Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Last Frontier

Most persons think of Alaska and Hawaii coming into the Union together in 1959, but "The Last Frontier" actually had its statehood approved the year before and was proclaimed a state  on January 3, 1959, seven months before Hawaii.  For an ever so brief moment there was actually a 49-star flag, which was officially unfurled on July 4th of that year with this first day issue of the stamp.


The statehood drive had begun decades before.  Frustrated at being ignored, the territory actually picked two shadow senators and a representative to go to Congress on its behalf in 1956.  While they weren't accepted into the fold, they did successfully lobby for statehood and on July 7, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the statehood bill into law.

Alaska no longer wanted administration without representation, much like its far flung neighbor Hawaii.  It was only fitting that Alaska came in first, since it was annexed as a territory in 1867, thirty years before the Aloha State.  The purchase was dubbed "Seward's Folly," as there were plenty of folks who saw no value in adding such a remote territory, especially for what was seen as a gargantuan sum of $7.2 million in its day.  It turned out to be a worthwhile investment, as the United States reaped huge dividends with the Klondike Gold Rush, immortalized in this film.

It was about the time of the gold rush that my grandmother was born in Ketchikan.  There were apparently no birth certificates issued.  Salmon was the initial draw of the town, but soon mining and logging would become the dominant activities in this coastal town located at the bottom tip of the "Inside Passage."  It would have looked something like this,


Robert Service and Jack London would draw others to the state with their poems, short stories and novels.  My favorite remains The Cremation of Sam McGee.  The state continues to be seen as a place where you go to prove yourself, whether it is The Deadliest Catch or to climb Mt. McKinley, known locally as Denali.  Others take the Inside Passage on cruise ships, stopping off at Ketchikan and other places along the way.  

You can also take the armchair approach and read Jonathan Raban's wonderful Passage to Juneau.  Raban finds a way to connect the indigenous culture with Homeric musings, weaving into his narrative the long history of the state as he sails between the islands in his 35-foot ketch.

Alaska is also refuge, as wonderfully depicted in Northern Exposure, a television serial that ran between 1990-1995.  But, my favorite account is that of Dick Proenneke, who retired to the state in 1967 and built a cabin by the shores of Twin Lakes, which he captured in the documentary, Alone in the Wilderness.


It's this wilderness that people value most, yet it is in constant danger of encroachment, especially with our insatiable appetite for oil and timber.  One of the worst nightmares was the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 with its ongoing recovery 25 years later.  This is one of the many reasons environmentalists don't want to open the Tongass National Forest to logging and oil drilling, fighting plans like this one proposed by the Bush administration and supported by Sarah Palin when she was governor of Alaska.  Now that the Arctic ice cap is melting, Alaska could once again serve as a major portal to deep-water oil exploration, which the Obama administration approved.  

Our government just doesn't seem to get it.  In 2013, nearly 2 million persons visited Alaska, which is almost three times the population of the state.  Tourism accounts for one in eight Alaskan jobs.  Of course, this takes a physical toll on the state as well, but nothing like the Valdez disaster.

It was Teddy Roosevelt who created the Tongass and Chugach forest reserves so that these pristine lands would be preserved for future generations and continue to inspire persons the way this great wilderness has inspired so many others before.



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