North to Alaska, music adventures in Unalaska

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Kelly Stiles. Aleutian Arts Council president and Laura at the Just Desserts concert.

North to Alaska from Johnny Horton, and Anchored Down in Anchorage from Michelle Shocked ran through my head as I packed for my latest adventure, a 5-day teaching/performance gig in Unalaska, Port of Dutch Harbor.

Unalaska is far, far away!  It’s a three-hour flight  from Seattle to Anchorage and another three hours on a small plane out to Unalaska, located in the the Aleutian Islands. I’ve never been asked for my weight and given ear plugs before boarding a flight, but then again, this is no ordinary flight. The plane has to be carefully balanced with people and luggage in order for the pilots to maneuver the windy takeoffs and landings.

My time in Unalaska was spent giving workshops, assemblies, and a community concert. In all, I gave 8 performances/classes over three days with a couple of hikes and visit to the local museum thrown in.  It was a whirlwind of activity and I loved every minute. I worked with elementary kids, middle schoolers and high schoolers in programs that featured a mixture of piano music, travel stories/photos, singing, and a little salsa and merengue dancing. There was also a co-hosting appearance on the local news television show called, Flash on Alaska, which felt like a combination of Wayne’s World and Northern Exposure.

Dutch Harbor is a closely knit community of about 4,000 people. The people are knowledgable,warm, welcoming, and have variety of professional backgrounds. I met  city planners, professional artists, teachers, school administrators, and captains of fishing vessels, to name a few. The town is delightfully quirky and I found it fascinating  to hear individual stories of how people came to be living on the island.  There is a speed limit-30 mph, and there are eagles perched on lampposts and roof tops every few hundred yards. There are no bears (which made for carefree hiking), and no trees (except for a small park of stunted juniper trees that Russians tried to grow there in the 1800’s). Tundra is spongy and bouncy to walk on!

Did you know Dutch Harbor was home to a US naval base and bombed by the Japanese in WWII?  I sure didn’t, but I learned about this and other interesting history of the island on my outings between music activities.  There is a beautiful Orthodox Church in town surrounded by a picturesque cemetery perched on a  cliff overlooking Dutch Harbor.

Dutch Harbor is known for fishing (The Deadliest Catch is filmed there), and the hum of fish processing plants goes 24 hours a day.  The port is a busy place with container ships being loaded and unloaded and ship traffic comes and goes. I was treated to an all you can eat seafood buffet at the Grand Aleutian Hotel.  The crab legs, piled on a gigantic platter, were the size of my arm. There were buckets of shrimp and pan after pan of delightful fish dishes.

Thank you to Kelly Stiles and Robi Harris of the Aleutian Islands Arts Council for this wonderful opportunity to work in your magical community and for your memorable hospitality. Thank you to Brian DeTar for working on the piano and making it sound so beautiful for the concert.

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Robi Harris

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Orthodox Church

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Main Street of the downtown

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Dutch Harbor

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Beautiful Alaska Scenery

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Unalaska Image

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Hike to a waterfall

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