Saturday, September 2, 2017

Half-Baked Alaska

Back from Alaska. Quite a place. It's our 49th state, brought into the Union in 1959, within the lifetime of many of us.

It's license plates call it "The Last Frontier," and in many ways it is -- vast, rugged, with self-sufficient people struggling to cope with the technological niceties of the 21st century.

My wife and I just returned from a visit there, a stark contrast to Hawaii, our 50th state, where we traveled last year.

The very size of Alaska is daunting. It's bigger than Texas and California combined, with limited roads and population scattered sparsely throughout. Anchorage is the only city of any size, and it has the feel of a Wild West town.

For the geographically challenged (we were among them), Alaska has two distinct parts -- the Inside Passage, a leg to the southeast with waterways and islands that hug British Columbia, and the main land mass plus a smattering of islands that abuts the Yukon.

The Inside Passage is the realm of cruise ships, the massive Love Boats that carry thousands of passengers to and from Seattle and Vancouver. The behemoth ships search out glaciers and stop at ports that can't be reached by road.

Juneau, the state capital, is one of those ports. With a population of 30,000 (Alaska's third largest city), it occupies a narrow strip of gold-mine tailings deposited between steep mountains and the Gastineau Channel, one of many inlets from the Gulf of Alaska.

And you can't get there by car! You have to come by ship or fly in as we did. The concrete runway at the Juneau airport has an adjoining runway of water, a man-made rectangular lake for float planes that fly fishermen around the state. One statistic has Alaska with more bush pilots than any other place in the country, including those who fly planes with skis for landing on glaciers.

For the purists who like their capitol buildings with domes and acres of surrounding land, the Alaskan capitol will disappoint. It looks like a department store with four columns at the front door. No frills. Just a plain building tucked into Juneau's crowded business district.

Like everything else in the state, we found the people unassuming and understated. And very proud to be Alaskans. I asked one old gentleman how long he had lived in Juneau. He said over 40 years. That, I said, makes you a native. "Native," he snorted. "Heck, I'm a pioneer!"

Parts of Alaska, we found, were throwbacks to the last century or maybe the century before. To collect parking fees, a lot in Juneau required you to stuff tightly folded bills into a wooden slot and push them in with your car key. No kidding. And national newspapers were a rarity. Even in Anchorage we had trouble scoring a Wall Street Journal or New York Times. In spite of missile threats from North Korea, world news seemed a low priority.

The food, however, was terrific.
 - Best restaurant: Salt (Juneau)
 - Best oysters: Simon & Seaforts (Anchorage)
 - Best espresso: Conscious Coffee (Talkeetna)

Fresh seafood was everywhere. The salmon were running, and halibut was plentiful. The water was said to be the purest in the country. (On one boat trip, the captain pulled up to a cliff so the passengers could fill their cups directly from a waterfall.) One benefit of the pure water was an abundance of micro-breweries around the state, even in remote areas. The beer, fresh and cold, was uniformly good.

Alcohol, it turned out, was not Alaska's only sin. Our visit coincided with the coming of legalized pot. Last November, Alaska became the seventh state to allow marijuana for recreational use. So in the interest of unbiased observation, we visited a number of pot shops.

The first was a hoot. Behind a Hernando's Hideaway-type door with a face-level sliding screen, a kindly (and very mellow) gentleman asked for our IDs. We had a good laugh. My wife and I exceed the 21-year-old age limit by a significant multiple. All of the other places (we scouted only Juneau and Anchorage) had a "hey man" open-door policy. Garish they were not. The dispensaries were storefront places that looked like Apple stores. Nothing flashy, but with a supermarket of choices. One offered free butane for vaporizer torches. The going rate for pot was about $400 per ounce.

An interesting aside is that Alaska is worried that the bureaucracy put in place to regulate the marijuana business may cost more than the tax revenues generated from pot sales. An unintended consequence, for sure.

Alaska, befitting its size, had a mix of good and bad, like pot-holed roads everywhere. But there were two bottom-line highlights.

First were the glaciers spilling into the sea. You don't see that just anywhere. Blue-dense rivers of ice calving slabs into the sea with explosive force, forming fields of icebergs and showing up-close and personal why the sea level is rising.

Second was the remarkable wildlife, perhaps an Arctic version of equatorial Africa. From harbor seals on ice floes to herds of caribou in mid-Alaska. From black bears chasing salmon in the rivers to brown bears (read grizzlies) scouring the mountainsides for berries. In Denali National Park, we saw nine moose, bulls and cows at the start of rutting season. Outside of Juneau, we saw bald eagles by the dozens. And in Denali, we photographed Alaskan magpie, willow ptarmigan, spruce grouse and  one marsh hawk. The variety and number of wildlife were staggering.

Anyway, we're back in south Florida now, sweaters and parkas stored for the next trip north. They say travel is broadening, and it is. Nothing like the contrast of a place like Alaska to show what a wonderful and diverse country we live in.

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