Alaska Dream

Never thought we'd go for an Alaska Cruise. In this new prop for the economy of the economically distressed Tongas region, fleets of huge 'princess' ships ply the inland waterway; collectively involving a population equal to that of the residents over each season. As we flew into Ketchikan there were three of these leviathans tied up along the waterfront of that tiny town( site of the famous 'bridge to nowhere'); for the afternoon, tripling any spot census. This northern burg, formerly a logging hub, now boasts 32 jewelry shops... When you disbark from your princess for the short stop you can choose between these emporia( what is 'tanzanite', anyway?) or stroll in the tiny downtown and visit the faux goldrush bar or the cheerfully preserved bordellos. But today there's no sex for sale.

We were waiting overnight for the "Alaska Dream", a tidy catamaranic boat built and owned by the Allen Family. To our taste a far-better deal. Bob Allen was an deeply salted american immigrant with many manly accomplishments in his adopted home; Betty a Tinglit with formidable personal qualities, became his life partner. Together they put together a modest empire that includes a fleet of aluminum-hulled vessels that are mostly ferries of one sort or another. Their small cruise line tours the indian settlements and small surviving logging/fishing towns of the inland passage. With 30 or so companions and a brace of native guides you are able to learn a lot about the region, the real deal.

Some of this is distressing. Basically, they've never recovered from the forest service's pulling the plug on the timber harvesting of the late twentieth century. It's still an emotional matter for many of the older citizens. As I understand it, the cutting of the hemlock forests for pulp(hemlock's no good as dimensional lumber) was stopped because of the combination of chronically low prices and the realization that the initial Management Plans for the Tongas wildly overestimated the forests' capacity to regenerate. What locals seem to remember is that treacherous hippies persuaded those fools in the DC to stab them in the back. Thin as that assessment seems to me, I curbed my tongue in deference to the fact that most of these people are truly the salt of the earth. All they wanted was a paycheck--hard-earned by any standard--to allow a life in this beautiful place. And quite a few of them manage to persist.

Aside from zirconia, they live on government jobs and fishing. Fishing continues to be prosperous. A young man with a Gill-Net setup( a 36' boat, the net, a couple of assistants and a 50,000$ license) told me he could clear 150-200K over the summer. Long may it last for them... I also met the granddaughter of a fellow who made--with the support and encouragement of the fisheries people--the first exploratory King Crab trip. In the day, they'd no idea there was even a practical fishery for these beasts. In that first season, the man took several million pounds of them. Now, of course(as known to many of our fellow reality-TV addicted citizens) they are a bit harder to boat. So far, higher prices easily compensate. We shall see.

Away from these sidebars, the trip was a wonder of naturalizing delights. These small boats, expertly handled, are wonderful for whale watching and poking up the stupendous fiords to reach what's still visible waterside of the great ice. And the visits to native sites with a small party provided, a real perspective of a traditional culture with real staying power. The most impressive fact is that the Tongas human population, despite all the profit from the depredations of extractive industries and injections of federal money, is yet considerably less than that sustained for the eight thousand years since the last time of heavy glaciation. Unless, of course, you count the heads on the conveyor-belt of princess ships; in that case we're doing nearly as well.

Posted by icosahedron icosahedron, September 13, 2013 14:50


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