Aged icebreaker would offset 'magic blingdom'

Posted: Friday, August 07, 2009

It was not so many years ago that I peppered the Alaska newspapers with letters advocating that the then soon-to-be decommissioned Coast Guard cutter Storis be saved as a museum vessel.

After reading Greg Fisk's column calling for something more for Juneau's waterfront than the present "magic blingdom" (See the Aug. 4 Empire My Turn "Juneau's tourist trap monoculture") I find myself taking up Fisk's challenge, putting pen to paper.

People come to Alaska to escape the banality of their workday or middle class lives. They want to see rugged nature in its element. They want a taste of local culture. They want authenticity. They want to feel Alaskan history.

The venerable museum ship Storis will be a first step, but more is called for. More is needed to take back the waterfront from the bling blight.

Why not save one of the nation's deep water icebreakers? Not many survive, as the heavy steel hulls are much sought after by ship scrappers. Old ships like the USCG cutters Northwind and Westwind are but memories. The one decommissioned vessel surviving, the USCG cutter Glacier, is slated to become home-ported in Bridgeport, Conn.

There is, however, one ship left with both a notable record of both polar exploration and a strong connection to Alaska. That ship is the USCG Polar Sea, now in Seattle. The "Sea" has an operation life of about seven more years before it is decommissioned; seven more years before the scrappers lay claim to her.

Why consider the Polar Sea as a museum ship for Juneau? It was the first American surface ship to make it to the North Pole. In 1994, in company of the Canadian breaker St. Laurent and the Russian Yamal, they rendezvoused at 0 degrees North latitude. It was also one of only three vessels to have completely transited the Arctic Ocean and circumnavigated the North American continent.

Why would the Polar Sea be the perfect fit for Juneau? The Polar Sea's great bulk could serve as counterweight to the "Yuck" tourist traps that threaten to give Alaska vacations a bad name. The Polar Sea also would serve as the nation's museum dedicated to Arctic and polar exploration, making her a tourist draw in her own right.

With her twin stacks, the Polar Sea would make an impressive sight on Juneau's waterfront. Imagine the sight from the decks of an approaching cruise ship. At this writing, even New York City interests are considering bringing the languishing luxury liner S.S. United States to Manhattan.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But consider this: Russia is converting the historic Icebreaker Lenin into a museum and luxury hotel for Murmansk. They consider this massive icebreaker to be the port city's future for drawing European and American visitors. Why not the same for Juneau with our own Polar Sea?

• Steven Lindsey, a New Hampshire state legislator, is a former crewmember of the USCG cutter Polar Sea as well as the icebreakers Northwind and Westwind. He can be e-mailed at steven.lindsey@leg.state.nh.us.



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