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Alaska: The Land of The Future

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from THE Braille Forum, Volume XXXIX, No. 10, April 2001

There is a feeling of pioneer power and growth in this, the largest state in geographical area and one of the smallest in population. It stretches from British Columbia, Canada to the North Pole. It started with furs and fish, then boomed with several gold strikes. The most recent population boom was because of oil. This petroleum development in the far north has added a great deal to the tax income for the state. Alaskans receive about $2,000 each annually from surplus oil tax revenue. They say this helps to make up for the higher cost of living they have.

The pleasant coastal summers are wet and cool, with temperatures in the 60s and 70s. The winters along the coast are similar to the northernmost states in the lower 48. Inland gets colder; temperatures of minus 30 and 40 are not uncommon. Winter-adapted trucks and cars travel the few highways. Dog sleds are used extensively in rural travel and through the national park areas.

Alaska has proven not to be Seward's folly, as it was called after the purchase in the 1860s. At that time, little was known about this cold and frozen land. The gold discovery in 1890 by Joe Juneau and Richard Harrison brought 10,000 gold prospectors to Juneau by 1891. This was greatly overshadowed by the Klondike strike in 1897. When a ton of gold was brought in to Portland FEs harbor in 1898, an immediate rush of 100,000 people descended upon Alaska. There were two ways to reach the Klondike, which was 600 miles inland. The White Pass was the shorter route, but it was ravaged by robbers who would steal from the would-be prospectors. The second path, starting from Scagway, was also hampered by a Canadian requirement that travelers bring a ton of food with them so that they would not starve. This required that they walk five miles and leave their 60-pound backpack, then return for another pack. This process had to be repeated for the 600 miles to Dawson.

The popular starting way to find gold was to use a pie plate to pan. This involved filling a pan with gravel from the edge of the stream or river and shaking it back and forth in the water until the gold settled to the bottom. They would pour out the gravel little by little until the gold flakes and nuggets were left. Standing and stooping in the cold water and mud all day was miserable work. They also had to build cabins for warmth at night. Sickness and death were common. Gradually, better equipment was built to speed up the process of extracting the gold ore. To travel this big wooded country we chose the Holland American Westerdam cruise ship to start. We arrived in Vancouver and were met and transferred to the ship. It is a large, 1,200- foot-long, six-level luxury accommodation floating hotel. The food was plentiful and available around the clock. You rise when you want and have your choice of three places for either ham, cheese, eggs, cereal, fish and rolls, coffee bar or pizza. The rest of the day you can choose from a variety of meals, formal meals or snacks. Formal tea is after 4 p.m., and then you have either 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. seating for dinner. During the day it FEs cafeteria style, at night, table service.

The biggest problem that you will encounter is deciding how much and how often you are going to eat. Otherwise, you are tempted to eat more of the many good choices than you should. Once you have paid for the cruise, all food is without additional cost. The shrimp, crab, salmon, steaks, cheesecake, and ice cream sundaes will all attract your attention.

Cabin selection is up to you. The more expensive ones are on the upper levels; the ones that face the sea are premium priced. The cabins usually have twin beds, their own bath and shower. They are compact, but comfortable if you keep your things put away. The days are busy with activities. Each hour things change. Lectures on Alaskan history, whales, eagles, investing and other topics are available, as are bingo, shuffleboard, casino gambling, swimming, exercise room, sauna, strolling the deck and people watching. We spotted whales, eagles and a variety of birds. The ship will take the inland route, guided by tugs, as the water is shallow. The first stop was Juneau, the state capital, a city of 30,000. It has airplane access to the outside world and to the sea. It has no roads that connect it to the inland. Yet the registration of motor vehicles is more than twice the population. Everyone has a passenger car and a truck or recreation vehicle to take them ice fishing or regular fishing, or maybe hunting or hiking. Though the roads only go 20-plus miles, Alaskans enjoy a vigorous outdoor life. All types of fish are sought, but salmon is the most popular. Hunting includes deer, elk, bear, moose and caribou. These are used to supplement diets and budgets. The last stop for our cruise was Scagway. This small town (population 800) remains about the same as when it was the starting point for much of the Klondike gold rush. Many restored hotels, bars and supply stores are available, and they sell all kinds of T-shirts and curios.

The inland trip is made easier now by the narrow-gauge train that takes you on a twisting, curving trip over rough wooded terrain. Those on the outside window seats can look down and away for miles. This train trip on the White Pass, a former way to get ore from inland to the coast, takes about three hours and brings you to Whitehorse, which is in the Yukon Territory. There you transfer to a motor coach. You then follow two or three gravel or paved roads north to Dawson, Chicken, Tok and finally to Fairbanks. This area is wooded and gives you occasional glimpses of deer, bear, elk, moose and fox. You will meet few trucks or cars during your day.

There are also a few museum and shopping stops along the way. The people you meet will dress and talk like your next-door neighbors back home. One change of pace was a ride on a newly built paddle boat for a couple of hours up a river paralleling the highway. This type of boat was built and brought in from Australia. The original ones were built and brought up from Oregon and Washington. Most of the first ones have foundered on obstacles in the river or succumbed to fire.

The Holland American Lines have developed a network of cruise ships, hotels, restaurants and buses to monopolize the tourist trade throughout Alaska. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the food is good and plentiful. The tour guides are knowledgeable and courteous. Reaching Fairbanks was a milestone for me. A good friend from college days came from there. His father was a federal marshal when I knew him. I always enjoyed hearing him talk about wearing mukluks and living in 30-below weather. Fairbanks is only a short distance from the Arctic Circle. However, it will amaze you with the August flowers that were everywhere, in neighborhood yards and in containers along city streets. Our supermarket and drugstore shopping found products and services similar to what was available back home.

We had a chance to examine a replica of the pipeline that brings the oil down from farther north. It is about five feet tall and has a heavy metal outside coating with insulation, then the inner four-foot diameter pipe that brings the crude. More than half the pipeline is buried; the remainder is on the surface. Because this part of the state is subject to earthquakes, the pipeline snakes in "S"-curves coming down the hills to better withstand earth movements. The constant flow of oil is disrupted every few weeks to pump out the sludge to keep the pipe cleaned out for maximum flow. With new developments, it is expected that the oil will flow for another 30 or more years.

We stopped at the Denali National Park to watch and pet sled dogs. These thick curly haired dogs have a coat similar to sheep pelts. They are bred for size and personality characteristics. They are very comfortable in cool temperatures and thrive in subzero conditions. They love to pull the sled, and, at 40 or 50 pounds, can pull their own weight all day. The team size is determined by the loaded weight of the sled. If the total loaded weight is 160 pounds, four or five dogs will comprise the team. A light blanket is spread out on the ground for them to use at night. Dried fish and dried dog food are brought along to feed them. Lighter plastic sleds now sometimes replace the heavier wooden ones. The parks have all-weather trucks, but still do the park patrols on dog sled. They watch for lost hikers, poachers, keep count of animal life and condition of trees. Special helicopter and dog sled tours and interesting lectures are available.

We boarded another train that brought us back to the coast and the city of Anchorage. This, the largest city in Alaska, around 250,000 in population, has grown greatly since the oil boom. It is a modern city with museums, civic buildings, modern hotels and a big harbor. The harbor boat trip to the local glacier was spectacular. We were there on a clear blue day with the huge mass of ice flowing into the sea. The birds were following the schools of fish. Other boats in the harbor made interesting viewing.

Several times a day, ice would break off and drop into the sea. This is called calving. The breakoffs can sometimes weigh several tons. The glaciers are created by heavy snowfalls in upper valleys. About 100 inches of snow creates one inch of ice. The weight of this ice is forced by gravity to flow toward the sea. We reluctantly boarded our jet in Anchorage to return to a hotter and more humid Dallas. We will not forget the warm and friendly Alaskans who approach their lives with zest and enthusiasm. It requires a challenge and innovations to deal with fewer cultural activities and a higher cost of living.

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