Byline by MJ Akbar: An Alaska Diary
Alaska, perched on the crest of the world, has the majesty of royalty. It is therefore best seen at a slight distance. Get too close and you get soggy from the drool of hauteur; go too far and you miss the grandeur. The liner moving north from Vancouver swims effortlessly within continual view of mountains bursting with forest, punctuated by fingers of water that have curved inland. When, with nightfall, we retreat into the anonymity of ocean, a brilliant moon rises to create glittering, shimmering, luminous pathways that stretch deep and long into the seas. The stars become signposts for meteors. You stand at the centre of a gigantic silence, a silence that is almost still. The endless universe wheels and orbits without a sound. Our minute life on earth is enveloped in sound, whether in the broken discord of jagged human conversation, or the circular, addictive, hypnotic music of waves.
We are on a cruise from Vancouver in Canada to the Hubbard Glacier, a six-mile wide and 300-foot wall that strides a horizon of sea, mountain and sky. We find our feet again after 38 hours on water, on the small, midway island of Shee, at Shee Atika, shortened by European colonists to Sitka. Light rain is indistinguishable from mist, and mist indistinguishable from clouds, which frolic along the slopes of mountains. This was once the capital of Russian colonisers, who came to loot and stayed to loot: the Russian-American Company modelled itself proudly on the East India Company. The Robert Clive of the Russians was Count Alexander Baranov, who built himself a fortune and a palace before he was destroyed by the jealousy of his masters. The streets of pretty Sitka are lined with shops full of junk. Not all the junk was boring: I doubt if you could buy a brown fur thong anywhere except in Alaska.
One minor mystery solved. Why did the Russians sell this vast country called Alaska, commanding the strategic heights of a continent, to the United States in 1867 for a mere $7.2 million? Because Alaska didn’t belong to the Russians, of course. They discovered the land in 1741 thanks to the seafaring of Vitus Bering (hence the Bering Sea), and became rich selling the fur of seal, otter and blue fox to the wealthy Chinese. In 1799 arrived Count Baranov, and was driven out three years later by the Tlingit Indians, whose land he had seized. It is always the return engagement that is decisive (in 1756 Siraj-ud-Daula defeated the British in Calcutta; in 1757 he lost to them at Plassey). Baranov returned in 1804, and that was that. Descendants of Tlingit Indians now help you out of the boat that brings you ashore across the lagoon and help you up the wharf.
While different nations found their own exciting ways to be defeated, the Indians of Alaska may have been the only natives to be destroyed by a curious form of escalating generosity. A chief honoured his appointment by giving what was called a potlatch (is this the origin of potluck?), a feast in which everyone was invited within sledding distance, and every guest was honoured with expensive gifts of skin and cloth. There was no limit to how long a guest might stay. A chief might be reduced to just his own skin at the end of a potlatch. His opportunity came at the return feast, when he expected a bit more than he had given. It is easy, even without a degree in economics, to appreciate that the escalation of perpetually rising expectations doesn’t work. Demand exceeds supply, leaving inflamed egos that erect barbed wires across unity. It must have been easy for Robber Barons, or even Robber Counts. The American Wild West begins south in the deserts of California made famous by Clint Eastwood and ends in the icy wastes of the north made famous by polar bears. Occasionally, the twain did meet. There is a gun framed on the wall of the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau, the new capital of Alaska, with the caption "C-H-E-C-K-E-D but never claimed. This weapon was checked at the US Marshal’s office in Juneau, June 27, 1900 by the notorious gunfighter Wyatt Earp.
Left by ship on June 29." The saloon was carefully nurtured to look like a Hollywood set pretending to be real. A multi-jacketed pianist occupied a corner, and shot off an occasional joke between the tinkle-tonk ragtime. A queue of tourists jammed the entrance, eager for one more memory for the folks back home. It seems that the Red Dog Saloon always made more money out of the tour boats than the locals, which may explain why the centrepiece is a life-size local mannequin’s jeans being torn off by a bear chasing the former up a pole.
The saloon has the good sense to have a sense of humour. One sign puts it simply: "If our food, drinks and service aren’t up to your standards, please lower your standards." A second placard points out that "The cooking has never killed anyone, but the miners have hung more than one cook." The miners were the gold diggers who arrived in a rush and more often than not left in despair. The gold rush began 13 years after America bought Alaska, when two drunks, Dick Harris and Joe Juneau, set out from Sitka on a pay of four dollars a day and the rights to two stakes out of three. Before they discovered gold, however, they discovered "hooch", the mind-stunning liquor made by the Hutsunuwa tribe. The town was first named Harrisburg, but Harris turned out to be such a crook that they changed the name to Juneau. Both drank away their fortune, possibly making it good fortune in the process. They died penniless. As you leave the saloon, there is a practical order: "Gold dust dropped on the floor belongs to the sweeper."
You cannot see a glacier move, but I might have seen one melt. The Hubbard Glacier stretches back 90 miles from the seashore. Glaciers are not icebergs; they form because snowfall on mountain ranges exceeds the rate at which snow melts. The snow presses forward, until the unstoppable force meets the immovable sea, and huge storeys of ice fall off like roaring waterfalls into the water. Our huge ship moves slowly into the sea passage that ends in the blue-streaked-with-brown ice wall called Hubbard, a survivor of the mini ice age in which 10 per cent of the earth’s area was covered with ice.
There is a good scientific reason why the ice is blue; naturally, this escapes my understanding. But it is a blue that makes the colour synonymous with cool. As the glacier gradually looms nearer, our ship becomes smaller; proportions determine the psychology of vision. Thunder breaks out at eye level; eyes swivel right to follow the sound and see ice crashing from the block. A cold wind that seems to rise from the roof of the glacier swarms around our heads. Sunlight melts into the blue and fades into the brown; the sea has been chopped up into tiny pieces of water that jump and rest with polite serenity. The glacier is a solid, stolid, impassive giant now, which suddenly snorts out ice instead of fire. The ship turns and slowly circles the giant, and it is time to turn back.
The giant gradually diminishes into a pygmy, and the ship becomes large again.