An Alaskan vacation lesson

You can get away from it all only by closing your mind

We thought we'd get away from it all on a cruise to Alaska, but found out you really can't do it.

The differences are wonderful. The storms, stifling heat, forest fires, and scorching droughts of the lower 48 give way to a zany mix of sun, squall, and drizzle. No crowds; this 49th state twice the size of Texas, population 650,000, has more than enough room to bring the monster cruise ships down to scale and put distance between the tour buses.

It has none of the insistent racket that goes with civilization. (Rush hour in Anchorage could be the soft exception.) The explosion of nature in summer has its own sounds, shaking off the long northern winter: the roar of "calving" glaciers as they drop giant slabs of ice, the barking of seals and sea lions, the gossip of nesting birds.

Alaska gives the Park and Forest Services the chance to show what national parks can be. Glacier Bay especially is a celebration of life. Here, the mountain valleys, scoured down to the primal stone by great rivers of ice, show living things coming back when the glaciers recede. First the lichens, clinging to the rock, followed by mosses, plants, shrubs, and trees provide food and habitat for tiny, then larger creatures.

Now, black and grizzly bears are there, the humpback whales have returned. So have the orcas (killer whales which are actually a species of dolphin). Cliff faces crowded with nesting gulls attract predators. The bald eagle, our national symbol, not only soars proudly but also robs the eggs. Nature is cruel as well as beautiful. The otherwise defenseless gulls retaliate by dropping guano on the eagles. Talk of lse-majest!

However different Alaska is, though, it shares the world's woes. Take global warming. Most of its glaciers are melting, as are those of Europe's Alpine region, which have lost a third of their volume in the last 30 years and may disappear by the end of the 21st century. The World Glacial Monitoring Service, keeping an eye on 64 glaciers worldwide, finds that only a few in northernmost Norway continue to advance. Because glaciers are great water- storage systems, the rivers they feed will first flood and then go shallow.

If all the world's ice melted, sea level would, it is calculated, rise 330 feet. The great coastal cities would drown; so would many island nations. The process may have started. Tuvalu, to become the UN's 189th member state in September, has no land higher than 15 feet. Last winter, an unusually high tide threw the 11,000 inhabitants into a panic. New Zealand said it would take them in if they had to leave. Australia and Fiji refused. Savage storms and droughts in the South Pacific and the Caribbean area in recent years are taken as portents of what is to come.

Alaska has more to contemplate than receding glaciers. The slowly rising temperature is beginning to melt the permafrost that underlies most of the state.

Naturalists liken it to a vast peat bog. As it dries out it is likely to burn, releasing carbon dioxide and methane, two of the hottest gases that contribute most to global warming. Observers have noted a change in food plants such as encroachment by dwarf birch and grasses that caribou and moose do not eat. In places, lichens are vanishing because of pollution traceable to Europe. PCB has been found in polar bear fat.

Politically and socially there are familiar tensions, such as cutting roads and logging in the immense Tongass National Forest.

Also, against a background of racial and cultural tolerance far better than in the lower 48, there is bickering over building gambling casinos on Indian land.

Huge and strange as it, Alaska is not an escape but a reminder of how everything is connected. You can get away from it all only by closing your mind.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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