To be an Alaskan today means that, after years of benign neglect, you find yourself answering a lot of questions when you travel. When former Gov. Sarah Palin entered national politics as the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, national attention focused a bright light on Alaska -- and not necessarily in a good way.
Palin has been a lightning rod in Alaskan politics since she took on the Republican political establishment and became governor in 2002. She was initially extremely popular, pushing through increased taxes on the oil industry and then spreading a budget windfall throughout the state by giving all Alaskans a bonus check to help with rising fuel prices.
But then came the 2008 presidential race, and Palin's intense partisanship began to wear on Alaskans, most of whom proudly vote for "person" before "party." Palin also began to show a face to the national media that played up an outsider's stereotypical view of Alaska. Her "folksiness" and general lack of intellectual curiosity struck many Alaskans as both false and demeaning.
Palin resigned the governorship several months after the presidential election but continued to be a national media figure. At press time, she was still pondering seeking the presidency in 2012.
But Palin's national race was not the only item of national interest. Alleged political corruption in the Alaska State Legislature led to several prominent trials, most notably one involving Alaska's longest-lived and most powerful political figure, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.
Stevens, who was known affectionately as "Uncle Ted" for his ability to steer billions of federal dollars to Alaska, had been Alaska's ranking senator since the 1960s and was a major player in Washington, D.C., serving as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. After a lengthy trial, he was found guilty shortly before the 2008 election and lost his seat by a few thousand votes to Democrat Mark Begich, the son of Congressman Nick Begich, who disappeared on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau in the early 1970s. But Stevens had the last laugh when his conviction was overturned in the face of significant misconduct on the part of the government attorneys prosecuting his case. Stevens later died in a 2010 plane crash in western Alaska.
Problems with prosecutorial misconduct also plagued several other trials involving state legislators, who allegedly took bribes from representatives of the oil industry.
In 2010, Alaska was back in the national spotlight because of an unusual U.S. Senate campaign. Incumbent Lisa Murkowski lost during the Republican primary to Joe Miller, a candidate favored by both the national Tea Party organizations and Sarah Palin, who had defeated Murkowski's father for the governorship nearly a decade earlier.
Murkowski then chose to run a "write-in" campaign and easily won the general election, to the surprise of many; the last successful Congressional "write in" was in the 1950s. As usual, Alaska was going its own way politically.
Alaska was also in the national news as the "poster child" for out-of-control federal spending, particularly the controversial practice of Congressional earmarking in which a legislator directs funding toward a specific project rather than just funding government agencies and letting them decide. One Alaskan earmark -- a $200-million bridge connecting the city of Ketchikan with its airport on a nearby island -- became known as "The Bridge to Nowhere."
Living the Seasons
The stereotype of Alaska as a land of ice and snow doesn't hold up when you look at its size -- expecting a single climate in an area this large just isn't realistic.
Alaska remains a state of climatic extremes. The lowest recorded temperature in Alaska was -80°F (-27°C) in Bettles, yet occasionally temperatures approaching 100°F (38°C) have been recorded not far away in Fairbanks. Ketchikan in the southeast is one of the wettest places in the world, with more than 14 feet of rain annually, while parts of the Far North are almost desertlike, with less than 15 inches each year.
Yes, there are parts of the state (the Far North, for example) where winter descends like a black curtain, the sun barely rises above the horizon, and summer days are marked by the midnight sun, but most of Alaska has much more moderate temperatures and climates.
How Alaskans deal with the weather is an endless source of conversation in the 49th state. Although most residents live in urban areas, there remains a frontier sense among many locals that keeps a sharp eye trained on the weather. You don't want to caught unprepared; even at the height of summer, hurricane-strength storms can brew with little warning, and in the winter, spring, and fall, deadly storms are commonplace.
The Human Landscape
Another facet of "village life" also carries through to those Alaskans who live in the "big cities." You often hear Alaskans refer to the state as a "big village," and in many ways, that's true. Even the major centers such as Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau often operate like they are little more than overgrown villages, especially politically.
Although Alaskans are ruggedly independent, they also take a remarkable interest in knowing everyone else's business. For a huge landmass, it's surprising how many Alaskans keeps tabs on other parts of the state, and it seems like everyone "knows" everyone else in the state.
Politically, it's a state where everyone in every town seems to know the mayor personally, and that extends to statewide elected officials, too. Congressmen, senators, and governors are expected to visit just about every community in the state fairly frequently, and they do. When outsiders ask questions about Sarah Palin, for example, it's surprising how many residents have actually had a close encounter with her. That just doesn't happen in other states.
Of course, it's impossible to understand Alaska without knowing something about its traditional inhabitants, the numerous Native tribes of the Last Frontier. Most anthropologists believe that the first Americans crossed over a Bering Sea land bridge more than 15,000 years ago. But in recent years, other theories have been promoted, including the use of skin boats. Some scientists also surmise that it may have been possible for Natives to have crossed from Asia earlier and farther south and spread north.
At any rate, Native Americans were living in Alaska more than 10,000 years before European and other explorers arrived. The Natives spread throughout the entire continent and likely were the ancestors of all the tribes of the Americas.
Those that chose to stay in what became Alaska were the Inupiat, Yupik, Alutiiq, Athabaskan, Tlingits, Haida, and Tshimpshian. They carved out largely separate territories in Alaska, mixing only to trade and go to war.
The Inupiat inhabit the north; the Yupik the southwest; the Alutiiq the Gulf coast; and the Tlingits, Haida, and Tshimpshian the southeast and the Canadian north coast. What they did share was a strong oral history and an artistic culture that passed the time when the weather or the season forced them inside.
This traditional lifestyle was disrupted when European explorers began arriving after the "discovery" of Alaska in the 1740s. The first to arrive were the Russian fur traders, who prized sea otter pelts above all. The Russians began settling the islands of the Aleutian Chain and established their largest trading post on Kodiak Island. They enslaved many Aleuts, forcing them to harvest the sea otter. They also brought the Russian Orthodox religion, which is still strong in many western Alaskan villages. By 1808, the Russians moved their "capital" to Sitka, where they would remain until the United States purchased Alaska in 1867.
By then, other nationalities had visited Alaska, some in search of treasure or fur, many in search of the mythical "Northwest Passage" through the continent to the Atlantic. Place names along the coast commemorate the Spanish, French, and English explorers who visited Alaska in those years. There was also a strong American presence with New England whaling ships discovering the vast numbers of whales in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.
American presence increased after 1867, but it wasn't until the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 that it picked up rapidly. Although those gold strikes were in Canada, nearly all of the 100,000 people who flooded north passed through Alaska. Many who didn't strike it rich at the Klondike stuck it out in the north, which led to later, smaller strikes in Nome and Fairbanks. Mining activity would spur most of the growth in Alaska, at least through World War I.
The boom and bust cycle of mining set the tone for nearly all of Alaska's industries to come, although one can argue that the original Russian fur industry in the late 1700s was also boom and bust, especially after the sea otter populations were decimated by the early hunters.
As mining waned in the first 20 years of the 20th century, fishing, particularly the canned salmon industry, rose to take its place. Soon, just about every large coastal bay sported a cannery village, and floating fish traps dotted the horizon. By the 1930s, coastal towns such as Ketchikan sported numerous canneries and millions of cases of salmon were sent south.
The fish traps were supposed to operate on limited hours to allow enough fish to get through and repopulate the species, but by the time World War II rolled around, it was clear that the runs were rapidly decreasing. The traps themselves became the center of a pitched political battle, fought mostly between Alaskans, who felt the traps were destroying the resource, and outsiders who controlled the cannery interests and exercised greater political pull in Washington, D.C., which called most of the shots in the territory.
The traps were one of the main issues in the statehood debate, which lasted from the 1920s until the late 1950s. Alaska residents wanted statehood in order to gain control of the fisheries and abolish fish traps, but were continually blocked in Congress. When Alaska finally became a state in 1959, one of the first actions of the new state legislature was to ban traps. By then, the salmon runs were a fraction of what they once were. It took more than 20 years before Alaskan salmon runs recovered to their original levels.
World War II provided another economic boost to the territory, with numerous military installations being built and more than 100,000 American and Canadian troops being stationed here.
Early in the war, the Japanese occupied Attu and Kiska at the end of the Aleutian Chain, and the Allied forces marshaled a significant effort to drive them out. New military bases created infrastructure in many areas of Alaska, particularly airfields that opened up many coastal areas as well as the interior.
The most significant bit of war-related construction was the Alaska-Canada (ALCAN) Highway, which ran from northern British Columbia to Alaska. Built in less than 8 months at a cost of $130 million, the 1,300-mile road became Alaska's only "hardlink" with the rest of America.
After the war, it took about 20 years before the entire ALCAN was improved enough for significant vehicle traffic. Thousands of visitors now use it to drive to Alaska.
The statewide economy diversified after the war as timber, mining, tourism, and oil production developed, though fishing remained significant in coastal communities and is still one Alaska's largest employers.
In the coastal rainforests such as the Tongass and the Chugach, the timber industry became the new "boom and bust" economy. For nearly 40 years, large lumber and pulp mills generated thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars for local economies. But the national environmental movement and the expenses involved in keeping the large plants open eventually shut down most of the timber operations in the state by the late 1990s.
By then, tourism, particularly cruise-ship tourism, had begun to dominate large portions of the state. The number of cruise visitors to Alaskan coastal communities quadrupled between 1990 and 2005, with some ports hosting up to a million visitors a year.
Even tourism paled in comparison to Alaska's "big dawg" industry: oil. Oil has been successfully drilled in Alaska since 1900, but not in quantities large enough for export. That changed in 1957 with the Swanson River oilfield on the Kenai Peninsula. By the early 1960s, a significant number of offshore oil and gas wells were operating in Upper Cook Inlet.
The big jolt came in 1967, when the massive Prudhoe Bay oilfield was discovered on the Arctic coast east of Point Barrow. The field would eventually produce more than 20% of the U.S. domestic market, and taxes on oil would provide approximately 80% of the state budget. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built to carry the oil some 800 miles from the Arctic Ocean to Valdez on the Gulf of Alaska, where massive oil tankers loaded the oil to be taken and refined.
In 1989, one of those tankers, the Exxon Valdez, ran aground and spilled more than 32 million gallons of oil, causing one of America's worst environmental disasters.
Production at Prudhoe Bay has been declining for several years, leading many Alaskans to wonder what the "post-oil" future of the state will bring. Efforts by the state to open up the nearby Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for potential drilling have been unsuccessful, as have efforts thus far to build a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to either Valdez or central Canada.
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