On any typical Sunday in fall or early winter with the National Football League playing on TV sets all across the 49th state, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking Alaska is simply the northernmost part of the United States.
And from a roadside perspective, a lot of the landscape certainly looks familiar: McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Burger King, Starbucks, Costco, Subway, Target, Burger King, Best Buy, Taco Bell, Lowes, etc., etc., and etc.
Alaska’s roaded, urban core – home to more than half the population – is, however, an illusion, a thin veneer plastered on the edge of a wilderness that hasn’t changed all that much in 10,000 years.
Listen to non-Alaskans talk about the state, and you get a better perspective on how foreign the Last Frontier to most of the rest of the country.
Yes, there are parts of the American West that still retain some of the flavor of what the lower half of the North American continent was like before it was conquered by modernity.
“Do you guys know there’s some island off of, it’s part of Alaska, off the mainland, that is basically a Jurassic Park of grizzly bears and you go there and you fish and you eat surrounded by grizzly bears.”
Then, in a voice filled with incredulity, “Would you go to that?”
Those were the words of 40-year-old Bill Reiter, a product of the flatlands of Iowa.
There is, of course, no Jurassic Park in Alaska or anything like it. Jurassic Park was a Michael Crichton creation in a book titled Jurassic Park that became an even bigger movie of the same name about a fictional, modern-day island filled with dinosaurs.
The plot line revolved around the idea scientists could recreate dinosaurs from fragments of prehistoric DNA and the unintended consequences that followed, as in the dinosaurs could not be controlled and tried to eat their creators, which is where Reiter’s comparison goes a little sideways.
Alaska brown/grizzly bears – as most Alaskans know – were not recreated. The animals arrived here from Siberia 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, and never really left, although the last Ice Age did cause some separations that led to some of the bears being classified as subspecies.
But nowhere was any human tampering involved in putting bears on any island off Alaska, and nowhere in Alaska do brown/grizzly bears hunt people (thank God) the way the Velociraptors do in Jurassic Park.
But bears do occasionally kill people in Alaska, and from afar, through the eyes of a journalist turned sports-radio host, one can see how parts of the state – Kodiak Island, the Alexander Archipelago or the Alaska Peninsula – with bears the size of small cars sometimes gathering by the dozen might start to look a little like Jurassic Park.
Or maybe Reiter just got sold a bit of a story by ESPN reporter Seth Wickersham, who grew up in Anchorage, and then, like many Alaska kids, took off for places with better job opportunities.
“I didn’t appreciate it then as much as I do now,” he once confessed to the The Big Lead. “As a kid, I’d just grouse about getting movies and magazines weeks later than the “Lower 48″ – not to mention watching Monday Night Football on tape delay. But when I left for school I really missed Alaska. You know, the skiing just isn’t quite the same in Missouri.”
If Reiter is to be believed, Wickersham is now one of those video-buttressed, word-of-mouth promoters that play a big role in making Alaska tourism go. Reiter said Wickersham turned him onto Alaska bears after learning Reiter’s kids wanted to see Alaska.
“You can stay like on a deck or something,” Reiter said on air, “and I didn’t believe him, and he sent me the videos like from his phone because he’s from, he said they’re from Alaska. That sounds terrifying doesn’t it?”
“That does sounds terrifying,” one of those in the studio with him answered. “Yeah, I’d be scared to do that.”
“You can go fishing,”Reiter continues, “and if you follow the rules, you’re fine. No one, only one person has been bit. I guess they fell asleep with a candy bar, and they got bit in the butt like in the ’70s. I don’t know if that’s true. That’s what he told me.”
It’s not true. Leaving food lying around will attract bears, but the animals don’t make a habit of frisking people for candy.
If falling asleep with food in your pocket or close at hand caused you to be bitten by a bear, people would be getting bit almost daily on the Anchorage Hillside in summer.
Reiter goes on to talk about watching video of fishing with bears, something that does happen with some regularly in parts of the state in the summer, but that’s not the revealing part of how different Alaska.
The revealing part comes when Reiter and two others in a New York studio with him start discussing wildlife sightings. Then they really illustrate the difference between Alaska and Alaskans (and most other rural residents of the country) and the urban dwellers who now make up the bulk of Americans.
“Have you guys seen those kind of animals in the wild?” Reiter asks his studio posse just before the show ends. “You guys ever been like to the Rocky Mountains…?
“What’s the most amazing animal you guys have seen in the wild? Stu, is it a squirrel for you?”
“It might be a squirrel or like a bird or something,” Stu says.
“Have you ever seen an alligator?”
“Or a bear?”
“Not…Other than going to the zoo, no.”
“A bat, maybe,” Trace says.
“OK, that’s it. Thank God we’re done,” Reiter says.
It would be easy to laugh at this. The most amazing animal someone has seen is an unidentified squirrel or an unspecified bird?
But a generic bird, as if just seeing a bird was an amazing wildlife sighting?
That is, however, the world in which most Americans now live. Park squirrels, pigeons and rats in the city are their nature, with whitetail deer, raccoons, coyotes and Canada geese joining the mix as you move out into suburbia.
Most modern Americans are largely unconnected from nature as it exists in the wild.
Two-thirds of the U.S. population now lives on 3.5 percent of the country’s land mass, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Americans cluster in urban and semi-urban areas.
Nearly a third of the population lives in the country’s 20 largest metropolitan statistical areas, starting with New York-Newark-Jersey City MSA with more than 20 million people and scaling down to the Baltimore-Columbia-Towson MSA with slightly less than 3 million people.
Wildlife is to most of these people the squirrels and birds they see in city parks or city yards. Wilderness is anything out of sight of a road, building or their sport-utility vehicle.
That Alaska appears unique, even terrifying, to them should come as no surprise. Alaskans talk somewhat regularly about the state’s rural-urban divide. But compared to the Alaska-Outside divide, it’s a river versus an ocean.
What this division portends for the state going forward one can only guess.
Correction: An early version of this story failed to note the California condor count referred to birds alive in the wild. There are today at least 446 of the birds known to be alive, but 170 are part of a captive breeding program.