I stood where a river poured out of a mountain-edged lake, rod raised high, feeling my jig swing downstream, then settle as it crossed an eddy line. Tap…tap…then a weightless instant. A big, bright coho burned out line, reversed course, then nothing. No matter. I had two good fish on the bank, and a hundred more lay within casting distance.
Across the channel, a wet crash announced company—a gorgeous, blond-tipped bear bounding through the shallows and grabbing a salmon of her own. The whir of the river, eagles keening, and the chatter of magpies layered over a depthless silence; slopes brushed with fall colors cradled the lake, about as perfect a scene of deep wilderness Alaska as anyone might imagine.
But if I’d stood there the previous August, rather than 2020, the ambiance would have been unrecognizable: hundreds of people around—van loads of cruise ship folks plying the road, hoping to glimpse a bear; anglers lined up and down the banks of this short, steep tidewater river; tripod-lugging photographers; boats working the lake; kids playing; the adjoining campgrounds and nearby lodges jammed full. This was, after all, Chilkoot Lake, several miles north of downtown Haines—one of the more accessible, spectacular, and popular bear viewing and fishing spots in southeast Alaska. But on this perfect fall-tinged afternoon, I had it all to myself.
The reason, of course, was the pandemic, and the accompanying shutdown of the 2020 tourist season—not just in Haines, but across the sweep of Alaska. None of the million-plus cruise ship visitors flowing through May into September; and Canadian border highway crossings closed to all but essential travel. Airports and the state ferry system remained open, but the state’s stringent testing and quarantine requirements, amplified by widespread, justified worry both from Alaskans and would-be visitors, had slowed all travel to a trickle. Many small communities across the state went into lockdown mode. As late as February 2020, the year had been forecast as a record-breaking tourist season, building on the success of 2019. But just like that, one of the Great Land’s largest economic engines, the tourism and visitor industry, shut down. Parks closed or scaled back; lodges, shuttered since the previous autumn, didn’t open; tours and transportation services, restaurants, hotels, galleries, souvenir shops, and so on went into hunker mode; and tens of thousands of people, including many seasonal workers like me, were out of work or cut to the bone.
Getting back to Haines for a month last fall had taken research, planning, and determination. While figuring where to get timely tests and wading through the rigmarole of rules and regulations was daunting, the trip itself proved downright eerie—ghost-town airports and scads of empty seats on normally packed flights; masked strangers, many of them visibly on edge, heads down, folded into themselves, just as I was. Then the weird-feeling testing line at the Juneau airport. But once I was waiting outside for a shuttle to the motel on a rain-spattered midnight, I knew I’d made the right call. Coming home has no price.
A Different Southeast
That said, I’d surely returned to a different southeast Alaska. I and my longtime friend, photographer Mark Kelley, wandered familiar but silent trails near Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier. The parking lots normally thronged with buses and tourists sat empty, visitor center doors locked. In a normal August, Mark would have been signing books and calendars inside for hours for crowds of folks day after day, making a major chunk of his living. Instead, his office warehouse was stacked with unopened cases, ordered back in December in anticipation of sales that never came. Mark, arguably the most successful publisher and photographer in the state, admitted he was hanging by his fingernails. “We can make it until next year,” he sighed. “But another season like this, and we may be done.” The rows of shuttered businesses from Ketchikan to Fairbanks seem to echo his words.
Meanwhile, there are silver linings to the pandemic. Alaskans are thronging to the outdoors in seeming record numbers, enjoying the lack of helicopters clattering overhead or wakes cast by tour boats, less competition for fish, the extra elbow room on trails. Truly, it’s Alaska for Alaskans. And all the looming rural mega-projects that offer to exchange some of the finest wild country on the planet for fistfuls of cash—the Pebble Mine; the Ambler Mining Road; drilling for oil in the refuge; the Palmer Prospect mine at the head of the Chilkat River, proposed old-growth timber cuts on Prince of Wales Island, and more—are on pause. I’ll take more time to come to our senses any day, to reconsider and realize what the true riches of the Great Land are.
Mark serves as a poster child for hundreds of small- to medium-sized tourism-supported businesses statewide. Larger, more highly capitalized outfits, like flying services and tour boat companies, with millions of dollars in costs and equipment, are in equally tenuous shape. Work up to the cruise ship companies, with billions hanging in the breeze and revenues slashed, and you get a sense of the industrial scale of Alaska’s economic catastrophe, and the concentric circles radiating out into the world. How it all pans out remains to be seen; but worldwide, the hunger for the Great Land, the grandeur and freedom it symbolizes, seems whetted rather than diminished. Alaska offers hope, wide as the horizon. Like all of us, I have fingers crossed for the upcoming year, and years. We’ll all find out together.