Traveling in America is like being constantly exposed to one and the same familiar cliché.
The only part of the country that beats all Hollywood-coined stereotypes is Alaska.
Being so obviously ‘un-American’, Alaska nevertheless fits the USA well. In quantity and variety of natural wonders, it resembles a huge shopping mall of beauty: there’s so much of it that it becomes almost routine, and more often then not a traveler finds himself at a loss as to where to look – left, right, straight ahead or up in the sky. I would normally opt for the latter: nowhere else in the world, not even in Australia, have I seen such vast, all-embracing skies, constantly alive with some sort of movement, change and even drama.
To quote Ostap Bender, the main protagonist of a Russian satirical novel: “Too showy. Weird kind of beauty. Idiot’s imagination.” And although this sardonic remark referred to the mountains of the Great Caucasus, it could apply in equal measure to Alaska’s ever-changing skyline.
Looking up was therefore my favorite past time in Alaska. It never failed to distract me from more mundane things underneath.
Yet, if you asked me what impressed me most in the ‘49th State’, I would probably say: “A state-of-the-art public toilet in the midst of Alaska’s Bear Country – a pristine and untouched wilderness, with no roads and no humans for hundreds of miles around.”
To me, this little miracle of modern plumbing came to symbolise the Americans’ attitude to their environment – the ever-growing phenomenon, which Todd Gitlin, a US-based social scientist, once called ‘domestication of nature’.
“This claw is an authentic replica from a grizzly bear,” ran a price tag, which I spotted, in the gift shop of a museum in Kodiak. The “authentic replica” (what an oxymoron!) was, naturally, made of plastic.
The replica claw, no matter how ‘authentic’, was not good enough for me. I was heading for the wilderness of the Kodiak Island, famous for its “watchable wildlife” (as it was put by a local tourist brochure) in general and its brown – and, hopefully, not too plastic – Kodiak bears in particular. I was not sure, however, how ‘watchable’ the bears were going to be.
The same brochure contained some ‘Common Sense in Bear Country’ tips, which included:
o Avoid surprising bears and make plenty of noise
o Avoid crowding bears; respect their personal space
o Plan ahead, stay calm, identify yourself, don’t run
I was quite happy not to ‘crowd’ the bears, albeit not quite sure how that could be combined with ‘identifying myself’ and not running away immediately afterwards.
Should I just say: “Hi, my name is Vitali, and I came here just to watch you!” But what if the bear mistakes this tirade for an intrusion of his ‘personal space’?
With all these questions heavily on my mind, I boarded a four-seat Cessna 206 hydroplane for a 40-minute flight to the shores of Fraser Lake in the depth of Alaskan wilderness. Apart from Dan, the pilot, there were two more passengers on board: a young honeymooning couple from Philadelphia.
“Can your hydroplane land on the ground?” the husband asked Dan shortly after we took off.
“Yes, it can. But only once,” the taciturn pilot replied.
We landed (’watered’?) on the lake and, having put on anti-mosquito nets, kindly provided by Dan, walked through the dense forest for about ten minutes until we saw a happy family of brown bears trout-fishing in a stream. I was about to identify myself, but Dan pressed a finger to his lips.
So preoccupied were the bears that they paid no attention to us for the whole duration of our 1.5 hour watch. I was particularly taken by a fluffy bear-cub, being taught how to fish by his daddy (or was it mommy – I couldn’t be sure). The cub was a quick learner, and soon he started ferreting out a wriggling fish each time he dipped his little paws into the water. He was a much better fisherman than I.
When we were hiking back to the plane, I felt an urge to go to the loo. “Can I quickly hide behind the bushes?” I asked Dan. “There’s no need to,” he said. “There’s a nice lavatory on your right.” He pointed to a little clearing in the forest. There, half-hidden by lush foliage, stood a gleaming stainless-steel hut. Inside, it was spotless – with hot water, hand-drier, general supply of paper towels and paper toilet seats. In the corner, there was a special tap for washing one’s feet!
I must have looked ridiculous emerging from that air-conditioned loo into clouds of mosquitoes in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly my bear-watching experience was no longer an adventure, but a virtual-reality ‘presentation’ in a museum auditorium, with soft comfy seats and ‘Exit’ signs glowing soothingly in the dark.
With a deep sigh, I raised my eyes towards the glorious, dynamic and ever so undomesticated Alaskan sky…