Visitors center offers variety of summer interpretive programs

Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2004

Ken Waldman, known as "Alaska's Fiddling Poet," says of his time spent in Alaska that he never thought he would be up here, living like he does.

Many in the crowd of about 30 people he was addressing Tuesday evening could relate to the feeling of kismet. They hadn't thought they'd be spending their evening listening to Waldman's stories of Alaska life.

Thelma and Win White, visiting Alaska from Maine, didn't know Waldman was performing when they ventured into the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on Tuesday, but they became absorbed in the performance as soon as he put bow to fiddle string.

"He was great," Thelma White said. "We came in just to see the museum and this was just great frosting on the cake."

Waldman takes a sort of clean-out-the-fridge casserole approach to his performances, combining ample portions of fiddle and mandolin playing, poetry reading and story telling, with a pinch of crowd participation and even a mini-Alaska geography lesson thrown in.

Waldman's influences come from his somewhat random background. While working as a tennis instructor, he swapped tennis lessons for fiddle lessons with a music store owner. Born in Philadelphia, a sense of wanderlust and unpredicted circumstances brought him to Alaska. After spending 19 years in the state, some of which spent serving as a college professors near Fairbanks and in the Bush, he decided to give up academia to become a touring musician and poet. Now that's what he does performing his West Virginia- influenced fiddle style (he says he likes the "slippery" quality of the music) with his Alaska-influenced poetry to audiences around the state and nation.

In Tuesday's performance, Waldman serenaded the audience with waltzes and what he calls fiddle "dance music," interspersed with the poems that in many cases inspired the songs. Tuesday's performance included many offerings that document Waldman's life in Alaska, including one describing his ritual of "Washing Dishes On My 33rd Birthday" in his cabin without running water, and spending a "Week in Eek."

Waldman wove the poems and songs into a running discourse that ranged from giving background to the music and readings to telling stories about his life in Alaska. The hour-long performance gave visitors in the crowd some insight into Alaska culture and residents some observations they could relate to.

The performance was part of the visitor center's summer interpretive program. According to Dana Woodard, museum manager at the center, the program is geared to offer something to visitors, locals, children and adults.

"They're really fun programs," she said. Sometimes they don't sound as fun as they are but they're really interesting and you learn a lot."

Waldman's performance was an exception to the typical Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 3 p.m. schedule for the hour-long interpretive programs. The presentations are themed into categories of science on Mondays, art on Wednesdays and Alaska heritage on Fridays. Those headings contain a diverse offering of subjects, including presentations on the impact of spruce bark beetles, digital photography and Yupik basketry They also includes concerts, like Waldman's and ones by Hobo Jim, known as Alaska's Official Balladeer.

Woodard said visitors are usually the ones attending the programs, but said she wished more area residents would come because they're not meant just for out-of-towners.

"They're really interesting and a lot of fun. It would be really wonderful to get people in to them," she said. "... The people who stay and spend the time are usually really happy about it. They come away from it learning a lot."

The programs are free and informal, usually with the first 45 minutes spent on the presentation and the last 15 for questions and discussions. They are held at 3 pm. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the center on the Kenai Spur Highway through the end of August.

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