Christmas in Alaska
I know this is supposed to be a tech blog but since it’s Christmas it’s always fun to share a Christmas story and on this occasion I’m going to share a particularly low-tech one. My great grandmother Krug was born in 1896 and passed away in 2002 at the ripe old age of 106. She lived to see three distinct centuries in human civilization. She wasn’t very well educated but I remember that late in her life my parents were going to fly her to see some family she had not seen in a long time and it was to be her first trip on an airplane. I recall that she was very nervous and excited about it at the same time. All she could talk about was having heard about Orville and Wilbur Wright inventing the airplane in 1903 and wondering if people would ever travel by flying around in them. She knew that in the intervening century airplanes had become a regular form of transportation but she was still excited to own a gas powered washing machine in her home in the 1990’s. She occasionally talked about Thomas Edison making it possible to get electricity in her home and that it was wonderful having a phone in her home although she was disappointed that it had been connected upstairs so she always had to get up a steep flight of steps to answer it.
I lived with her for a few months in Massachusetts when I was 16 with my cousin Fred while my family was relocating back to the states from Alaska where I had grown up. Such modern luxuries as my great grand mother enjoyed including telephones, electricity, running water, refrigeration and indoor plumbing were mostly new to my experience. The log cabin in Alaska I had grown up in had only gotten electricity a few years earlier. Fred and I were both obsessed with computers, every free moment I had that I didn’t spend picking Apples at Atkins Farm or chopping wood for my Great uncle to earn money to buy computer books I spent coding on my Commodore 64 computer. My Great Grandmother was mystified with our fascination with these devices as we tried to explain to her that they were machines we could teach to think. She was very proud of us for being so smart despite not understanding a thing we said about them. I had taken for granted that the only important use for electricity was to power a computer because my earlier Commodore Vic-20 was the first home electrical appliance I had ever used in the cabin.
In a few more years I’ll have lived half as long as my great grandmother did. All of my kids were raised in a world of technological marvels she could scarcely imagine. As it turned out, I had a hand in creating a great many of them. My children and younger siblings were all raised in civilization. They wouldn’t know how to function without a mobile phone, grocery store packaged food, car, the internet and a constant supply of media and media devices to keep them perpetually entertained. I have a daughter whose handwriting is completely illegible, when I tell her she needs to write more to improve it, she gives me that look I think I gave my great grandmother when she didn’t understand what I was using my computer for. “Why will I ever need to write by hand?” She wanted books for Christmas but the book stores are mostly gone, what is left are a strange combination of magazine-stand/coffee-shop/toy-stores that only carry the current New York Time best sellers.
My first technology job was creating what was called Desktop Publishing software in the 1980’s. I worked for a UK technology company cloning Adobe’s PostScript RIP language and proprietary font format. That got me recruited into Microsoft where I designed the Windows 95 and Windows NT print architectures. I wrote a speech for Bill Gates to give at the 1993 Seybold Conference about a future era when we would get our printed news over a network and consume it interactively on a computer screen using software pioneered by Microsoft. We got my daughter an e-reader for Christmas. Her kids will think books and pens are museum artifacts.
I realize now how fortunate I was to get a glimpse of what life was like with no technology, a glimpse very few born today will ever have (barring any unplanned zombie, alien, or robot apocalypse events). Growing up in Alaska Christmas was a very different experience than it is today. For one thing the gifts all had to be made by hand. In that tradition, I’m hand-writing a blog on my Windows computer in an Internet Explorer browser I helped design, using True Type fonts I once designed the Windows installation UI for, on a screen displaying its graphics via DirectX API’s on the GPU’s I helped create. This is how I remember Christmas;
In 1969 when I was two, my family moved to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska and Siberia. St. George Island had no shipping ports in that era so we had to fly into St. Paul in a fragile bush plane and then ride in the empty exposed basin of a coal barge from St. Paul Island to St. George. A coal barge is basically just a giant trough in the ocean. We had to stand in the open huddling against the freezing winds for several hours staring at a bleak sky until we were finally informed that we had arrived. St. George is a rocky volcanic mass surrounded by steep cliffs and jagged boulders. The barge couldn’t approach the island in the choppy sea so the Aleut natives rowed out to greet us in their giant ocean kayaks made of drift wood and seal hide called Baidara. The empty coal barge rode high in ocean so the only way to get down to the kayaks was to lower us one by one over the edge of the barge in life preservers. My mother got dropped in the frigid ocean and had to be fished out with oars but the rest of us made it unscathed. We were greeted by a cacophony of giant sea lions bellowing warnings at everyone as the natives helped us safely navigate the jagged rocks and territorial seals to finally reach the village. We lived in something resembling a barracks house that had been erected by the military to accommodate the bush teachers like my parents that came to staff the local school house.
My sister and I were very young but I remember a few things about that life very vividly. There were no trees on the island, only grass. There were birds, owls, foxes and little rodent like creatures called voles. You could hear the sea-lions that covered the beaches barking and bellowing night and day. My told me that the Aleuts had been captured and marooned on the islands by Russian fur traders in the nineteenth century, when Russia owned Alaska.
The islands were initially considered uninhabitable. The natives were forced to harvest furs for the Russian traders who would bring them supplies essentiall to their survival. The Aleuts, were incredibly resourceful people. They created the Baidara out of drift wood and seal or walrus hide, the only building resources available on the islands, and managed to escape and reestablish trade with the mainland. They learned to make the Pribilof islands a home. Many of the locals in modern times still spoke Russian. The Russian Orthodox church had established a mission on St. George long ago so the natives had adopted Russian Christmas traditions. On Christmas eve they would go from door to door carrying a giant decorated metallic star mounted on a stick. They would knock on the door and when we answered they would sing Christmas carols in Russian while spinning the star. Afterwards we would give them home made candy or coins.
Christmas presents were always hand made. There were always knitted mittens, scarves, fox fur hats, and seal skin mukluks. My grandmother, who later joined us, would wander the islands beaches collecting hundred year old hand blown class Japanese fishing-net sea balls which she would clean up and decorate the house with. The native kids would leave piles of little dead birds they had hunted on our stoop. Santa came in a very different form for us. The island had no airstrip at the time. The US military delivered the mail and supplies by flying a military cargo plane low over the grassy tundra and pushing the mail in big canvas bags off he back of the plane. For us kids it was like an Easter Egg hunt trying to spot where the bags were going to land and being the first to locate them. The island store, which got its stock delivered this way, had sparse shelves of bent cans and crushed cereal boxes to choose from. All the picture frames in our home had cracked glass. For Christmas I got a pair of children’s ice skates delivered this way and I learned to skate on a dormant island volcanic caldera that made a wonderful skating rink when it froze over in the winter. I was told that there were places on the beach you could go to cook meat over hot lava rocks but I wasn’t allowed anywhere near them. My father made blocks for me out of chunks of lumber, I had lots of blocks and remember spending many long hours with the Aleut kids building fortresses out of them and knocking them over.
In 1971 I met a stranger in military uniform in town and mentioned it to my mother. She said he was from the army and that they were there to test “A very big bomb”. Shortly thereafter a number of amphibious military vehicles, like floating dump trucks, rolled into town. We were bundled up and loaded into the vehicles along with the rest of the islands population, then driven to the top of a hill. I was told that they were worried that the test might cause a tidal wave and that we had to be evacuated to high ground. We sat in the cold wind looking at the grey ocean horizon and with a signal we ducked our heads and covered our eyes. My father said the flash might blind us if we didn’t keep our heads down. I didn’t hear or feel anything but a few moments later we were allowed to look up and on the distant horizon there was light and turbulence in the sky. They were using deserted Aleutian islands for nuclear testing. It was top secret then so my parents never spoke about it but today much of what took place in that era has been declassified.
After the Pribilof’s my parents bought some land outside Fairbanks in the interior of Alaska with a one room log cabin on it. The cabin seemed large to me at the time but visiting it again years later I measured the ceiling to be only 5’6 high and the room was roughly 12×15. It was already an old cabin when my parents bought it. It had no power and no running water. Unlike the “modern” cabins the hippies were building with pink fiberglass insulation, our cabin was insulated with moss. Christmas’s in that tiny cabin were some of our best. In the winter the snow would get 8′-12′ feet deep burying the cabin all the way to the roof top. Most of the locals kept husky dog teams to get around but huskies could be half wild and dangerous to kids, my parents favored the more docile and rugged Newfoundlands for our dog teams. They doubled as warm comforters that helped to heat the cabin as well.
At Christmas time in Alaska the sun is only out for a couple hours a day. The air is so cold that all of the moisture freezes out of it so the sky has no clouds. At sixty degrees below zero, the sky, barren of all humidity, looks black in broad day light and you can see stars and the moon. You have to keep your face covered at all times because one sudden deep breath at those temperatures can freeze your lungs and kill you. In that strange clear twilight my father and I would dig our way out of the cabin and hook up the dogs to the dog sled my father had made to go out to find the perfect Christmas tree. The spruce trees in the far north are sparse and elastic to survive the cold and heavy snow. I would ride in the sled while my father shouted mush and drove the dogs into the forest. If the snow was not fresh it would get a thin icy crust that sparkled like glitter in the darkness and the trees were cowed and buried under massive volumes of snow so that all I could see around us in the dark were ominous sparkling white mounds. Then my father would stop and I would hop out, approach a mound of snow and give it a kick and the snow would fly apart as a frozen tree sprang upright. We would assess it’s Christmas tree worthiness and often move on in search of better candidates. Once we had found one I would chop it down with a hatchet and invariably get a load of freezing snow down the back of my neck. We would tie the tree into the sled and then with each of us standing on one runner the dogs would tow us home with our prize. Sometimes in the summer I would return to where we had harvested our Christmas tree and looking up would realize how deep the snow had been and that we had really only been cutting the very top of the trees.
There was no electricity and therefore no television and what light we had was provided by Coleman lantern. There were no toys to be purchased and we were buried under snow for nine months out of the year. What we had in that tiny cabin for entertainment were pets, lots of pets.
We certainly never lacked for presents. All of our cloths were hand made by our mother. She would order giant spools of cheap fabric and make everything we wore out of the same material. There is a particular yellow print with white daisy’s that is eternally burned into my memory because for a period of time it was the only pattern our curtains, table cloths, sheets and cloths was made out of. That’s my sister wearing that fabric in a Christmas photo of my mother (also making a homemade fashion statement) unwrapping her new Christmas dog sled. She loved that dog sled but I think here favorite Christmas present was the snow shoes my father made her one year out of spruce and the dried intestines of a moose he’d killed earlier in the season.
Of course we had to make all of our Christmas ornaments and decorations by hand. A particular family favorite were varnished moose turd ornaments. Civilized people would be amazed at the creative range of Christmas ornaments Alaskans manage to produce from dried varnished moose droppings, pine cones and a few art supplies.
Christmas dinner was often moose and blueberry jam something. Frankly that was almost every meal in the winter. Dad would go out with the natives or later our hippie neighbors and kill a moose in the fall. Then we’d all spend the day with our arms elbow deep in gore cleaning the giant thing and packing the meat for the winter. We had no refrigeration so you just buried it in a hole in the ground below the permafrost line and put a rock over it to keep other wild animals out. Moose, dried fish and all the blue berries we could pick and jar was pretty much the staple diet for the winter. For water we just took a big metal bucket, scooped some snow from outside the door and put it on the wood stove to melt.
Dad was fluent in Russian and versed in all of the Russian mythology and fairy tales. Our Christmas stories were about the Russian witch Baba Yaga, child eating ogres, and fairies. When we had a meat grinder available he would make Russian Piroshki for us out of bear or moose meat. He would also go to elaborate lengths to convince us of Santa’s authenticity. On Christmas morning we would be greeted by loud jingle bells, thumping and “Ho-ho-ho” from the roof. There would be sleigh tracks, deer prints and even deer droppings on our cabin roof. There was always an abundance of white Santa beard hair on the cookie plate we had left out, most likely harvested from one of the white Newfoundland sled dogs.
In addition to the many hand made gifts under the tree our relatives from the “lower 48”, as we called them, would send us Christmas presents from the civilized world. It was often clear however that these relatives had only the remotest idea of what our lives were like living in a log cabin. Here my sister Yana is attempting to enjoy her Christmas pogo-stick… on the snow… generally however it was hard for them to compete with the more traditional Christmas gifts we received of more pets and new family members.
Forty-some years later I can still sew, knit, weave and cook but my kids are mystified by the notion that they might ever appreciate such gifts made for them by hand if they don’t come with an Abercrombie logo on them. I think that my peroshkis’ made out of hamburger bought wrapped in foam and plastic at the grocery store taste better than my fathers creations, but often I’m the only one eating them. They have no patience for stories and going outside is just something you have to do to get between houses. Loading the dishwasher is “hard work” and pets are great if they’re not too much effort to care for. What they really want for Christmas are new media devices. I experience a mixed sense of pride and disgust at the idea that I helped pioneer the 3D graphics and gaming technologies they’re all addicted to now.
When I was their age I played Dungeons and Dragons all winter with my teenage friends. I had a friend, Owen Guthrie, whose parents were paleozoologists at the University of Alaska. They kept a pen full of wolves that were our chore to feed between gaming sessions (seriously) Their cabin was amazing because his parents, lacking modern 3D CAD tools, would reconstruct authentic paleolithic creatures by studying their fossil skeletons and then sculpting them out of clay. The cabin was full of their amazing work.
I dreamed of making a computer program that kept track of all the D&D rules and statistics for me so I could concentrate on the story and the adventure. I recall one day that Owen’s parents came home and interrupted our gaming session for a special dinner. Somebody had found an intact 36,000 year old bison frozen in a glacier and they had the privileged of dissecting it, including bringing a sample of its flesh home for dinner. We enjoyed prehistoric bison strogganoff for dinner that evening before settling in for another 14 hours of D&D.
Now my daughter is addicted to Dragon Age and Skyrim and my son has to be pried away from League of Legends. I tell myself that at least they’re playing games based on technology their father built by hand… but they don’t seem to make that connection yet. My older daughters both had job interviews with Google this year and my nephew is doing great at his first tech job at Big Huge Games in Baltimore. My youngest brother is a technology evangelist at Intel and my other brother founded his own game studio. I’ve got 45 engineers working for me at my latest technology startup. I never seem to get tired of making new things with my own hands. I wonder if the next generation of kids will only have Christmas memories of their great childhood VR experiences. Will they tell their kids stories about decorating virtual Christmas trees with virtual ornaments they earned as in-game achievements?
*I know this blog is a bit of a repeat from last year but every time I write one my mother actually bothers to dig up some old Polaroid photos and film negatives from the 1970’s and scans them for me, so I get better material every time I do this.