It was ten years ago this month that I fell in love–
“Wait!” My husband will think when he reads this. “We’ve been married for 24 years. How can that be?”
What I was going to say is that it was ten years ago this month that I fell in love with that northern frontier, Alaska.
2004 was the year I first visited Seward’s Icebox, although I’ve always been fascinated with all things Alaska. Well, maybe not Sarah Palin. But certainly the literature, the landscape, the lore: Jack London’s White Fang, snowcapped peaks and calving glaciers,Tlingit stories about Raven stealing the sun, the moon, and the stars.
With three kids in tow back then, I marveled at the wildness. Rugged coastlines, cathedral spires, trees on the tundra windswept and weary. Mosses and lichens, purple monkshood, fireweed. Lenticular clouds swirling around Denali when it decided to come out, which was rare. A sky so ridiculously vast. And all the animals, like blonde grizzlies, grazing caribou, breaching humpback whales, golden eagles and willow ptarmigans and oystercatchers. My poet friend Susan Chase Foster is fortunate to be able to spend time up in Alaska every year visiting her daughter’s family, and she often refers to Alaska in her blog, Still Life with Tortillas, as a magical place that casts spells.
But it’s not just the flora and fauna, or even the Native culture, that beguiles me. It’s also the culture of pioneering, the spirit of independence and freedom. I was listening to NPR’s State of the Re-union program over this past weekend, in which they discussed the serious pollution hanging over Fairbanks. Part of the cause of the poor air quality is the geography of the area, and part of it is the fact that many of the residents still use wood-burning stoves. In the lower 48, legislators would simply pass laws to clean up the air or water or whatever the problem was. But up north in frontierland, folks don’t take too kindly to having a government telling them what to do. Once you go down that path, the frontier disappears, for good. You can’t unsettle land which has been settled. And the people of Alaska, whether white or Native or something else, know that. They are hanging on for dear life to their treasure.
Earlier this month, Alaska lost one of its greatest advocates who lived the spirited pioneer life. Roberta Sheldon was born in Alaska in 1940, then traveled the world as a flight attendant before returning home to Talkeetna where she lived with her husband, the legendary pilot Don Sheldon. To give you an idea of what sort of woman she was, she didn’t blink twice when, on their wedding night, Don’s plane plunged through the icy surface of a frozen lake and they both wound up in the water. One of her most well-known causes was fighting against the Susitna Dam project, a plan to build the second tallest dam in the United States in the heart of Alaska at the same time that other dams across the nation are scheduled to come down. According to Ms. Sheldon and others, the Alaskan dam (to be situated in an active earthquake zone) is sure to destroy fish runs, local economies, and the health of “countless named and un-named tributaries and side-sloughs that harbor spawning salmon from the mouth of Cook Inlet to the proposed dam site.”
Alaska is one of the most beautiful states and indeed one of the most stunning places on the planet. And like Ms. Sheldon, there is so much more beneath the physical appeal. Humans can’t live forever, but places can. We just need to make sure they do. For more information about the Susitna Dam project, check out Susitna River Coalition.