(How big is Alaska? What is the largest national park in the U.S.? Why did the cod fishing industry collapse in Alaska?)
The tall guard at the Canadian-Alaskan border crossing asked me to take off my sunglasses so he could compare my physical appearance to the picture on my passport.
“Oh, that picture was taken on an ‘off’ day,” I joked, pointing to my passport photo.
He just looked at me. “Do you have any firearms or hazardous material in your car, mam?”
I shook my head humbly.
“Okay then. You’re good to go.” I reached down to put my car in drive, but he bent his head forward, closer to the open car window. “Good thing you’re not from Texas,” he said.
“How’s that?” I was beginning to get nervous.
“Well if you were from Texas, I’d have to say how sorry I am about your puny, little state. Then I’d welcome you to Alaska—America’s biggest state.”
I grumbled to myself as I drove away, men and their egos. But this past week in Alaska, I’ve learned just how true his statement was. Alaska is large—and in more ways than one. Let’s talk about geography first. To get from Juneau, Alaska to Tok, Alaska you have to drive two days and spend the night in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Oh these mountain ranges, they are such a bother to get around. The mountains I’m referring to are in the Wrangell-St. Alias National Park, the most remote and largest (of course) national park in the U.S. But even minus the mountains, as the crow flies, from Homer to Barrow, Alaska it’s nearly 1000 miles.
Then there are the Alaskan people themselves. I heard Bill Maher, HBO’s political satirist, said that fat-shaming needed to make a comeback. He was making a point about the adverse effects of obesity. It isn’t that Alaskans are obese exactly. My mother would say (kindly) they’re built “solid.” I’ve never seen so many big people in one place in my life. I feel petite. And that’s saying something.
I think it must be from all the hearty food Alaskans eat: giant bread bowels of creamy clam chowder, sourdough pancakes, and reindeer sausage rolls the size of my fist.
Vegetables and fruit are available here, but why bother?
The lettuce is wilted and sad-looking. Salad won’t stick to your ribs standing in a fishing boat out on breezy Cook Inlet. I can’t complain though. Finally I’ve found clothing stores with my style sense: Carhartt long-sleeved T’s, size 2X.
Speaking of fashion sense, suspenders are au couture for males, and bunny boots (not to be confused with the infamous Playboy bunny attire) serve as vogue foot wear. In fact, I happened upon a new bride in Homer decked out in high, white bunny boots. I asked to take her picture and her charming groom said, “Well, I guess so.”
Big though Alaska is, it’s not big enough to manage the effects of climate change. Up here on both sides of the political spectrum, everyone is concerned about Alaska’s warming climate.
According to Alan, a commercial fisherman in Kachemak Bay, the ocean temperature has risen to an-unheard-of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Alan said forty years ago when he started out in the business, the ocean was never above 48 degrees. The cod fishing industry has completely collapsed due to, among other problems, the warming environment. Halibut still seems to be plentiful though. And like everything in this state, the halibut are huge. I watched fascinated, as a man on the dock casually filleted a 70-pound halibut that had just been caught by another fisherman.
One of the slogans you see on bumper stickers and T shirts around southeast Alaska is, “Stay wild, my friends.” Alaskans should be proud of their wild, big state. I’m sad though, that they’re losing the cold, the ice, and the deep freeze. It’s a tragedy for them—and for us.
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Image Credit: All images Diana Hooley