Sunday, May 29, 2011

Whittier, Alaska

A wind that must have been born in the ninth circle of Dante's Inferno blew through the lonely town of Whittier, Alaska. It brought a cold that rendered extremities numb and insensate. It clawed ferociously at exposed skin, threatening to freeze ears and lop off noses. The sun played peek-a-boo all day long.

The view all around though was nothing if not stupendous. No mist obscured the cliffs that rose steeply from the fjord that formed part of Prince William Sound. In the past few days snow had fallen in great amounts, blanketing the upper reaches of the Chugach mountains with fields of velvet white interrupted only by isolated outcroppings of dark, bare rock . Towards the west a glacier uncoiled into the sea like a white, luminous serpent flecked with blue scales. Terns wheeled silently above the ruffled surface of the fjord. Waterfalls that in summer roared like trains down the mountainsides now trickled down in thin rivulets. Bands of browns and yellows ran through the evergreen, a sure sign that summer had ended and fall, and eventually winter, was about to grip the land.

In the midst of all this beautiful scenery, Whittier stuck out like a snatch of nightmare. It seemed less a town than a scrapheap. All around lay rusted barrels, abandoned cars, twisted cables and pipes, unhitched cabooses, unused railway tracks, rotting hulls of boats, plastic garbage bags and decaying driftwood. Inclement winters had ordained that the few hundred inhabitants of this place hole up in one squat, graceless medium-rise building. A town where all the people lived in one box: isn’t that a prescription for terminal cabin fever?

I didn’t always think Whittier was ugly. I first saw it from the deck of a ship as we approached to berth. Bathed in the half-light of the midnight sun, Whittier appeared to be a sleeping resort village. Gray highrises that looked like a hotel complex rose up from the hillside. Snowy ridges studded with conifers seemed to have sprung out of a Christmas card. From the heights of the mountains that formed its backdrop, three high waterfalls magnificently cascaded down into the plains below.

“But surely this is Switzerland!” I thought. I could not have been more wrong.

Whittier was the terminus of the Alaska railroad. A terminus, by definition, is where things end up, and that includes the discards of boats, trains and people on their way to somewhere else other than here. And that was what Whittier was, a place of discards.

On a positive note, cruise ships and fishing-boats docked in Whittier. You can fish here, cruise the inland sea, or drink lots of alcohol. For a lot of observers, Whittier is a nothing town…nothing, that is, but what nature has to offer, which is actually a lot, if you look past the garbage and the grim buildings. Whittier is part of Prince William Sound after all. If only it didn’t rain so much.

The complex of gray buildings that I took at first to be some sort of an unfinished hotel was actually the long-vacated quarters of the US military. Built after World War II, it was used by the military till sometime in the 60’s. Some say it was never used at all. Having served its purpose, it was abandoned to the elements, to graffiti artists, and (rumor has it) to squatters of the ursine variety. Some private entrepreneur had bought it from the government, perhaps planning to convert it into a resort. I wonder who the clientele would be.

On a subsequent day, the weather in Whittier turned warm and summery. I ventured onto a pebbly beach near the mouth of the tunnel that led to Anchorage. I came upon a group of people sunning themselves on large boulders. One was a white man who looked fifty. In his company were an Inuit woman and her two small boys. They were friendly, and were not coy about making small talk with me. I managed to hide my surprise when the man told me he was from Germany. I did not ask him how he came to be in a place so far away from Europe. Yes, they all lived in the only apartment building in town.

“ Are there bears here?” I asked the man.

“Not now, but the bear vill kumm. Jah, dey vill kumm.”

One of the kids chimed in:

“We see the bears coming down from the mountains. We keep away from them. They fish in the river.”

That river, more of a shallow stream really, gurgled nearby. I picked up a piece of driftwood and wondered how to defend myself with it should a hungry bear attack me. Curiosity propelled me to an area where the river met the sea. No fish jumpin’ here for now. Good. I could see the white spout of a small waterfall at the cliff’s base on the other side of the shore. I wanted to walk over and have a closer look at it. I looked back at the family on the rocks. They regarded me with some amusement. Spooked at the possibility of encountering a bear at the waterfall, I decided otherwise, said goodbye to the family and retraced my way back totown.

Later that night (which was actually more of a prolonged twilight because, at this time of the year, the sun never set) while making my way back to the ship after a couple of drinks at the Quarter Deck, that infamous Whittier dive whose walls are adorned by the graffiti of half the world’s seamen, I noticed movement near a garbage bin. A gray figure was huffing and puffing around the steel container.

A bear. A grizzly bear.

It was some distance away from me and was so intent in trying to open the garbage bin that it didn’t notice me at all. Spurred by a sudden rush of fear, I sprinted back to the ship in what must have been an Olympic record time. Legs shaking, my nether-belly just about ready to give out, I sputtered weakly to the security guy at gangway: “Bear!”

I wasn’t the only one who saw the bear. Other crew members did. Some claimed to have seen not just one, but two bears. The number and size of the creatures varied according to the degree of the intoxication of the crew member. This would be one of only two times I’d see a bear in all the years I’ve cruised in Alaska. The only other time was when our ship rounded a cliff in Glacier bay and I saw the retreating rump of a startled bear that had been feeding near the shore.

I suppose, if you wanted to, you could go see the bear where they feed on fish and such. You could make a trip to Denali or British Columbia or even to that place where the -obsessed actor from California got eaten by his bears. Me, I’m pretty much content watching the safely enclosed bear in a zoo somewhere whilst drinking coffee and munching a bear-claw Danish.

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