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June 20, 2002
I wasn’t prepared for the size. Most maps put a little box with Alaska and Hawaii down in the left hand corner, off the coast of southern California, and proportionally, Alaska looks about the size of Utah.
You know it’s bigger than that. But until you go there, you can’t possibly realize just how huge the state really is. Five hundred and seventy thousand square miles. That’s the equivalent of two Texas’s, or about four hundred and twenty-five Rhode Islands.
It’s the land of surprises. Glaciers that reach the tops of mountains, with jagged crevasses showing aquamarine-colored ice at their heart. Hundreds of bald eagles nesting in trees, so many that you eventually become inured to a sight that shocks you into revered silence the first few days you see it. Three million lakes.
I found that when relating my experience to friends back in the lower-48, almost every sentence contains a superlative.
To be sure, Alaska has its problems. Tourism is the hand that feeds and slaps with the same motion. As many people visit the state each year on cruise ships as live there, about six hundred thousand. But the environmental and cultural impact of all those pairs of feet has caused some Alaskan communities to levy visitor fees, or even ban cruise ships altogether. Alaska ranks as the number two tourist destination in the U.S., and the state’s economy depends on it.
The trans-Alaskan pipeline is twenty-five years old this year. When built, it was expected to be useful for at most thirty years. But because more oil reserves were discovered, the pipeline may be in use for another thirty, pumping about a million gallons of oil a day along its eight-hundred mile length. Alaska accounts for about a quarter of the oil produced in the U.S.
The Russians stumbled upon Alaska in 1741, while sailing in a fog. Eventually, Russia established a colony here, with its main source of revenue being sea otter pelts. But after a hundred years of over-hunting, the sea otters were almost extinct and Russia was looking to sell.
In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William Seward bought Alaska for the equivalent of two cents an acre. The Czar was so pleased with the deal he gave a sizeable bonus to the bureaucrat who negotiated the deal, and Seward was derided in the States as a fool.
Until, that is, a few years later. When oil and gold were discovered. Alaska has paid back America’s investment millions of times over, but what most people don’t think about are the geo-political ramifications of the purchase. Had Congress not approved the deal – and there was opposition at the time -- Russia…and eventually, the Soviet Union, would have benefited financially from the incredible natural riches, which some historians believe could have tipped the balance of power on a global scale and meant that America’s Cold War enemy had a military foothold on the American continent.
As it is, Russian culture is alive and well in the town of Sitka, which was once the capital of Russian America. You can see Orthodox icons in the onion-domed cathedral, buy Russian nest dolls, and watch Russian-style dancing. But don’t expect to see many real Russians here – seems that when the territory was sold to the U.S., most of the Russian nationals went back home. Leaving their culture, and unrealized treasure, behind.
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