Homer, on Cook Inlet of the Gulf of Alaska, is known for its Spit – a five-mile road stretching into the waters. A row of shacks selling fishing trips – the principal reason for coming to Homer – were still open for business while the cafes and restaurants had closed for the season. Anglers bait salmon and over 250-pound Halibut. Chevron is exploring tidal resources in Cook Inlet to generate energy. Alaska has 90 per cent of America’s tidal potential and 50 per cent of its wave potential.
Glacial silt choking turbines, partial freezing of sea in winters, and endangered beluga whales are problems Chevron has had to contend with. Though Alaska’s North Slope, where we were earlier, north of the Atigun Pass, has the largest oilfield in the US and the largest known gas reserves, the state, sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire, has a huge potential in renewable energy.
On a bleak, dismal afternoon we boarded the ferry M/V Kennicott, named after the zoologist and explorer Robert Kennicott. In 1865, Kennicott led the Western Union Telegraph Expedition to explore the interiors of Alaska for the purpose of laying a cable under Alaska and Bering Strait and connecting it to the Trans-Siberian cable. Though Kennicott died the following year and the cable was never laid, the wealth of scientific information provided by the expedition contributed largely to the American decision to purchase Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Rain and poor visibility made the mountains on both sides of the inlet look like apparitions. It was smooth sailing till the nearby Kodiak Island that was the epicentre of the mightiest recorded quake that has rocked North America (8.6 M on Good Friday in 1964).
As we entered the Gulf of Alaska, the open sea heaved, and our vessel rolled and pitched, or dived into troughs and leapt over foaming waves. Most passengers disappeared into their cabins or tents pitched on the upper deck, overcome by nausea. The ferry’s modest restaurant and bar did not do much business that night.
Bad weather continued all of next day and the rough sea gave us no respite. I spent time with an artist from Homer on the lookout for albatross that live on the open sea feeding on krills and fly back to land only to nest. Later that day, I spotted some playful porpoises swimming along our ferry.
The porpoises were still tossing around the ferry. “That’s good omen,” said the cashier I was talking to. “Old sailor superstition! And that’s not good omen,” he added, pointing towards a ship’s mechanic who was taking his chances with the two Swedish girls.
“In old times, sailors believed that a ship that had women on board was doomed. They would distract men from their duties, as you can see. However, a naked woman could calm the seas. That is why many ships had a bare-breasted figurehead at the bow.”
After sunset we steered off the Gulf and took the inside passage to Yakutat in calm waters of the strait hemmed between two mountain ranges.
“Where is the casino?” I asked a local on disembarking in Yakutat at 8 pm.
“There is none,” he said. “We have only a bar and a general store. And they are both closed. Yakutat ran out of beer and milk three days ago.”
After a short walk in the dark to stretch our legs, we returned to the ferry.
Leaving Yakutat, we once again sailed into the stormy Gulf of Alaska, tossing like dolphins in our beds all night.
Next morning, the visibility was worse than on the two previous days. Only a few passengers dared to step out on the deck and face the cold, violent wind and the arrow-like intensity of the rain. They were well covered in rainproof parkas, mufflers, gloves and woollen caps.
But I couldn’t help noticing a young father and son who always stood on the deck, clad in casual T-shirts and jeans. I could not help asking them: “Are you guys Eskimos or reincarnated polar bears?”
“Eskimos is right!” said the dad, laughing.
“A genuine Eskimo?” I wanted to know.
“No. Half. My mom is Eskimo. She lives down on King Island.”
I have worshipped Eskimos since my childhood, as also, Red Indians, for their free spirit, their fiercely independent character, and love of nature. A ‘half-Eskimo’, right here before me, was fully deserving of my homage!
“And where are you headed?” I enquired.
“To Fresno, California, to meet my brother.”
“Why? Is he in exile? Enslaved and insulted by the settlers?”
“No,” he laughed, “He teaches in a college.”
“Teaches beadwork, fish oil processing, meat preservation , or…?”
“And how do you, sir, make a living? Hunting seals? Trading fur? Whaling? Making knives from walrus teeth perhaps?”
“No. I am a preacher in the Methodist church.”
It was my lesson in latest Eskimo lore!
Towards the afternoon, as we entered the calm blue waters of Icy Strait, the fog lifted to reveal the pure Alaskan wilderness of countless forest-clad islands; fjords, sound and passages watched over by a lofty chain of snow-capped mountains forested down to the water’s edge. White seagulls sat on water like lilies in a pond. Humpback whales spouted fountains and so many were spotted that they soon ceased to be a novelty.
In the distance was Glacier Bay, 3.3 million acres of the largest protected marine sanctuary in the world and a World Heritage Site. Soon, Juneau the broad and far-reaching expanse of Mendenhall Glacier, came into view, with its copious supply of bergs.
Leaning on the railing, next to us, was Tom Catterson, a retired professor of Environmental Sciences and Forestry from Syracuse University. He had spent five months in Khulna, Bangladesh, studying biodiversity in Sunderbans. He had boarded the ferry in Yakutat en route to Juneau. On climate change, his immediate response was that glaciers were receding in Alaska. I pointed out that this was not new. In 1879, the great naturalist John Muir, during his explorations in Alaska, had calculated that the ice in Glacier Bay had receded 80 kms since it was first measured by Capt. George Vancouver in 1794. The professor agreed with me.
“The only thing I can say about climate change with some certainty is that the weather has become erratic. Can’t say hotter or colder – just erratic,” he said.
Juneau state capital of Alaska cannot be accessed by road. You either fly in or float in.
“It’s our way of keeping our politicians in captivity. If they are allowed to run around the state, they will only create trouble!” quipped a passenger from Anchorage.
The ferry docked 20 km from the town and as there was not enough time to reach the beautiful wharf I had visited on an earlier cruise. Instead, we walked 30 minutes to a bar, conveniently located next to the university bookstore, to avail of its free wi-fi service and check our mail. It was 9/11, and the nation was observing the 12th anniversary of the attacks. All flags, including that of our ferry, were flying half-mast.
The next morning brought bright sunshine and beautiful views. In spite of its redundancy, the scenery is engaging, beguiling, fascinating. Docking in Ketchikan for three hours, we took a local bus downtown and made a fleeting visit to the picturesque shops on the waterfront near the cruise ship terminal and walked the Creek Street with its stilted houses from the Gold Rush period on a salmon-infested river. There are several large diamond shops on the wharf – mostly owned by Indians.
Satish Mirpuri of Soni Jewellers informed us that the diamond trade in Alaska is dominated by Indians – Sindhis from the Caribbean. Born and raised in Chennai, he is a Sindhi himself and had migrated to St Kitts after graduating from college. Lower taxes in Alaska result in cheaper prices of diamonds and tanzanite.
“This is a wholesale market for stones and the cruise ship passengers – already one million in the last four months since May – keep business ticking,” he said, bowing to the stone idol of Ganesh.
Shortly after leaving Ketchikan, we reached the western border of Canada, and for the next day-and-a-half, till almost the end of our voyage in Bellingham in Washington State, we would be cruising along a thousand km of Canadian shoreline.
Soon we were engulfed by dense fog and zero visibility. That night the ship’s crew was having a late-night party to celebrate Alaska Marine Highway System’s 50th anniversary. I slept with my life vest on.
The fog did not lift till early afternoon the next day. There was an old couple on board. The man, an old warhorse in his 80s and still in good shape, sat quietly with his ailing wife all day long, lovingly holding her hand. The lady’s chin stretched to her chest and her face was wrinkled with age. She was ancient beyond years and sat with her eyes closed. At other times, she could be seen downing her Bloody Mary in a hurry. That seemed to revive her.
I got talking to the husband. He had been fishing near Homer for the last sixty years “when we could grab thousands of salmon by hand during low tide as they made their way over the shallows”. But over the years their numbers had declined – “whether due to over-fishing or climate change – I can’t say”.
“However,” he continued, “the salmon have been returning to Alaska in record numbers the last few years – probably because of the colder, wetter weather since 2008. The changed ocean conditions increased the availability of cold water plankton that have higher fat reserves and are favoured by the salmon.” The wife had woken up and he rushed to the bar to get her favoured drink.
For me too it is mug up – time for grub and coffee – as the Alaskans say – and I gtg.
(Akhil Bakshi, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and vice-president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, is currently on a 35,000 km trans-America journey from Arctic to Antarctic. He wrote this account from Alaska, the first stop of his epic journey which began at Deadhorse Creek on the Arctic Ocean in Alaska and will end at Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America).
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