Sunday, July 3, 1988
THE MIAMI HERALD
GRIN AND BEAR IT
and I recently returned from a trip to Alaska, a place that
combines spectacular natural beauty with a breathtaking amount
of tax-deductibility if you write a travel article about it,
which is what I'm doing here. I'll start with some Facts at
ALASKA IS: Way the hell far from you. Beyond Mars.
HOW YOU GET THERE: You sit in a variety of airplanes for the
bulk of your adult life (longer if you take a child).
WHAT THEY HAVE THERE THAT WILL TRY TO KILL YOU: Bears. I am
quite serious about this. Although Alaska is now an official
United State with modern conveniences such as rental cars
and frozen yogurt, it also contains a large number of admitted
bears, striding freely about the landscape, and nobody seems
to be the least bit alarmed about this. In fact, the Alaskans
seem to be proud of it. You walk into a hotel or department
store, and the first thing you see is a glass case containing
a stuffed bear the size of Nigeria. Our hotel had two of these.
It was what we travel writers call "a two-bear hotel."
Both bears were standing on their hind legs and striking a
pose that said: "Welcome to Alaska! I'm going to rip
your arms off!"
This struck me as an odd concept, greeting visitors with a
showcase containing a major local hazard. It's as if the Greater
Miami Chamber of Commerce went around setting up glass display
cases containing stuffed cocaine smugglers, with little plaques
stating how much they weighed and where they were taken. (Which
is not such a bad idea, now that I think of it.)
Anyway, we decided the best way to deal with our fear of bears
was to become well-informed about them, so we bought a book
entitled Alaska Bear Tales. Here are some of the chapter titles,
which I am not making up:
"They'll Attack Without Warning"
"They'll Really Maul You"
"They Will Kill"
"Come Quick! I'm Being Eaten by a Bear!"
"They Can Be Funny"
Ha ha! I bet they can. I bet Mr. and Mrs. Bear are a bundle
of hilarity as they tussle playfully over the remaining portion
of a former tourist plumped up by airline food. But just the
same, I'm glad that the only actual, nonstuffed, practicing
bears that we saw were in the Anchorage zoo.
We did, however, see a great deal of nature. Alaska is almost
completely covered with nature, including several million
spectacular snow-capped mountains, any one of which is so
awesome that if you were to relocate it to an average semiflat
state such as Indiana, the residents would all quit their
jobs and form cults and worship it. But Alaska has so many
amazing mountains that after a while you hardly notice them,
which is a good thing because it frees you to watch out for
the moose poop, which is all over the place in the form of
egg-shaped units known as "moose nuggets, " which
local people use -- this is also the truth -- to make earrings
and other souvenir items to sell to tourists who have no taste
or decency. We bought some.
Speaking of the local people, they are as nice as any we've
ever met. This is probably because there are only about 85
of them, and they all seem to know each other. It's an informal
state, the kind of state where if you stayed for a couple
of weeks and didn't shoot anybody, they'd probably let you
be lieutenant governor. (Alaska has a fully operational state
government, complete with buildings, Legislature, etc. The
front-page issue being hotly debated while we were there was:
As you'd expect, Alaskans tend to be hardy, outdoor- oriented
individuals. For example, we were invited to dinner at the
home of Craig Medred, an Anchorage newspaper columnist, and
we ate a caribou that he, personally, had shot. With a real
gun. This is very rugged behavior, for a journalist. For most
of us, a real Wilderness Adventure is to operate a nonriding
Another rugged Alaskan we met was Cynthia Toohey, who operates
the Crow Creek Mine near Anchorage. This is a genuine gold
mine, with a sign on the entrance road stating:
NO FERN PICKING!
Toohey lives in a house with no electricity, phone or plumbing,
and no way to get in or out during winter except by snowmobile.
"When the tourists come, " she said, "they
ask me, 'How can you get by without a trash compactor?' "
She had Pepsi cooling in a snowbank and a loaded gun over
the front door. I asked her if she'd ever had any trouble
with bears, and she said, yeah, she had; but she seemed more
concerned about fern-pickers.
Not far from the Crow Creek Mine is the Bird House, a tiny,
truly wonderful bar that is falling down a hillside and has
reached such a steep angle that if you don't hang on to your
beer bottle, it will slide away and fall off the bar. Not
that this would matter: You couldn't possibly make a mess
in the Bird House, because it already contains two-thirds
of the world clutter supply. Every surface is covered with
objects left by patrons -- business cards, underpants, numerous
brassieres (some the size of tank parachutes) and, of course,
an artificial leg.
Alaska also contains glaciers, avalanches, earthquakes and
a large quantity of "tundra" (an Eskimo word meaning:
"nothing"). These are all very important in terms
of geology, and you should definitely visit them. But stop
by the Bird House first. And save your receipts.
© 1988 Dave Barry. The information you
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