ALASKA, the Land of the Midnight Sun

cover west pacific

This is an extract of what to see in this state, with small photos. You will find the full description, history and full-sized photos, in my e-book View America: West Pacific

In the travel series View America, West Pacific covers California, Oregon and Washington. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest. As we have not visited Alaska and Hawaii, for these states I have just included an overview and a brief historical background.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 180 full-sized 600px-wide pictures.

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OVERVIEW

ALASKA is also known as the Last Frontier and the Land of the Midnight Sun, because the sun shines 24 hours a day during the summer. It is the largest state in the USA, and only separated from Russia by the 50 mile (82 km) wide Bering Strait. The name Alaska probably comes from an Aleut word, meaning "large country".

In 1959 Alaska joined the U.S. as the 49th state. Its capital is Juneau and the largest city is Anchorage. Alaska has some 625,000 inhabitants, with a density of only 0.4 per km2. Approximately 15% of these are descendants of the original Eskimos (Inuit) and Aleut.

Everything in Alaska is superlative. Its surface is 586,412 square miles (1.5 million km2), there are more than 100,000 glaciers, and more than 50 active volcanoes. The main river is the Yukon, which is one of the longest navigable rivers in the world. For two thirds of its length of 1,982 miles (3,190 km), it flows through Yukon Territory. Near Cook Inlet the difference between high tide and low tide is an incredible 30 feet (9 m)!

In the south and along the coast, the rainfall is more than 98 inches (2,500 mm) per year, as compared to state-wide averages of annual rainfall plus snowfall range from a high of 63.7 inches (1,618 millimeters) in Hawaii to a low of 9.5 inches (241 millimeters) in Nevada. In the north, snow falls up to 20 feet (6 m) per year, with temperatures down to minus 58° F (minus 50° C). In Barrow there is no sun between November and the end of January, but instead it shines 24 hours a day from early May to early August.

The forestation rate is 35%, although the largest part of this is but thinly overgrown, and then mostly with semi-muskeg. The animal kingdom is extremely well represented by the black bear, grizzly bear, polar bear, deer, elk, bison, mountain goat, marten, red fox, mink, wolf, sheep, caribou, coyote, otter and beaver. Along the coast live the sea lion, the walrus and several whale species. Kodiak Island is home to the largest omnivore, the Kodiak brown bear. The famous reindeer was actually only imported in 1891 from Siberia, and later more came from Scandinavia.

After 1741 seals, otters and beavers were the main economic activity. In 1867 the U.S. bought the entire Alaska territory from Russia, and started the fur trade. In 1880 gold was discovered on the banks of the Yukon and in Juneau, and in 1896 the Klondike Gold Rush started. But silver, copper, tin and mercury were also discovered in large quantities. From 1940 on large military bases were built. In 1960 huge oil deposits were discovered, and the state is the second oil producer after Texas. Alaska also has the largest fish production.

The number of roads in Alaska is not exactly overwhelming. There are really only two main highways, which are the 1942 military Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fairbanks (1,420 miles or 2.288 km), and the Richardson Highway (366 miles or 590 km) from Valdez to Fairbanks. Both of these are not really in a good condition, and most roads are not even paved.

Alaska is a nature state, with the midnight sun, large herds of Caribou and polar bears, schools of walruses, mountains, volcanoes and fjords. The highest mountain in the U.S. is Mount McKinley with 20,320 feet (6,194 m).

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HISTORY

Early History

In 1654 the Russian Fedor Alekseyev was the first to sail across the Bering Strait. In 1725 Tsar Peter the Great sent out the Danish navigator Vitus Beringto find out if Siberia was connected to North America. In 1728 he rediscovered the Bering Strait, which was named after him, but he didn't see the mainland because of dense mist. In 1733 he undertook a second expedition and discovered the Prince of Wales Island and the Kayak Island. Bering himself died during the voyage, but his expedition was sufficient to assert Russia's claims to Alaska.

The next Russian Empress Elizabeth had no interest in the territory, and only Russian fur traders visited Alaska during the next 50 years. After 1743 Russian hunters exterminated about 80% of the Aleut through European diseases and armed violence. By 1848 only some 1,400 of the original 18,000 Aleut remained. When the furs became scarce, the Russians moved farther south.

Spain was also interested in the Pacific Ocean, and it hastily built forts and missions in Alta California. They sent expeditions to Alaska in 1774, 1777, 1778 and 1790, but they met the British in British Columbia and ceased their claims. Great Britain, France and the Americans explored Alaska, but made no move to occupy or conquer the area. In 1778 the British Captain James Cook explored the coast and established a profitable trade with the Aleut. The French sent an expedition too, but the 1789 French Revolution put an end to that.

In 1784 the first permanent colony was founded at Three Saints Bay by the Russian Shelikhov. In 1791 Aleksander Andreyevich Baranov moved the colony to Pavlovsk, which is now the city of Kodiak. In 1804 he built the city of Novo-Arkhangel'sk (New Archangel), that later became the city of Sitka. The entire territory above latitude 55° was Russian, but the Russian navy couldn't stop the influx of British and American traders.

After Tsar Nicholas I had tried to conquer the moribund Ottoman Empire (Turkey), in 1856 Russia lost the totally superfluous and extremely bloody and costly Crimean war against a coalition of Great Britain, France and Austria. This war broke Russia's power, and in 1867 it decided to sell its expensive Alaska colony to the USA for 7.2 million dollars.

However, the U.S. was not better prepared than Russia to manage and exploit Alaska and the entire territory was put under military rule. After 1870 the Alaska Commercial Company gradually took over the exploitation of the territory from the British and the Hudson Bay Company. It controlled the economy, but also the political and social issues.

In 1880 gold was discovered near Juneau, and in 1896 the Klondike gold fields in Canada's Yukon Territory were discovered. However, Alaska was on the way to these gold fields, and in 1900 gold was discovered in Nome. The gold finds immediately raised the avid attention of the politicians, and the army was ordered to build forts. Not surprisingly, the gold discoveries immediately caused a flurry of taxes...

In 1912 the democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected president. Almost at once the Alaska Territory was created, and with another flurry of the inevitable corruption Congress made available large grants to build some 4,900 miles (7,870 km) of roads and railroads, in order to connect the various mining towns with each other and the outside world. For instance, the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks was initially estimated at 35 million dollars, but not so surprisingly it eventually cost the taxpayers 65 million dollars...

Anchorage, which is now the largest city in Alaska, became the headquarters of the Alaska Engineering Commission, that constructed houses, roads, a hospital and a school, and provided water and electricity. The city owes its existence exclusively to the railroad and the local economy still continues to rely mainly on mining and fishing. The development of the airplane was very important to Alaska, the state being plagued by enormous distances, a difficult terrain and a harsh climate.

After World War I (1914-1918) came a depression that dragged well into the 1930's. Mines were closed, the price of salmon plummeted, federal grants were abolished, and Congress became critical of the continuing annual losses of the Alaska Railroad. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal helped a little, the devaluation of the dollar drove up the price of gold, and the Matanuska Valley Agricultural colony was founded.

Another project was to expel the Eskimos and the Aleut into reservations, but that would immediately and irrevocably have committed two thirds of the state. In 1942 and under great pressure, the president withdrew this amendment.

World War II (1939-1945) thoroughly changed Alaska. The military importance of the territory became enormous, given the spectacular development of aircraft. After the German invasion of Norway and Denmark, Congress realized that these countries were very close to the U.S. over the North Pole, and that Alaska would soon be in range of German bombers.

In 1942 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and occupied the Kiska and Attu islands. Money suddenly ceased to be an object and in a mere nine months the 1,421 mile (2,288 km) long Alaska-Canada Military Highway was constructed from British Columbia to Delta Junction. Apparently such a feat had been impossible in the previous 30 years... Congress also wanted to send airplanes and military aid to the then-ally Russia, and that was best done over Alaska and the Arctic.

In 1943 the islands of Attu and Kiska were recaptured, and for Alaska the war was over. However, it did generate a tremendous military defense budget of two billion dollars for the construction of airports, railroads, ordinary roads, shipyards, docks and ports. Many thousands of workers moved to Alaska for the construction, and after the war they remained.

Statehood

In 1943 both Hawaii and Alaska requested the establishment of their own state. Congress gravely considered the matter in 1950, but the Korean War (1950-1953) threw a spanner in the works. Another carefully hidden consideration was that the small Republican majority in Congress feared that Alaska would mean an additional Democratic seat, and therefore president Eisenhower solidly put the brakes on this proposal...

In 1955 the local Alaskan government got tired of the interminable dawdling of Congress, and it voted its own constitution. In 1959 Alaska was admitted to the U.S. as the 49th state. After World War II the federal financial spigot was turned off a while, but "fortunately" the Cold War blew new life into the economy, through the construction of a comprehensive defensive bulwark against Russia.

By 1959 however the economy was still rather sluggish. The gold mines were never reopened after the war, the salmon fishery had collapsed because of federal corruption, overfishing and strong Japanese competition, and the fur trade and agricultural production were minimal. Only the wood industry did a little better. In 1957 the Richfield Oil Corporation discovered the Swanson River oil field on the Kenai Peninsula, which gave rise to the first profitable oil production.

Alaska is geologically unstable, and on 27 March 1964 one of the biggest earthquakes ever took place in south-central Alaska. Its force was 9.2 on the Richter scale, which was twice as strong as the earthquake that devastated San Francisco in 1906!

In 1968 the Atlantic-Richfield Company discovered the colossal Prudhoe Bay oilfield. As a result the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), a joint venture between Atlantic-Richfield, British Petroleum and Humble Oil, requested to build a 795 mile (1,280 km) long pipeline on public land, from Prudhoe Bay to the coast near Valdez.

This request gave rise to a whole series of lawsuits from the indigenous population. In 1971 a compromise was worked out whereby they were given approximately 70,000 square miles (180,000 km2) of land and a compensation of 962.5 million dollars. The government's apparent good will was probably based on the enormous amounts of money involved...

However, after this matter had been settled the ecologist "Green Boys" in turn launched their own lawsuits against the projected pipeline. But "fortunately" for the oil companies in 1973 the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) completely shut down the oil supply to America, and Congress hastily gave its consent. Construction of the pipeline began in 1974, it was completed in 1977, and it cost some 9 billion dollars! By 1985 Alaska's oil revenues were immense, and personal taxes were abolished. Alaska still obtains more than 80% of its revenues from the oil industry.

On 24 March 1989 the environmental disaster caused by the tanker Exxon Valdez occurred when it was shipwrecked, and more than 10 million gallons (38 million liters) of oil spilled into the water. The Exxon Corporation paid billions of dollars in damages and cleaning costs.

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