Alaska Billy Blog

Pocket Parks: Habitat Diversity in New York City

NYC Pocket Park: Kate Troll with stone Chess Board
Kate Troll leans on stone chessboard in a pocket park off of Battery Park at the southern end of Manhattan Island, NY

Pocket Parks enrich a cityscape just as habitat diversity enriches a wild landscape. As Kate and I explored Manhattan for a few days, I tried to look at the cityscape through the eyes of NYC inhabitants. Impossible, of course. I won’t pretend that I know anything about cities from a city person’s perspective. In a sense I’m writing about something I know nothing about, and I’m sure I’ll prove it. I can only relate the city to my own experience.

A city is a landscape with habitats that support people, plants, and other animals. City habitats have their own energy, water, and food flow patterns; their own microclimates.

Intertidal Zonation provides diverse habitat for organisms like the Black Gumboot, barnacles & seaweed. Click image to go to detailed images and text: @bhfootloose Instagram
Intertidal Zonation provides diverse habitat for organisms like the Black Gumboot, barnacles & seaweed. Click image to go to detailed images and text: @bhfootloose Instagram

If you’ve followed me on Instagram (@bhfootloose), you know that I’m fascinated with habitat. Click the next two images if you want to learn more about the sea life that lives in habitats of the intertidal zone between high and low tide, or to read about the diverse plants in the small space at the base of a tree in the Southeast Alaska rainforest.

Moss and wood provide habitat for variety of plants. Click Image to read more at Instagram @bhfootloose
Moss and wood provide habitat for variety of plants. Click Image to read more at Instagram @bhfootloose

Walking with Kate through Battery Park and along the esplanade at the edge of saltwater on the west shore of Manhattan Island, I began to think about how much value pocket parks add to the city. Pocket parks are tiny spaces dedicated to the enjoyment of everyone. They may look like a garden, with plants and soil, or they may display sculpture, offer benches to rest on, or perhaps chessboards for public use.

NYC Battery Urban Farm
NYC Battery Urban Farm: How cool is this? Click image for more

And speaking of gardens, check out the image of the urban farm in Battery Park. I find it interesting that all of us can recognize one of these pocket parks when we see one. They contrast with the crammed buildings, the use of every square inch of space that defines a city, where land is astronomically expensive.

Diverse Habitata: Open Muskeg with Forested Montains in background
Diverse Wildlife Habitats: Open Muskeg with Forested Mountains in background

People live in habitats just like wild animals do. A diversity of habitats, makes a place attractive to a wider variety of people with their own needs, also similar to wildlife. It’s true, of course, that we must first fulfill our basic needs for food, water, and shelter. Beyond these, however different people have different needs. The closeness of city life may feel more secure than living and recreating in wild places. Or the reverse. People may seek solitude, a chance to be near birds and living plants, a meeting place for friends, enjoyment of art, a chance to relax… an infinite and personal list.

Like other public parks and facilities, pocket parks are for the PUBLIC, a critical concept. So much of the land, and structures of a city are privately owned. Pocket Parks belong to everyone, so they let each of us define them as a place of our own, shaped by and fulfilling our personal needs.

NNYC Pocket Park: Louise Nevelson Plaza
NYC Pocket Park: Louise Nevelson Plaza

What I heard from local residents and felt myself is that pocket parks made me happy. To walk along city streets of endless tall buildings without a gap except the streets, fully filled by stores and apartments, and then come upon a small open space with benches to sit on, perhaps with outdoor sculpture displayed, perhaps with nothing more than a shrubs and flowers (and inevitably birds and insects that I hadn’t seen for blocks), made me feel freedom, comfort, happiness.

So, my hat is off to every place that supports pocket parks. Thank you, NYC.

Southeast Alaska’s Gastineau Channel: Can you see the cruise ship?

Can you see a cruise ship, sandbar, navigational aid, and a research vessel?
Can you see a cruise ship, sandbar, navigational aid, and a research vessel? Juneau, Alaska

In the photo above, I stood on the left shoreline, the edge of the North American continent. The shore and mountains of Douglas Island form the right shoreline. Gray mountains at the far end are on Admiralty Island, 12-14 miles away.

Good eyesight? Can you see a cruise ship, sandbar, navigational aid, and a research vessel in in the saltwater of Gastineau Channel? Try it and then zoom in (if using phone). When boating, I constantly search the water ahead for other vessels, navigation markers, and hazards like logs or rocks. I scan the water for any shapes, spots, or projections from the water’s surface, starting closest to me, and gradually sliding my view look down channel until I reach the horizon.

Searching the water along the left shoreline, look for rocks, sand bars, and a navigational marker on pilings. In the channel, you’ll the small research vessel operated by NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) heading away from us. You’ll also see a cruise ship coming toward us that must pass between the navigation aid and Douglas Island to avoid the sand bar the extends from the left shore.

Bonaparte's Gull & Fly fisher check each other out
Bonaparte’s Gull & Fly fisher check each other out. Fishing alone is communion. Click to go to Instagram.

Today’s reflections of a September sky, near Juneau, Alaska show an amazingly different view from my previous Instagram Post of a fly fisher in fog, taken 2 days ago a few miles down the left shoreline. 


Alaska Halibut Fishing Welcomes Me Home

Bill Hanson with 50-pound Halibut 2016
Bill Hanson with 50-pound Halibut 2016.

Just home from a six weeks away from my home in Southeast Alaska. Although I had half a day of freshwater boating on Keuka Lake in western New York, and a short saltwater kayak trip in the Atlantic,

I’ve been craving my weekly time on the fjords and channels, the network that separates the islands of the Alexander Archipelago.

A Gift halibut Trip from a Friend

So I am grateful to my friend Bob for inviting me on a halibut trip today, one of the most beautiful days of 2017: sunshine, light breezes, and easy water.

Alaska Halibut Fishing with Nathan and Eleanor
Alaska Halibut Fishing with Nathan and Eleanor

A happy day with Bob, his son Nathan, and friend Eleanor. In 7 or 8 hours of fishing, we caught a few halibut (although none as big as my 50 lb. first halibut of 2016) with a smorgasbord of octopus, herring, and pink salmon heads, so a successful freezer-filling day. See the pictures of Eleanor and Bob for examples of our big saltwater reels.

Channels and Currents Offer Food for Salmon and Halibut

My friend Bob knew that I needed time on the water
My friend Bob knew that I needed time on the water

More importantly to me, we anchored where currents from multiple channels mix and flow as the tide changes (a new high or low every 6 hours). These are my favorite saltwater places in Southeast Alaska. With the flood tide bringing in a moderate high tide of 14.6 feet in the morning, and then dropping down to about +3 feet, the currents were strong enough to drag our anchor several times. Look at the textures in the surface of the water in Photo 3: at least a half-dozen different smooth and riffled edges, tiny white-capped waves, the underlying small waves. This place can be extremely crazy in rough weather.

Chatham Strait with the Chilkat Range in background. Mixing zones have ever-changing textures and waves.
Chatham Strait with the Chilkat Range in background. Mixing zones have ever-changing textures and waves.

With a bottom that is mixed rocks and sand, shallow near points of land that separate different bodies of water, down to more than 1000 feet deep in Chatham, the lower and upper layers of water mix, making food available for salmon and halibut. I could have taken a new picture every 15 minutes with completely different surface conditions.

I love the spectacular view of the Chilkat Range of mountains on the Chilkat Peninsula that separates Chatham Strait from Glacier Bay. Other than the shoreline, these mountains are rarely penetrated by humans.

Ahhh … sharing special places with friends, the never ending ebb and flow of tides and life, saltwater and wilderness… home…

Old Delhi: Visiting the Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi

Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi
People walk on carpet to protect feet from hot flagstones, Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi

With only a single day in Delhi, Prabhu took us into the streets of Old Delhi to visit the Jama Masjid mosque. The first day in a new place often overwhelms me. Cities like Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam or Athens, Greece or Delhi overload my senses and thoughts with dizzy swirling colors, smells, activities, and people.

But even on a first day, if I focus on a few small details, watch one person for a few minutes, or study a building, I begin to sense the rhythm of life, the order within the chaos.

Delhi Street Food Vendor
Delhi Street Food Vendor

Prabhu helped us enjoy this first day. We sampled street food from a vendor he knew was safe, took a short bicycle rickshaw ride through narrow allies, and then walked to the Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi, one of the oldest and largest mosques in India.

Shah Jajan, the 5th Mughul Emperor, began construction of the Jama Masjid mosque in 1644, the same year that he completed construction of the Taj Majal (although work would continue on both for 10 more years).

Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi
Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi

He was one of the richest kings on Earth, presiding over an empire that included what is now India, Pakistan, and much of Afghanistan, with a 1-million-man army. These beautiful structures were built not by slaves, but by paid workers at tremendous expense.

Today, the Jama Masjid mosque is one of the most important landmarks of Old Delhi.

Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi
Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi

We visited it on Eid (pronounced “eed”), the last day of Ramadan. Crowd of people from surrounding villages and cities were also visiting. The outdoor courtyard can hold 25,000 worshipers during the call to prayer. However, we visited between prayers, walking through the corridors and arches at each of the gates with hundreds of other people.

Jan, Fiona, Mary, Stephanie, and Deb in Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi
Jan, Fiona, Mary, Stephanie, and Deb in Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi

Before entering, our six women were given long tunics to cover their shoulders and below their knees. Although general photography is not allowed without a permit, I was able to purchase a permit at the entrance.

Why do ancient and holy places weigh so heavily upon me? The feeling is not oppressive. Rather, I think it is the atmosphere of long history and my desire to be respectful to the people and religions that continue to seek spiritual fulfillment there. It is a weight of feeling that I seek rather than avoid.

Gate of the Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi (8)
Gate of the Jama Masjid mosque of Delhi (8)

The smiles from worshipers, the flowing colors of people dressed in lovely clothing as they streamed across the central square on narrow carpets to protect their feet from blazing hot flagstones in the Delhi sun, a short conversation with a young boy who approached, and delicious street food: these were the highlights of my one day in Delhi, my first day in India.

India: Adventure in Delhi, Shimla, and the Himalayas of Ladakh


Our Trekkers-Markha Valley-Ladakh-India
Our Trekkers-Markha Valley-Ladakh-India

Kate Troll ( and I have just returned from trekking in the Himalayas of India, a trip initiated by our friends, Mary and Deb, and organized through Prabhu Singh Bhati, a very experienced tour and trekking guide. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll explore what we saw and what we learned—as much for my own benefit as for readers.

This is the story of 10 friends travelling together. Eight of us had deep connections over the last 20 to 40 years in Alaska. Two were newer and less known, but nevertheless happy and vibrant companions who are now special friends. All 10 of us are typically independent travelers. We’ve used guides for a day or two, but only two of us had ever gone on a totally guided/arranged trip.

Prabhu negotiates with rickshaw drivers in Old Delhi, India
Prabhu negotiates with rickshaw drivers in Old Delhi, India

India was different. Even though Kate and I have traveled to large cities and challenging destinations in Russia, Turkey, South America, Malaysia, Vietnam, and others, India intimidated us, primarily because of the sheer density of humanity: the magnitude of culture, population, chaos, and reputation for sanitation issues in Indian travel.

So we placed ourselves in Prabhu’s hands to arrange the trip, guide our first week and a half as we prepared to trek, and bring us together with professional trekking guides in Ladakh, the place of high passes in the Himalayas.

Prabhu discusses history of northern India
Prabhu discusses history of northern India

He introduced us to Old Delhi, gave us a thorough crash course in Indian history, and began the process of acclimating us to increasing altitude as we prepared to trek into the Himalayas: to live and sleep at altitudes as high as 15,000 feet; and to cross two passes of 16,000 and 17,000 feet during our 10-day trek.

We found the Indian people in every place, of all religions and philosophies, regardless of their economic status or caste, to be wonderful. They were irresistibly friendly and helpful, warm, and fascinating. The shared a love of good humor, and to be as fascinated with us as we were with them.

Buddhist Monks at Ladakh Shanti Stupa
Buddhist Monks at Ladakh Shanti Stupa

I could provide endless examples of people we enjoyed meeting, laughed with, took selfies with, asked questions about each other, discussed politics or culture with. They included our guides, helpers, and cook, shopkeepers, kids who walked up and said Hi and started to teach 10 chanting Americans the alphabet, kamikaze taxi drivers, monks who blessed Kate’s book and monks who removed their tennis shoes before entering the same monasteries we entered,

Apprentice Monks eat ice cream cones-Hemis Gompa-Shimla-India
Apprentice Monks eat ice cream cones-Hemis Gompa-Shimla-India

the police inspector in charge of security at a Buddhist festival who dreams of continuing his law degree studies at Harvard in a few years, and those we danced and sang with. I traded email and Instagram account names with a number of them, so hope to stay in touch. They were college graduates fluent in English, pony men who pack freight between villages in the high passes of the Himalayas, and random people everywhere.


Bill Hanson trades photos with young woman at temple -Shimla, India
Bill Hanson trades photos with young woman at temple -Shimla, India

Many spoke or understood English, although we obviously couldn’t rely on this. They also spoke their local language (Ladakh language = Ladakhi), Hindi, and often French or other European languages. And of course, we all spoke laughter and smiles, waiving arms, counting by number of fingers, and pantomime.

So— off to adventure!

An Alaskan’s Wish for Visitors to Juneau

Visitors arrive on early morning cruise Ship - Juneau, AK
Visitors arrive on early morning cruise Ship – Juneau, AK

As a 36-year resident of Juneau and Ketchikan, I welcome the annual flood of travelers who visit each year. It’s not the economic effect of more than 1 million visitors who will arrive by cruise ship in Juneau (population 32,000) this summer. Nor is it that my son is a helicopter pilot, although I’m happy he lives nearby. My openness to such a crowd is this: I believe that people who see and experience Southeast Alaska’s beauty and culture become owners of our landscape, taking home memories and feelings that support Alaska and Alaskan’s in the long run. 

Three… no two… no one (!) day of comparative quiet remains in Juneau. One day until the parade of 1000-foot long cruise ships passes our house, up to six on the average day, each with 2500 passengers and 900 crew members. Float planes will roar off the water and helicopters will land on the glaciers of the Juneau Icefield.

What will they see and feel as they arrive and explore our place in the world? Will they take home a memory that leads them to support protection of our wildlife, wise use of our resources, respect for our culture? What will they learn from the rapidly receding Mendenhall Glacier? Will they see it as a signal of what may disappear from their home landscapes as climate changes?

I’d like them to gain a sense of what is important to Alaskans, to the people of Juneau from all walks of life.  Today, the last quiet day in Juneau, I would like to share what counts for me in the everyday love of my place. And, I’ll suggest three of my favorite indoor places to learn about Alaska and Juneau, faithfully hoping that they won’t need help in finding the more obvious outdoor places.

Last Quiet Days in Juneau

Surf Scoter

For now, I sit on my deck, listening to hundreds of surf-scoters diving for blue mussels in the shallow water of Gastineau Channel below. I’m 50 feet above them and a full street back, but their gabbling sounds like 400 black chickens excited to discover that they’ve evolved into super-swimmers and diving champions in the dark green saltwater. A barge approaches in the center of the channel, spooking several hundred scoters into whistling wing flight and I miss the chance for a video. Listen to the calls and wing whistles of surf-scoters at Audubon’s website.

Bald eagle landing on perch tree
Bald eagle landing on perch tree. Eagles like perch trees that provide a good view of the water as they search for food.

A bald eagle floats in from down channel, looking slow because it’s just gliding, not even a single wing-beat, but actually shooting along at speed. It adjusts its wings at the last moment and sweeps upward to rise the last 15 feet to a perfect standstill at the top of the Sitka Spruce tree behind our house. This is the same eagle that wakes us with its shrill warbling call… no not the scream you hear in the movies, which is dubbed in, usually a red-tailed hawk from somewhere to the south of Alaska while the eagle just lip-syncs. You can compare the calls at the National Audubon Society’s wonderful website. Click the linked names here and scroll down to the Songs and Calls section for each: Listen to the Red-tailed Hawk. Listen to the Bald Eagle.

Barge arriving in Juneau
Barge arriving in Juneau. Without an road connection to the outside world, Juneau depends on barges to bring in groceries and everything else found in stores. Barges also carry fish from processing facilities and other products out to markets.

The scoters settle back into their feeding now that the barge is tied up on the far side of the channel. Those startled into flight circle back, their heavy bodies landing in white streaky splashes that from this distance almost look like Dall porpoises surfacing. I was going to say they calm down, but there’s nothing calm about the random chaos of scoters feeding: birds crowded together, swimming in every direction. And yet, the pattern of the flock isn’t random from my eagle’s eye point of view, bunched together in a 40-foot-wide crowd very close to shore where the mussel beds are best. And when not feeding, scoters can be as organized as the most disciplined ant colony, stringing out single file to play follow-the-leader.

Rufous Hummingbird watches Cruise ships from perch on caribou antler in Juneau Alaska. No caribou remain in Southeast Alaska, although there is evidence that they lived here during the ice age, when oceans were much lower.

Across the water, the docks and anchorages await the cruise passenger pilgrimage to Juneau. The ships will idle past our house early each morning, their bridge just about the height of our picture window, eyeball to eyeball with the captain; then disappear like brightly lit specters in the evening, just after the time the rufous hummingbirds go to their roosts.

Although traveling by cruise ship isn’t for me, I want these visitors to find what I’m always seeking when I travel: a sense of the place and people, what makes us want to live here.  I want them to value not just Juneau as a city, but as a city shaped by its history and landscape, by the people who lived here before Europeans and Russians arrived. I want them not just to see, but to feel the power of this Southeast Alaska archipelago of 20,000 islands and rocks scattered across the channels on which the cruise ships float. I want them to love this landscape.

I want them to experience Southeast Alaska in a personal way: to touch the water, to walk a trail, to feel the gravity of rainforests, to see a whale or seal or salmon or eagle, to gaze at the mountains and glaciers and ocean. I want them to seek out some flavor of what I hold dear. At the very least I hope they explore beyond the cruise line-owned jewelry stores and souvenir shops near the docks. And I hope they seek out the shops still owned by local people. I don’t think these are so hard to recognize. I hope they look for local artists and writers and entrepreneurs. Yes, I know– that’s a lot of hoping. But I happily seek the same answers when I travel to far off places.

Special Museums and Cultural Center

Sealaska Heritage Foundation's Walter Soboleff Center, Juneau, Alaska
Sealaska Heritage Foundation’s Walter Soboleff Center, Juneau, Alaska. The center features both contemporary and traditional art by Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artists.

Here are three indoor experiences that are within easy walking distance of the cruise ship docks. Downtown Juneau has changed much in recent years, although it has always offered more than jewelry shops. Sealaska Heritage Foundation has created the Walter Soboleff Center, covered with pungent Alaska yellow cedar on the outside, featuring modern and traditional art by Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artists. Inside, there’s a replica clan house, and a small but fascinating collection of traditional clothing and objects with explanations of how these fit into daily life. I remember the dedication ceremony for the Soboleff Center, named for Dr. Walter Soboleff, so long a beacon of hope and love and leadership in our community. I thrilled at the painted canoes that arrived from far points of Southeast Alaska. I watched the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people in deep red and black blankets and clothing. We all laughed as Raven dancers surprised the crowd into jumping back as they clacked the beaks of their Raven masks.

AK State Library-Archives-Museum with Nimbus sculpture
AK State Library-Archives-Museum with Nimbus sculpture opened in 2016.

The new Alaska State Library, Archives, and Museum is also downtown, a world-class building with exceptional exhibits, including special summer exhibits that feature the art collection of the museum, as well as art on loan from 30 artists around the state.


AK State Library-Archives-Museum interior with life size Eagle nest tree exhibit
AK State Library-Archives-Museum interior with life size eagle nest tree exhibit

Alaska State Museum exhibits touch on indigenous cultures, Russian Alaska, mining, and the history since Alaska was purchased from Russia 150 years ago in March 1867. The State Archives and Library on the second floor is no less handsome, and worth visiting.



Juneau Douglas City Museum
On July 4, 1959, the 49-star U.S. Flag was raised in front of what is now the Juneau Douglas City Museum to celebrate Alaska statehood. Across from State Capitol building

The Juneau Douglas City Museum is Juneau’s own display of history in a town (the highly competitive towns of Juneau and Douglas became one in 1970) that grew up around three of the largest gold mines in the world from the early 1900’s to 1940. It’s a museum easy to miss, but is only three short blocks from downtown, across the street from the State Capitol Building and on the way to the Governor’s Mansion.

On the 4th of July, 1959, Alaska celebrated statehood in front of what is now the Juneau Douglas City Museum. The flag with 49 stars was raised, and a bell was rung 49 times. Fast forward to July 4th, 2009, when all but one of the living Alaska State Governors gathered again to celebrate Alaska’s 50th anniversary of statehood. For me, this ceremony was very special. The place, the museum, and the moment brought home much of what I feel about Alaska as a state. I joined the throng and celebrated with my heart in my throat, so grateful to make my life here.

Visitors will find many other exhibits, museums, trails, recreational opportunities, and tours worth experiencing, both downtown and farther afield. Zooming out, Juneau rests within the landscape and region of Southeast Alaska, just one of 32 communities, each with its own story, some with origins in Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian communities reaching back in to the past, others like Juneau more recent upstarts. Their stories are there to explore.

Alaskans have strong traditions of sharing gifts of the land, hospitality of our homes, and the landscape that we live in. I ask only that our visitors treat the land and people with respect. I hope they will seek new experiences, whether in rain or sunshine. I hope they will take away a vision and love for the place that I love.

After Note: Please Express Your Support

This blog post was prompted when the City of Juneau announced that it was considering closure of the Juneau Douglas City Museum, a great loss in my opinion. Since then, the Borough Assembly has removed the museum from the 2017 budget cut list in response to strong support from Juneau residents. The cultural centers and museums in Juneau and other Southeast Alaska communities need your support. As you visit their websites and when you visit them in person, please express your support to their staff, on their websites, and through donations.

Meaning of Landscape and Dog Musher on the Yukon

Musher on Yukon by Bob Hallinen ADN
An Iditarod musher drives their dog team down the Yukon River between checkpoints of Tanana and Ruby during the 2017 Iditarod. Bob Hallinen Anchorage Dispatch News

Why am I captivated by this photo of an Iditarod dog musher on the Yukon River by photojournalist Bob Hallinen of the Alaska Dispatch News? When I saw Hallinen’s photo in his March 9 tweet during coverage of the 2017 Iditarod Race, I found myself returning to look at it over and over. There are thousands of dog mushing and Iditarod images out there, but this one stayed with me. Even now, after the last musher into Nome, Cindy Abbott, has received the Red Lantern, I return to study the musher and dog team in this landscape. Why?

It’s not just the dog mushing. I think I love the image of solitary pursuit of a goal. A quest. But not conquering nature, a concept and goal that I despise. I think it’s “adaptation”, although that doesn’t quite ring true either. The vision is that the musher and dog team fit into my concept of what the landscape tells me, and what I know. I’ve been alone and abandoned on the Windy Fork of the Kuskokwim River in -20 F winter, wondering if my conversation the night before about how mean moose get in the winter might be about to stomp me, considering how best to get back to a warm building if a damaged aircraft doesn’t send someone to pick me up. So is it loneliness? I don’t think so

The Iditarod Race is a strange beast. Racing across 1000 miles of frozen Alaska landscapes takes the fortitude and dedication, and especially the obsession required to be a dog sled racer… and of course to be a sled dog. It requires substantial money and financial sponsors to maintain and train a dog team capable of competing. There’s no question that the Iditarod symbolizes one of the great unions of animals and humans, requires its own brand of toughness, and fits the imagination of Alaskans and the people outside Alaska who dream of the Alaska mystique.

But dog sledding isn’t just the Iditarod. For some Alaskans, dog sledding still serves the same purposes it did before the Iditarod: a mode of transportation adapted to the winter landscape of the far north, a way to travel cross-country both for recreation and to live daily life, although much of the utilitarian function has been taken over by snowmobiles.

Like horses in rural America, sled dogs can travel and work in terrain and weather conditions that stymie mechanical contraptions. I’ll admit here and now that I know virtually nothing firsthand about either horses or sled dogs. Okay, I’ve ridden a horse, and had a tourist ride on a dog sled. Does that count? No, not really… Not at all. And yet I still sense the partnership that horseback riders and mushers share with their horses and dogs, the personal relationship between living, working creatures. No matter how much personality we attach to our pickups and snow mobiles, it’s not remotely the same as the mutual relationship with horses and dogs.

But I started with the question: What is it about the photo of the musher and dogs on the Yukon River with the mountains in the background that grabbed me by the uh… heart, and say this is GENUINE?

What if the musher had been riding a snowmobile? Would I have felt the same? Well… yes. Partly. Snowmobiles have replaced sled dogs in most ways for most people in Alaska. They are essential to life for many places. So I would still feel that I was witnessing a genuine image of everyday life in an iconic landscape.

But sled dogs represent something more. Perhaps it’s my tendency toward nostalgia, my admiration for life before modern machines. Or maybe it is my admiration for living within the confines of the local landscape. I think this is closer to the truth. Dogs require food, it’s true. As far as the Iditarod goes, this is anything but reliance on local landscapes. Food is formulated for the race. Mushers seek out every possible source of meat and fish that would otherwise go to waste during the year.

But dogs can live just fine on salmon and other fish caught by local people. Horses can live by grazing on local plants. As long as the plants and animals within a landscape are sufficiently productive and abundant, horses and dogs offer work partners relatively free of the outside world. Yes, I realize that today we provide many products and services to our animals that come from far away, but it’s this inherent ability to live within the landscape that I think is at the core of my reaction to the photo of the dog team and musher in a vast beautiful landscape without other visible humans or animals.

The partnership between the dogs and the musher, like the partnership between cowboys and cowgirls and their horses is the other reason why I find this scene so compelling. It’s a relationship, not just putting fuel in the gas tank and maintaining the machine, a relationship built on trust, understanding of limitations, navigating personality differences and emotions, and dependence on one another. Okay—I cuss out my truck once in a while.

The black specks of the musher and dogs on the sweeping band of the river, the forever far away hills, brings together my sense that humans have a place within this landscape, a communion between the world and our place within it.

The Razor’s Edge: Treasure from the Chest

We’re on the Razor’s Edge!”

Billy Hanson's Straight Razor with case. Plastic handle. Still sharp.
Billy Hanson’s Straight Razor with case. Plastic handle. Still sharp.

Today with our electric shavers, disposable razors, and depilating creams, “the razor’s edge” might seem like nothing more than an idiom attached to an antique shaving tool, the straight-razor (aka open razor or cutthroat-razor!). Surprisingly, however, the straight razor is making a big come-back thanks to a scene in the James Bond movie, Skyfall. (Read more about this: The Straight-Razor Start-up Package: How to get into the boutique, nearly lost art of the wet shave, Outside Magazine 9/29/2016). More about Eve, James, and Skyfall below.

What the Hell do I Know About Shaving?

Of course, my friends would probably say: “Who the hell are you to talk about shaving?” A good point. Take one look at any photo of me on this website (or in my entire photo collection going back to 1977), and you’ll be hard-pressed to find me without a beard. Without clothes, maybe, but not without my self-defining beard. I once shaved it off without warning Kate and my kids (who were probably about 6 and 8-years-old). Kate told me she wanted divorce, and refused to talk to me until I grew it back (or at least for the first three days). I have to admit my face looked very short in the mirror. Erin said, “You don’t look like an Alaskan anymore.” That really hurt. As for survival of our marriage, it was a close shave (Yeah, I know, stupid. But irresistible).

Billy Hanson's leather strops for sharpening straight-razor.
Billy Hanson’s leather strops for sharpening straight-razor. Top: Torrey’s Best- patented 1901 2-sided; Bottom: Sheffield’s Magic Strop- 4 sided.

For most of Billy Hanson’s life, shaving meant using a straight razor. Later, he adopted the “safety” razor (first patented in 1901). How do I know? It turns out that Billy seems to have had an affection for his razors, perhaps unable to let such a personal tool go. In his trunk, I find several straight razors and worn-out strops for sharpening them, safety razors, and a supply of razor blades. Perhaps “affection” is unfair. Living far from town, where even groceries required a 40-60 mile drive, and ordering from the “Monkey Ward” (Montgomery Ward) catalog was a staple, I think I’d save these potentially useful tools as back-ups as well.

Billy Hanson's Gillette safety razor in leather case.
Billy Hanson’s Gillette safety razor in leather case. Metal container with blades and spares.

The straight razor had the advantages that it was durable, could be resharpened, gave better control, shaved closer, and didn’t need electricity. The safety razor had the new advantages that it greatly reduced the chance of bloodshed, had extra sharp disposable blades, and still didn’t require electricity.

Several brands of razor blades in Billy’s safety razor box.

The electric shaver advantages are obvious – easy, no shaving cream. But for my minimal shaving, I still use the safety razor and shaving cream, perhaps because it takes me back to Billy.


Hollywood Loves Razors (and I love movies with cool shaving scenes)

Straight razor from Billy Hanson's trunk. Devon Mfg. Co., Germany
Straight razor from Billy Hanson’s trunk. Devon Mfg. Co., Germany

If you haven’t ever seen a straight razor, watch Eve (Naomi Harris) shave James Bond (Daniel Craig) in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall: “Keep still. This is the tricky part.” The straight razor has been a favored murder weapon in the movies, but I think imagination is sufficient to give us the picture, so won’t include a clip here.

My favorite safety razor scene in a movie? Using shaving cream to disguise his face and evade detectives that come through the door behind him, Robert O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, shaves with Eve Kendall’s (Eva Marie Saint) safety razor, the smallest razor ever seen, next to an amazed businessman using a straight razor in an airport restroom: mine is bigger than yours.

A Surprise Aroma in Billy’s Steamer Trunk

Billy Hanson, however, never seems to have retained more than a neatly trimmed mustache, and that was in the early days. In 99% of his photos, he is neatly clean-shaven.

Billy Hanson (50-60 years old) always looks clean-shaven.
Billy Hanson (50-60 years old) always looks clean-shaven.

I remember him as always very particular about shaving, a daily routine that I occasionally caught sight of. More than that, the shaving cream had a distinct fragrance, sharp and masculine. When I was 14, my grandfather gave me two suede leather coats that he had worn for many years, mostly for work in spring and fall. I loved those coats and wore them every day. And even more than the feel of the well-worn leather, I loved the smell of his shaving cream, still distinct and wonderful, that somehow transferred his persona to my brain.

Fragrance of Billy's shaving lotion takes me back to being near him. Betty & Billy Hanson, Betty Sue (age 3) & Bill Hanson (age 4) 1957
Fragrance of Billy’s shaving lotion takes me back to being near him. Betty & Billy Hanson, Betty Sue (age 3) & Bill Hanson (age 4) 1957.

With all this, I’m completely surprised, and happy to discover that the shaving mug in the chest STILL, even after at least 60 years of disuse, has that same aroma of his shaving cream! Suddenly, I’m no longer looking at his photo. I see his eyes, feel his hand on my shoulder, hear him say, “Hello, Bill,” with that thin dry smile as I arrive for another adventure.


The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

Billy Hanson's friend Art "larning this pig to sing."
Billy Hanson’s friend Art “larning this pig to sing.” See the full note from back of photograph. Horse-drawn wagon in background. Wyoming. probably 1910-1920.

Note: This is the second of two connected posts. The first is here: No Letters: I hated Sundays!

As I look back at the written materials in Billy’s chest, I find, old postcards of the ranch, greetings from friends, occasional tragedy or loss, and mundane business records. Even the driest of these take on new interest for me, as I watch him purchase additional land, or borrow money for “chattel” (non-land or building property=cattle and horses).
Like Billy and Betty (or perhaps it was mainly Betty), my mother and father (Milt and Helen Hanson) were diligent letter writers. Mom saved all of the Christmas cards from their friends across the country. Each week throughout the following year, Mom and Dad wrote back to 2 or 3 of the friends who had sent these cards and letters.

When email became available, Dad initiated a blizzard of dispatches to many, many people, becoming the first family spammer. On the other hand, Mom never liked the impersonal feeling of email, and wouldn’t even respond at all. She held fast to her pen and paper, writing in clear cursive. Largely because of Mom, I think, Dad continued to write by hand as well, letters that were much more likely to be read than his email spam.

And yet… despite Dad’s torrent of shared news articles, this blog post reminds me that my email conversations with Dad were much more frequent, more detailed, and more substantive than my pre-email contacts with him. In fact, I’ve discovered research we did together on the history of Billy and Betty and the ranch in emails I had long forgotten.

Helen (Hawkinson) Hanson, Bill's mother, typed letters on her this portable Smith-Corona.
Helen (Hawkinson) Hanson, Bill’s mother, typed letters on her this portable Smith-Corona.

Another snail mail archive became important to my parents. My sister, Bet Ison, transcribed more than 90 letters written by Mom to her family while she was a social worker in post WWII Germany. Mom typed her letters on a portable Remington typewriter in 1949-50, leaving behind a chronicle of her efforts to find homes for refugees and her travels in Europe. The letters were written to be shared around the family.

Letters: A Balm for Dementia

In the first decade of the 21st century, as Mom experienced more and more severe dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Bet suggested reading the letters out loud to her. For the last few years of her life, it was one of Mom’s favorite entertainments, a chance to listen to her own history in a time period from which she still had memories. It was fun for us too, as we had interesting conversations with her. Even when she couldn’t quite remember what she had for lunch an hour earlier, she could identify people and tell us about learning to ride a bicycle as she embarked on a multiple-day cycling trip along the Rhine.

Today, with our kaleidoscope of electronic social media, handwritten letters sent through snail mail have substantially decreased. Perhaps we have lost some measure of the thoughtful letters of the past. And yet, many of our letters of the past communicated simple news of the events in our lives: the health of our families and other commonplace information that seems little different from what we share electronically now. A thoughtful, caring email can be as endearing as any handwritten letter. With one difference… I find that handwritten notes or cards still feel more personal because the sender actually touched that paper, and felt the pen in their hand, and watched the ink flow out onto the paper.

On the side of email, I think we are more likely to retain our electronic archives than we were to save letters. I would dearly love to have an archive of emails sent by Billy and Betty that I could search through with keywords. But although they had the seen the beginnings of automobiles, airplanes, household electricity, telephones, and fax machines, my grandparents died before the advent of email. And so, I will have to “read between the lines” of the few letters, postcards, and pencil scratches on the backs of photographs for the history in the Alaska Billy Blog. There’s just something special about larning a pig to sing!

Note: This is the second of two connected posts. The first is here: No Letters: I hated Sundays!

No Letters: I hated Sundays!

Note: This is the first of two connected posts. The second post can be found here: The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

“I hated Sundays when I was a kid,” said my Dad (Milt Hanson).

To say I was surprised would undersell my reaction. He was 82-years-old, a devout Lutheran, and read the Bible every day.

Always send an expert for the letters in the mailbox
Always send an expert to get the mail. What year and model of vehicle is that? No not the car… the tricycle… photo by Helen Hanson

“Why Dad?”

“Because there wasn’t any mail delivery!”

Yup. Growing up as an only child on a ranch from 1928 to 1942, miles from the nearest neighbor, he lived for his letters. He had pen pals. He collected stamps. He craved contact with people outside his isolated world. The wide-open ranch landscape that I loved as a kid was lonely for him.

Like all remnants of the past, the photo of this little girl standing on her tricycle to open the mailbox poses something of a mystery. I don’t know who she is, but that’s my Mom and Dad’s 1950 Chevy Deluxe sedan in the background. It’s Wyoming (notice the vintage lawn): most likely Cody or Cheyenne. What model of tricycle?? Anyone know?

When my grandfather, Billy Hanson was born in 1881, and throughout his life, letters were the main means of communication with anyone who wasn’t an immediate neighbor. He and my grandmother, Betty, never did have a telephone until they moved to town in 1964. Loved ones in far off places, a nephew in the army, business correspondence: some, but not nearly enough of those letters have survived and will show up in the Alaska Billy Blog.

From Stagecoaches to E-mail

Typical overland stagecoach-1869
Typical stage of the Concord type used by express companies on the overland trails. Soldiers guard from atop, ca. 1869.

Mail delivery by horseback between “posts” (as in “post office”; and in “blog post”?) and by stagecoach had been in place in England for over a hundred years by the time Benjamin Franklin was appointed as postmaster of Philadelphia by the British Crown Post in 1737. He would become the first Postmaster General under the Continental Congress in 1775.

In the 1800’s stage routes brought mail to the cascade of settlers and communities that flooded across western North America. Mail contracts were a crucial source of income for the stage lines, much as today’s mail contracts provide an essential income stream for the small air taxi operators that move people, freight, and mail in small aircraft to the remote communities scattered across Alaska. Without the reliable mail delivery revenues, my guess is that the number of routes would have been limited, and the cost for passengers and freight would have been significantly higher.

In 1858, the Overland Mail Company established twice weekly mail service across the 2800 miles between Missouri and San Francisco. Visit the Legends of America website for more about stagecoach routes and the Pony Express. Transportation and changes in technology would figure prominently in Billy’s ranch life. For now, it’s enough to know that railroad expansion (finally transcontinental in 1869), and the coming of the automobile would eventually replace the stagecoaches.

Although not as significant as the Overland Stage, probably no stage line has attracted more attention than the Deadwood Stage, more properly, the Cheyenne and Blackhills Stage and Express Line ( The line went through to Deadwood City, infamous for the murder of Wild Bill Hikock and his ‘dead man’s hand’, a poker hand with a pair of black jacks and and pair of black eights.

Letters traveled on the old Stage Route past OH Bar Ranch
Where’s the postman? Milt Hanson and Bob Hanson (Bill’s brother) survey the possible old stage route past the OH Bar ranch next to the horse gate.

My father once pointed to the dirt road that led from gate of the ranch to the pastures, the same gate to which I led Grandpa’s horse, Dolly, each morning to turn her out to pasture. “The stage ran through here,” he said. Perhaps. I’m relating a 50-year-old comment here. It crossed Alkali Creek, but the maps I’ve seen seem to show it a mile or two closer to its confluence with the Cheyenne river. The Deadwood stage was long gone by the time that Billy Hanson homesteaded in 1903, having discontinued in 1887. If you like tales of the Wild West, it’s hard to beat the robberies, murders, and wild times of Deadwood and the stage line. For a full account, visit the Wyoming Tales and Trails website.

Note: This is the first of two connected posts. The second post can be found here: The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen