Dream Trip To Yukon and Alaska By Road, To Anywhere Else By Any Means At All

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Aug 31 - Open Seas -- (Dream Travel Trip Anywhere; Yukon-Alaska Road Trip)

Alaska and Back: Did The Guides Work? > What Actually Happened > ...Coming Home FROM The Arctic

August 31, 2006...
...on the open seas

Thursday, August 31, 2006, on board the ferry Columbia enroute through US and Canadian waters on the Inside Passage

Hi All!

This is kind of a long email, so if the time’s right, grab a beer or glass of wine, and settle in for what I hope is a nice read for you.

I started the day by bringing the computer to the breakfast table to show Patricia the waitress a picture I got of her dealing with a drunk passenger last night at dinner.

Actually, the woman who took the shot was a real grump – quite the exception on board the ship. Lots of the rest of us are more jolly.

Sort of, that is. It is amazing how subdued most of the passengers are. This goes even for the woolly campers and free spirits sleeping outside on the open deck by the stern.

The crew explain that because this is late in the May-September tourist season, most of the passengers are actually quite tired, beset more by the thoughts of returning home to work (that’s me!) rather than being carried away – as they are when traveling north – by the excitement of their pending trek to Alaska’s great wilderness. This makes great sense.

I also should say that even though some of the pictures I have sent back in earlier emails were tinged with sarcasm, the truth of this part of the world, and certainly the small towns and cities I have visited, is that these places are all astonishing to see...

... precisely because of the people who have made these small coves and larger natural harbor areas into habitable places, not to speak of those places along the Alaska and Klondike Highways that are in every sense pioneer towns even after 50 or 100 years.

To think, for example, that in a landlocked place like Ketchikan, there are actually supermarkets, a Walmart, a Starbucks, in a setting that, for whatever it does look like, does not look anything like urban or suburban New York City or Washington DC.

It is testimony to the courage and hardiness of people who have succeeded – absolutely succeeded – in keeping an independent way of living despite the obvious attempts by non-Alaskan, non-Canadian tourism conglomerates to entrap the thousands of tourists who pile off each of the massive modern cruise ship tenements that stop by for half a day.

All the cruise ships had already departed Ketchikan yesterday well before I had to take a cab back to the ferry.

It was then that I could see that commercial fishing, pulp processing, marine and aviation maintenance, and improvising to survive were the town’s main industries to suffer was a day-to-day challenge for everyone here.

It also became clear that life was – is – not so easy for the folks who stay here year round.

For those two hours after the big ships left, downtown Ketchikan became a large, quiet, seaport / fishing town, with only the local peoples out and about – a quiet, interesting settlement of historical significance whose often improvisation-style wooden architecture suddenly came into sharp contrast for its unique beauty and hand craftsmanship.

Nothing that can be used again is ever thrown away there; hence, the piles of used dimension wood salvaged from buildings torn down have great value for the next craftsman who comes along.

The Walmart and Starbucks notwithstanding, no Lowes or Home Depot will find its way there anytime soon.

Nor is Ketchikan unique. One look at a map shows that, along the entire coast of Alaska, both along the coast of the main part of the state and along the South East panhandle, there are probably less than twenty large towns all put together, only one real city (Anchorage).
Save for Skagway, Haines, and a couple of lesser others, all the rest including the state capital itself, Juneau, are landlocked (planes or boats the only way in or out).

And, for all the oddity that may suggest itself in the picture of a Fedex truck parked on a (landlocked) Sitka street, think for a moment about what it takes to assure that the truck gets there – no less the packages for delivery or sending elsewhere.

Unlike Fedex in any place I know, you can actually call the driver on his cell phone to ask him to make a second delivery if he missed you the first time around – the people at the Post Office tell you that. Try that in DC or New York and see what happens!

Not the last thing to be said, but perhaps the last musing for this email, is how tough it is to survive here economically and financially.

There are NO year-round industries in most parts of Alaska, save for the business of local and state government, including municipal services.

The seasons for fishing, logging, turning pulp into paper, or catering to tourists vary, but save for oil pumping and the pulp industry – which is dying – none of these seasons lasts even a half year.

To see pictures, click LARGE arrow BELOW the map-3rd icon from left. For BIGGER images, click white circle (1st icon). For more info, see menu: Begin Here/User's Guide

The route ... click below to start the slide show ...

Worse, when a pulp mill shuts down, as has happened in recent years in Sitka and Ketchikan, a major portion of the wage earning population is thrown out of work (15% and 25% respectively) with absolutely no prospects for most of the newly unemployed to find credible alternative work.

Locals here talk of ten years of depression for Sitka before the constantly growing tourism industry finally drew a majority of the pulp-unemployed back into the work force (mostly part-time or seasonal work).

Yet a real estate boom beginning in Sitka five years ago today puts the price for desirable single family homes within 30% of the price levels for their counterparts in DC – and unending demand for these houses to serve as summer homes for Californians, Oregonians, and Washington Staters.

It’s said that the same is beginning to happen in Ketchikan – a far more interesting place to me than Sitka (which is no more that cutely historical) but with a far worse climate – mild but mostly gray and rainy (supposedly beats Seattle by a mile for non-stop raining), yet with very little snow.

It can also be said for Ketchikan that it does have substantial light industry and infrastructure services – especially maritime and aviation. If a person has technical or technology skills, he or she will not go without income and in fact will command a premium price.

And when any of these landlocked people get stir crazy, they can hop a float plane, jet plane, or ferry large or small, and go somewhere for a change of pace – usually for far, far less than what it costs someone to commute to work for a month anywhere “outside” (i.e. in the lower 48 states e.g. in DC or NYC.

Enough of my being a poor man’s talking head about Alaska. I am REALLY pleased to share with you that late this morning, the clouds gave way to a glorious sun as we moved south through Canadian waters.

By 2 pm, a lot of us were sitting on the starboard side promenade deck, all chattering away about travelers’ kayaking trips, back mountain pack trips, ferry tours with three or four days in various towns along the coast, mostly about how our trips were so, so memorable beyond what words could describe.

I was seated right alongside a husband-wife team from Ireland, he – Mick- Australian and she - Michelle – Irish. While they were both marine biologists teaching at a university in Ireland, he had changed profession and had become a well-renowned (in Ireland) ornithologist.

Thus, those of us fortunate enough to be sitting close to Mick and Michelle got to recognize birds, spot them early on, and have the same pleasure spotting (before anyone else) whale after whale, and hundreds of porpoises.

The sky was cloudless – a first since I first arrived in Alaska – so we all basked in the intense sunlight even as we were swept by the freshest of sea breezes

This evening we are being treated to a starlit sky and bright half moon.

Today was my last day on board the ferry. At 6 am Friday morning, less than 9 hours from now, we will dock in Bellingham, Washington.

I have no idea of what route I will travel east. I had intended, while on board, especially this last day uninterrupted by any stop, to do some work (which I brought along), and to figure out what route to follow home.

Well, as you can probably tell by now, that was not about to happen.

Instead, most of us on board today fell into a tranquil peace nourished by the mountains, open seas, and narrow straits that still glide by in the silent night.

I’m going to let that magic work its wonders, and if I have to deal in a rush with some work stuff later on, well, it was all for a good cause.

Hope you’re all well, I miss you all, and I’ll write more later.


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