Evan's Eyes

Web Log Entry #0057, Tuesday, April 1, 2003: Day 134

Anchorage Sunrise: 6:24am Sunset: 7:44pm High Temp: 31° Low Temp: 15°

I have stumbled onto one of the best-kept Alaskan secrets: Seward's Day. Named for William Henry Seward, a mild-mannered US Senator from New York by day, caped defender of Justice by night (hahaha! Of course he didn't fight for justice! He was a Senator!). You may wonder why the biggest Alaskan holiday is named for a New York politician. Well, using the secrets of the pros, learned at an exclusive seminar, he got the US to purchase 360 million acres of land from the Russians in 1867, for a price of $7.2 million, with NO MONEY DOWN! Those of you who are quick with math will realize that means Alaska cost 2¢ an acre (in today's dollars, 23¢ an acre)! Since then, land prices have more than tripled! A good investment? You bet.

This year, Seward's day fell on a Monday, so everybody took the day off, as the festivities start early and go all day long. The morning starts with the traditional Waffle Breakfast. Supposedly this is the largest waffle breakfast in the world, with 1 million waffles made. I'd be surprised; that's four waffles for every man, woman, child, and moose in the Anchorage area (okay, now that I think about it, a moose could probably eat four waffles at once, so maybe they're right). There are several sites to choose from, so I went down to the Armory, where the lines were long but everyone was in a good mood (especially those with a secretive thermos of "Seward's Day" coffee, if you know what I mean). The sign said "Waffles That Look Like W. H. Seward!", but when I got mine, it was round with a regular, well, waffle pattern. The locals would insist that it looked like exactly like Seward, and then laugh hysterically. I couldn't see it, but who am I to criticize someone's amusement at the absurd? The waffles were pretty tasty, so I didn't mind.

Pleasantly full, I drove home just before they set up the barricades. All but the most major of streets are closed off, and the entire city becomes one huge block party. Even though temperatures were barely above freezing, street after street filled with picnic-laden tables, sizzling barbeques, and never-empty kegs, cases of beer, and clear, unlabeled gallon jugs. I don't know if Seward was a heavy drinker, but consumption of alcohol is an integral part of his celebration.

Now, I'm not one to just walk up to a group of random strangers and join the party, but that's normal behavior on Seward's Day. I shyly approached the closest group (which I assume to be from my neighborhood), and was instantly welcomed and offered several beverages. When then learned that this was my first Seward's Day, everyone cheerfully tried to explain it all to me, simultaneously. Naturally, I couldn't understand a word as they were all talking at once, but I was saved by Ed and Velma (probably their real names), a nice retired couple that had emigrated from Minnesota several years before. We walked up the street toward the next cluster of people as they filled in the details.

Seward's Day is the release valve after a long, cold winter. Residents of Alaska before the modern era (1973) spent the entire winter huddled in their homes, trying to stay warm. Once the increasing daylight and warmth allowed them to emerge, even the most antisocial craved social interaction. So part of the Seward's Day tradition is to wander from party to party, where strangers are welcomed with food and drink. All that we were expected to do in exchange was to admire the "Follies."

To understand this, a bit of history: When William Seward engineered the purchase of Alaska (previously known as "the left side of Canada"), not everybody thought it was a great idea. I had always believed there was a huge uprising of public opinion, but it turns out that the dissent really came from a few newspaper columnists. The majority of the American population reacted as they generally do to government actions that don't directly impact them; they didn't give a rip. So the whole national antipathy to "Seward's Folly" only existed as a bunch of journalists telling us that it did. Thank goodness this sort of thing can't happen today.

Anyway, the locals, in their cheerful Alaskan way, honor this by creating paper-maché sculptures that they call "follies," which are proudly displayed on Seward's Day. They range from primitive effigies of William Seward or moose, to elaborately artistic pieces on a variety of themes. There are no rules on content, but most feature Alaskan wildlife either drinking or engaging in, well, let's just say that the prudish shouldn't look too closely at most follies. Velma could drink and spit with the best, but there were a couple follies that made her blush.

I hadn't planned on drinking, but Ed and Velma insisted I should try some of the beverage that came from the unlabeled glass jugs. It tasted of oranges, as if someone had soaked an orange in ten gallons of paint thinner, then thrown the orange away. Yet it was oddly enjoyable, and certainly gave one a warm feeling of affection for the happy strangers that kept offering more food and beverages. We had been walking back toward Ed and Velma's home in the most exotic part of Anchorage (Spenard), but somewhere in the middle of the afternoon I lost track of them. I hope I told them that they are the nicest people I've ever met and I appreciated their kindness (I probably did, as I vaguely remember telling everybody this all afternoon), but the greatest gift they gave me was a piece of advice: Get to the top of Hilltop when it gets dark.

I don't recall how I got there or who I was with (okay, I remember being partly carried by a heavily tattooed woman named "Shriek," but I'm not sure where that was), but as darkness fell, I was on a hill overlooking most of Anchorage when the magic started. Seward's Day follies are short-lived. They are engineered to be light and combustible, so when ignited under a carefully designed paper balloon, they lift themselves from the bounds of earth into the night sky. From the hill, we could see hundreds, if not thousands of burning follies gently floating upward like a stately migration of mammoth fireflies. Sometimes the balloon would ignite, and become a ball of flame that would just start to tumble downward before burning away into ash. Breathtaking. I've never seen anything like it, and I hope I never forget the memory of that night, that perfect moment at the end of a perfect experience that is Seward's Day.

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© 2003 Evan M. Nichols