The History of Kate Shugak in 20 Objects – 5

WARNING: Spoilers spoken here.

Play With Fire cover

5 – The hunter’s tunic

The votes are in, and although there was a strong minority in favor of the morel mushroom, in the end Arlene’s comment made the case for this fifth object.

…It was made of caribou hide, tanned to ivory. Red, white and blue beads were worked around the collar in a pattern that sort of resembled the Russian Orthodox cross, or maybe those were birds, Kate wasn’t sure. The seams at shoulder, armhole and underarms were heavily fringed and hung with dyed porcupine quills. Dentalium shells gleamed from a sort of a breastplate, and something in the order in which they were sewn to the hide hinted at the shape of a fish. You could see the fish better if you didn’t look straight at the design.

In 1988 the Smithsonian mounted an exhibit called “Crossroads of Continents,” a collection of old and new artifacts from Native life from Siberia and Alaska. They brought it to the Anchorage Museum, and I went back to see it I don’t know how many times. I bought the book, too, which you will pry from my cold, dead hands. It’s the best written and best illustrated exhibit book I’ve ever seen.

Crossroads of Continents

Regalia, harpoons, visors, grease bowls, blankets, baskets, drums, masks, and the stories behind them all–it was the class in Native art and technology they should have taught us in school and never did. And yes, it’s where I saw my first hunter’s tunic, which was the inspiration for the hunter’s tunic in Play With Fire.

hunter's tunic

Next month, an object from Blood Will Tell, the fifth Kate Shugak mystery. Please put your suggestions for said object in the comments below, and thanks!

Blood Will Tell cover

Definitely a book that will keep you out of the woods.

Wisp of a Thing: A Novel of the TufaWisp of a Thing: A Novel of the Tufa by Alex Bledsoe

I enjoyed this outing into the present-day world of the Appalachian Fae. Singer-songwriter Rob travels to Needsville (love the name), Tennessee, looking for a song that will sing away his grief at the loss of his girlfriend. Guy that told him about the song was wearing sequins but they were backstage at the Opry at the time, so never mind. In Needsville he finds what he needs and then some, at considerable personal risk.

Strong sense of place and some solid characters, starting with Rob, who has unexpected depths, and the part-Fae, part not population of Cloud County. There is Doyle the mechanic and his Fae-lovestruck wife, Berklee. There is the truly icky Rockhouse Hicks and his wounded daughter/slash/lover Curnen (more ick, Bledsoe’s really pulling out all the stops on putting a new twist on that old marrying-their-sister back country trope). Especially there is Bliss Overbay, the I have to say pretty laissez-faire guardian of this motley crew, as in she’s ready to kill Rob before the night winds tell her not to (just roll with it). Some good lines, too, like

The building’s interior seemed bigger inside than it had appeared outside, like a hillbilly TARDIS.


“Germs and Jesus, that’s all I ever hear about,” the boy said in a voice too weary for his age. “Germs and Jesus. And you know something? You can’t see neither one of them.”

Definitely a book that will keep you out of the woods. At least these woods. Worth reading.

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Your quick-and-dirty Alaska itinerary.


[from Alaska magazine February 2003 issue, and one of sixty or so columns and articles I wrote for Alaska magazine, now collected in Alaska Traveler. Click on the cover below to buy your copy.]


I keep getting email from the people who read this column telling me you’re coming to Alaska and asking me where to go. Well…but no, what am I saying to all you fine, wonderful readers who keep me gainfully employed?

I’ll tell you what. How about I dream up The Perfect Alaskan Itinerary, you clip it out and verathane it to your refrigerator? Good, works for me.

To begin with, plan on a minimum of two weeks. Here’s an exercise in geographical perspective for you: Lay a transparent map of Alaska over a map of the South 48 to the same scale. See, the map of Alaska overlays both borders and both coasts of the South 48. You wouldn’t plan on touring the continental United States in two weeks, now, would you?

So here is one possible, admittedly quick-and-dirty, summer and Southcentral specific itinerary just for you. I’ve personally experienced most of the recommendations I make, and the books came right off my shelves.

Day 1: Arrive in Anchorage. Alaska Airlines can’t be beat for frequency of Alaska-West Coast flights, and nowadays they’re flying in from Boston, Newark, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Minneapolis and Denver, too. As for where to stay, if you like B&Bs, here’s a link to Anchorage Bed and Breakfast. If you’d rather have your own bathroom, we have everything from Day’s Inn to the four-star Hotel Captain Cook.

Day 2: Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Shop for Native arts and crafts at the gift shop at the Alaska Native Medical Center on Tudor. Rent a bike and ride the Coastal Trail to Kincaid Park. Watch out for moose and the occasional bear.

Day 3: Drive to Seward for a trip with Kenai Fjords Cruises. I have never been skunked on this cruise, I’ve seen killer whales and humpbacks and Steller sea lions and finback whales and puffins and porpoises and otters and seals and pretty much any maritime wildlife you can name at this latitude. And I haven’t even mentioned the glacier.

Stay the night. Dine at Ray’s in the boat harbor and then walk it off looking at Seward’s collection of murals, featuring the famous Fourth of July Mt. Marathon footrace, the Iditarod Trail, Rockwell Kent, and Alaskan wildflowers. You could hike Mt. Marathon, or take the Godwin Glacier helicopter/dog sled tour, too.

Day 4: Visit the Sealife Center, and stop at Exit Glacier on the way out of town for an easy hike up to the glacier’s face. Drive to Homer. Stay at the Driftwood Inn on Bishop’s Beach, or any one of about a thousand B&B’s. Shop at the Bunnell Street Gallery, Ptarmigan Arts, and the Fireweed Gallery. Walk the Facing the Elements trail in back of the Pratt Museum and do not miss the sperm whale exhibit at the high school. Take Mako’s Water Taxi on a tour of Kachemak Bay with a visit to Seldovia. Dine on deep-fried halibut at Captain Patti’s Fish House, but get there early because I’ll be in line in front of you. End the day with a walk and a driftwood fire on Bishop’s Beach. Don’t worry, in summertime we have nineteen hours of daylight, you’ll fit it all in.

Day 5: Pick up lunch at the Sourdough Express, which you remembered to order the night before. Take Bald Mountain Air’s bear flightseeing trip to Katmai. Dine at the fabulous Homestead Restaurant out East End Road and pour a libation in honor of the wonderful tour guide who recommended it to you.

Day 6: Get your morning coffee and breakfast pastry at Two Sisters Bakery. Drive to Anchorage. On the way, stop at Summit Lake Lodge for ice cream, and in Girdwood to pan for gold at the Crow Creek Mine and eat the best pepper steak of your life at the Double Muskie. After that you better walk the ridge to the Seven Glaciers, but you can take the aerial tram if you want to.

Day 7: Another day in Anchorage (You can drive straight to Talkeetna if you like but it will be a long day). Visit the Anchorage Museum, especially the Alaska history exhibit. Shop at Cabin Fever at 4th and G. Go to the Whale Fat Follies. Visitors tell me that it is best not to go to the Follies until you’ve been here at least a week, otherwise you don’t get the jokes.

Day 8: Drive to Talkeetna. Stay at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. If you can tear yourself away from the view, take the Hurricane Turn, Alaska Railroad’s six-hour flagstop service to Hurricane, which has great characters and great scenery in equal proportion.

Day 9: Take a flightseeing trip to Denali out of Talkeetna with K2 Aviation, or go rafting with Mahay’s. Or both.

Day 10: Drive to Denali and take the bus into the park. Your butt will hurt, you’ll choke on the dust and the mosquitoes will eat you alive, but you’ll see grizzlies, caribou, moose, marmots, eagles, and maybe even wolves. Oh, and then there is The Mountain.

Day 11: Drive to Fairbanks. Say hi to the woolly mammoth at UAF for me.

Day 12: Take the paddlewheeler downriver. Or a day trip to visit the Alyeska Pipeline Visitors Center.

Day 13: Go for a hike and a dip in Chena Hot Springs. For sure you’ll want to spend some time with Lance Mackey, Iditarod champion and all-around great guy.

Day 14: Fly home and get some sleep.

Mind you, this is the easy way to see Alaska, from road and rail and river. If you want to visit the carving shed in Ketchikan, you’ll want to take one of the many cruise ships plying the Inside Passage. If you want to fly into some of the remoter locations like Nome or Barrow, get out your wallet as the farther away you get from the road system the more expensive everything is. Why do you think so many of us practice a subsistence lifestyle?

You could also backpack into the Gates of the Arctic National Park, kayak Prince William Sound, or take deck passage on the Alaska state ferry Tustamena to Dutch Harbor, always supposing the Alaska legislature gets its ass in gear and funds it.

Some suggested reading before, during and after your trip:
Always and ever THE MILEPOST, which has maps, routes, places to eat, stay, sightsee, and opening hours and seasons. We buy it, too. If you’re interested in flowers, it has to be Verna Pratt’s FIELD GUIDE TO ALASKAN WILDFLOWERS. If you’re interested in birds and you should be because Alaska is where it seems like some of every species spend their summers, invest now in Robert H. Armstrong’s GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF ALASKA. I have one in my house and one in the back of my car, and binoculars both places, too.

If you’re interested in readable Alaskan history, try CONFEDERATE RAIDER by Murray Morgan, THE KLONDIKE FEVER by Pierre Berton, GOOD-TIME GIRLS by Lael Morgan, and THE THOUSAND-MILE WAR by Brian Garfield. Try the ALASKA ALMANAC for historical and geographical facts and wisecracks by Mr. Whitekeys. Try HOW TO SPEAK ALASKAN by Mike Doogan if you want to come in disguise. If you’re interested in Alaska Native culture, try ALASKA NATIVE WRITERS, STORYTELLERS & ORATORS, a publication of the Alaska Quarterly Review. If you’d like a comprehensive survey of Alaskan poetry and literature, try THE LAST NEW LAND, edited by Wayne Mergler.

What else? My friend Rhonda says you should come for the Iditarod, beginning in Anchorage for the ceremonial start on the first Saturday in March and flying to Nome for the grand finale beneath the burlwood arch. My friend Pati says you haven’t really been here if you haven’t been kayaking, salt water or fresh. My friend Sharyn says no trip to Alaska is complete without driving the Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxon, and then driving Paxon to McCarthy to tour the Kennecott Mine.

Me, I think if you go home without going to Seldovia, why did you bother coming at all?

All the Light We Cannot See

It’s always the children who suffer most.

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I told a European friend once that I prayed nightly for the success of the EU because it was the only thing that kept European nations out of war since WWII. He replied, “No, it isn’t the EU, it’s because we’ve had NATO’s boot on our necks.”

You read a book like this and you think “Whatever works,” because absent the last sixty years armies have been marching back and forth across Europe for two millennia now and it’s always the children who suffer most. Hitler’s having his apple and brown bread for breakfast while 14-year old Werner is learning how to be a monster, and de Gaulle is safe in England while 12-year old Marie-Laure is risking her life passing messages for the resistance.

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Grammar Haiku

My favorite of last year’s National Grammar Day haikus:

I am an error
And I will reveal myself
After you press send

And my [so far] favorite grammar poster:

Created by WritingCom

Created by WritingCom

Available for sale on WritingCom’s store on Zazzle.


This isn’t Cinderella.

BlanketsBlankets by Craig Thompson

I don’t know what I expected when I chose this graphic novel from the HPL’s “Read 15 in ’15” list (…). I was just trying to make sure I had a title from as many of their categories as possible. The only other graphic novel I’ve ever read is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and my takeaway then was, well, that wasn’t any of the comics I read as a kid, the beautifully drawn and colored ones about mythical characters like Robin Hood and King Arthur and Thumbelina and Moses.

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