American Impressions, Chapter 1: Alaska
The New Suburb
Big, brutal, poetic, a hero among states, Alaska has always been America's national park of the imagination, a 600,000-square-mile invention colonized by a few tracts of reality. And the reality is by far the less appealing of the two.
The name itself, which means "the great land" in Aleut, conjures up with its sled of A's an expanse that trails endlessly to nowhere -- ALAS-kaaaa -- as if the sounds forming between tongue and palate are the beginning of a wistful journey. It's true: My journey began weeks before I left Lakeland, with the word a dervish of anticipation whirling in my head at night. Edgewood Drive three blocks away had never sounded more distant, or Kodiak so near.
I had decided to drive the 5,200 miles to my destination -- Kodiak Island -- rather than fly in because parachuting in and out of a discovery omits half its revelations. Besides, it made sense to cross the procession of states that had preceded Alaska's so-recent entry into the union, from overdeveloped East to emptier West to ex-primitive Far North.
I left Lakeland late one afternoon in September with 12 days to make Homer, the tiny Alaskan fishing town hopelessly hooked to the word "quaint" at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. There, I would catch the last ferry of the season to Kodiak. But it wasn't until I was past the bumpy Appalachian afterthoughts of northwestern Georgia that the size of my Alaskan images began to hit me.
Here's what I pictured: Whiteness, ice, tetonic mountains erupting from thick conifer M1 forests, a lot of rivers moving very fast, visions of salmon, because it's impossible to think of southern Alaska without frisky salmon pushing upriver to spawn or land, kabob-like, on the fangs of bears, and great expanses of tundra, even though I had no idea what a tundra looked like or that Alaska's tundra is treated like an endangered species. I must be honest: I also faced the sort of buried stereotype that mile after mile exhumed out of me -- pictures of Eskimos and igloos and log-house settlements isolated where telephone poles and combustion engines don't roam. In other words I pictured an embarrassing amount of lore and little reality, as if Alaska was my New World.
But if travel to strange, distant lands was once the necessity of immigrants willing to risk danger and uncertainty, such travel is today a luxury. There is no past or poverty to escape from, the present being as prosperous as ever. We plan our escapes into the wild on trails of simulated danger tethered to satellite gadgetry. Getting into harm's way is an organized tour. So when we call Alaska "the last frontier" -- a title Alaska takes too seriously -- we don't mean it. At least we don't mean it the way we did when Kansas or the Dakotas were the frontier, where taming the wild country had more to do with cruelty and violence than with singing "Amazing Grace" after a hard day's barn-raising.
Political boundaries aside, Alaska begins with the Alaska Highway, which begins at Dawson Creek in Canada, a two-day drive from the Montana border. It stretches 1,500 miles north and west through Canada's Yukon Territory and into Alaska, where it dead-ends in Fairbanks. The highway didn't exist until 1941. Travelers went to Alaska by ferry from Seattle. But during World War II, Washington worried about Japanese designs on Alaska, and probably looked beyond the war at Soviet designs as well: The distance from the Russian mainland across the Bering Strait to Alaska is shorter than the distance from Lakeland to Orlando.
In an incredible feat of engineering and collective stamina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the highway in eight months at a clip of eight miles a day, opening the way for U.S. Army caravans and the defense of the North. The Canadian government took over the road and began upgrading it after the war. Then tourists took over, their summer caravans now a mobile parody of the remoteness they seek out. The pit stops along the way, more pits than stops, are an assault of gas stations, RV parks, motels, gift shops, repair shops, restaurants, museums, helicopter tours, outlets for rafting, fishing, reindeer-watching, a day's gold-digging or a hundred other ways to "snuggle up to history," as one sign put it. The wild is reduced to McNugget interludes in a stream of familiar entertainments.
It isn't that the Alaska Highway doesn't cut through wilderness. The wilderness is astounding and the isolation crushing, I assume, once you make it past that ribbon of convenience, which thins to inconvenience after Sept. 15. I drove up after the summer season, when I was often the only driver for miles. The relentless eruptions of autumn colors could blind you to the suicides and stripper joints and battered women's groups and transience and inbreeding that animate the culture along the road, although any conversation past "hello" with anyone living there explains why a quarter of the people move every two years, and why "he Arctic trails have their secret tales/That would make your blood run cold," to quote from poet Robert Service.
But people keep coming, and their presence makes light of the romantic pretensions projected on the Alaska Highway. A fitting antechamber to Alaska itself, the highway limns settled country, its quirks and warts more apparent only because it isn't yet settled enough to be prissy about them.
The greatest parody of either the highway's or Alaska's remoteness is the "Signpost Forest" at Watson Lake, a small town more than a day's drive from the Alaskan border. Started with a single signpost by one of the American soldiers building the highway in 1942, the forest numbered 41,602 city signs at last September's census. It is Watson Lake's biggest attraction, a testimony to the relativity of distances at century's end, and to the evanescence of the remote.
The metal plates of city names or road signs or mere lists of visitors sometimes engraved on frying pans are nailed on post after post in a gauntlet of civic pride from Kalispell to New Zealand. "Welcome to Eugene: Park Free," "Welcome to Corvallis: Drive Carefully." Webster, N.Y., is where "Life is Worth Living," Vidalia is the "City of Progress," not to mention "No Dumping By Order of North Salt Lake." Although the signs from Germany far outnumber those from Florida, enough searching finally locates signs from Mulberry, Sebring, Ocala and Orlando.
There were signs for neither my adoptive Lakeland nor my native Beirut that I could see. I drove on. Three days later, without a flat tire or cracked windshield and with 12 hours to spare before the ferry to Kodiak, the midnight lights of Homer appeared in the distance, a finger of glimmers wading into the black waters of Katchemak Bay.
For an island not quite twice the size of Polk County and a population barely that of Haines City, the density of conflicts in Kodiak was unlike any place I'd known in the country -- conflicts between big and small fishermen, conflicts within fisheries as bankruptcies force downsizing, conflicts and jealousies between the native Aleut and white populations, simmering, silent conflicts between Philippinos, Hispanics, Asians and whites, conflicts between developers and environmentalists, and the overriding conflict between man and nature. Far from a frontier, Kodiak is an outpost of American tensions. But it is those conflicts that had attracted me to the island.
Having no space for a book, I'll stick to a brief illustration of Kodiak's fisheries, still -- at least for now -- among the richest in a world of devastated fisheries.
The first thing you see when you get off the ferry is a grim and stodgy mass of gray docked nearby like an iceberg of steel. I took it at first to be one of those warships stripped of its guns and permanently anchored to tourism. It is actually a Tyson Foods fish processing plant where, among other things, millions of tons of pollock become fishmeal or surimi, a sort of low-grade fish paste big in East Asia or in America's fast-food fish sticks.
The second thing you see is the hirsute forest of masts and antennas rising out of the 400-odd fishing boats anchored in St. Paul Harbor and its nearby satellite, St. Herman Harbor. The boats aren't very big -- 30-, 40-, 50-footers. Lolling in the protected waters with names like "Breezy Dee," "Miss Heather," "Suzanne," "Ana Pilar," "Risky Business," they don't look like the sort of vessels that can withstand the North Pacific's storms, which are among the most violent on the planet. But they do. These aren't gentlemen's fishing hobbies. They're businessmen's tools, and, lately, a few businesswomen's as well.
But they are nothing compared to the big trawlers: Not visible anywhere near the island are the huge factory ships that harvest, process and package the Bering Sea's bounty of pollock and other ground-fish without coming to port (or paying the taxes for fish landed on the island). Their massive nets can pull in 350,000 tons of fish in a single haul, each haul a rake of the ocean as ecologically considerate as strip-mining.
The processors, the independent fishing boats and the factory ships form the triad of the north Pacific's multibillion-dollar fishing industry. They cannot all compete for the sea's limited resource, and they're not: What has happened in the rest of the world -- $70 billion-worth of fish caught by an industry that costs $124 billion to run -- is happening on a smaller scale in the north Pacific fisheries, which are "overcapitalized.î That's lingo for too many fishermen and not enough fish in the sea.
None of this matters to the consumer: Fish will keep making it to the dinner table at reasonable prices because there'll always be someone there to fish. But who? It won't be people like Andre Nault for much longer. The 46-year-old Montana native has been fishing in Kodiak for 28 years. He's one of about 1,500 independent, commercial fishermen that have given Kodiak its radiance of individualism. Few of them natives of the island, fishermen like Nault arrived here in the 1970s and 1980s convinced that unbridled work meant unbridled success.
It is all bridled now -- not by laziness; a lazy Pacific fisherman is like a skiff in a cyclone. But by quotas, regulations, hyper-competition, and also by an American palate that won't eat too much fish and the collapse of the fisheries' best export market now that Asia is in an economic depression.
When I met Nault in the harbor he was preparing his "Gold Nugget" for a three-day halibut hunt -- preparation that includes baiting 3,500 hooks with undersize pollock carcasses, although that part of the work Nault left to his deckhands. He talked of quitting the business soon because he sees the same "drastic changes taking place" in the fisheries that have overtaken other ways of life.
"We are losing the small American entrepreneur, and we're losing the family business, whether it's farms, whether it's small fishing, whether it's small grocery stores, whether it's mom-and-pop operations of all kinds," he said over coffee. "We are going towards the corporate mentality. The government is growing by leaps and bounds. With the corporation take-over mentality and the government exploding, those two things to me spell, I don't know -- it's real scary to me." Another burst of reality: Hearing nostalgia for a golden age in a place where the past is nothing to pine for -- be it the decimation of native populations at the hands of Russian settlers two centuries ago, the slavish abuse of fishermen by canneries earlier this century, or the more recent ruin of many fisheries following the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince Williams Sound.
Maybe it is the same old Alaskan gold rush story with a scaly twist: the gold nuggets are now good swimmers, although not so good that they can always evade ships' drift nets, long lines, trawls, radar, sonar and satellite positioning systems. Kodiak and the Bering Sea, once boundless, are at risk of becoming -- like the rest of the world's fisheries -- barrels. Good management can keep fish harvesting at sustainable levels. But even governments are battling each other. Alaskans despise federal regulators, and some state-funded Alaskan boosters are already blaming the potential demise of the fisheries on Washington's meddling -- unless it means cash.
The day I left the island I took a drive in the country on one of Kodiak's two roads. The pavement ends after a few miles, and a few miles after that a sign pops up warning of the absence of warning signs ahead. Real wilderness, you think. For a moment it even looks like it: A salmon spawning marsh here, a buffalo herd there, a dirt road of switchbacks and precipices and hang-outs for the island's 3,000 bears. Then the punch line near the end of the road, about 50 miles from Kodiak: U.S. Navy trucks, satellite dishes, a launch pad being prepped for an inter-continental ballistic missile test flight (it lifted off in November), and a rickety sign by roadside that says: CONSTRUCTION SITE FOR KODIAK LAUNCH COMPLEX.
It is a $28 million spaceport modeled after Spaceport Florida, funded mostly by the Pentagon, although Alaska hopes it will become a launching site of choice for the private sector, not to mention a cool tourist attraction that could finally get those warningless roads developed.
But life isn't about to change on Kodiak. It changed into a suburb of the Lower Forty-Eights a long time ago. I had come expecting to find Alaska's "wild north-land beauty" as John Muir saw it 100 years ago, a land "that will remain apart from all others." I found only a more polar, and more polarized, America, its warring fisheries, its launch site, its new Wal-Mart store, its cross-cultural tensions an all-too familiar sprawl of reality from down South. Doubtless much of Alaska's remaining 581,037 square miles are still a "glorious field for lovers of fountain beauty." Doubtless, too, that Muir was wrong: They will not remain so forever. Kodiak is just one of many beachheads of the ordinary on the Alaskan imagination.