I have had good fortune to have traveled to Alaska 12 times.  I’ve had deeply satisfying hikes and backpacking trips in the Southeast, the South Central, and the North.  There is a mystique about the name “Alaska,” the bush pilots, who take one to where moose, wolverine, grizzlies, arctic foxes, caribou, and Dall Sheep may be seen.  There are places one can imagine that no person has stood in the past several thousand years, if ever.

Place where I once sat and wondered if anybody ever had been here. It is the rock lower center. Aichilik River 2009.

With that backdrop, my wife and I visited Alaska so I could show her some of the beauty of the land,  Beginning in Kotzebue, we saw musk oxen close up, a bear hunting a caribou, ate blueberries and stared at wide open spaces for miles.  On our return to Anchorage, we planned a drive to Homer, one of those “You should see” places.

Musk Oxen, Cape Kreusenstern, Alaska. July 2015.

Musk Oxen, Cape Kreusenstern, Alaska. July 2015.

Unfortunately, it was a Saturday.

Route 1 was nearly a solid line of cars, similar to the Oregon Coast in summer, or the Minnesota northland on a Friday.  Construction was a given; roads take abuse in the Alaskan climate.  I neither expect nor want four lane roads in Alaska, but I was amazed, which I shouldn’t have been, by the traffic.  This is the height of the tourist season, although small Kotzebue didn’t show it.

The 220 mile (350 km) drive to Homer took nearly six hours.  The city itself is situated on the southwestern corner of the Kenai Peninsula with a spit jutting several miles into Kachemak Bay.  The spit was jammed with RVs, more than the nearby dealership had in stock, scores of shack-stores, what some would call rustic, others garish.  The beach was fine, the views of the mountains great, the protected wetlands well done.  I didn’t like the spit, but that’s my judgment. Many would disagree, which is why the place was jammed.  It’s why I don’t like “You should see” recommendations and why I don’t give them myself.

Homer is a beautiful town, and its reputation as such is deserved. The spit is center left. The road here is described as the most beautiful drive in America. One would be advised not to do the drive on a summer weekend.

On our return, through Soldotna, we noted again the sameness, the chain stores, “this could be anywhere in America.” True, the Kenai River runs through the city, and the green, glacial water is beautiful.  People were nice, but it was anywhere USA.

Skilak Lake, Kenai Peninsula. A beautiful lake, but it gets a lot of use.

We detoured south from busy Hwy 1 to the Skilak Lake area, where the lakes and trails looked interesting.  What we found was a moderate amount of traffic on a dirt road, trucks hauling big boats.  The launch points had several cars parked with people out on the water.  One might find a place to camp, but there would be many people nearby and considerable noise. Back on Hwy 1, along the Kenai River, we saw scores of people fishing and rafting.  A store that served food had no toilet, except a half mile away at a campground.  Wow, I thought that was illegal. This was a different Kenai from the one I visited in 2009.  Returning to Anchorage, traffic increased.  It became so heavy that if one pulled off, it took a minute or two to find a gap in which to merge.  At Bird Creek, I counted 13 fishing on a 50 yard stretch near Turnagain Arm and about 40 on a 400 yard stretch further upstream.  Many caught fish, but it wasn’t success or failure at fishing that bothered me.

It was that the place was jammed with people. Southern Alaska is jammed in summer.  Why should I be surprised?  I was contributing to it.

Fishing, Bird Creek, Sunday afternoon.

Fishing, Bird Creek, Sunday afternoon.

Once back in Anchorage, we went to a shopping mall that my wife commented was one of the ugliest she had ever seen.  Alaska has a mystique I think it should use, and good architects ought to be able to create it, not repeat architecture of the Lower.  Or do it worse.  We viewed bears on Crescent Lake, over in Lake Clark National Park, but the river out of the lake where we had hoped to view bears, had a plane by the shore, people fishing, and several loud John boats blasting by.  No bears there.

Brown bear at Crescent Lake, Lake Clark NP. Katmai has more bears, but they are viewed with many other people at a platform. This is a more intimate experience with far fewer bears but much more natural bear behavior.

Black bear sow with one of her two cubs, Crescent Lake. This was the first time I saw both black and brown bears the same day.

I’m spoiled; I admit it.  I’ve been above the Arctic Circle where there are few roads and one can hike for miles without hearing any unnatural sound.  There is a move afoot to build a road along the entire Brooks Range, from perhaps the Dalton through Bettles to Ambler, ostensibly so Native Americans can easily get to town to buy supplies.  There may be a village in support of this; the others are adamantly against it.  They’ve done fine without a road and know what it will bring:  hunters, to hunt their game, upon which the natives have subsisted for thousands of years.  The roads will bring Wal-Marts, liquor, gas stations, casinos, and people.  Yeah, they’ll bring people like me who want to see this country, although I come by plane, leave nothing except footprints in places seen by the dozen or so people who pass in a year.  The Haul Road to Ambler will become another Dalton Highway.  It’s not just acres of pavement that detract, noise and fragmentation destroy wilderness.

More pernicious is that roads will bring access to mines, several of which are proposed in the western half of the Brooks.  Red Dog Mine is already there, with 737-200 service out of Anchorage.  Who is going to say no in a solid Republican state and country?  We need jobs, although nobody says maybe having fewer kids would decrease pressure to create jobs.  Defunding Planned Parenthood makes birth control and women’s health difficult, but hey, Iran and Saudi treat women badly, too.  Mining jobs pay well, except when there are strikes, but new mines won’t be unionized if Mr. Walker gets into office.  The jobs will last until the ore isn’t needed, like one of the rare earth mines in California, leaving not only be a land scar but a permanent impact on the water supply, in places where there are wild and scenic rivers like the Noatak and Kobuk.  Yes, we need elements.  We also have learned to do without those that were once considered “essential.”

I worry about Alaska from the southeast Tongass to the Refuge in the north, and offshore.  I worry that the next eruption of Redoubt Mountain may flood the berms protecting four large oil tanks and foul Cook Inlet.  The mountain is steaming.  Whose idea was it to put the tanks near a river by an active, glacier covered volcano?  Sure, nothing may happen.  The last eruption was in 2009, and the berms barely held. We’re playing roulette with a huge unspoiled ecosystem.

Redoubt Mountain steaming, plug at upper left center. If the glaciers melt, the flow will run right by a bank with a low berm with four large oil tanks.

Fortunately or not, climate change will be a game changer; nature will win this game.  Virtually every glacier in the Chugach is retreating.  One, after being stable for more than a century, has retreated 12 miles in the last 40 years.  If Mr. Inhofe’s dropping a snowball on the Senate floor is evidence against global warming, how does he explain glacier retreat, why the caribou migration was a month later than usual in 2013, and the water of the rivers they crossed not nearly as cold as formerly?  The Elders in the Native Villages know there is change; the Senate would do well to have true Elders, not young, charismatic, angry, anti-science ideologues (who love their phones and private jets) and old diehards, who won’t believe compelling evidence contrary to their beliefs.

I started to write that Alaska disappointed me.  No, Alaska is wonderful.  I hope we don’t love it to death.  Or forget that wilderness has worth than cannot be measured in dollars.

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