With summer comes the tourists.
A question as to what tourists would like to hear about the place they have come to see is an interesting one. Those of us who have lived here for a while aren’t really tuned in to that issue. But looking at Alaska from a visitor’s perspective requires us to go back to when we were cheechakoes.
That was a long time ago for this writer. He expected to see igloos spread amongst wide expanses of snow, with dog teams making connections between them. Since then, television has helped to present a more realistic view to those who are coming here for the first time. Seeing real buildings and paved streets is no longer surprising.
What is surprising, however, is the great beauty of the Great Land. Its vistas are constantly changing.
The majestic trees, the lush foliage, the colorful flowers, the wide expanse can take away one’s breath. Whether you head north on the Glenn, south on the Seward by vehicle or by train, what you see is astounding. One spot on the Glenn in Chugiak is especially amazing even for everyday commuters: The view of the mountains and surrounding scenery is never the same, constantly changed by the shifting of sun and clouds.
Currently of interest to newcomers is the status of the ground beneath our feet. It is true that Alaska has more than 80 volcanoes, but only Mt. Cleveland in the central Aleutian Chain has been displaying unrest in the past several years. Three in the Cook Inlet area have erupted in the past, but have been dormant for decades. Others are sleeping soundly. With Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii currently raising havoc and causing concern around the Pacific Rim of Fire, there is little worry that Alaska will blow its top.
Alaska also experiences earthquakes, being the location of North America’s strongest ever in 1964.
That one is remembered vividly by those who were here at the time. Actually, Alaskan seismometers measure thousands of tremors in an average year. But it is rare to even feel one or two, and those are only just strong enough to get your attention and are of short duration.
Still, there are many misconceptions about the place we call home. One of those is that the government hands out free money to everyone each year. Our Permanent Fund Dividend is greatly envied by most of our countrymen.
We have to explain that it’s not a gift or a form of welfare. It really IS a dividend.
When Alaska began receiving income from oil, some very wise leaders decided that the benefits should last well after the fields run dry. Our constitution says that Alaska’s resources belong to the people—that means they’re only managed, not owned, by the government. Fathers of the Permanent Fund realized that elected officials every year at budget time face temptation to find ways to add more taxpayer-funded programs to benefit their constituents.
The Permanent Fund was designed to allow for measured amounts of its earnings to go for public programs and also let residents have a small portion of the proceeds from the sale of their resource ownership to spend as they see fit. A complicated procedure governs how the money is to be handled. As has been seen recently when low oil prices no longer allow that revenue to fund 80 percent of government costs, politicians look for ways to manipulate those procedures.
What especially is of interest to visitors?
Always a surprise is the height of our mountains. Residents of Missouri and the southeastern states think the Appalachian and Ozark ranges are the norm. They get angry when Alaskans refer to those features as “hills.” Tallest of all, Denali is breathtaking, but so are the Chugach, Talkeetna and Brooks ranges. Visitors rightfully are impressed.
The sight of ice on some of the mountainsides is another source of wonder. The thick ice sheets go for miles beyond their receding faces and are laced with deep crevasses. At Girdwood, the Mt. Alyeska tram takes visitors to a classy restaurant which overlooks seven glaciers at the head of Turnagain Arm. On the Glenn Highway, one can get a great view of the Matanuska Glacier.
Alaska’s size is difficult to comprehend. Many visitors do not realize that if the 49th state were laid atop the Lower 48 it would touch all four borders. Since our state is often pictured as a small spot located below California, relative distances are hard for the uninitiated to visualize. A trip to Denali National Park, for instance, cannot be completed in the same day as a visit to Seward and Homer, even if they are only inches apart on the road map.
Because the state is so large, transportation methods are important. Alaska could not be reached by road until the Alaska Highway was built during World War II and opened to the public a few years later. Before that time, travel had been limited to ocean-going vessels. Wiley Post and Will Rogers in 1935 visited Alaska on an international trip and died tragically when their plane crashed on the Arctic Coast. Aviation was not an option for public transportation, though, until shortly before Statehood.
Most of today’s tourists may not know that Alaska is the only part of the United States to be invaded by a foreign army.
Attu and Kiska, islands at the western end of the Aleutian Chain, were attacked by Japanese forces in 1942. The Battle to retake Attu was one of the bloodiest in the Pacific Theater. Our geographic position then and now are important to the nation’s defense. The Alaska Veterans Museum on 4th Avenue in Anchorage and the Anchorage Museum on C Street have great displays and information.
Alaska’s list of superlatives is extensive. We have the greatest temperature variations of any state. The lowest and highest temperatures ever recorded were both in Interior Alaska—a difference of 180 degrees. On June 27, 1915, at Ft. Yukon, the mercury topped out at an even 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest was at Prospect Creek on January 23, 1971, when the thermometer registered minus 80.
Because of our long daylight in summer, Alaska gardeners are able to grow vegetables that are huge. The Alaska State Fair at Palmer has an annual contest to see who grows the largest vegetables. Cabbages are notoriously big, the largest grown by Scott A. Robb in 2012 and weighing 138.24 pounds. Pumpkins, carrots, beets, radishes and turnips also are large and generally have excellent flavor.
Our waters teem with fish; our four species of salmon are highly prized around the world. The commercial fishing industry ranks with tourism among those secondary to oil.
Alaska is home to the widest collection of birds, with species from every continent coming here to nest. There are no penguins in Alaska, however, contrary to what some people may think.
Wildlife is a major attraction. Lucky tourists get to see moose, bear, caribou, wolves, buffalo and other large animals roaming alongside roads.
A wildlife preserve at Portage has a wide range of animals that people are able to view, kept safely behind sturdy fences.
Alaska’s greatest resource, however, is its people. Alaska Natives have thrived in this land for ten millennia. They adapted to the harsh climate and learned to survive using what was available to them. They recognized the fragility of their resources and shepherded them carefully. Those who came later brought more sophisticated tools and also adapted to the harsh climate. Because they had to do things for themselves, they developed an independent lifestyle that continues.
Hospitality is the watchword among Alaskans. It is something our visitors will appreciate—as long as they don’t sound off as though they think their way of life is better than ours. Alaskans are a proud people who love this place we call home.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.