Harriman Expedition Retraced ready to sail

Voyage to revisit 1899 explorers' route to Alaska

Posted: Sunday, July 15, 2001

Organizers of this summer's Harriman Expedition Retraced face challenges their counterparts 100 years ago would have never considered. For example, how to get boxes of digital cameras, Palm Pilots and laptop computers from Massachusetts to Alaska in one piece.

Expedition Director Tom Litwin pondered that question last month as the final few weeks of planning for the 2001 voyage drew to a close.

About 120 students, teachers, artists, writers, scholars and scientists will embark on a one-month voyage from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Nome this month. The trip will retrace the voyage of railroad tycoon Edward Harriman, who led some of the top scientists, writers and artists of his time on a maritime expedition to Alaska in 1899.

The modern-day trip was scheduled for last summer, but organizers postponed the journey when their ship the World Discoverer hit a reef in the South Pacific six weeks before they were scheduled to leave.

"We figured the extra time would benefit the project," Litwin said.

The 1899 expedition took two months to plan. Intense preparations for this year's voyage, aboard the Clipper Odyssey, started three years ago, he said.

"We're using every bit of three years. The world has become a much more complicated, busier place. The ability to just get up and go on an expedition has changed," he said.

Litwin, an avian ecologist and the director of Smith College's Clark Science Center, has been interested in the Harriman Expedition for years. As a student at Cornell College he was surrounded by the artwork of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who traveled on the original expedition. When he graduated, he was given the volumes of data compiled by the 1899 expedition. The 2001 travelers will review those volumes during the trip, he said.

A PBS documentary film crew in collaboration with Juneau's KTOO-TV will join this year's voyage, as will high school and college students. The group will gather in Seattle on July 21 and fly to Prince Rupert to begin the trip.

After a brief stop in Taku Harbor, just south of Taku Inlet, the travelers will arrive in Juneau on July 25 where a visit to the Alaska State Museum and a meeting with Gov. Tony Knowles and first lady Susan Knowles are planned, Litwin said. Similar visits are scheduled throughout the state.

"We very much want to interact with the community," Litwin said.

Rosita Worl of Juneau, an anthropology professor at University of Alaska Southeast and president of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, will travel with the expedition for the Southeast portion of the voyage.

One of her tasks will be to discuss Tlingit culture and the significance of repatriation, subjects that will be important during first stops of the voyage. In cooperation with the Cape Fox people of Saxman, near Ketchikan, expedition participants will help return a number of Tlingit artifacts removed from Southeast Alaska during the original voyage.

"It's very exciting for not only myself as a Tlingit person, but to the Saxman people and to all Tlingit people," Worl said.

The endeavor is the largest single repatriation effort in Alaska's history, Worl said. Other Southeast Alaska communities have been successful in repatriating clan hats and other objects. Of the 50,000 objects in U.S. museums known to come from Southeast Alaska, only a small portion have been returned, she said.

Debbie Chalmers of Juneau, who teaches language arts and social studies at Alyeska Central School, will join the expedition in August when it stops in Homer. She will work with students on board the ship and classrooms that are following the voyage over the Internet.

"Exploration had a huge impact on coastal communities and this is an opportunity for rural students to examine some of the issues and changes over the last 100 years. And to share them with urban students in Alaska as well," she said.

Chalmers found out about the expedition through the Alaska Geographic Alliance, a teachers' group, and will develop lesson plans to correspond with the voyage.

"It's an opportunity of a lifetime," she said.

Jonas Parker, a recent graduate of Sitka High School, is one of four Alaska students on the trip. He will work with an on-board mentor as he puts together a project focusing on the changes in logging on the Tongass in the past century. He, too, will help update the expedition's Web site with experiments, pictures and journals.

"Students are going to be interested and other students should be the ones presenting it. It will be more personalized," he said.

More information about the Harriman Expedition Retraced is available through links posted at juneauempire.com.

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.

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