ABOARD THE MV MATANUSKA, on a 1,000-mile journey up the rainforest coast from Washington, a cross section of modern-day Alaska’s citizenry relaxed to a gentle January swell—old salts in halibut jackets bound for port towns; rotund men goat-t’d up, ball caps blazing with logos of off-road-vehicle brands; young hippies, all dreadlocks and skirts-over-pants, moving North to the Future; a grandma and grandpa duo going home to Ketchikan from Seattle, where they’d bought a monster truck; feds in their civvies (glasses, fleece, Xtra-Tuffs); pro greenies on their way to Juneau to bash their heads against the wall of the Legislature; a crazy guy in duct tape-patched Carhartts and a beret, pacing on deck for hours; a teenage girl in a t-shirt that pronounces, “I am a hardcore Christian.”
I was on the Matanuska too, moving home after nine years in that most un-Alaskan of places, California. I’ve lived and travelled in many magnificent settings, but none distills for me the human experience of happiness more than here. There are few roads within or guidebooks to Alaska, and none that give away secrets. Every outing to the rivers or mountains demands spiritual commitment and honesty. I cannot get a cell signal from my favorite skiing mountains, and we still sometimes navigate with a paper map while keeping an eye out for lighthouses. I love how you can pull over anywhere and sleep in your car, how every trout you catch is a wild one from an undammed river, how sometimes there are more salmon than water, and how, at the end of a day spent outside in Alaska, a campfire can consist of little more than beer cans and gasoline. It’s old school, unpretentious, rag tag, and fun on a primal level.
This romanticized Alaska is very real and has been written about a lot. But my love of Alaska is deeper and more complex than the simple frontier life. I find company in a cultural milieu where one out of every eight people you’re likely to meet has either just moved here, or is about to leave—the highest such rate of any state—and where all 700,000 of us must at some point confront the reality that we live in a special place. Those who converge with it are the ones who remain, and that’s an incredibly exiting energy to be around.
But of course, the alternate interpretation of Utopia holds that when you look beneath the surface, there is fantasy. Alaska’s fantasy is that we can exploit a vast wealth of resources however and wherever possible, without shaking the very foundation upon which this Great Land is deemed great. There is also a fantasy built on pride and insecurity that says there is nothing to be learned or gained from the Outside, least of all anything having to do with environmentalism, or science, which have somehow both been inexplicably deemed ex-Alaska.
Sometimes this comes out as cute. Like how a child or an old curmudgeon can be cute. But it is pathological, it is worse than ever, and right now it is rapidly manifesting itself within the State’s political system as what can only be described as a War on Salmon.
The assaults in this brewing war could fill this page. They consist of mines, dams, and hatcheries being proposed with full knowledge of the negative effects they will have on salmon, legislation that seeks to hurry them along, and calculated efforts by the State to extirpate the public from participation in the same. The Pebble Mine still ranks number one on the least-wanted list, but as of February the list of next-worse is long; a dam has been proposed in Bristol Bay, a citizens’ initiative has been repealed that mandated cruise ships treat their raw sewage a little better before they dump it in the ocean while in port, the State has suggested the construction of hatcheries as a solution to the decline of Yukon River salmon, legal barriers are being removed so that a sprawling complex of proposed coal strip-mines on the west side of Cook Inlet can completely remove a salmon river from the face of the Earth, and the colossally misguided Susitna-Watana Dam is flying along toward construction in stealth mode.
This latter project is being forwarded with stone cold seriousness by the State, and suggests a devastating future for the fourth largest salmon run in Alaska and the 1,900 jobs that depend on a healthy Susitna River. If built, it will achieve a staggering number of superlatives: largest dam built in the United States in 40 years; second largest dam in the country, period; and the only such dam in the world to be proposed in a primarily ice-based river basin. At a 2011 press conference, Governor Sean Parnell put his thoughtful support for damming the Susitna on record by braying, “Go big, or go home!” Construction is forecasted to start in 2017. It’s like we’re stuck in 1948.
Sadly, this is all going on in direct opposition to public sentiment, which at every poll and referendum shows itself to be decidedly against the sacrificing of salmon for anything. To take just opinion on the Pebble Mine as an example, 56 percent of all Alaskans oppose the idea based on the assumed threat it poses to salmon. And the numbers in Bristol Bay, downstream of the proposed mine site, are more like 80 percent. If our politicians and their wealthy, corporate, out-of-state friends have lost their centers of economic, cultural, and spiritual balance, Alaskans as a whole have not.
It’s the same old cause-and-effect story that decimated salmon populations everywhere else in the world north of the 35th parallel over the past 100 years. If we consider this infinitesimally small geological time blip as a whole, and consider that more salmon were once produced between San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound than Alaska produces today, it doesn’t require a scientific study, it doesn’t take the bleatings of environmentalists, it doesn’t take more than two functioning eyeballs to see that Alaska really isn’t that special, it’s just all we have left.
Two and a half days after setting sail from Bellingham, I disembarked with my car at Haines. To get from there to my home in Anchorage you have to loop 17 hours north around two mountain ranges, and pass briefly through Canada. Entering back into the United States, I pulled up to the border guard’s frosty window. These people are typically not locals. As is customary in their profession, they bounce around serving stints of a couple years at a time, here and there. Beaver Creek, Yukon, has got to be one of the more thankless assignments. It’s dark for half the year and not too far from a place called Snag, whose claim to fame is a recorded temperature, on February 3, 1947, of -81 degrees.
“Where do you live?” she asked blandly, examining my passport, going through the motions, not bothering to look up from her computer.
“Well, I’m actually moving from California to Anchorage right now.” I probably wore a smile. I probably even sounded giddy and proud. This caught her attention. Her head spun to face me directly, eyes tight, nose scrunched.
It was only neg 10 in the airspace between my car and her hut, but I understood what she meant.
“It’s where I’m from,” I said.