As I See It: An Icy Place Apart
July 11, 2011 Victor Rozek
Over the years, I’ve learned to avoid locations with life-threatening names. There’s a reason why places like Death Valley, Cardiac Ridge, and Hammerhead Bay sound dangerous. Survival rates decline for people who frequent them. So, what am I doing pounding across a body of water known as Icy Straight in an open skiff? The craft is little more than a glorified rowboat with a large outboard motor. There’s freezing wind blowing off the 45 degree ocean and rain is pelting my face, while I huddle in an orange Gumby survival suit made of rubber and foam.
All things considered, I’m having the time of my life.
I’m in Alaska, and we’re motoring back to Gustavus, a tiny settlement of fewer than 500 intrepid souls. Gustavus, the gateway to Glacier Bay National Park (a United Nations World Heritage Site), is a 20-minute flight west of Juneau, and like Juneau, is only accessible by air or water. Today the water is slate grey and all around us wooded islands rise thousands of feet straight out of the ocean. Getting around requires a boat. Think of it as Venice with spruce and hemlock.
The remoteness of the place amplifies the importance of having access to information technology. The global reliance on the Internet for commerce and communication is no less pressing in Southeast Alaska. What a decade ago was merely a novelty has now morphed into necessity. It turns out that people who choose to live away from the world also need to be connected to it. Whether it’s drawing tourists to the park, selling native Tlingit artwork, attracting sports fisherman, or communicating with distant family members, the Internet has become the umbilical cord of modernity.
The couple hosting us shares a swatch of broadband with several community households. There is an understanding that no one will stream movies, or feed their YouTube addictions, since such activity degrades everyone else’s service. But entertainment is tangential to basic survival needs. In a place like Gustavus there are no banks, no hospitals, no Costcos, no Home Depots. If you’re remodeling your bathroom (which our hosts were) and you’re 12 tiles short (which they also were), it’s a six-hour ferry ride to Juneau, weather permitting. Rather than venturing forth, reliable broadband brings the world to rural communities, expanding a reach truncated by geography.
Bouncing along in the skiff, we pass a raft of otters, about ten of them lashed together with kelp, relaxing in the afternoon swell. After being nearly hunted to extinction, they are making a welcome comeback. We pass a seal lion rookery, blubber covering stone, the huge dominant male, perched on the highest rock, bellowing news of his supremacy. Up ahead, the backs of humpback whales seamlessly break the surface, their great exhales audible from a quarter mile away. For a precious moment they glide in synchronized splendor, then disappear beneath the surface to continue their summer feeding in preparation for their long winter journey to the birthing lagoons in Baja, California.
Since the first Europeans arrived in 1648, Alaska has been a resource-rich target for exploitation. Over two hundred years ago, the Russians came for the fur; a hundred years later, the Americans came for the gold, and stayed for the timber. Today, the tourists come for the natural splendor, and to kill or catch large living things. Gustavus, however, has an additional attraction for the club-wielding vacationer–an improbable golf course. Soggy and minimally maintained, it may not have the manicured look of Augusta, but where else can you see a bald eagle on the fairway?
Everyone in Gustavus has a truck and they all look like they’ve been trampled by a herd of moose. But shiny laptops are plentiful and cell phones are as ubiquitous as salmon. The startup cost for service providers, however, is high (installing a single dish in the Interior could run as high as $5,000), and providers have little incentive to invest in sparsely populated wilderness outposts. What service exists is spotty and unreliable, and when failures occur repairs are problematic. The “neighboring” community of Hoonah reports waiting 10 months for Internet service to be restored.
Promises were made, and promises were broken. To compound matters, many residents live on the edge of subsistence and have little discretionary income for costly technology services. Then, there is the Alaskan ethic which values self-sufficient strapping individualism and disdains handouts as unmanly and un-American.
So, what did the fiercely independent, government-hating, entitlement-detesting rural people of Alaska do to obtain reliable broadband Internet access? They got a federal grant, of course. It was available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. A tidy $6.3 million was allocated for equipment and installation under provision of the Rural Utility Service portion of the act, thus proving that socialism is mostly bad when it benefits the other guy.
Seventy new dishes will be supplied at no charge, and an additional 4,000 rural subscribers will join the digital community with no startup costs. Satellite capacity will be adjusted as necessary to accommodate the additional load and to maintain advertised speeds. Spacenet, the Virginia-based service provider, plans to train local technicians to assume responsibility for network maintenance.
Everyone seems pleased with the solution. It turns out there is a place for government-funded infrastructure after all. Fareed Zakaria, editor and contributor to Newsweek, remarked recently that while we in the U.S. engage in an endless paralyzing debate about the proper function of government, other industrialized nations are moving ahead, upgrading their digital infrastructures, supporting education, funding startup industries, and leaving us behind.
The day before, after three hours of spine compression, the skiff arrived at a remote coastal island. Slowly, meticulously, the captain piloted the boat through surf, rocks, and kelp beds to a tiny beach where we unloaded camping gear, peeled off the Gumby suits, and headed to the tree line. Shortly, we found a fire ring and a rather whimsical chair that some unknown craftsman built out of tree branches. Ocean conditions have to be just right to access this remote spot and even some 15-year residents have not stood on this ground. Beyond the wild, unspoiled natural beauty, the allure of this particular island lies a few hundred yards up the beach. There, among the trees, overlooking a small rocky bay and the vast Pacific beyond, is every sore back’s dream–a natural hot spring.
Two days later, we sail up Glacier Bay. The season’s first pod of orcas greets us. Charismatic and deadly, they have been known to attack and eat deer swimming across the straights. Sea lions occasionally jump into fishing boats to avoid them. Shiny, toothy, and tuxedoed, like some nautical wise guy, they troll for the next victim, the next meal. Further up bay, a brown bear (a larger version of the grizzly) lumbers along the water’s edge tossing large boulders aside with horrifying ease in search of seafood.
Glacier Bay is a 65-mile-long fjord encased by 10 tidewater glaciers. We hear one groaning and watch it calving into the ocean. Birds swarm over the water, and descend on fish killed by the falling ice. There is no waste and no mercy. Just a majestic stage for a rich variety of life, asserting and reasserting itself, while tourists stand agape, camera phones clicking, texting people back home, frantic to capture the moment, hoping–like the residents of Southeast Alaska–that this time technology won’t fail them.