Alaska's cities - their charm lies in the character of their people
(Page 2 of 2)
When I met her last July, I saw a fine-boned woman in a designer dress, who looked as if she would be more at home in Paris, but she is clearly made of the stuff one finds in people over and over agian in Alaska - steel.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In Anchorage the contrasts of Juneau are magnified many times.Its setting is utterly improbable - to the east is Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range; to the west, the snow, mountains, and glaciers of the Alaska Peninsula. The civic symphony actually predated paved roads. Now, however, the downtown streets are the starting point for the biggest dog sled race in the world, the Iditarod - 1, 000 miles over a legendary trail to Nome.
On a bright July day I rode into a spectacular untrammeled landscape only minutes from downtown Anchorage, on the Kenai Peninsula. On the left, blue mountains were reflected in the pools left by the receding tide in Turnagain Arm. Its name is a memento of the exploration of Alaska by Capt. James Cook in 1778. He had to turn and turn and turn again to get his ship out of the shallow inlet. Some of the strongest tides in the world occur here - up to 40 feet; and the mud flat is a mire - although a beautiful one of quicksand.
Portage Glacier, farther down the road, is evocative of a harsher past, and of the long-established cosmopolitan character of the site of Anchorage. The glacier actually was a portage, a trade route for Indians of the area. Anchorage has grown from those origins: with its establishment as headquarters of the Alaska railroad, with the development of farming in the Matanuska Valley 45 miles north of the city, with the construction of military bases - and with oil. Anchorage is still in trade.
In Anchorage, there are small frame houses, as there are in Juneau, perhaps with a tent in the backyard - but beside them tower glass-walled skyscrapers.
I came upon a young man playing a grand piano set on a flatbed truck on the main street of Anchorage. Jeeps and pickups, the utilitarian all-Alaskan vehicles, drove past as he played Beethoven and then his own jazz compositions.
Surprise and what would anywhere else be anomaly are the signal characteristics of urban Alaska.
Of the three cities, Fairbanks shows the rough edges the most. Like Anchorage, it had its origin in trade, but much more recently and accidentally.
It began as a trading post at a spot where Capt. E. T. Barnette was forced to disembark by low water from the steamer he was traveling up the Chena River to the chosen spot for his operation. Fairbanks prospered with the gold rush north of the city, and with its selection as the terminus of the Alaska railroad it became the commercial center to the interior.
But its real growth came in 1973 and 1977 with the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. It was an old-fashioned boomtown - with a great deal of money about. The effects are still visible. But Fairbanks is also home to the University of Alaska.
It would be a disservice to Fairbanks to suggest that you travel 3,000 miles to see the museum at the university - superb though it is. It is rather the ability of Fairbanks - and Anchorage and Juneau - to encompass both ends of a very broad spectrum from civilization to wilderness that makes them all fascinating.