A combination of computer issues and the holidays put Northern Soundings on hold for a while, but I think this episode is particularly timely. Sunday, in her Golden Globes award acceptance speech, actor Meryl Steep spoke about her art and industry. In part she said:
“You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.”
Her words resonated with me, and I suspect with my guest today. Leonard Kamerling has crafted some of the most deeply penetrating documentary films about Alaska Native Culture. He is also Curator of Film for the University of Alaska Museum of the North, and a professor of English at theUniversity of Alaska Fairbanks. Perhaps his best known film The Drums of Winter is in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. However, he’s created other wonderful examinations of cultures and personalities. Len’s most recent work, Changa Revisited looks at the life of a Masai tribesman over the course of 30 years. It recently garnered a win at an international film festival in Romania. I began our discussion by asking him about the film and the festival.
I never saw my mother perform, but I have pictures of her in high school and college productions and even a few from an amateur theater group in San Francisco she joined when she first arrived. Later, her love for drama, musicals and grand opera found expression in the music we listened to at home and the productions she took me to as a boy. As a consequence I also was drawn to theater in high school and college. And when I moved to Fairbanks I also performed for a time in local productions. All of this is by way of saying I can’t remember a time when theater wasn’t a part of my life.
It is often remarked for a town our size, Fairbanks is blessed with a flourishing arts community. This is true theatrically, as well. Besides wonderfully gifted actors, directors, set and costume designers we have several thoughtful and passionate playwrights, perhaps foremost is Anne Hanley. [Here is Anne’s page.] Her most recent production The Winter Bear examines the issue of cultural identity and village suicides. The play draws on myth and history: one of the play’s key characters is the late Sydney Huntington of Galena and draws on his book Shadows on the Koyukuk. [You can find out more about the project here.]When I invited Anne on Northern Soundings, I was pleased to learn her love of theater also sprouted from childhood experience.
The longest car ride I can remember was the 15 minutes it took me to drive Julie and our newborn son Evan home from the hospital. It was an afternoon in late October, and small flakes of snow descended in the dimming light. Every flake seemed a potential threat, diminishing my vision or compromising the road. Admittedly, I was a little wound up; all I could think about was getting them home safely.
I share that story because my guest today is poet and essayist Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. She and her husband TJ faced an experience every parent dreads, suddenly discovering their child has a potentially life-threatening disease. Today, on Northern Soundings she talks about that and about her award winning collection of poems Steam Laundry which examines the lives of historical figure struggling to live during the Yukon and Fairbanks gold stampedes.
Nicole and I attended the graduate writing program at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and I remember vividly an essay of hers KUAC broadcast about freezing blueberries. Her voice, both on the page and in her delivery, was distinctive, vivid and wry.
That was more than a decade ago. Lately, Nicole has been writing about teaching, and I started our discussion by asking if teaching had always been a goal.
Earlier this year KUAC’s newsroom received a substantially sized box. Since we normally don’t get packages delivered to us, we opened it with something like the anticipation of Christmas morning. Inside was a 1200 page tome called Alaska Politics and Public Policy. A quick glance through the table of contents revealed amazingly detailed chapters on every conceivable topic about our state. Moreover, each chapter began with an overview of the subject followed by more comprehensive analysis.
Clive Thomas, the book’s editor and chief author, says he designed the chapters that way so newsrooms and political aides could quickly get an overview of a subject and then delve into details as needed. Thomas is now retired, but he taught political science at the University of Alaska Southeast for years. He also started an influential statewide legislative internship program.
In September, I had a chance to interview Thomas when he was in Fairbanks. From our talk I generated a news story. But I recognized our conversation deserved more attention, especially in this divisive political season. With KUAC’s permission, I air it now on Northern Soundings. I began by ask him about his background and how he got interested in politics.
Whenever I’ve skied the 50K Sonot Kkaazoot, no matter the weather, I feel like it’s more a vision quest, than a race. Towards the end, as I’m limping down the Chena River towards the finish line, I expect to see a bison head materialize in front of me and offer some profound insight, something along the lines of “Don’t do this again.”
Endurance athlete Bad Bob Baker founded the race and for him 50K must seem like an appetizer before the main course. He’s skied more than a thousand miles several times: along the Iditarod Sled Dog Race trail and along the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race course.
But as you’ll hear, a recent heart attack has brought him a new found appreciation of life and the limits of endurance. I began our discussion by asking about how he met his wife Sharon, who can often be found skiing right alongside Bob and volunteering with him at ski and track events.
If you want more information about the Sonot Kkaazoot and “Bad Bob” go to sonotkkaazoot.org
I’m still fairly new to cross-country skiing, but one name I learned early on was that of endurance athlete Bob Baker. First I was told, he’s known as “Bad Bob.” Second, I learned for a long time he dominated endurance skiing events, such skiing the thousand mile courses of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races. He is the founder and longtime organizer of the Sonot Kkaazoot, Fairbanks’ 50 kilometer spring time Nordic Ski event. Lastly, he’s participated in the grueling Equinox Marathon 38 times, this year most recently.
But this year was different. As you’ll hear, Bob suffered a massive heart attack running a different event three months before the Equinox. He collapsed without a pulse after finishing first in his heat in the Jim Loftus Mile. Luckily several physicians and a defibrillator were handy. After a successful bypass surgery, many thought he’d sit out the Equinox this year. But that isn’t how Bad Bob Baker rolls.
As I have come to know him in the last few years, I also discovered he’s tied into a remarkably tight knit network of friends. Many of those friendships were forged at Lathrop High School in the early 70s. On top of that foundation, he and his wife Sharon can be found volunteering at most of the youth track and ski events, encouraging new generations of athletes.
In this first of a two-part discussion, I began by asking Bad Bob about crossing the finish line at this year’s Equinox.
I learned this week that University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Sessions posted the video of my conversation with Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
It was a remarkable event, and I feel quite honored I was part of it. While I was prepared for her to get up from her chair and wander the Davis Concert Hall, it was a first for me to lose a guest in the shadows. At some points I was casting questions into the void; at least that’s what it seemed, with the spotlights in my eyes and her having passed into the darker recesses of the auditorium. Nevertheless, Justice Sotomayor quite captivated the audience as she roamed up and down the aisles, shaking hands and exchanging a few words here and there. Her responses to questions were thoughtful, of course, but also delivered like a gentle rabbinic scholar combined with a wise aunt.
It is that combination of humanity and thoughtfulness her memoir My Beloved World exhibits. It proved so helpful to me in preparation for the interview. In it, Sotomayor displays a gift for drawing vivid portraits of family and friends and providing gripping descriptions of her hardscrabble childhood. Often many of her scenes put me in mind of passages from Dickens. I recommend it.
In any case, I’m glad the video is finally available. I hope you enjoy it.
Dancing into the Dark by Kesler Woodward. Used by permission.
If you recall, several episodes back I featured a collaborative project and discussion between the poet Peggy Shumaker and the painter Kesler Woodward. Today I talk with Kes about another collaboration: OneTree Alaska at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The program attempts to engage young people and adults to reflect on their ecological environment. To do that, it draws on a collection of disciplines including science, technology, engineering and math. Perhaps most importantly, for today’s show, the local group also draws on the arts; and this is where Kes comes in. The boreal forest is an obvious point of departure for OneTree Alaska, and Kes has a reputation as one of Alaska’s premier landscape painters. His portraits of birch trees are particularly prized. This Friday OneTree Alaska is hosting an open house featuring paintings by Kes. I thought the event offered a wonderful opportunity to talk with Kes about his work and OneTree Alaska.
Julie has a cousin from York, England. Eric loves traveling, and now in retirement he’s doing a lot of it. On a visit with us several years ago he fell in love with Alaska. He loves the snow, the cold, the dark and all the region’s rough edges. He has visited us twice and he’s joining us again early next year. In his Yorkshire accent, his eyes shining, he’ll tell you it’s brilliant.
I thought of Eric as I was putting this program together. Next time he’s is in town, I want to introduce him to Matthew Sturm. Like Eric, Matthew sought out adventure as a young man. And like Eric, he has boundless enthusiasm for “The North.” After a stint in the Coast Guard and running Zodiacs in Antarctica, Matthew returned to school and started a path in snow research that led to him being elected in 2009 a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, a rare honor. But his passion also led him to write an engaging celebration of the people and physical dynamics that have shaped and continue to shape the North American high latitudes. Finding the Arctic, recounts a 2500 mile snow-machine traverse he and some fellow researchers made from Fairbanks to Hudson Bay, Canada. He’s also the author of a wonderful children’s book: Apun: The Arctic Snow.
I first met Matthew years ago when I was working on a documentary on Climate Change. Our crew had flown to Barrow and we were to meet him outside of town. His team, in a line of snow-machines and what looked like a trailer on treads, emerged from a veil of blowing snow. Dressed in patched coveralls, a large worn parka, with sun goggles and a full beard, Mathew looked every inch the Arctic explorer. With this exception: he was neither grim nor taciturn. In gesture and word, he conveyed an unalloyed excitement about being in the field and to be explaining his work. As a producer I knew I had struck gold.
In this episode, I explore his scientific lineage, his love of history and how he came to study with Dr. Carl Benson, whose pioneering work on the Greenland Ice Sheet set the groundwork for decades of research to follow.
I’ve worked in broadcasting and media for most of my adult life. I count myself lucky that, for the most part, I’ve been allowed to follow my curiosity around and get paid for it. Yet, it’s hard for me to escape the impression the profession is in a profound period of upheaval. Newspapers are in free-fall as subscribers decline in number and advertisers find cheaper ways to reach potential clients. Network corporate owners constantly seek ways to trim the costliest item on their spreadsheet, the newsroom. And the public today can choose any number of ways to receive news: social media, web outlets, or, yes, podcasts.
All of this came to the fore when journalist and university professor Lynne Snifka announced on Facebook she was departing Fairbanks. I’ve known Lynne for 20 years. I met her when she took her first job in Alaska as a television director and producer at KUAC. Smart, funny and creative, she was a wonderful colleague to work with when radio and television combined forces for election coverage. She also produced engaging documentaries on topical issues and personalities around the state. Later, she when turned to print as a writer and editor, her pieces exhibited her characteristically sharp-eyed and smartly-written observations about the world around her.
Ten years ago, she accepted a post as a journalism professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, training a new generation of journalists. Even so, she found time to work as a freelance writer for magazines.
Lynne’s announcement she was leaving Alaska coincides with a fiscal quagmire the University is struggling to extract itself from. Many professors and researchers I know see their departments shrinking, merging or threatened with extinction.
All of which led me to invited Lynne on Northern Soundings.