Monday, June 30, 2014


Field Report from Alaska

My wife and I recently returned from a month-long visit to this remarkable land, huge, largely untamed, full of natural splendor and wildlife. We spent most of our time in southeast Alaska, which we explored hiking and kayaking, getting around as well by car and ferry. Eighty-three percent of Alaskan towns are inaccessible by road, and the roads around Juneau, where we were the longest, led nowhere but back home.

We spent five days at our dear friend Bill's “remote property,” a homestead in the interior he proved in the early '80's. To reach the site, we had to cross a swift river and then backpack four miles through true bog and muskeg. As he has done with everyone who visited the cabin, he asked us to leave our timepieces behind. This was an initial challenge, then welcome change for one who often wears his watch to bed! We got pretty good at telling the time during sunlight, but the long twilit nights were something else altogether. You had no idea whether it was 10:30 pm or 4:30 am. We were there in late May, when the sun barely dipped below the horizon for 3-4 hours. I never saw stars nor dark sky. In the thirty years he has had a cabin there, he says there have only been eight families who have regularly used the trail to access their property. But since they mostly rely on four-wheelers (clad with sleds in winter), the ruts in the trail are two and a half feet deep in places, and a muddy mess. This gave me a marker for the kind of damage our species can do, even in small numbers, just trying to get by. Many of these folk rely mostly on hunting and fishing for protein, and some have extensive gardens, despite the challenges of poor soil and a short growing season – not to mention the depredation of critters.

We met with Quakers everywhere we went. They housed us, worshiped with us, and in turn we were able to assist at their annual workday on their rustic retreat in Wasilla. Since there are so few Friends Meeings – perhaps three or four are active – this summer retreat is vital to the scattered network. Though we shared in silent meeting with our fellow Friends, nowhere was the silence greater than deep in the forests and on the waterways, where the occasional unnatural noise caused me to flinch.

We spent several days at Denali Park, which is the size of Massachusetts. We had experienced unusually sunny weather everywhere we went, and though we had some clouds and rain towards the end of the week, it was clear enough for us to see the park icon, Mt Denali (Mt McKinley). Even by park bus, you can get no closer than 53 miles away from the mountain. Like the rest of Alaska, most of the park is roadless, as well as wilderness. In the winter, rangers patrol by dogsled, the only method available. The sled dog demo was truly a glimpse into another world. We took two longish hikes during our stay, rewarded by range upon range of mountains. I've never seen anything like them, including several visits to the Himalayas. On our various road trips, we saw several brown (grizzly) bear mothers and cubs, moose, caribou, dall sheep (similar in habit to mountain goats), marmots. We saw and occasionally heard trumpeter swans, both hiking and by vehicle. Bald eagles were plentiful, and we saw a few golden eagles as well. A special treat was crossing the path of a lynx on a long Denali hike, a resourceful and secretive cat rarely viewed.

We have been tempted for several years to go on a whale-viewing trip. While based in Juneau, and then later as we cruised the Inland Passage back to Vancouver, we saw several humpback whales, and a couple of calves. The most powerful experience was having a mother and calf surface only 30-40 yards from the stern of our dinghy as we motored around the sound in the Haines area. Another delightful sea critter was the harbor dolphin. A school of them, remarkably graceful and swift, escorted our ferry to Haines for several miles. But the seafaring highlight was visiting a sea lion rookery, carefully passing closer and closer to the rookery. I counted upwards of 200 sea lions, from tiny pups to huge grandfathers. The stench was bracing. As we left, we were escorted by a couple of dozen of them, diving under and around the boat, playing among themselves, cruising on their sides facing our boat. My wife, sitting on the gunwales taking photos, jumped into the boat when one seemed to try to nip her backside! They followed us for a long time.

Alaskans are a tough, independent lot, and it is no surprise that they vote conservatively. We experienced the gun culture during our week in the roadless interior, including a neighbor of Bill's with a veritable armory. But bears are a real threat, and even Quaker mothers are happy to have one person with a rifle accompany remote teen camping trips. When we hiked remotely at Denali, we carried bear spray, which we were taught carefully how to use. But for the most part, Alaskans also care deeply about their natural resources and preserving the vast tracts of wilderness – though they may differ over how to define wilderness. The state fisheries have far tighter regulations than those I know of in the Carolinas and Alabama, which means the catch is always just plentiful enough. This means the prices stay high, but nobody begrudges supporting the fisherman – or else they fish themselves. And hunting seems to be carefully regulated as well. It is a nation of sportsmen, and the alliance between enviros and sportsmen which I have always thought so important to foster exists there, though not without friction.

In my next post, I will outline some of the ecological challenges Alaska faces, especially the impact of climate change, which is already deeply affecting their world.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]