Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Alaska Versus Mexico

I leaned from the bed and stretched a hand towards the window to pull back the “darkening” shade, then plucked apart the slats of the blind with two fingers. Would I find rain or sunshine? My cousins and I planned a trip to Glacier Gardens, but it wouldn’t be much fun in a cold rain.

“You might get one day of sunshine a week,” a wizened sourdough told us when we first arrived in Alaska, “if you’re lucky.” I guess the Weather Channel web site hadn’t made a typo when the ten-day forecast for Southeastern Alaska predicted rain every single day.

I knew this part of Alaska was a rain forest, but I was hoping the rain always fell at night the way it does in Ajijic. Mexico. Actually it always did fall at night. And in the morning and in the afternoon and in the evening.

So much rain falls in Ketchikan that it’s measured in feet, not inches, and it’s given the sobriquet, liquid sunshine. But a euphemism cannot disguise fourteen feet of rain per year. It was wet—all the time.

Dreary days that stretch into weeks do strange things to people. Alaska’s water-stained streets are usually deserted. Sunny summer days, however, are so rare no one squanders a moment of the nineteen-hour sunlight. Employers expect their employees to “be sick,” and parties are often canceled so folks can go fishing. In Juneau, some friends of my niece hosted a huge wedding. The chosen date, which fell on a Tuesday night, would have struck anyone in the Lower-48 as an odd choice, but it made sense to Alaskans. It never rains on July 3, so it was perfectly reasonable to hold the wedding in the middle of the week. They were right, by the way. It didn’t start raining again until 4:00 a.m. July 4.

Mostly, though, sourdoughs have resigned themselves to their fate and make valiant attempts to deal with unremitting gloom. Juneau’s Fourth of July parade went ahead as scheduled despite the drenching downpour. In the best bookstore in Sitka, a display sign cautions, "Don’t drip on the books." And for those who cannot cope any other way, bars open at 7:30 in the morning.

The Alaskan government distributes stipends every year to either offset the cost of living in the fifth most expensive area in the United States, or to alleviate the cost of escaping to a drier climate once a year, depending on whom you talk to. But it would take far more than $2000 to convince me to live there.

Yes, the Last Frontier, twice the size of Texas, is remote and beautiful. Most of the towns in Southeastern Alaska are landlocked and can only be reached by plane. No matter how large the city, there’s only a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea that can support only 30 to 75 miles of roadway. And it’s true beauty is everywhere. Sitka’s harbor is dotted with fir-covered islands and the mountains, which serve as the backdrop for the tiny town, are snow-capped. Ketchikan’s library juts over a rushing brook where you can read a magazine while watching the salmon struggle upstream. Waterfalls streak the mountainsides with silver and eagles hang glide overhead.

And certainly there are moments in Alaska not quickly forgotten. As our boat approaches the glacier, the celadon-glazed sea turns aquamarine and seals cling to floating ice chunks. The four-mile jagged wall, full of compressed ice crystals, can reflect no other light rays except sky blue. Standing on the boat deck watching a cruise ship, dwarfed by the glacier, pass closer than our fourteen-man boat dared, I think of the Titanic and this frigid water which kills in just five minutes. When the glacier calves and part of the ice wall falls into the sea with a roar, I am not the only one who shivers in the rocking boat.

But not even a two-million-dollar stipend could convince me to live there.

As I lay in bed on that second to the last morning in Juneau, I thought about my life in Mexico. I remembered a trip to Boca de Iguanas one winter when I marveled at the emerald mountains where a giant god had wrinkled the hills and sprinkled bits of chartreuse in the folds. Fjords are majestic, but not as lovely as the lake nestled in a ring of mountains in Michoacan. And nowhere in Alaska could I sit on a quiet Saturday morning and contemplate a ball court build in 450 A.D.

I released the slats of the window blind and huddled under the covers. The heater clicked on. I realized it didn’t really matter if it were raining in Juneau. All I needed to remember was that, somewhere in Ajijic, open windows welcomed the sound of church bells wafting on the warm morning air.

Practicalities -
I'm not fond of cruises. If I wanted to stare at water all day long, I'd fill up my bathtub. Still, there are definite advantages to an Alaskan cruise. Many of the most scenic places are only accessible by boat. A stop for only a day in each town is enough time for it to reveal all its charms, and then you can get back to the real show you'll see from the ship--the sea lions and whales.

My cousins and I did not take a cruise. We flew to Ketchikan, then to Sitka for a few more days, and finally, Juneau. With only those 30-75 miles of roadway to explore, we would have been bored after 24 hours if we hadn't taken some short, half-day cruises. So, the fly/boat option is feasible, but not one I recommend. Take the cruise. You won't regret it.

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