“When I first came to Alaska in 1968, tourists were a rarity. Some adventurous types came up here, sure, but, for the most part, Alaska was not on anybody’s ‘must visit’ list. For the first 20 years I lived here, Alaska was the country’s best kept secret. No one had any idea what it was really like here. All anyone knew about Alaska was that it was ‘cold.’” Wayne Mergler
Above The Timberline
By Wayne Mergler
ANCHORAGE, Alaska—(Weekly Hubris)—7/8/2013—When the little girl in the Steven Spielberg movie, “Poltergeist,” looks into the camera and famously says, “They’re back!” (or is it, “They’re here”?), she is talking about an ominous invasion which will change the lives of her family.
Here in Alaska, those very words (“They’re here” and “They’re back”) are uttered every year at the beginning of summer about our own ominous invasion. No, I’m not talking about Canada geese, though they, too, come up at about the same time. But like the Canada geese, you don’t always hear them arrive; they are just suddenly—and very noticeably—here, squawking and crowding into previously empty spaces.
I am talking, of course, about tourists.
In Alaska, the tourist season usually starts about the third week in May and goes full force until about the third week of September. Then, suddenly, as quickly as they arrived, they are gone, and their sudden absence makes the city of Anchorage feel almost like an overnight ghost town.
In this respect, the Canada geese are not like tourists. Although the geese may arrive quietly, they always depart with a flourish, noisily flying overhead in squawking, calling, V-shaped formations. Their departure is symbolic to the Alaskan. The geese leave with the turning of the season, with the first cold winds and the goldening of the trees. The flying of the wild geese is as much an indicator that winter is on its way as the other telltale sign: the dusting of snow on the mountains, known locally as “termination dust,” for the termination of summer.
The tourists are more prosaic about their leaving than the geese are. One day, you just wake up and all is quiet. Airports, malls, city streets, parks, bike trails, and lagoons are suddenly as empty as if no one had ever been there. Some travel here by plane; some, the more adventurous, drive up the still-challenging Alcan Highway, but most come on cruise ships. Since the cruise ship industry came into Alaska about 20 years or so ago, the place has never quite been the same. Summers have a different flavor now, for better or for worse, and whether it is better or worse depends on whom you interview.
When I first came to Alaska in 1968, tourists were a rarity. Some adventurous types came up here, sure, but, for the most part, Alaska was not on anybody’s “must visit” list. For the first 20 years I lived here, Alaska was the country’s best kept secret. No one had any idea what it was really like here. All anyone knew about Alaska was that it was “cold.” And, apparently, it was cold all the time and dark and rough and primitive and miserable. That’s all anyone knew. When my wife Maureen and I came up in ‘68, fresh out of college, fairly newly married, and with a baby daughter in tow, everyone thought we were crazy. Nobody was going to Alaska. Such a thing was unheard of. You may as well have been planning to drive to the moon.
My grandfather, who was a smart and fairly well-educated man, said to me, “Wayne, you can’t live in Alaska. It’s nothing but a frozen wasteland. People can’t live there.”
“But it is now a state,” I remember telling him. “People must certainly live there.”
“But it’s rough there,” he insisted. “Really rough. You won’t last six months up there.”
I have now been here 41 years, and my grandfather, to his dying day, was convinced that only sheer Mergler stubbornness (a strong family trait) kept me here; that, in reality, I was miserable and frost-bitten but refused to go back home to Virginia because he had said I wouldn’t last six months.
My grandfather’s ignorance about Alaska, I have learned, was not peculiar just to him. Nobody really knew anything much about Alaska at all until the cruise ship industry started bringing tourists here by the thousands in recent years. Whenever my family would drive “Outside” (as we Alaskans call the Lower 48), our Alaska license plates would practically stop traffic. No matter where we were, people made a huge deal about the fact that we were from Alaska.
Once, the five of us were having lunch at a roadside diner somewhere in the Midwest when a bus load of people came in and loudly said, “Who in here is from Alaska?” Everyone looked eagerly around the diner. My wife and kids and I raised our hands and suddenly we were swarmed with gawking people, who just wanted to see what Alaskans looked like.
“Are you Eskimos?” was inevitably asked.
Another time, checking into a motel, the clerk struck up a conversation with my daughter, Joanna, then about eight years old, as I signed the guest register.
“And where are you from?” he asked, peering down at her over his counter.
“Alaska,” said Joanna.
“Alaska! Ha, ha!” The clerk laughed loudly, slapped his thigh, and shook his head at the little girl’s cheeky response. Then he looked down at the register I had just signed.
“My God! You ARE from Alaska!” he gasped. It had never occurred to him that anyone ever really lived in such a place, especially anyone who might walk into his establishment.
“Are you Eskimos?” came next.
Things are better now. Since the cruise ships, we are no longer freaks when we travel. Nowadays, instead of the incredulity of people about where we live, we get comments such as: “Oh, Alaska! I was up there last summer on a cruise.” Or: “Alaska! I have a brother who lives there!” So tourism has already begun to change things for Alaskans, even if it means we are no longer the novelties we once were.
And, of course, the new omnipresent question to all Alaskans who travel is: “You’re from Alaska! Do you know Sarah Palin?”
My friend Matt has a pat answer for that question now. He always says, “Yeah, I know her. She’s a bitch!”
But, in all truthfulness, Matt is only half right: he doesn’t know her.
Yet the ignorance about Alaska is still there. Even among people who are actually standing on Alaskan soil. I guess all tourists the world over are ignorant. We are all strangers in a strange land when we travel. I know that when I have traveled to London or New York or Las Vegas, I have made many a touristy faux pas. In London, for example, I keep looking the wrong way and stepping out in front of oncoming traffic. I have nearly been killed several times. One time, as an irritated young Brit slammed on brakes and swerved to avoid making roadkill of me, he shouted out, “Bloody idiot!”
“No,” I called back: “Bloody American.”
“Same thing!” he said.
But I do try to, at the very least, read up a bit about a place before I go there. I don’t get the sense that many people do that before coming to Alaska. Some travelers here, the independent, adventurous types, who drive up or backpack around the state, who want to experience the Alaskan lifestyle as much as they can, seem more knowledgeable than the average cruise ship person. There seems to be something about cruise ship passengers that makes them particularly vulnerable in a new place. I think it may be because they are so pampered, protected, and regimented by their cruise directors that they don’t really have to do much for themselves—such as think. And, as I said, all of us are ignorant when we travel but, somehow, people traveling to Alaska seem uniquely so.
Since I have retired from teaching, I have been working part-time in various bookstores in Anchorage. In each store, I have had to deal all summer long with tourists. My co-workers and I used to have a great time regaling each other with tourist stories. In fact, one of my colleagues, a young man named Steve, who was bright and funny, though something of a smartass, used to keep a journal of tourist tales and tourist questions. I myself have been asked things that surely no other person in any other place is ever asked.
I have been asked:
“When do they turn on the Northern Lights?”
“What time do they feed the whales? If we go down to the inlet and stand on the beach, can we watch them feed the whales?”
One woman said to me, “Where are the igloos? My husband and I have been driving our rental car around Anchorage looking for igloos, but we haven’t found any. Where are they? Is there a special igloo neighborhood?”
I tried to explain that, first of all, Alaska’s Natives have never lived in igloos—not the ice or snow kind that they are thinking of, anyway. Igloo simply means “house,” but I knew what they meant. And then I went on to explain that, even if they did live in igloos, it was now July. The igloos would melt. They hadn’t thought of that.
“Where can we go to see penguins? Farther north?”
“Actually, farther south,” I tell them. “As in Antarctica. We don’t have penguins in Alaska.”
“Well, what happened to them?” they ask, suspiciously.
“We have never had penguins in Alaska. Penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere.”
They don’t believe me.
One woman was very indignant. She had been down to the inlet and was disgusted and appalled by all the mud down there. “It is disgusting!” she said. “All that mud. Can’t you all clean it up?”
“Those are tidal mud flats,” I explained. “When the tide is out, you have mudflats.”
“Well, something should be done about it,” the lady huffed.
Another complained that the glaciers were dirty. Why don’t we clean them? I try to explain that they are not dirty; they are sprinkled with earth and soil when the wind blows, but, I guess, that is indeed dirt, so there you are.
One gentleman from Texas was particularly concerned with the Alaska Natives he saw on the streets of downtown Anchorage. He came in wearing his ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots and said to me, “What can you tell me about them Injuns?”
“Engines?” I said. “You mean at the train station?”
“Naw, them Injuns in the streets. Are they a problem?”
“Are you talking about Alaska Natives?” (I’d finally got it.)
“I reckon,” he said. “What can you tell me about them?”
“Well, the first thing I can tell you is that we don’t call them ‘Injuns.’”
“What do you call ‘em then?” he asked, suspiciously.
“Well, some are Indians, either Tlingit or Athabaskan or Haida or Tsimshian. But some aren’t Indians at all. Some are Eskimos, either Inupiat or Yupik. Others are Aleuts.”
“They dangerous?” he asked, his frown confirming that he suspected the worst.
“No more dangerous than any other person you might insult on the sidewalk,” I said.
The most embarrassing episode I witnessed concerned a woman from the Deep South and a young Native Alaskan. Mind you, I am a Southerner, born and bred, but even I don’t quite understand why so many Southern women feel the need to shriek in shrill, high-pitched voices, many decibels above the common norm. Whatever happened to the sultry-voiced, honey-toned Tallulah Bankheads I remember so lovingly from my youth? Apparently, they have been replaced by Flo, the waitress from the old TV show “Alice,” whose famous oft-repeated and gratingly shrill line was “Kiss my grits!”
But I digress.
A young Native man was making a book purchase from me, when a lady visitor from the South said to him, shrilly and loudly, “ARE YOU A ESKIMO?”
“No, Ma’am,” the young man replied, quietly. “I am an Athabaskan.”
“An Athabaskan, Ma’am.”
“A ATHA—WHUT? WHUT IS THAT?”
“Athabaskans are Indians from the interior of Alaska,” he said.
“YOU DON’T MEAN IT! Y’ALL HAVE INDIANS HERE, TOO?”
Another woman came into the store, all flushed and weakened, fanning herself and asking for a glass of water. I provided the water and she proceeded to tell me that she was so out of breath from “this high mountain air.”
“I can tell we are at a high altitude here,” she said. “The air is so thin and I am having trouble catching my breath. I am always like this in high mountain altitudes.”
“But, Ma’am, we’re at sea level here,” I said.
“We are at sea level here.”
“No, I can tell thin mountain air when I feel it,” she said. “And all these mountains—?”
“Anchorage is surrounded by mountains on all sides,” I explained. “But we are situated at sea level.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said.
That’s when Steve jumped in and said, “If you go out the door here and turn right and walk down about five or six blocks, you will walk right into this big wobbly blue thing. That is The Sea.”
Just last summer, I was walking downtown, walking toward that Big Blue Wobbly Thing, when two ladies about my own age hurried up to me. I knew they were tourists because they were wearing high heels and everything matched. In Alaska any woman dressed like that is either a hooker or a tourist. And they seemed rather too mature to be the former.
“May we walk with you?” they asked, hurrying along beside me. I am tall and take long strides, so they did indeed need to hurry.
“Sure,” I replied. “But—why?”
“There are just so many scary, disreputable looking people here,” they said. “All these Indians and scruffy people. We don’t feel safe.”
I assured them that the people they saw on the streets of downtown Anchorage were almost all safe and harmless, but reminded them that I, on the other hand, might be really dangerous. They hesitated to walk any farther, unsure if I were kidding or not.
My favorite was a European visitor, a lady from Vienna. She came into the bookstore, an elegant woman, immaculately groomed, matching pumps and handbag, pearls, an expensive coiffure. She sized me up and decided that I looked civilized, I guess, for she leaned over the counter and said, “May I ask you something?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Well, I am walking along the streets of the city, but I cannot tell the class of the people.”
“The class of the people?” I repeated.
“Yes. I cannot tell. How can one tell?”
“You mean how can you tell who is rich and who is poor?”
“Yes,” she said. “They are all in blue jeans and boots and backpacks and beards.”
“You are right,” I said. “You can’t tell. Probably the bummiest-looking guy that you see is a millionaire. And, you know what? We like it like that.”
The most hysterical tourist I remember was a woman who had just seen a moose in a city park. She came roaring into the store: “Omigosh! A moose! A moose! There’s a moose right there, just a block away, right here in the city! A moose! I saw a moose!”
We didn’t have the heart to tell her that seeing a moose in Alaska, even in the city, is kind of like seeing a dog.
I know that tourists generally are unpopular with the locals anywhere. My friend Terry, who is from Hawaii, and my friend Brad, who is from Las Vegas, both say that we are lucky in Alaska because the tourist season only lasts three months. In their hometowns, tourists are there 12 months out of the year. But Alaskans, more than most, I think, have a real love/hate relationship with tourism. We know that we need the tourists, that they are great for our economy, but knowing that we need them is particularly irksome to independent-minded Alaskans.
Also, Alaskans pride themselves on being tougher than most people. They choose to live in a place that is not always hospitable, not always easy, a place that presents challenges every day. It is not always a comfortable place. But Alaskans are proud that they can handle that; that they have what it takes to make a true Alaskan. It is annoying, then, to see pampered tourists who require cushy hotels and lodges and all the comforts of New York and LA while trekking in the wilderness in their rented SUV’s.
Alaskans, usually the friendliest of people, can get downright surly in the tourist season.
And, of course, the biggest problem with our tourism is that its very existence diminishes in many ways the Alaska that everyone has come here to see. Alaska is about wide open spaces, pristine wilderness, and the ability to be alone with nature. People who choose to live here value those things very highly. That is what Alaska is.
So, the irony is that when you have thousands of tourists romping through the wilds, driving away the wildlife, requiring that camper parks and campgrounds be built to accommodate them, and that the most pristine landscape now must have a Princess Lodge with a scenic deck overlook so that people can rest comfortably in deck chairs instead of actually having to get out into the land, it evokes grumbles from the sourdoughs.
The Alaska that all these people paid handsomely to come to see can’t really be seen for all the people.
Some places, I heard once on TV, are being literally “loved to death” by tourists the world over. Venice comes to mind, its paths and streets worn by tourist feet so badly that it is in danger of sinking into the sea. Certainly, Yellowstone Park is now more famous for tourists than for bears. But I am not wise enough to know the solution to all this. I like to travel and visit new places as much as the next guy. And I am sure that questions I put to the locals in Vegas or San Francisco are as dumb as any other tourist’s questions.
Well, no, that last part is a lie, but it seems a good way to end this column.
Note: Wayne Mergler, observer extraordinaire of all things Alaskan, is on a long sabbatical. We await his return with great impatience. This column first appeared in July of 2010. Mergler’s other contributions to Weekly Hubris may be read by proceeding to https://weeklyhubris.com/author/wmergler/.