The phrase “once in a lifetime” is sometimes thrown around carelessly, when the experience it is being used to describe is probably not really once-in-a-lifetime. However, I think I can fairly safely say that our recent trip to Alaska was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This was my first time in Alaska, and I’m pretty sure it will be the last. It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy going back, either to revisit some of the same places or, more likely, to see another part of this vast state, but with so many other places in the world I’d also like to see while we’re still able, I doubt whether we’ll ever go back to Alaska. During the short time we were there (11 days), we saw only a small part of the state, but that small part left me with some strong impressions.
The vastness of the land: Various guides tried to help us put the size of Alaska in perspective. One stat is that Alaska is bigger than California, Montana and Texas combined, or to bring it closer to home, Pennsylvania could fit into Alaska 14 times. (Here’s a handy little tool to compare your state to Alaska.)
If you look at a road map of Alaska, you’ll see that almost all the roads are concentrated in the southeast part of the state where most of the population is located. Once you get to Fairbanks, there aren’t many roads that go farther north. (On the other hand, Alaska has 102 seaplane bases – more than any other state!) Anchorage is the largest city at less than 300,000, which is 40 percent of the entire population of Alaska. As we cruised up the Inside Passage from Vancouver, British Columbia to Skagway, and then across the Gulf of Alaska to Seward, I couldn’t help wondering how the borders between Alaska (and therefore the U.S.) and Canada were established. What kind of negotiations or arm-twisting gave that entire southeastern coastline of Alaska to the U.S. instead of Canada? (If I had time and were in the right mood, I’m sure I could probably research the answer to that question!) The shape of Alaska, from that southeastern coastline to the Aleutian Islands which stretch farther west than our other outlier state of Hawaii, is proof that borders and boundaries are funny (as in peculiar), often arbitrary things.
The tourist view: Obviously, we saw Alaska as tourists, and therefore undoubtedly have a somewhat warped or unrealistic view of the whole state. But the tourist view is interesting in and of itself. In a small effort to justify indulging ourselves in this trip, Dale and I often noted that we were supporting Alaska’s tourism industry and helping to provide jobs. So we were surprised to learn that many tourism jobs don’t necessarily go to Alaskans but either to folks who head north from the lower 48 for the tourist season, such as college students and retirees, or to people the cruise lines bring in. The cruise ships themselves are staffed in large part by people from the Philippines and Indonesia who are separated from their families for large portions of the year.
There is sort of a fake aspect to the downtown areas of towns along the southeastern coast like Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. Many of the shops in the areas of these towns catering to cruise ships almost seem like movie sets that become ghost towns when the tourist season ends and the workers the cruise lines ship in to run all the T-shirt and jewelry stories leave town. We couldn’t help wondering why some of the young people we saw aimlessly hanging out in the town square in Anchorage can’t get jobs in the tourism industry. I’m sure it’s complicated, but it’s a question we asked ourselves. We were glad when the tours we took supported local businesses that employ individuals born and raised in Alaska as guides. Then we felt like we were getting a more authentic experience, even though it was still definitely catering to tourists.
Environmental observations: I am so unqualified to get into the debate about climate change and global warming, but it was something I thought about as we saw glaciers and heard our guides talk about how they have receded in recent years. For example, the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound has retreated about ten miles since 1982. What will happen to the environment as this glacier and others continue to recede?
As Dale and I have traveled in the U. S., visiting national parks like Zion and Bryce in Utah, Yellowstone in Wyoming, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Everglades in Florida, the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and now Denali in Alaska (not to mention various national forests and monuments in these and other states), we have been grateful every time for the foresight of U. S. presidents and legislators of the past to set aside and protect these wonderful lands for the future. In Alaska, we heard several times about how certain things like fishing and logging have been restricted or prohibited since areas were designated national forests. Sometimes the comments sounded like laments (perhaps even criticism of the federal government – imagine that!), but Dale and I are always happy that the land has been protected from development and destruction and preserved for the amazing variety of wildlife that inhabits the land and for future generations to enjoy. We believe this is an example of the federal government at its best.
Alaska is billed as the “last frontier” and it truly is in so many ways. We flew by seaplane over the Tsongass National Forest and the Misty Fiords National Monument outside of Ketchikan, and over Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound and the glaciers near Anchorage. Those flights, along with our bus ride into the “tundra wilderness” in Denali, exposed us to real wilderness in a way we haven’t experienced it before. We hope it stays that way for many generations to come!