Surrounded by Sitka spruce trees, beneath the twitter of birds in remote Alaska, I remember an article I read in the New York Times a few weeks back. The article questions whether silence is going extinct, suggesting that human generated noise seems to be infecting every environment worldwide, from cities to distant forests. While sitting and writing, miles from any town or road, I still hear the loud engine of an airplane passing above. It takes far too long for the screech to dissipate.
I am working as a naturalist guide in a remote Alaskan lodge, accessible only by boat or plane. We have few close neighbors, are engulfed by state park, and see ocean tides on three sides. It takes effort to get here, and I feel completely enveloped by wilderness. Every single day I witness otters that float past on their backs twirling in kelp and a lone harbor seal, inquisitive and elusive. Bears and mountain goats are common. Alaska, the last frontier, is bountiful as its well-known title indicates. One of the few drawbacks of living in Alaska is that its surroundings lure you far from the reality of life on most other parts of the planet. The majority of people live in urban and suburban environments today, while very few inhabit places that still share its original green nature. It’s easy here to forget what the rest of the booming world looks like.
My first time in town in weeks, I ventured by boat to Homer, population 3,000. Upon reaching a road steaming with cars and stores where people throw around money, I was brought a tiny bit closer to typical twenty-first century life. One man who swung to the elbow of the road towards my outstretched thumb commented that there were more wild places left than I choose to believe. In Alaska, surrounded by greenery and numerous bald eagles, it’s easy to develop this mindset, and forget what the sprawling developed world really looks like. Alaska is unique in its standing wilderness, and there are few other places like it on the planet.
The prototypic Alaskan I’ve crossed spends most of their time hunting, fishing, and downing beer. I read in a bar that Alaska consumes the most Miller Genuine Draft in the country, and I was raised in Milwaukee where the drink is brewed. Many support oil drilling because it brings money to their pockets and it seems to them that the resources are nearly infinite. The problem with this type of thinking is that it will only lead to an Alaska that resembles every other state in the USA, with few fragments of old growth forest standing. Of course nature has the beautiful ability of regeneration, but it takes ages to do so. Humans certainly complicate the process.
I hate to stereotype Alaskans, and of course there is a diverse range in which people live and think in this northern state. Alaska is a wonderful place to reside and travel, with a multitude of artists, activists, and environmentalists to moderate the sturdy fisherman and huntsmen. Something most residents of the state share is their love for the wild, which takes shape in many forms.
Alaska is lacking in roads. Many joke that airplanes and boats are more common modes of transportation than automobiles. The state has a marine highway system, connecting cities by ferryboat rather than freeways. There are likely more salmon spawning in the summers than residents in the area. Endangered humpback whale populations are rising every year with marine mammal protection.
At the moment there’s a menace bear roaming the outskirts of Homer who has been getting into gardens and chicken coups. An article in the local paper suggests that he ought to be removed by a pistol before causing more trouble. Trawler boats extend their massive fishing nets, capturing everything in their path. The “Halibut capital of the world” can’t find the multitude of halibut they used to, and the fish shrink in size every year.
Alaska may be my favorite state in the USA. It has an enormous coastline, thousands of uninhabited islands, and silence hasn’t gone extinct altogether. With common mindset in the state that these resources are endless, Alaska may not remain the way it is forever. Nonetheless, a diversity of wildlife and thinkers make it a truly special place.
No matter where you live, it is easy to get caught inside of that bubble and forget the rest of the world. We think the world at large is the world as we see it through our humble two eyes. Traveling is one way of defeating this, and reminding ourselves of the diversity of environments and lifestyles people live. A year on the road has reminded me that few untouched landscapes still stand.
Unfortunately the entire planet isn’t quite as ripe as Alaska. It’s my hope that the state will remain this way.