On the Alaskan Character

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Home, Questa, NM

After two months in this incredible state, I am struggling to explain the Alaskan Character.  Like most parts of our big, beautiful country, Alaska has unique values and traits that help set it apart from the rest of the world.  I’d like to take my best guess as to what those things might be – What makes the Alaskan experience so different and special?

Ultimately, it all comes down to simple geography – Alaska is unique largely because of its size and location on this planet.  Alaska is huge, of course, amounting to about 20% of the land area of the entire country.  The distance between Barrow, on the Arctic Ocean, and Ketchikan, down in the southeastern panhandle is almost 1500 miles.  That’s the same distance as from Minnesota to Florida – plenty of distance to allow for variation in climate and topography

And variation is one of Alaska’s hallmarks.  It offers up four very different ecological zones, from Tundra and Boreal Forest (Taiga) to Northwestern Forested Mountains and Marine West Coast Forests.  As our National Park visits confirmed, each of those zones result in different kinds of landscapes.  Although mountain ranges exist all across the state, there are very real, and beautiful differences between the Brooks Range mountains in the northern tundra, the massive mountain of Denali in the Alaska range, and the snow-drenched peaks of the maritime regions in Kenai Fjords and Glacier Bay.  And although glaciers are one of the major reasons Alaska attracts visitors, they don’t exist everywhere and, in fact, the Brooks Range is considered part of an Arctic desert with very little snow.  There are very few states that offer as many different environments, largely because no state is anywhere near as large as Alaska.  (Texas only has three unique zones and most states are likely to reside in only one or two.)

Clearly, the size of the state is a key reason it is so exceptional, but perhaps more important than its size is its Northern location. Being so far north results in so many distinguishing traits.  Among them is the relationship Alaskans have with something as ordinary as the sun!

Generally speaking, the sun didn’t set on any day during our trip earlier than 11 pm.  In Kotzebue, north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets starting on June 3 and going until July 10th.  On July 28th, when we were there sunrise was at 5:06 am and sunset wasn’t until 12:43 the next morning, for a daylength of 19 hours and 37 minutes!  During most of the month of June and part of July, the sun didn’t set at all  – 24 hours of continuous daylight.

For most people, the cycle of day and night is an important regulator of our daily lives.  Our bodies and our psyches depend on the natural rhythm.  So what happens when the sun doesn’t set?  For us, just up there a short while, it was a bit disorienting, but we sort of got used to it.  Being old folks, we are used to going to bed before the sun sets, anyway.  Some resident Alaskans tell us, however, that they never really get used to it and have to readjust every single year – natural body cycles die hard.  The suggestion is that Alaskans are very aware of their natural environment – they have to be because there is so much variation for them down to radically swinging day lengths.

The growing season in Alaska is a maximum of a 100 days in some of the sunnier valleys of the south and as little as just a few weeks north of the Arctic Circle.  This results in a couple of things.  For one, little will grow here and that is reflected in the fact that Alaska is not an agricultural state, despite its huge land area.  What produce is grown in a couple of the river valleys is all consumed locally.  (I will never forget the price of a skimpy salad bar in Nome – $14.50 for a single trip!) The other impact is that what does grow, has to grow very quickly.  Plants have adapted to the short season by growing fast and large.  Wildflowers are everywhere during June and July and they are beautiful, all better to attract pollinators.  Berries are a staple for wildlife because they grow rapidly and are very sweet here – we sampled blueberries, and several other berries and currants that I didn’t know the name of.  It also appears that melons and cabbages grow very large here for the same reasons – they have so little time to get things done.

Then there is the matter of its remoteness.  In the first place, just getting there is part of the adventure.  Most people either fly from lower-48 locations to Anchorage or maybe Juneau, or they catch a cruise ship in Seattle and navigate up the Inland Passage.  Either way, it is several hours away requiring special effort – Alaskan vacations are major events for just about anyone.  But if we think about it from an Alaskan point of view, there is a feeling of being separate from the rest of the country because, well it IS separate.  What goes on in the rest of the country may or may not have any real bearing on the daily life of an Alaskan, but is clearly a step or two removed.

The northern location not only alters your experience of night and day, but also the sense of hot and cold.  Although global warming is obvious in Alaska and will likely alter traveler perceptions, Alaska is, for now, a very comfortable place to be in with summertime temps in the 70s in the southern part of the state and 60s north of the arctic circle.  Of course, wintertime temperatures are an entirely different story.  It still stays below freezing the entire month in Anaktuvuk Pass during the dead of winter.  Visitors may not go there in winter, but Alaskans live there and adjusting to cold like that is something uniquely Alaskan, especially in northern villages..

Alaska’s northern location results in a phenomena that isn’t evident anywhere else in the U.S.  80% of the Alaskan land area is underlaid with permafrost.  Permafrost is basically earth that is permanently frozen – the official definition is at least two years.  Permafrost can range from just a few feet below the surface to, in some locations, 2200 feet deep.  Permafrost is rock solid as long as it stays frozen, and as a result, has a profound effect on the surface geography.  It can provide a bed for surface water and, therefore, might support small shallow ponds in some locations.  

When it melts, though, it is an entirely different story.  The result is a peat bog of possibly huge depths.   And this makes building permanent structures very difficult.  We experienced the roller coasters of Alaskan highways as ‘discontinuous’ permafrost melts, eliminating the underlying support for the road bed.  This is one of the reasons highways are so difficult to build and maintain in the state – and why so few of the towns are connected.  It also explains why it is difficult to build large buildings there.  In Kotzebue, even the hotel was built on stilts and is above ground.  That is because they don’t want to thaw the permafrost underneath it, which results in making the building even more expensive to heat. While permafrost is an intriguing quirk to us visitors, it is a parameter of life to an Alaskan – and a serious restriction to development of many massive industries.  Efforts to prevent damage to permafrost increased the cost of the Alaskan pipeline many times!  Alaskans have serious limitations to how much serious economic development is even possible in their fragile environment.

The size and location of Alaska has also strongly affected its human history.  Native Alaskans entered the area via the Bering Land Bridge, probably in multiple waves, tens of thousands of years ago.  They adapted remarkably wellto all the different geographic zones resulting in something like 20 different, federally and state-recognized, cultural groupings based on location and language differences.  The mosaic that their cultures weave across the different parts of the state are incredibly interesting and beautiful.  They are something any visitor should see.

Western culture has been much slower to explore the area and adapt to its requirements.  Russians originally made settlements in the Aleutians as early as the 1600s, but the mainland wasn’t officially ‘discovered’ until Vitus Bering saw Mt. St. Elias in 1741.  Sitka was established as the center of Russian culture in the Americas in 1799, but they had some difficulty remaining permanent as the local natives, the Tlingits, weren’t real happy with their new neighbors.  Over the next sixty or seventy years, the fur trade sent Russians and other Europeans up around the coast of Alaska distributing notions of trade as well as fatal diseases among the native populations.  (Diseases that killed as many as 90% of the native Alaskans!)

After the sea mammal population became decimated by the Russian fur trade, Alaska offered little to them, so they sold it to the U.S. for next to nothing in 1867.  The U.S. sent a few more exploratory missions, but Alaska really offered little interest until the gold rushes began, starting with the Klondike gold rush in 1899.  The towns of Skagway and Haines boomed as gold-seekers rushed for instant riches.  A year later, some gold flakes found on the beaches of Nome sparked a similar rush and Nome blossomed from a small native village to Alaska’s largest town of 12,000 people.  Other towns along coasts and rivers (such as Fairbanks) also got established, initially because of gold promises,  and the white-American influx began, seeding Alaska’s growth. 

About the same time, copper was found in the mountains near Kennicott (now in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park) and so Alaska became synonymous with natural resources and metal extraction.  A very expensive railroad was constructed to haul the ore down from Kennecottt to Cordova for shipment to the lower-48.  Similarly, Anchorage was established primarily as a railroad town and the railroad was constructed all the way from Anchorage to Fairbanks and southward down to Seward.  The railroad was intended as the main way to get minerals and ores out of the interior.

Just as metal resources were finally being depleted, we entered World War II.  Alaska’s strategic location meant that it was a natural refueling spot for aircraft to support the war effort in the Pacific.  It was during the late 30s and 40s that many of Alaska’s cities, both small and large, had airfields or even just gravel strips built.  That development created a new way for people to transport themselves around the state without having to drive for days on highways that didn’t yet exist.  Bush planes are, in some cases, the only way to reach these towns and the reliance on air travel began with World War II.

In the 60s a new resource was found, black gold along the northern slopes.  The oil pipeline was built transporting oil 800 miles from the North Slope down to Valdez, again for processing mostly in other places.  As we all know now, the royalties from that oil have loaded up the Alaskan treasury and not only do Alaskans pay no state income or sales taxes, but they actually receive a yearly check from the state amounting, I believe, to about $3000 per person. Fundamentally, though, Alaska is known for its resources, not its economic machine.  Lumber, seafood, and minerals have been its primary attraction – not industry or agriculture, but raw resources – for most of its history.

Alaskans living in major cities, like Anchorage, Juneau, and Fairbanks, all appear to be much like all the rest of us.  Except for the fact that living is a little more expensive, it is all about the same. 

Where Alaska is distinctly different is on the edges.  The lady who ran the B&B in Gustavus has to load her car onto a ferry and ship it to Juneau.  There she fills the car with groceries and then ships it back to Gustavus, on the ferry.  Grocery shopping for her starts at $500 before she even buys a single item, and that doesn’t count the cost of lodging and food while in Juneau!

In Nome, a relentless winter blizzard prevented all sea and air transport (there are no roads) and the town began to run out of oil and gas to heat their buildings.  A Russian coast guard ice breaker had to run a humanitarian mission to allow a fuel supply barge into the harbor so Nome could get the needed fuel.

In Port Alsworth, and some other towns we saw, towns-people don’t park their cars in front of their houses, but rather their airplanes.  For the local mile or two of roads, they use ATV’s.  To travel anywhere they might really need to go, they need an airplane.  As a result, Alaska has the highest proportion of pilots of any location in the world.

So what does all this say about the ‘Alaskan Character’?

In the first place, Alaskans have to be tough – it is hard to live in this state.  Its location and size make living difficult and expensive.  It isn’t surprising to me that native populations still survive mostly on subsistence hunting and gathering – even if they bring everything back to a ‘modern’ home with at least some conventional appliances.  National Parks throughout the western US have granted native populations hunting privileges in many of the parks and wilderness areas in recognition of their traditional ways.  In Alaska, however, it isn’t just natives that have those rights – ALL Alaskans have subsistence rights on pretty much all public lands.  And the reason is that a huge proportion of Alaskans rely on hunting and fishing to feed themselves – not just natives.  When the cost of a shopping trip to Costco starts at $500 – before you even get there – then looking for alternatives is obviously attractive.

Adjusting to colder temperatures and radically different day lengths over the course of a year are just some of the compromises Alaskans must make.  The roller-coaster highways resulting from differential thawing of permafrost are something Alaskans take in stride – assuming they use the highway system at all.  The Alaskan highway department struggles to maintain the roads, but they are constrained by a very short season in which to do major projects!

Although Alaskans tend to vote conservative, the sense I got from locals is not so much a lean towards Republicans as a general distaste for government altogether.  In some sense that is surprising since government of one form or another owns 90% of the landscape and government decisions, and spending,  (as in the construction of airports and airstrips everywhere) are largely responsible for what economic growth there has been in the state.  Mostly, though, Alaskans tend to believe that it is up to them to make things happen in their state and would, basically, prefer that things stay that way.  ‘Just leave us alone and we will be fine!’  These are people who have managed a living just the way it is and aren’t really interested in anything new.

The problem is that the Alaskan landscape is so fragile.  The interior land is 80% permafrost and global warming is going to change that in huge ways.  Taking away the floor underlying much of the land surface, is going to have profound effects as the tundra deepens and softens.  It isn’t clear how interior Alaskans will deal with the change, largely because we don’t know exactly what is going to happen to all this permafrost.

And coastal Alaskans – which are the bulk of them – are going to be pushed inland by rising shorelines.  It is estimated that 184 out of 213 Native Alaskan villages will be forced to relocate, or otherwise disappear, as ocean levels rise. The estimated relocation costs for one medium sized village was around $400 million.Who is going to pay for that?  And where will they go?

Alaska is on the bleeding edge of climate change.  It is going to be extremely interesting to see how this hearty and independent people deal with changes of this magnitude.  If any group of people has a chance of navigating this precarious future, it might be Alaskans.  As the glaciers disappear, and the rivers change their course yet again, the beauty that lies all over this state will likely change too.  The unanswered question is whether these hearty and independent Alaskans are capable of changing with it.  Hopefully, it will still stay a terrific place to visit.