3rd August 2016
March 24, 1989, 12:27 A.M.: “We’ve fetched up hard aground…evidently we’re leaking some oil, and we’re going to be here for a while” – Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph Hazlewood to the U.S. Coastguard
|The end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at Valdez
*Alaska is known as America’s final frontier. A Google search of the term “frontier” yields the following definition:
“The extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness…”
I have spent the past couple of weeks traversing some of the state of Alaska. I have wandered to the northernmost land within U.S. territory at Barrow, and I am currently waiting in Haines to take a ferry to Prince Rupert in British Columbia, marking the end of my Alaska adventure. In between, I have visited Fairbanks, Anchorage, Denali, Kenai, Coldfoot and Valdez, a fraction of the largest state in the United States of America. I have seen vast areas of wild lands, all of which have been impacted, to some degree, by humanity. We are at a place in human history where a new definition of frontier is needed.
|Satellite dishes on the tundra at Barrow, the northernmost land in the United States
My intention is not to denigrate the incomparable value of Alaska’s natural areas. I have traveled across the globe, and I have never before experienced such vast wild landscapes. Alaska has one of the most commendable protected areas networks on Earth, with 104,000,000 acres put into conservation, an area approximately the same size as the state of California. Outside the two cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks and a few scattered towns, most Alaskan land areas are unmarred by visible signs of human development, as far as the eye can see. From the airplane window enroute from Anchorage to Barrow, the never-ending vista of mountain, forest and tundra is awe-inspiring.
|Wilderness in the Denali National Park
Frontier was once the edge of civilization, beyond which the wilds represented an unknown, untamed and unpredictable force. Nature no longer has any impenetrable boundaries. In Alaska, bowhead whale populations in the far reaches of the Arctic Ocean were hunted for oil and baleen to the brink of extinction. Sea otter populations were annihilated for the sin of their luxurious fur, recovered, and then were decimated again by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Oil rigs, in one of the most remote areas on earth, supply at least 20% of the U.S. supply, pumping billions of gallons of crude 800 miles down a pipeline, across the Alaskan wilderness from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. During my visit to Barrow, no sea ice graced the Arctic seas.
|An iceless Arctic Ocean at midnight in Barrow, Alaska
On 24th March 1989, just after midnight, the largest oil spill in history (at that time), poured millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska, killing hundreds of thousands of seabirds and other wildlife. Crude oil can still be detected in the sediments, and toxins are present in the tissues of sea animals in the region, more than 28 years later.
|Seabirds feeding in the Gulf of Alaska
Denali National Park is larger than the country of Wales. The combined protected area, which includes the Wrengell-Saint Ellias National Park, Glacier Bay National Park and Kluane National Park (Canada), represents the largest internationally protected area on Earth. Within Alaska's protected areas grizzly bears, moose, caribou, eagles, sea otters, bowhead whales and thousands of other species of flora and fauna can recover from human impact, thrive and live, for the most part, in accordance with their own natural histories. Outside Alaska’s protected areas, even in apparent wilderness, wildlife is rare. Alaska’s wilderness continues to exist because of man’s consent, not in spite of it.
|Sea otter in the Kenai Fjords National Park
My brain is now attempting to process the overload of stimuli it received during my Alaska experience. Over the next several days, I will try to compile the data into succinct pieces and post them, based on each location I visited.
|Humpback whale and seabirds in the Kenai Fjords National Park