By 2020, Alaska Will Be Half Empty

Alaska has a stunning beauty: its snow-capped mountains, its glaciers, its fish-filled streams. It’s Alaska’s population of small islands that have its own chemistry. Each one contains its own smell. Its two coasts, Palmiopsis…

By 2020, Alaska Will Be Half Empty

Alaska has a stunning beauty: its snow-capped mountains, its glaciers, its fish-filled streams. It’s Alaska’s population of small islands that have its own chemistry. Each one contains its own smell. Its two coasts, Palmiopsis and Van Horn, have flavors, too. They both smell like moisture. If you live there, if you live among them, you have to feel good about the idea of that being the place you call home, as well as the chance that at any moment you might be moving away. But this is also a place where it’s 100 degrees almost all the time, a constant hot spot of fear, and where, by the look of things in the midst of this heatwave right now, thousands of people are fleeing out the door of their homes and the government is doing nothing.

We live here because we love the rugged beauty of the Alaskan continent, the canyons and the coasts. In recent years, with global warming, Alaska’s coastline has been pinched out of shape and most people have been forced to relocate. During a trip to a previous home in Seward, our friend George had an idea that he wanted to do for the city. He wanted to build boats from scratch, hand-forged from fern branches, in an effort to bring back the culture of those days. The boats would be bobbing in a lagoon at the sound, where, back in the day, bathers, sailors, sealers, whalers, fur trappers would all convene.

TBA is an upstart artist in Idaho; she has a pottery business that took off after a community gave up their building and moved in with her to share her shop and allow her to take the apartment. She takes calls from groups who simply find themselves homeless, looking for a space to put their pieces, either to scatter or to hang on a wall. She is trying to find a place for them, where they won’t disturb the community and where their art can be honored by the locals. She didn’t, however, find an empty shop on First Avenue. It’s now full of drug addicts and homeless people. On my flight in, I could almost feel them getting larger, even.

The photos I took of the state, along with conversations with residents in town, showed the lengths to which the state has been pulled down by the weather, even with the great rain we received the day before. It’s the trend, no doubt, of people leaving and leaving kids and grandkids behind. Some villages have a second and third generation of residents; they come from all across the world.

And then there’s a neighbor I saw this morning as we were flying over the coast. The guy is a tall, white immigrant, whose wife is a Japanese American from Hiroshima. They have been together since they were teenagers, but the marriage was broken up and he was in federal prison. A distant third generation cousin, Mika, came over to take care of him, and now she’s given up her job in Oregon to help care for him. When Mika found out that the Department of Justice was planning to deport him, she volunteered to take him in and cared for him all winter until the landing planes landed and he could be flown out. He’s a gentle man with a twinkle in his eye and a twinkle in his eyes to boot. He kisses Mika all the time. When he sits down to drink his coffee, all she has to do is give him a hug and he’s right back up again. There is no controlling her, no hovering. She’s the guy in the country. She’s as careful as he is in saying “no” to him, and as loving as he is. Her kids come over, she cooks dinner.

The country, meanwhile, has moved on. Thousands of Alaskans have settled down in other states. The rest of us have continued to live here, pinched to death by weather. There isn’t enough room on the shore to contain all those people and all those beautiful places. Will it ever be enough? No one knows the answer, and we like to think so.

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