Sunday, December 10, 2017

Being Alaskan Means...

A bench overlooking Resurrection Bay in my hometown of
Seward, Alaska. Rugged peaks and rugged ocean define
life on the North Gulf Coast of the Last Frontier
Alaska is America's biggest state. Sorry Texas, we gotcha more than doubled. But Alaska is more than sweeping landscapes, fanged grizzlies and icy glaciers.

Alaska is its people.

What makes Alaskans different? Or are they different? After stomping through Alaskan rivers, fishing for Alaskan salmon, and writing about Alaskan life for a local newspaper for the last seven months, can I even call myself "Alaskan"? Currently, though subject to change, my answers to those three questions would be: nothing and everything. Yes but no. And probably not.

My hometown of Seward is a highly touristed node on the Alaska highway system, a network which, despite the immensity, includes only five state-funded roadways. During June, July and August, parka-swaddled gawkers from all over the world pile in to our narrow hamlet by the sea. For those three months we are a regular bustling metropolis, resplendent with live music, festivals, crowded walkways, and hopping taverns whose jukeboxes spill pulsing bass lines into the main thoroughfare. When fall and winter comes, however, those flocks of sunbirds loose their stomach for five-hour days, gnawing ocean winds, and chilly temps. Half of the town boards up their shops, latches their doors and drapes "closed for season" signs from their front windows. 

Witnessing this annual migration, I have come to realize a few things about Alaskans, and the world's impression of Alaskans.

To start, in several crucial ways Alaskans are no different than anyone else. They watch the same television, read many of the same books, stress over jobs and interpersonal relationships. They worry about their future and the future of their children.

In short, Alaskans are people. 

There is a particular demographic of tourist, most of which have spent too much of their life gridlocked in the tangles of some urban concrete jungle, that seems to view Alaskan people much the same as Alaska's wildlife.

For these confused folks, Alaskans are an exhibit, a blend between mammals confined to a zoo paddock and animatronic Disneyland caricatures. They gawk, faces pressed to plexiglass, at Alaskan strangeness. They question their tour guides and cruise ship captains about the habits and rituals of Alaskans: what do they eat? Are they intelligent? Do they migrate for the winter? Can my child ride on one's back? They would try to poke us to confirm the texture of our hides were it not for the "Do Not Pet the Locals!" signs hanging in every window. When they steer their RV's down Alaskan streets they are prone to screeching to a halt without warning, hopping out and snapping blurry, badly framed photographs of Alaskan habitat. An instant later they have tagged themselves on half a dozen social media platforms, captioning "Blending in with the landscape" under a photo of themselves wearing a brand new Alaska flag hoody with a tag still protruding from the hem. 

In the past ten years, there has been an explosion of Alaska-themed reality television, prompted partially by the runaway popularity of Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. Nowadays you can find Bering Sea Gold, Alaska: The Last Frontier, Alaskan Bush People, Coast Guard Alaska, and countless others populating any television programming lineup.

So why this fascination with Alaska and Alaskans?

Fall low-angle light on the mountains outside Seward
Alaska's state motto is "The Last Frontier." Perhaps this strikes at the heart of this burgeoning obsession with this state. Alaska represents what has, just about everywhere else, been lost. It is a place with a visceral grasp on our romanticized notions of the Wild West. 

It could be said that the death throes of Manifest Destiny will be coughed out in this final frontier. The rest of America, clinging desperately to a vision that is otherwise extinct, lives vicariously through the 700,000 inhabitants of Alaska. Perhaps that relatively infinitesimal grouping of hardy souls are the last true Americans. The fading spirits maintaining a toe in a world that vanished for everyone else a hundred years ago.

My own fascination with Alaska differs, however, though is related in some interesting ways. It is not some romanticized notion of the Old West that clutched my mind and drew me to the Great North but rather the last vestige of the once-worldwide wilderness. Yes, it was an echo of the old world, but not the world of people. The world before people. And here that memory is more alive than practically anywhere else.

But on both accounts, the remnants of old civilization and old wilderness are fading. Globalization has swallowed many things about Alaskan culture that once made it unique. Today, you can find some Alaskans just as obsessed with the doings of the Kardashians, or of all the national and global political discussions, as anywhere else. Sure, there remains a tendency for Alaskans to be self-sufficient in ways other places just can't emulate. They can fix a car, build an extension on their house, wire electricity, dig a well, butcher chickens, and gas up their skiff to captain out for a bout at the ole fishing hole all in the same day. Sure the land is rugged, the light strange and the air cold. The glaciers, though melting rapidly in many cases, continue their slow, scouring trjectory.

Alaska is not for everyone.

But ultimately, despite their distinct foibles, unique talents and alluring mysteries, Alaskans are just shades of the same bipedal creature as you and me.

The Harding Icefield. At 300 square miles, the Icefield is more a mother of glaciers than a glacier itself. At least 40 major glaciers spur off the Harding Icefield. I have never visited a place where I could see anything like it

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions