John Wilcock column header


The Column of Lasting Insignificance: June 16, 2007


Alaska Diary

Sunday: Dancing on deck, as stewards circled with trays of multi-colored drinks: a pleasant start to a cruise aboard the Diamond Princess up Alaska’s Inside Passage. We’ll see, of course, only a tiny coastal fringe of America’s largest state which still contains more than half a million square miles of wilderness, but at least we’re more sophisticated tourists these days than earlier visitors who were convinced that everybody here lived in igloos and ate seal blubber. (After being bought (“Seward’s Folly”) from the Russians a century ago, Alaska wasn’t even developed until WW2 when the Federal government moved in troops to ensure against a Japanese invasion, and even today its population is less than that of New Orleans.

Nevertheless, we’ll travel 1,627 nautical miles on this huge ship along with 3,000 other passengers, a crew of more than 1,000, thirty musicians, ten entertainers, and a captain who — according to the coyly-named daily newsletter Princess Patter — told his childhood teacher that what he most liked doing was “looking out of the window.” He’ll surely do plenty of that.

Cabins are comfortable ‘staterooms’ with a dozen television channels available, most restaurants are free, swimming pools and hot tubs abound and activities range from line dancing and group games to classes on ceramics, acupuncture, and creating scrapbooks. There’s something for almost every active person and a library and innumerable bars for the rest.

MONDAY: For most cruise visitors, including ours, the first stop is Ketchikan, known as Gateway to Alaska because it’s at the beginning of the Inside Passage. Most of the stores listed on the Port & Shopping Map, cached by everybody’s cabin, sell jewelry and precious gems and it soon becomes clear that shopping is many peoples’ primary reason for cruising. Other stores sell handmade native drums, masks, totems but many of us choose to visit the state park with its fullsize totem poles.

In the bus, Chad, a student up from Chicago for his second season as a guide, passed around his cell phone with a picture of the girl he’d just met in the supermarket (and was dating that night).  Something of a joker, he also pointed out a church with an eagle on top. Why did it belong there?  “Because it’s a bird of prey.”

Back in town, lumberjacks were performing a colorful show (chopping, sawing, log rolling, a 50ft speed climb) but as filming or videotaping was barred I gave it a miss, and wandering around the tiny town. I was able to buy my first paper for days, The Ketchikan Daily News, which reminded local drivers that the season to slow down had begun. “Oftentimes, our visitors are so entranced by the sights we take for granted that they just can’t help stopping,” it cautioned “usually in the middle of the busiest street in town — to take a second look, or maybe a picture.” Good advice. It’s said that you know you’ve become an Alaskan when you quit slowing down to look at a moose.

Postal increases went into effect today and the paper predicted that rural Alaska towns would suffer because most basic supplies came in by air. Listed as an example was the Athabascan Indian village of Tanana, 130m west of Fairbanks, where milk already cost $7 a gallon, box of cereal $8.

By the mid-1930s when seven canneries were shipping a total of 1.5 million cases of salmon a year Ketchikan was calling itself “the salmon capital of the world. The creeks used to be so filled with salmon that people joked about walking across on the backs of the fish — but not women (joked the bus driver) because they don’t like to step on scales.

TUESDAY: In the 13 hours spent in Juneau, there was time to travel 25 miles out of town to visit the Rainforest Garden, take a cable car to the top of 1,800ft Mount Roberts via the tramway and wander the downtown area whose frontier flavor is best seen in the garish Red Dog Saloon where a gonzo pianist worked tirelessly to be heard above the turmoil.

Today’s Juneau Empire ran an editorial claiming that Alaska could do more to promote tourism. The state took the cruise lead from the Caribbean some time ago but, said the paper, wouldn’t necessarily be able to keep it because it was spending 75% less in marketing (only $5m) than 20 years ago, compared with many states spending four times as much. Every day between May 7 and Sept. 30 brings at least one cruise ship to Juneau, with 853,654 passengers expected to visit the town this year.

Governor Sarah Palin came under editorial fire for her deal to negotiate away natural gas rights pipeline — “but a single-industry state is a vulnerable one.” A current scandal in the media has implicated some of the state’s top politicians over bribes connected with the oil industry and a petition has surfaced to recall one lawmaker. More than three-quarters of Alaska’s revenue came from the oil but it’s always been a mystery to me why citizens of Alaska each receive an annual payment for oil that surely belongs to everybody in the U.S. When I asked somebody about this, their only explanation was that “a smart governor arranged it long ago.”

Since statehood in 1954, Gov. Palin became the tenth to live in the 35-room Governor’s House (1912), two blocks from the Alaska Capitol which is replete with historical paintings and photographs. Six years before it was built, with its marble columns and reproduction of the Liberty Bell, the district government of Alaska had been transferred here in 1906 from Sitka. Juneau (pop: 30,000), which has remained the capital, now employs half the city’s workforce.

Accessible only by plane or boat, the city registers each year an average 150 inches of “precipitation” (rain and snow) which it light-heartedly terms “liquid sunshine”. Umbrellas are rarely seen because strong winds often accompany the rain and locals wear drip dry clothes, usually in layers. In February they make fun of the whole thing, staging the Wearable Art Extravaganza.

WEDNESDAY: Early to rise today, not long after the ship — one of whose TV channels is permanently focused on what’s ahead — took aboard the mandatory local pilot to assist navigating the narrow coastal passage. By 8am everybody was quayside awaiting buses or trains to take them up into the Yukon. It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder wrote British-born Robert Service in one of his Yukon poems:

It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

Service (1874-1958), who worked as reporter for the Toronto Star and in WW1 as an ambulance driver, became famous for his Songs of a Sourdough (1907) which carried his poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew.

Passports are needed for this excursion because the Canadian border is crossed before entering the Yukon near Carcross, a not-quite-a-ghost town between twin lakes, with its abandoned railroad tracks, tourist office, and venerable general store. The town’s name is an abbreviation of Caribou Crossing — mandated by the post office because there’s another Caribou Crossing nearby, a bustling community that serves everybody barbecue lunches (plus all the donuts you can eat) and offers $30 dogsled rides.

Back in Skagway we learn the sad tale of Capt. William Moore who settled here in 1887 after discovering the White Pass route into the Yukon. Foresightedly staking out a claim for 160 acres in anticipation of an eventual gold rush, he was evicted from his cabin nine years later when the unruly flood of prospectors seized his land, dismantled his cabin and hired a surveyor to lay out a new town. By October 1887, Skagway’s 20,000 population made it the largest city in Alaska with stores, saloons, dance halls, and gambling houses. Most prospectors lived in tents or shacks and visitors called it “hell on earth”. The boom died quickly, along with the town, which now has a population of 800, although it still has an intriguingly frontier look.

The front page of the Skagway News noted that Governor Sarah Palin was visiting the town in which she spent the first five years of her life, and a terse letter inside the paper accused the city government of being “too large, too expensive, woefully inefficient, arrogant, intrusive, and downright dangerous”.

THURSDAY: On board all day but even busier than usual, attending a lecture about glaciers, a demonstration of ice carving, and a line-dancing session followed by afternoon tea (scones, sandwiches, and old ladies). I even caught up on some of my reading. Here’s what I now know about glaciers: They are formed by constant layers of snow falling year after year and compacting until all the air is forced out and solid ice remains. The pressure and gravity moves the lower levels downwards smoothing the sides of mountains, carving out valleys, eventually breaking off in chunks as large as houses and falling into the water (“calving’). Sometimes seals can be seen basking on these temporary islands and other short term guests of icebergs can include bald eagles, cormorants. and gulls.

Tonight was the last of two “formal nights” in which most of the restaurants are restricted to the hundreds who choose cocktail dresses or tuxedoes. Two events in the Empress Theater filled the evening, first a screening of A Night at the Museum, one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and then a show put on by members of the international crew — magicians, singers, jugglers, all of them first-rate.

It seems that here in the far north, renewable energy in the form of wind farms and tidal currents are getting increased attention. ”Alaska is the most advanced in the world in this area” says British Columbia’s Nigel Protter whose Sync Wave Energy company is experimenting with a coastal wave-energy project near Yakutat in the Tongas National Forest.  It is powered by the up and down movements of small buoys clustered around a generator.

The Alaska Journal reports that with fuel prices so high, rural communities in Alaska are now paying 10% of their income for fuel and power — about five times as much as urban communities. A gallon of diesel fetches as much as $9.

FRIDAY: Today as the ship cruised up Glacier Bay, flanked at each side by mile after unbroken mile of ice-covered mountains or glaciers — it was hard to tell the difference — seemed the time to learn about whales, especially the acrobatic 40ft long humpback variety that leap out of the water in the lower part of the bay. I always seem to miss their emergence, even when tipped off to look for the cloud of water vapor, but excited shouts continually confirm sightings.

Hereabouts they live off cod and Pollock but their diet is usually krill and small fish, filtered through scores of baleen plates in their upper jaw. Somehow they manage to ingest a ton of food per day as they bask in the cooler waters to which they have emigrated from Hawaii, two thousand miles away. Alert viewers, many of whom stay on deck all day to scan the shoreline, can also spot sea otters, bears, wolves, moose or mountain goats. A temporary table was set up to serve hot chowder with beans and rice.

By 4pm we’re abeam Gustavus (pop 400), the tiny fishing port where the Bay begins, and on the way up the mountainous coast to Prince William Sound and Whittier where tomorrow we’ll disembark for a bus to the airport at Anchorage, home to half the state’s population. You’ve heard about Prince William Sound before because it’s where, at Valdez in its northeast corner, the 800-mile Trans Alaska Pipeline 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay terminates. Crossing three mountain ranges and built to withstand 8.5 earthquakes and temperatures of –80F, it’s an impressive feat but not immune from the carelessness of tanker captains who use it. And, at the risk of being repetitive, why do only Alaskans own Alaskan oil?