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Moving Forward, Looking back / Alaska: 'Seward's Folly?' I don't think so

Published 5:34 pm, Wednesday, July 3, 2013
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This space normally confines itself to Fairfieldian topics, but every so often a column travels to places well beyond the Merritt Parkway -- like this one, about a trip to Seattle that my wife and I parlayed into a maritime adventure in Alaska.

A land sale on the scale of the 1867 Alaska Purchase is not likely to be seen again. Famously known as "Seward's Folly" -- after the then-secretary of state who brokered the deal -- the U.S. acquired Alaska's 400 million acres (120 Connecticuts) from a Russian empire strapped for cash and fearful that Alaska would be snatched away by a European power. The purchase price was $7.2 million, or about 1.7 cents an acre. Enacted as a treaty with the consent of the Senate, Seward still took considerable flack. He did not live to witness the discovery of gold, copper, and then oil, or ponder how a Russian Alaska would have changed the Cold War.

Connecticut has a sobering link to Alaska. Alaska's current lieutenant governor, Mead Treadwell, is a Connecticut native who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School. His father was first selectman of Newtown.

Seattle is more than just a jumping off point to Alaska. Its glistening, lively downtown descends to the shores of Puget Sound, with snow-capped mountains across the water to the west, and the surreally huge Mount Rainier looming to the south. There are plenty of big-city things to do, and you can't find a bad meal or certainly not a bad cup of coffee.

A parting observation: Seattleites are lovely people, but somehow they have come to consider jaywalking to be totally off limits, even in the absence of traffic. What's up with that? Seattleites will not budge from the curb without the permission of the little electric man in the crosswalk sign. This weird defect of the Seattle urban psyche is, I believe, unique in the world and should be studied.

After a short flight to Sitka, Alaska, we had a few hours to look around before boarding ship. Indigenous peoples lived in the temperate rainforests here for thousands of years before Russian explorers showed up several centuries ago. By the early 1800s, Sitka became the capital of Russian Alaska. Sitka feels very much like a Maine coastal town with low, weathered clapboard buildings, quaint storefronts, new-age coffee shops, and a working port full of commercial and pleasure boats. The people of Sitka appear to be indistinguishable from other Americans. But the landmark 19th-century Russian Orthodox church bears testimony to its past.

It was time to board the comfortable, 180-foot Wilderness Explorer for our first-ever cruise. With 66 other guests and a fabulous crew of 28, we would explore the Inside Passage, a network of coastal waterways and islands that make up the Alaska panhandle. We would end up in Juneau a week later by way of Glacier Bay National Park. The advantage of a "small" cruise ship is that it allows you to experience nature close up. Not only can it reach places the big ships cannot, but it's easy to get off the boat in a kayak or a skiff, or go ashore.

Except for occasional scars from clear-cut logging, we found ourselves in a majestic, watery wilderness of rocky, heavily forested islands framed by low mists and snow-topped mountains. We were prepared for rain (it's a rainforest, after all), but we lucked into a week of mostly sunny weather. Rubber boots were still necessary for going ashore, either for a beach walk or a more challenging interior hike. The woods are lush, muddy, and mysterious, with the mossy forest floor lit by rays of sun shooting through towering hemlock and spruce trees.

There are more than 20,000 bald eagles soaring around the region. They're so common we actually got used to seeing them, but never got used to the humpback whales, whether they were blowing water, diving to show their tails (flukes), or launching into spectacular breaches. We saw a good number of bears, black and brown, foraging along the shores. Although bears generally steer clear of homo sapiens, our guides carried bear repellant and we were trained about bear encounters.

Aside from adding to our bird life lists, we had exciting, often point-blank sightings of sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, and mountain goats. The most memorable sightings, though, were inanimate: the glaciers of Glacier Bay National Park.

Glaciers start out innocently enough as mountain snow. Over a few centuries, the snow compacts into a massive river of ice that descends to the sea. There are few experiences like being in a kayak a short but safe distance away from a 250-foot glacier wall streaked with turquoise blue ice and crushed rock. A deep roll of thunder announces the "calving" of an iceberg -- a chunk of ice breaking off and falling into the sea.

We had the good fortune to have Janene Driscoll, a dynamic and supremely knowledgeable National Park Service interpretive guide, spend three days on board to teach us about the natural history of glaciers (more complicated than I thought), and give us a status report on their current health (not good overall, though some are stable). And by the way, there's nothing she doesn't know about the geology and wildlife of the area.

As a taxpayer, I'm more than happy to be paying Janene Driscoll's salary, and I think Mr. Seward is vindicated.

Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at rblumen2@gmail.com.