We have been away. Now that we are retired and school is out in the summer and the winter, we like to go south during the cooler months in search of warmth. But this year we decided to take a different tack. It seemed only logical that if our winter travels took us south, then our summer travels should take us north. So, north we went. Way north. Farther north than I have ever been.
North, as the song says, to Alaska!
And while I have lots of stories to tell about trains and ships and buses and bears and mountains and totems, I have to say that the sum total of our experiences gave me a lot of things to think about. Serious things. Life-altering things. As a way of processing these experiences and deciding how to write about them, I made a list of some of the overarching concepts, the surface of which our trip merely scratched, that have stayed with me and demand, even now, that I explore them in a more thoughtful and earnest way.
Here, then, are some of the big, albeit still jumbly, ideas with which Alaska sent me home.
- Indigenous people–What remains of the Tligits, the Haida, the Kwakiutl and the many other tribes of the Pacific Northwest? We met some of them, but they no longer live in traditional ways. Instead they attempt to preserve their traditions and their language as history rather than as a lifestyle. We visited their clan houses and their totems. In museums we saw their ceremonial masks and robes and their intricate beadwork. These things are beautiful and meaningful. But what has become of their way of life? How do they live when tourist season ends? What has become of the the culture of people who were once so in-tune with the land on which they live? What do they have to teach us about living with instead of just on this planet that we seem to be destroying? Are their lives as respected by the dominant culture in real life as their traditions and artifacts are in museums? How goes it for them these days?
- Global warming—Evidence abounds. We cannot control the intrigues of nature. But we can sure muck up the works. We saw glaciers that are receding and heard stories of herds of caribou that keep moving north in search of temperatures that are cold enough for them. Scientists tell of an 8° rise in average temperature in just the last several years. It’s hard to tell a lot about environmental changes from a city street. But the wilderness doesn’t lie. Do we know where to look? Should we believe what we hear or should we trust our own eyes?
- History—The development of Alaska is one story after another of get-rich-quick schemes and people who underestimate the harshness of the environment. It is a demonstration of human nature, Darwinism, perseverance, egotism, greed, grit and stubbornness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in gold-rush country. Skagway’s White Pass Railroad and Chilkoot Pass to the Klondike are teeming with stories of prospectors, most of whom did not get rich. And giant swaths of undeveloped land, a lot of it preserved as national parks, say everything about how Alaska fends for itself. History is the study of humans in place and time. Alaska’s human history is sparse but revealing. I would love to know more.
- The Call of the Wilderness—Why do people live here? It’s forty degrees in August and forty below in February. The twenty daily hours of delicious summer daylight give way to a bleak twenty-two hours of daily winter darkness. How can human bodies adjust to such enormous seasonal changes? One transplant we talked to said that it’s a test to see how long you can survive here before Alaska gets in your head and does you in. The tourist season, which attracts lots of workers from the lower forty-eight who want to try Alaska on for size, is short. Many of the “summer people” head home for the winter, unwilling to face the relentless dark and cold of the off-season. The Princess Lodges operate from mid-May to mid-September. The cruise season ends then, too. The Denali National Park rangers told us that they expect their first snowfall before the end of September. So most of us who visit Alaska will never see her at her harshest. It takes a certain kind of person to make life in Alaska work. Not to mention the many people who choose to live off the grid—no electricity, no running water, forty below on a good day in January. Why do they do it? What’s the attraction? How do they know they have what it takes? How do they make the seasonal adjustments necessary? Could I do it? Even for one winter? Even in a house with 3-zone heating and indoor plumbing?
- The Princess Operation—Princess, known predominantly as a cruise line company, has made its mark in Alaska. The operation is extensive—both on sea and on land. It is a major employer and has done a lot to give the non-adventurous a glimpse of the wilderness. How much has Alaska gained by the tourist industry and companies like Princess? How much has it lost?
- The Beauty of Inaccessibility—Do we have to go everywhere and see everything? Can we just leave places to the animals and the plants to live as they do? Most of Alaska in inaccessible in traditional ways. The state has twelve highways, only six of them paved. One in every 63 Alaskans has a pilot’s license, which doesn’t account for all the pilots who are too far off the beaten path to bother with a license. Even Juneau, the capital city of Alaska, is inaccessible by car. You can only get there from here by boat or by plane. There is but one road in Denali Park—a place larger than the state of Massachusetts. It is ninety-one miles long, but you can only drive to mile twelve on your own. We traveled in a park vehicle (i.e. a green school bus), with a guide, to mile sixty-three and back. The road is windy and steep and the trip took eight hours. We encountered only other park vehicles on our trek and saw only a fraction of the park. What we saw was extraordinary—and enough. Leave the rest to the indigenous flora and fauna—and a seasoned hiker or two. Adventurers are attracted to remote places. But forging paths to them make them less remote which spoils what attracted us to them in the first place. There are not that many wild places left. Alaska is a treasure trove of wilderness and we should let it be. Ironically, we need to see it for ourselves to know this.
Well, that’s enough deep thinking for one blog post. I’m pretty good at generating questions. That’s the teacher in me. But it’s not so easy finding the answers. That’s up to the learner that still burns in me and I hope in all of us throughout our lives.
As I see them in writing, I realize that the questions that Alaska poses to me are not just Alaska questions. They are life questions dressed up to look like Alaska. And they still need a lot of whittling down to be manageable for thinking and writing. That’s all part of the discovery process. We can only answer life’s big questions if we work to find the small ones.
So, this is what happens when I go away.
It’s nice to be back.