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Thursday, July 30, 2009

ALASKA - our 49th on their 50th


During my summer sabbatical I took a tour of Alaska, our 49th state who is celebrating their 50th anniversary of statehood in 2009. My two week tour took me to Katchekan, Juneau, Scagway, Valdez, Copper River, Denali, and Fairbanks. Often touted as the "Final Frontier," I half-expected Alaska to be an extension of the American Wild West, complete with cowboys, horses, buffalo, etc. It's not. Alaska has its own unique character and charm. "Rugged" is the adjective which more aptly describes it. Alaska is so big, it has it's own time zone (contrary to popular belief, it is not Pacific or Rocky Mountain time).

Alaska offers a lot of eye candy in the form of mountains, glaciers, rivers, tundra, and wildlife. I tend to believe Franz Liszt's "Les Préludes" should be listened to when touring the state as it reflects the majesty of Alaska's wilderness. It truly is beautiful, regardless if you are a naturalist or not.

In late June, temperatures along the Inside Passage (in the southeast part of the state) hovered around the 50's and dropped lower as you got closer to water or one of the state's many glaciers. I'm sorry, but for this Florida boy, Alaska was simply too cold. At first, the coldness is a curiosity, but it loses its amusement when you finally realize this is as warm as it is going to get. Interestingly, as we moved further north in the state, and away from the glaciers, it actually warmed up. For example, Fairbanks was substantially warmer than the Inside Passage.

All of the cities have their own unique nuance, and the citizens are friendly, but Skagway is generally considered the favorite town to visit by tourists. It offers a rustic historic charm and simple geometric layout which is easy to navigate. More important, the natives (not the merchants who are only there temporarily) appear to be genuine and down to earth. When you stand in downtown Skagway, you cannot help but feel a part of Jack London's "The Call of the Wild."

In contrast, just outside of Skagway is Glacier Point, home to the Davidson Glacier and a wilderness adventure involving canoes, a lot of hiking, and man eating mosquitoes. These critters are so abundant and massive in size that I suspect they could easily carry off a small child if they were so inclined to do so. Between the coldness of the glacier and the piranha-mosquitos, it's easy to overlook the beauty of the area and makes you wonder how the nature guides can live out there.

The town of Denali was perhaps the most picturesque place we visited. Its name means, "The Great One," a reference to nearby Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. It is also home to the Denali National Park, which has an abundance of wildlife including moose, bears, caribou, wolves, foxes, and other things that go bump in the night. It's no small wonder that everyone knows how to use a gun up there.

It rains a lot in Alaska, particularly the Inside Passage. Surprising to a lot of tourists is to learn this part of Alaska is actually a rain forest. Even in summer, you have to wear layers of clothing to protect you from the elements. Otherwise, Alaska can be pretty dry and quite comfortable during the summer months.

One thing that is difficult for tourists to adjust to is the summer solstice where the sun never truly sets. It's awkward to try and sleep without any darkness, but somehow you adjust. However, it does have a tendency to distort your sense of time. As an interesting footnote, the Alaska Goldpanner baseball team of Fairbanks holds a Midnight Sun Baseball game to commemorate the solstice. It starts at 10pm and ends around 1am. What makes it unlike other stadiums is that no lights are used to light the field. It's different, very different.

When touring Alaska, the real stars of the show is the abundant wildlife and your trip is not complete without having a close encounter of some kind. While there, we saw a lot of wildlife on land, sea, and air, including moose, caribou, reindeer, grizzly bears, beavers, otters, wolves, foxes, squirrels, bald eagles, gulls, terns, whales, seals, salmon, and arctic greyling. Interestingly, there are no snakes in Alaska as they cannot stand the cold anymore than I can. The favorite sighting among tourists though is the moose, a seemingly docile animal, but I don't think I would like to get on its bad side in a close encounter. I'll stay in the car if you don't mind.

We signed up for a couple of fly-fishing excursions while there, one for salmon and one for arctic greyling. I found fishing to be hit or miss up there, and I wouldn't recommend doing it without a guide who knows what he or she is doing. Be forewarned though, fishing is substantially different than the little streams and rivers we have in the lower 48, requiring a slightly different casting technique.

To me, I think the people of Alaska are just as inspiring, if not more so, than the landscape and wildlife. The people are self-reliant, multiskilled, proud of their state, and not afraid to tackle a challenge. They may prefer independence and isolation, but they have learned to work together as neighbors as well. The natives make you feel welcome and seem to be genuinely pleased to share their country with you, be it at a rest stop, hotel, or wherever.

When you consider how crazy the world is today, it's easy to understand why people thrive on the isolation of Alaska. Way off on the horizon or on a ridge, it is not uncommon to see someone camping and just enjoying the quiet beauty of Alaska, and I guess that's one of the big reasons why people come. Far and away, I saw more huckleberry tourists than Alaskans.

During the summer months, there is an influx of young people in their twenties to take on tourist related jobs, like waiters, guides, bus drivers, bell hops, etc. They come from all around the U.S. not simply for the money, but for the adventure of Alaska as well. Many are determined to stay for a short period of time, but fall in love with Alaska's charm, and become full-time residents.

After visiting Alaska, I was often asked, "Could you live there?" Perhaps if I was 30 years younger, had no family connections, and wasn't so set in my ways, maybe, just maybe. As a confirmed Floridian, it's hard for me to imagine enduring the cold again. The real question is, "Would I recommend a visit to Alaska?" Absolutely. To paraphrase author Guy de Maupassant, "See Alaska and Die," meaning you have finally seen something meaningful and inspiring.

Alaska has certainly come a long way in its short 50 years of statehood. It is truly amazing to see how they carved a civilization out of the wilderness, a real tribute to the human spirit.

By the way, perhaps the most interesting gift I found up there was decorated moose droppings. You can't help but feel that someone is pulling the tourists' leg with this one.

Such is my Pet Peeve of the Week.

Keep the Faith!

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Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

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