Have you ever been to Shishmaref?

Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2008

No other state in the Union can offer such an adventure for travelers seeking great distances and faraway places. If you live in Massachusetts or Georgia or Nevada you could just jump in your car and visit any small town or large city. In Alaska, you have to take a boat or a small plane to reach many destinations.

We are, of course, all equal citizens regardless of where we live, but if you've only spent your life in Ketchikan or Juneau, Anchorage or Fairbanks, you're really missing out. There are joys and wonders beyond the urban centers.

One of the advantages of modern life is that we can move so quickly. In a little over two hours by jet plane we are whisked from Seattle to the Mendenhall Flats airfield. But there is a drawback, compared to early days, when you traveled by steamer and stopped along the way at the ports of British Columbia and Southeastern. The same is true of travel on the rivers of Alaska.

There is often a parochialism in the big cities. This may sound like a misnomer, but it is true. Often you can hear a narrow minded, even bigoted attitude toward rural Alaska, which is the great heartland of the state. An Anchorage legislator was reported as saying that he was only concerned about his own place.

Today, we have the single election district for the 40 members of the House of Representatives. In Territorial days we had a divisional system, where the legislators in Southeast had to run at large in the First Division. Then, a candidate had to go to Craig or Saxman, Petersburg and Sitka, Haines and Skagway to compete. He or she represented more than his hometown. An Anchorage candidate campaigned all through the many places in the Third Division.

Of course, you can't turn the clock back, but it is fair to point out how we have become more self-centered than we used to be.

To travel with a purpose is especially meaningful. It often involves striking out on a new course, like being a pioneer on the frontier.

The highlight of my working life was spending five years in Yakutat from 1972 to 1976, experiencing the special grandeur of that community, with its 60 mile long sandy beach facing the big combers of the Pacific Ocean, within sight of majestic Mount St. Elias and Mount Logan.

And then on to Bristol Bay at Dillingham from 1977 to 1981. Little things are special memories. It was so dusty as the winds from the Bering Sea picked up the fine sand of the city streets that I couldn't pull a comb through my hair. I saved Saturday night to take a bath in my tiny trailer to wash the dirt out of my hair and to scrub the fish scales off my arms.

One of the great travelers of our time is Rie Muñoz. Her artistic purpose was to create a historical record, so that in 10 years or in a 100 years, people will have a memory of how this place looked and what the people were doing.

Have you ever been to Shishmaref? Rie has, and also to Craig and Eagle and Golovnin and Holy Cross and King Island and Russian Mission and St. George and Dutch Harbor and more than 100 other vivid, wonderful places in this great land.

Lawrence Blood of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development tells me that we have 353 self supporting communities, large and small, in Alaska.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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