We spent four weeks in Alaska, drove thousands of miles over most of its highways, travelled additional hundreds of miles by boat and plane, yet have only started to understand its huge expanse. From the rainforests of the southeast to the frozen tundra, from the gold fields around Fairbanks to the westernmost Aleutians, Alaska encompasses so many geographies, so many climates, so many peoples and cultures, that it seems absurd to make it a single state.
Partly because of the climate, and partly because of the inhospitable terrain, the only way to map Alaska's geography is by plane, which is exactly what our good friend Bud Sparks did fifty years ago. There is so much land it is easy to get lost in Alaska, and indeed there are many loners living in its wilderness. There are also many tiny native settlements, and Alaska is one of the few places in the United States where the natives may still practice an ancient lifestyle, living off the land.
Despite this geographic immensity, Alaska is one of our least populated states, with a total of about 700,000 inhabitants. And about half of these people live in and around Anchorage. This means that most of the state is owned by the wildlife -- moose and caribou, seals and whales, salmon and bears, ducks and mosquitos.
Alaska's economy is based on the extraction of its natural resources, together with tourism. There is virtually no manufacturing or agriculture or information technology. There is a small and shrinking defense sector, and a small and growing scientific research, both supported by the federal government.
With the exception of the native population, most Alaskans move south when they retire, at least in the winter. But the working people attack their jobs with great energy and ambition, never daunted by the miniscule effect they have on the state as a whole. And they pour out into the country on weekends and vacations to enjoy the outdoors.
On a more personal note, we felt Alaska was significantly more expensive than British Columbia. It's probably due in part to the need to ship things up from the lower 48, in part to the lack of local industry, in part to the weak Canadian dollar, and in part to the short summer tourist season -- just a few months for gift stores and resort hotels to make the bulk of the year's income!
Things seem to start later in Alaska; we found a number of stores and attractions that didn't open until 10:00 a.m. We don't know anything about the pace of life in the winter, but people stay out late on long summer nights.
The answer to the debate about the capital of Alaska is that there's no good location; the legislators come from all over the state, so many would fly to the capital no matter where it was. Alaska has modern communications, so much business can be accomplished by videoconference.
We continue to be puzzled by the life lived by many native Americans. There is greater alcoholism and crime, less care for property, an exploitative attitude towards natural resources, but a spiritual identification with the land, close family relationships, and a healthy distrust of the federal government. Yet the native corporation brought 40 channels of TV to Barrow.
We really enjoyed our visit, but we probably wouldn't drive here again -- unless lots of new highways were built, which seems unlikely. On the other hand, there's lots of the state which we've only explored through museums, including the Aleutians, the Brooks Range, and the western coast. As for the state, it will probably remain a land of infinite possibilities for a long time to come; the future of Alaska depends on the people who decide to live here and contribute to its development.