural enclosure. When too many buffalo have wandered off, the Burtons gather a posse on horseback to drive the animals back over the Pasagshak River and up through the passage where the road winds along the bay. I’ve participated in a few of those drives. Sitting on horseback, driving a herd of buffalo through one of the most scenic areas on earth has been the fulfillment of all my boyhood dreams.

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” purchase it here.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be showing films from my 35+ years on the island. Meet Bill Burton and many other “old timers” in the film Voices of Kodiak. See festival site for more information.

Kodiak’s Scandinavian Heritage – Emil Norton

Emil Norton’s father, Johan Norgård, was born in 1870 to Swedish parents in Vasa, Finland. Their family was poor, so Johan left home when he was 16 and went to sea. He arrived in the USA later the same year, 1886, and tried to join the navy. The recruiter asked him how old he was.

“I’m 18,” replied Johan.

“Good,” said the recruiter, “what year were you born?”

“1870.”

“Then you’re only 16! Go home son.”

But Johan didn’t go home, he signed on to another ship for a couple of years and eventually ended up in Alaska. He was working on one of the mail boats when the captain told him that his last name, Norgård, was too hard to spell. Johan changed his name to John Norton.

In 1893, John came to Woody Island, a small island not far from the city of Kodiak, where he was offered a job as store manager/fur trapper with a salary of $15 a month. He married a Russian-Sugpiaq woman and, since he dealt primarily with native people, learned to speak fluent Alutiiq.

John and his wife had six children. When Emil, the youngest, was one year old, his mother died. The oldest girls helped raise their younger siblings.

Emil described his father as a big, strong man. One day an unusual cargo arrived at Kodiak’s harbor, large crates of gold that weighed 250-300 pounds each. John lifted a crate to his shoulder and carried it to land. Everyone watching was astounded by his strength. “The Scandinavian men came from good, hardy stock,” Emil declared.

Most of the Scandinavians that came to Kodiak were successful. They married native women and had large families, but they rarely spoke of their homeland or taught their children their own language. “The few words we did learn were swear words we picked up by eavesdropping,” says Frieda, shaking her head.

John Norton lived to be 88 years old. Emil remembers how, in his old age, his father talked in his sleep, in a language they couldn’t understand.

Emil began working when he was 14 years old. His first job was stamping fish crates for 15¢ an hour. He worked in the fishing industry for 61 years before he retired.

“Of course, you have to deduct a few years for the war,” interjects Emil. After boot camp he was sent to Italy. “We chased Germans and Italians in Northern Italy. We saw some hard battles and lost a lot of men in our battalion.”

“One day,” he continued, “I turned a corner and came eye to eye with three German soldiers. I lifted my gun and was just about to shoot, when the Germans suddenly threw down their weapons and raised their hands in surrender. I was shaking from fear and adrenalin but was so grateful that I didn’t have to shoot. I was the first in my company to take prisoners, but I didn’t get a medal.”

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be ordered from Camera Q.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be premiering a new films about the Scandinavian-Sugpiaqs of Kodiak.  See festival site for more information.

Good Friday 1964

Afognak was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of 1964.

The 1964 Alaskan Earthquake, also known as The Great Alaskan Earthquake, began around dinnertime on March 27th – Good Friday. Emil and Frieda Norton and their children had just sat down to eat when the light in the ceiling began to sway and the table shook violently.

“We all jumped up and ran outside. We hung on to each other, because if we didn’t we would have fallen to our knees – it was shaking so violently. The asphalt in front of our house was rolling in two to three feet waves,” Emil told me. We had gathered at Gene and Phyllis Sundberg’s home to talk about their Scandinavian heritage, when the conversation drifted to the earthquake.

According to testimony, the entire town of Kodiak rolled, as if carried by a gigantic wave that lifted buildings up in the air and then lowered them again. Lasting almost four minutes, the earthquake was one of the most powerful ever recorded, reaching a magnitude of 9.2 on the Richter scale.

“I recall the mountain looked like a bear’s stomach, breathing out and in, and moaning. When I explained this to the scientists that came later, they said it was just my imagination,” Phyllis muttered derisively.

“You had to see it to believe it,” added Frieda.

“We thought it was the end of the world. We stood in a ring holding on to each other, praying the ‘Our Father’,” said Gene.

“When the shaking stopped, we hopped in the car and drove down to the cannery where I was the superintendent,” Emil continued. “We were stopped by a marine who told us we couldn’t go any further. He told us to turn around and go up to Pillar Mountain. At 11 o’clock the tremors had stopped, so we tried to drive home, but we were stopped again by a marine, who told us it was too dangerous to go back. So we drove up here, to Gene and Phyllis Sundberg’s house instead.”

Eighteen people found shelter at the Sundberg home. Another fifteen stayed with the teacher who was renting the basement apartment. “One of them had an infant,” said Phyllis. “We didn’t have any diapers, but I told her not to worry; I had plenty of towels. We had to cut up the shower curtain to use for plastic panties.”

“With so many people in the house, and everyone using the bathroom, the first thing we ran out of was toilet paper!” Phyllis continued. “But there’s a little creek just outside, so we had plenty of water.”

“Now we have a lot of toilet paper stored up in the attic waiting for the next tremor,” laughed Gene.

The first Tsunami wave hit less than an hour later, destroying the entire harbor area, the canneries, and the shops along Main Street. The highest waves that swelled in over the city crested at 30 feet. The waves that destroyed Old Harbor and Afognak Village were an estimated 45 feet.

“We could hear buildings being crushed. I was looking through field glasses, focused on the Orpheum Theater, when all of a sudden, a boat sailed right past the window. I was so shocked, I screamed and threw the binoculars across the room,” Phyllis remembered laughing.

It took months before they could rebuild the city. “It was so depressing to see the fires that burned continually for months just to get rid of the trash,” sighed Phyllis. “They had to get rid of the old Kodiak before they could build the new.”

The fishing industry was hit the hardest – fishermen lost their boats and canneries were destroyed. Nearly a year went by before the cannery where Emil Norton worked partially reopened.

“Kodiak has a long and unique history. You know, despite the volcanoes and earthquakes, there is no better place to live,” concluded Emil.

The powerful earthquake triggered a series of tsunami waves that washed over Afognak, the second largest island on Kodiak archipelago, destroying most of the village Afognak. The ground sank six feet in some places, and wells and lakes were contaminated by salt water. The people of Afognak faced a difficult decision – rebuild or relocate.

The decision to relocate passed by one vote. The new village, built in a more protected location in Kizhuyak Bay, was named Port Lions.

An eerie silence engulfed the decaying village when I last visited Afognak village. Plates and cups were left standing on kitchen tables, and knickknacks lay helter-skelter on the shelves.

The schoolhouse that once echoed with the laughter of children, stood silent and empty. The church lay toppled on the beach, and the graveyard, with all the graves, had been washed away by the waves. In a few years, what was left of the village will be overgrown by vegetation or buried under the sand.

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be purchased here.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest  November 6-12, 2017 I will be showing films from my 30+ years on the island. Don’t miss the film Good Friday 1964. See festival site for more information.

Kodiak’s Scandinavian Heritage – Old Harbor

Old Harbor (1988)

Old Harbor is certainly worthy of its nickname – Little Scandinavia. Most of the village’s 220 inhabitants are descendants of young Swedish and Norwegian men who arrived on Kodiak in the early 1900s. The village is nestled between a narrow beach and the steep slopes of the grassy mountains. Nearby islands protect the harbor from the Pacific storms.

Rolf Christiansen, was born in 1890 in Kristiania (now Oslo) during the time when Sweden and Norway were a union. Arthur Haakanson, was born in 1886 and came from southern Sweden via Langeland in Denmark. Both of them ended up, through remarkable circumstance and after many years at sea, in Old Harbor on Kodiak.

As a boy, Arthur Haakanson dreamed of going to sea, but his father thought that, at 14, he was too young, so he arranged for him to work at the docks instead. It wasn’t long, however, before he was offered a job on a ship heading for Greenland. Returning home a year later, Arthur found that a life at sea suited him better, and he soon signed on to a new ship.

In New York, he met a young Norwegian sailor, Rolf Christiansen. They became good friends but soon went their separate ways. Many years later, their paths crossed again when they ran into each other in a bar in San Francisco. The conversation drifted to Alaska and the possibility of making good money. The two friends separated again, but the thought of Alaska lingered in their minds.

Arthur got a job on the herring boat Hunter, en route to Alaska. On August 30, 1917, with its hold full of cod, the ship hit a rock outside of Chignik on the Alaska Peninsula. The ship sank in just four minutes, but everyone on board escaped in the lifeboats. The rock that sank the ship is still known as Hunter’s Rock.

In Chignik, the last ship going south had already sailed, so the crew boarded a ship headed for Kodiak where they had to spend the winter. At the time, the population was only 300, and the town had very little to offer the shipwrecked survivors. In the spring, a passenger ship arrived with cannery workers, and most of the crew from the Hunter booked passage south. Thirteen decided to stay – Arthur was one of them. He spent the next ten years working at different jobs around the island, until he was offered a position as foreman at a cannery in Three Saints Bay.

One day, he heard that a Norwegian whaling ship was docked at Port Hobron, near Old Harbor. A dance was held every weekend in Old Harbor, and the Norwegian crew was expected to attend. Arthur and several friends hopped in a boat and rowed to Old Harbor, a four-hour trip, to attend the dance and to meet the men from Scandinavia. As Arthur’s boat pulled into Old Harbor, he was surprised to see his old friend, Rolf Christensen, arriving in another boat. “What have you been doing for the last 15 years?” he shouted in greeting. The two friends had a lot of catching up to do.

At the dance in Old Harbor, Rolf and Arthur met young girls from the village. The following spring, a big double wedding was arranged for the two friends and their brides. Both families were blessed with many children, and in time, Rolf’s daughter, Mary, married Arthur’s son, Sven.

The most common name in Old Harbor today is Christensen. These are descendants of Arthur Haakanson’s best friend, Rolf Christensen, who arrived in Old Harbor in 1931. I met with Rolf’s son, Carl Christensen, at his beautiful fishing resort on the edge of the village.

“Dad said that he ran away from home when he was 15,” Carl told me, “and he sailed around the world three times before ending up here on Kodiak.”

Shortly after arriving, Rolf was offered a job as a cook at the Port Hobron Whale Station on Sitkalidak Island, just across the bay from Old Harbor. After meeting Sasha Kelly, a young Sugpiaq woman, he would row across the bay to Old Harbor every weekend to court her. When they married, Rolf was 41 and Sasha was 17. Sasha loved Rolf’s blue eyes and often said that she would like to pluck them out and eat them. Considering that seal eyes are a delicacy among the natives of Kodiak, it may not have been just an idle threat. Happily, Rolf held on to his eyes throughout his life.

Excerpt from the book “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear” which can be ordered from Camera Q.

At the Kodiak Scandinavian Culture and Film Fest I will be premiering a new films about the Scandinavian-Sugpiaqs of Kodiak.  See festival site for more information.

Close encounter with an Elephant

Many people ask me if I’ve ever been scared, if I’ve every experienced something frightening in the wild. Sure – sometimes situations occur that can be a little…disconcerting.

We once had a bull elephant that every evening, right at sunset, crossed a shallow lake just a short distance from our campsite. I had seen him several evenings in a row and as he crossed the lake the sun’s rays danced across the ripples spreading out from his enormous body. I tried to find a spot from where I could film him but it was difficult because there were only a few low, thorny acacia bushes around the lake.

One afternoon I chose one of those bushes about 75 yards from the path where the elephant walked every evening. Sure enough, he came on time that evening, too. I had set up my camera so I could capture the glittering sunlight on the ripples as the elephant crossed the lake, but this evening was different. The elephant stopped near the water’s edge for a moment, then turned suddenly and walked briskly, straight to the little bush I was using as camouflage. He stopped right next to me and began to eat the bush, which just barely covered my head. I bent over the camera and held my breath. This was not good. Why had he changed his habits this particular evening and chosen my bush to eat?

I could see the enormous feet just in front of me and heard how he tore and pulled at the branches with his trunk just a hand’s width above my head. I also knew that the elephants in this area didn’t have the best reputation. People had been killed in encounters with angry elephants, especially the bulls. Now one was standing right in front of me. Running away would be futile. There was no other place to hide and outrunning an irate elephant is impossible; they are too fast. If I startled him, it would only make my situation more precarious. No, I sat still and contemplated my perilous position.

After a few minutes that seem to last an eternity, the elephant turned slowly to the next bush. I took a deep breath and felt that my chances of surviving increased with every step the elephant walked away from my bush. He stopped about 15 yards away and then turned around and came back! He finished off the last few branches that remained in my dry old bush that was now completely useless as camouflage. I sat still expecting him to grab me by the hair or wrap his trunk around my body. Strangely enough he avoided touching me at all, even though he ate every branch surrounding me.

When the last leaf was consumed the elephant turned slowly and walked away from my severely damaged hiding place and crossed the lake surrounded by thousands of glittering stars in the final embers of the sunset. I was far too stunned to start the camera and capture the mighty bull on film as he walked away. It’s quite humbling to be in close contact with one of the largest creatures on earth. I came away from there without a film sequence of the elephant but with images imprinted permanently in my mind. The words of my young friend from the Ahikuntaka came back to me – “Sir! Sir, don’t be afraid!”

People from Different Worlds

One little girl stands out especially in my memory, even though I only saw her for a few seconds. No more than six years old, she was digging through a pile of garbage in southern India. There was nothing unusual about the girl. In fact, I might not have noticed her if it hadn’t have been for the gigantic black pig digging through the same garbage pile. Just as we drove slowly past her, she looked up and caught my eye. While I sat comfortably in the car on my way to the hotel, she was struggling to find a little bit of food before the pig found it and gobbled it up.

My first production in India, 1980, was a documentary film about the Swedish orphanage, Elida Children’s Home. That trip to India gave me experiences that have influenced my life in many aspects. We landed in Bombay (now called Mumbai) early one morning in April. We left the airport before 6 AM and the taxi dropped us off in the middle of the city where we walked along streets where people dressed in rags still slept or were just waking up. A few luckier individuals slept on collapsed cardboard boxes. I was only 22 years old and never experienced anything like it – thousands of people! Many were children that appeared so frail they probably didn’t have the energy to wake up again. Others sat up, rooting among their few possessions – a rag, a bottle, a cup. A few eyed me carefully. It was surreal – everything seemed to move in slow motion.

Before embarking on this trip an older man told me, “When you come home you will be a completely different person. No one visits India without being deeply affected.” Why our Lord has given us such divergent circumstances and how we can find it so difficult to be grateful, are questions that have often crossed my mind. India has changed a considerably since my first visit in 1980, much to the better, but the memories remain.

A few years later, in 1987, we filmed a series of educational films. I had also been asked to film some desert excursions for a Swedish charter company. Tourists rode on camels from Sakkare to the pyramids in Giza. (A fantastic experience that I’ve had myself.) Stopping at a small oasis with palm trees and Bedouin tents to rest, they were invited into the tents and offered a cup of tea.

I stood outside and filmed as the tourists went into the tent. After a while two women came out, enthusiastic and grateful for everything they had seen and received. One of the women expressed her gratitude speaking loudly, “Such beautiful children! Imagine these poor people opening their home to us and sharing the little they have. What a wonderful experience!”

They moved on and soon two other women came rushing out of the tent. They were not happy. As they came closer I heard them griping, “Did you see the flies in that little child´s eyes sitting on the ground? So disgusting. How could the tour guides takes us to such a dirty tent and expect us to drink that awful tea?” They hurried away toward the camels, complaining loudly about their experience inside the Bedouin tent.

People react so differently when confronted with something foreign or difficult to understand. You can face it with a positive or a negative attitude. When we’re looking for film ideas, we look for the good, the positive, even among the difficulties and problems. Our aim is to encourage hope and happiness even in situations that appear trying and despairing.

If everyone could focus on the positive in life, what a celebration it would be.

Egypt and the Pyramids of Giza

There are few countries in the world that are as thrilling for a filmmaker/photographer as Egypt. No matter where you are in the country or which way you look, there is something fascinating to focus on. I went to Egypt the first time in 1987 to work on an educational film covering everything – history, people, and nature. For six intensive weeks we covered the entire country and had the advantage of an archeological green card given to us by the government that allowed us into ALL the graves and historical places. I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time. My wife, LaVonne, and her brother, Jens, were part of the film team. We drove our Volkswagen van all the way from Sweden to Gaza, parked it with a helpful Palestinian and were then picked up at the border by a crazy driver from Cairo. On a terrifying trip to Cairo our driver drove so fast that I was convinced we would end up with a camel as a hood ornament. That first experience of Egyptian style driving was a bit like playing Russian roulette – with a little bit of luck it will end well. Before nightfall we made it to Cairo and to Giza.

After a quiet night at the hotel I lodged a few complaints and we were assigned a new driver who, thankfully, drove much more carefully. I also called the Swedish Embassy in the morning to let them know we had arrived. It was with their help that we had been granted a green card. Our contact person at the embassy told us that Egypt was one of the safest countries to visit with very little crime. That was nice to know since I had heard other rumors. (A few years later the situation in Egypt changed dramatically, but that is a story for another blog.)

We had a long list of historic sites, graves and people that we were supposed to film, but first I wanted to visit the pyramids of Giza, crawl through their narrow tunnels and breath in the atmosphere of thousands of years of Egyptian history.

Our new chauffer/guide/translator, who was going to work with us for the duration of our stay, picked us up at our hotel in the morning and drove the short distance to the pyramids. There we were able to walk around all three pyramids – Cheops, Chefren and Mykerinos.

They claim that the pharaohs that ruled Egypt more than 4500 years ago build these enormous pyramids for their final resting place. You have to wonder how they managed. They had no machines that we are aware of and many historians doubt that they even had a wheel. Each block of stone weighs about 2,5 tons, the largest ones probably closer to 15 tons. Historians and researchers are dumbfounded by their miraculous construction. Not even the Egyptians themselves have an explanation to how or even why they were built. The ideas and theories about the origin of the pyramids are as numerous as the blocks they are built of.

We paid our entrance fee and entered the largest, Cheops, pyramid through the so called “Robbers Tunnel”, along the narrow passage and up the staircase, through the gallery until we finally came to the “Kings Chamber.” In the middle of the chamber stood a very simple stone sarcophagus, which they claim was Pharaoh Cheops final resting place, but no one knows for sure.

Is it possible to climb to the top of the pyramids? Yes, but that’s another story.

Life Doesn’t Begin at 60… But That’s When it Shifts Into High Gear!

When I turned 17 my mother told me that ”17” is the best year of your life. I think she was right because that year was incredibly fun. I had already begun working as a journalist and was making good money even though I was still in high school. That summer we were working on our first film, a comedy titled ”Tarzan – Son of Moose” which Swedish Television purchased and aired for the entire population of Sweden. That was the year it all happened!

It’s always nice to celebrate birthdays. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues I think it’s fun when people come together to acknowledge that I have gotten another year older. There is nothing wrong with getting older; in fact there are a lot of perks that come with age. These days the conception seems to be that growing old is ugly, or perhaps we are frightened by the realization that we are not immortal. Wrinkles and wisdom often go hand in hand. Throughout the years, in my search for people with interesting stories and insight, more often than not it is an older person. Young people are perhaps outwardly beautiful but often have difficult problems to deal with. It could be that they just lack life experience, have not found the right career or achieved security in life. The nice thing about being older is that the chase for material gain has slowed down, and the need to prove yourself has subsided. Accept me as I am, or not! Wrinkles are like fine jewelry on a person.

Acknowledging our own mortality can also be liberating. Nothing is as impartial as death; rich or poor, no one will escape it. Some ancient cultures like the Egyptians, for example, buried their dead with great treasures so that they would be able to pay their way into the afterlife. But, as we all know, you can’t take it with you. When we meet our maker we’ll need a different kind of currency. (If you’d like to read about my experience with death, see my blog from June 12.)

When I was about to turn 40 my mother told me that the years between 40 and 50 were the best time in life. And you know, she was right again! I married LaVonne when I was 25 and we had our fifth and last child shortly after I turned 40. When our youngest was out of diapers we were able to take all the children with us on our trips around the world. Sometimes we stayed for extended periods of time in the US and Alaska, something the children remember as grand adventures that gave them valuable experiences.

I concluded my fourth decade by celebrating my 50th birthday with a party on Sri Lanka. We rented a beautiful hotel with a pool and a wonderful garden. More than 70 people from various countries gathered together to commemorate the day. For two weeks we celebrated with various activities and when the others had gone home, our family stayed for an extended working vacation. I doubt that any of the people who were with us for my 50th birthday will forget that evening or the weeks that followed.

Being 50+ was no hardship either. Everything sort of became easier and better with age. Things I had taken for granted became more valuable and new experiences more pleasant. As I neared 60, I began planning for my next “big” birthday party. We had begun working in Namibia, a place I immediately fell in love with. Namibia reminds me a lot of southern California where I met my wife, LaVonne, nearly 40 years ago. I soon decided that Namibia would be a great place for a party. We decided on Secret Garden Guesthouse in Swakopmund, a beautiful city on the west coast of Namibia. In conjunction with the party we arranged a two-week safari/tour of the country for anyone who wanted to join us. We arrived a week early to work on an exciting new project together with Peter Johansson and his wife, Marianne, from Vänersborg’s museum. Then our guests began arriving.

On my way to the airport to pick up our first guests, we had just left the capital, Windhoek, when our car hit something hard. It was such a jolt that I feared the car would be too damaged to drive. We stopped immediately to investigate and there, in the middle of the road, lay a dead leopard. Other cars stopped and there was soon a traffic jam. My chauffer grabbed the leopard by the tail and dragged it off the road. Somebody screamed that we should all get back in our cars because there were other leopards in the area that could attack us. Our car was not damaged so we were able to continue on our way, but we were deeply saddened. A couple days later, when all the guests had arrived, we set off on our safari to Etosha National Park to see lions, elephants and an abundance of various wild animals. Unfortunately, the only leopard I saw this time was the one that lay dead on the road.

After a week-long safari we met up with more friends for my birthday party in Swakopmund. We were there for five days doing all kinds of fun activities like whale safaris and quadrunner races in the sand dunes. And I turned 60! So now, suddenly, I’m 60+, and I’m wondering what adventures are waiting for me in the next decade.

I’d like to thank everyone who came to Swakopmund and everyone who couldn’t come but who called or send greetings. My mother is no longer living but I think she would have said, “The 60’s are the best time of life!”

Kodiak’s Scandinavian Heritage

Carl Grönn
Carl Grönn

When I first came to Kodiak, my curiosity was aroused by the numerous references to Scandinavia in the names of streets and places like Anton Larson Bay, Larsen Bay, Ole Johnson Avenue, and Benny Benson Road. Searching through Kodiak’s telephone book, I was perplexed by the names listed there ­– Carlson, Berggren, Billstrom, Peterson, Antonson, Christensen and Grönn. Where did all these Scandinavian names come from? Digging a little deeper, I discovered a history of Kodiak that has never been told, much less documented.

In the early 1900s, hundreds of young Scandinavian men arrived on Kodiak. They settled in some of the most remote villages on the islands, married native women, and had large families – ten to twelve children were not unusual. Most of them seem to have been fairly secretive about their past and their homeland. Their children and grandchildren know very little about that side of their heritage.

One summer, I was invited to attend the Sons of Norway Club’s annual barbecue on the beach. I was looking forward to meeting some of the Scandinavian-Sugpiaq people that had captured my curiosity.

One of the first to welcome me was the president of the club, Carl Grönn, who said, “I’m a proud Norwegian, but you are welcome here, even if you are Swedish!” It was, after all, a Norwegian club. Carl smiled, and added with a twinkle in his eye, “All Scandinavians are welcome!”

Carl, who is also a fisherman, stood watch over a couple of beer kegs. “Would you like some?” he asked.

Before I could answer, he lifted the lid off of one of the kegs and pulled out a large, newly cooked Dungeness crab. Carl, or “Kalleman” as his father used to call him, soon became one of my dearest friends.

It was a wonderful barbecue. I got to know several Scandinavian-Sugpiaq, who told me about their heritage and what they knew of their forefathers.

A couple of days later, I was invited to Carl’s home for a cleansing in his “banya.” A banya is a Russian sauna, but it is different from the saunas we are used to in Scandinavia. More primitive, it has no shower facilities, only a barrel in the corner with cold water dripping from a hose. To cool off, you scoop up the cold water in a stainless steel bowl and pour it over your head. Sounds excruciating, perhaps, but it’s actually quite invigorating.

As I waited on the doorstep for someone to answer the door, I noticed a sign hanging on the wall – “The GRÖNN’S.” It occurred to me that something was not quite right. I looked at the sign again, remembering Carl’s first words to me: “I’m a proud Norwegian … ”

A Swedish Ö is an O with two dots. A Norwegian Ø is an O with a line through it. There is no way that a Norwegian would spell his name with a Swedish Ö. I turned to Carl, and asked him if that was the way his father had spelled his name. “Yup, he sure did,” Carl said proudly.

“I’m so sorry, Carl,” I said consolingly, “but I suspect that you are Swedish … ”

It took some time, but Carl has now recovered from the shock and accepted the possibility of an alternate heritage.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

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