The True Face of Alaska
For several weeks, millions of people tuned in to see the TLC network’s new show about Alaska, which also features a former half-term governor/vice-presidential candidate and her family. But mostly Alaska.
This got me thinking — why should one person, former governor or not, be the one to highlight Alaska? It’s the biggest state in the nation; certainly it is too big for one person to talk about.
I thought about being the messenger myself – after all, I can write (reasonably) well, and while I don’t have a television show of my own, I think I could do a pretty good job talking up the state of Alaska. But the sheer enormity of Alaska is too big for me as well…I would need backup.
So I called in my colleagues, who work in Alaska every day, protecting the land, wildlife, and native cultures of the Last Frontier. They know the people, the places, and the special nature of a place as wild as Alaska, from the towering forests along the southeast coast, to the hundred-thousand strong Porcupine Caribou herd that call the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge home.
Alaska is a place of stark, natural wonder on a scale that is simply mind-boggling. Vistas that would rank as “epic” in the lower 48 are tucked away in rarely-visited state parks, because “epic” isn’t an epic enough word to describe the best places in Alaska. An entirely new lexicon is needed to do so.
But don’t take my word for it — take it from the people that live there. They live, work, and play in Alaska all year long — not just when the cameras are rolling. These dedicated conservationists show that not all of Alaska’s women are focused on moose-burgers and snow-machines, but on the people and land that make Alaska so special.
Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska Regional Director:
“When I visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I feel as though I am on sacred ground. Wild, vast, open – the refuge hasn’t changed much for millennia. Broad, glacier-carved valleys dwarf creatures moving through, from the grizzly bears and musk oxen to the thousands and thousands of caribou. These valleys extend from the rugged mountain peaks of the Brooks Range — the spine of the refuge stretching east to west – and give way to the coastal plain and Beaufort Sea to the north, what seems to be the tip of the earth. This is polar bear country, and you can see these animals moving through coastal lagoons and toward the pack ice beyond at the right time of year. South of the Brooks Range yields rolling terrain with spruce forests, muskeg and deeply carved river channels.
Ancient rhythms play out on this landscape now as they have for centuries: thousands of caribou stampeding up and over mountain passes, across rivers and braided gravel bars intent on reaching nutritious plants and insect relief on the coastal plain; birds nesting in the tundra – their eggs often camouflaged by the rich and delicate mosaic of arctic plants and lichens, and wolf pups playing near dens while adults howl and stand guard on ridges above. Native cultures, too, defined by their Arctic surroundings, such as the Gwich’in tribe – the ‘Caribou People’ – subsist, dance, and drum celebrating nature’s bounty around them. In this vast wilderness I am connected to ancient cultures, wildlife and my own relations, and I understand my place in the world as well as our nation’s heritage.”
Lois Epstein, Arctic Program Director:
“The Arctic Ocean is both like other oceans and completely different. I’ve seen the ocean’s barrier beaches and experienced its fog and wind during summer, but I haven’t seen its polar bears and walruses, its miles and miles of winter pack ice, and its immense power during a fall storm. Few outside of those living in coastal villages and subsisting on the ocean’s marine resources truly understand the biological richness of the area. The federal government’s best researchers have only limited knowledge of what lives in the Arctic Ocean, where and when the animals migrate, and how these creatures manage to survive in such a cold and difficult environment. The Arctic Ocean is a wild place, indeed.”
Karen Hardigg, Alaska Deputy Regional Director:
“My first job in Alaska was working as a seasonal biologist on the Tongass National Forest. Never having been to the land of the midnight sun, I was elated at the idea of roaming the rainforest in search of wildlife. When my flight descended into Ketchikan through thick clouds and rain, all I remember seeing is a seemingly endless carpet of green forest. Since those days in the field, my work has brought me to many incredibly beautiful places in southeast Alaska. I’ve seen humpback whales while taking off in a float plane, squeezed into world-famous karst caves, heard wolves howl in the wilderness, and practically walked across streams jammed full of salmon. More than the natural wonders of the region, though, I’m inspired by the people who live in the small communities that dot the forest’s many islands. Their love of place, perseverance in tough conditions, and enduring spirit make my work rewarding and meaningful. I treasure my trips to small towns like Craig, Hoonah, and Coffman Cove both because of the rich landscape and the lively people I know I will meet.”
My colleague Lydia Olympic has a very special connection to a very special part of Alaska — Bristol Bay. Lydia is a Yupik Alaska Native from Igiugig — a Native village located on the Kvichak River at the outlet of Lake Iliamna, Alaska’s largest freshwater lake.
Lydia has been dedicating her life to protecting the Bristol Bay watershed from an environmentally destructive open-pit gold mine called Pebble Mine that would threaten the sockeye salmon run that has been the lifeblood of her family, and her people, for generations.
In her own words:
“There are many more stories about our traditional heritage that need to be heard, written and shared, especially because our way of life is being threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine and its industrial mining district. The large-scale mining could directly threaten the salmon that Alaska Native people have depended upon for thousands of years to sustain our culture. Anglo American, the company behind the project, says that the mine won’t harm the fish. But, we know better. Salmon are very sensitive to change, and we do not want to be the experiment that sees if wild salmon and a massive open pit mine can co-exist. The risk is too high. The pristine waters and undeveloped lands of my home are one of the last strongholds for wild salmon, and we are fighting to protect this.”
These are just a few of the stories from the Land of the Midnight Sun, and just a few of the people dedicated to keeping Alaska’s pristine habitats untrammeled for generations to come.
The larger-than-life splendor of Alaska is a wonder to behold. It is one of the last, best places in the world, the Last Frontier, and it belongs to all of us.
Photo credit: John Ledogar