Alaska

The Russian nihilist movement gained momentum as a body of political change after the assassination of Alexander II, or Alexander the Liberator, as he was known if you happened to be a serf. The Tsar, before he went bang, was responsible for the emancipation of Russia’s serfs. Despite being behind many other reforms such as abolishing corporal punishment and ending some of the privileges of nobility, it wasn’t enough and, having survived several assassination attempts from his ungrateful subjects, he finally succumbed in St. Petersburg, his love of routine, like many great statemen before him, having left him wide open to the hot-headed dissident.

Every Sunday Alexander would hop in his bullet proof carriage – a gift from Napoleon III – and roll up to the Mikhailovsky Manege for the military roll call and a stiff sherry. On the way back one Sunday in March 1881 a bystander lobbed a bomb at his carriage sending it under the horses hooves. Alexander survived the blast and got out to survey the damage and yell at his Cossacks to arrest the grubby urchin who threw the bomb. This they did. Yet in a lesson not to loiter at such incidents, a second urchin, then appeared and lobbed a second bomb, this one landing at Alexander II’s feet, yelling “it is too early to thank god”. Hence the need for an Alexander III. Alexander II though, amongst his many other reforms, also sold Alaska to the US for 2 cents and acre.

Alaska today is the State of Alaska, part of the United States of America, but it wasn’t always so. It used to be Russian. Having had their backsides handed to them in the Crimean War, Alexander II would pace the palace gardens with Milord, his Red Setter, getting increasingly agitated about life. Russia was not in a good state financially, and he feared that in any future conflict Alaska, being as it was vast expanse of white nothing, would be lost. And lost with no compensation, as it so happened in war. So he decided to sell whilst he could. 2c an acre was better than no cents per acre, and a pile of dead Russians.

Alaska is big. It is the biggest state in America. And America is a big country. If you like America, but you don’t like Americans, holiday in Alaska. It is right up on the shoulder of Canada, separated from the motherland by British Columbia. It dices with Russia in the Bering Strait where their territorial waters mix. Indeed if you include Alaska’s territorial waters, it is bigger than Texas, California and Montana – the next three biggest states – combined. So we can all agree Alaska is a big place.

Alaska also has lots of islands. The Aleutian Islands is a long chain of volcanic islands that clings onto its buttocks, trailing off into the Pacific Ocean. Find yourself on Unimark Island, and be sure to go and take in Mount Shishaldin, a 10,000 ft. smoldering volcano that will have a Geography teacher’s leg shaking like an excited old Labrador, it being the most perfect example of a volcanic cone as you can find on Earth. Don’t believe the marketing man at Mount Fuji, Mount Fuji is positively lop-sided compared to Shishaldin. Look it up. And if you like canoeing, you might also want to think about visiting Alaska. It has more than three million lakes. That said, many are frozen. The State has over half the world’s glaciers.

So who first lived there you mutter. Indeed, as you might imagine, not any Europeans. They then, in can case, wouldn’t be Europeans. They would in fact be Tlingit, or the People of the Tides. By all account they were the first. They were big into hunter gathering. There was also the Haida people, who are now well known for their unique art. And there was the Tsimshian people, who aren’t well known for their art, or indeed, anything at all. Then the Europeans came.

The first to hit the icy shores was Mikhail Gvozdev an inquisitive Russian who was partial to a bit of early mapping, swiftly followed by Vitus Bering who led an exhibition for the Russian navy and returned with Sea Otter pelts that were quickly lauded as the finest that had ever been seen in Moscow. Cue a brisk line of business in fur pelts out of the Aleutian Islands. Spain, strangely, then got involved, sending a number of expeditions to the area, expeditions which gave their name to places such as Valdez and Cordova. Whilst Russians never fully colonized Alaska, they did enough to be in a position to sell it to America for 2 cents an acre when the opportunity arose.

For you, Alaska might mean Sarah Palin and caribou, for others Alaska means oil. Alaska has a lot of oil. Indeed oil makes up more than 80% of Alaska’s revenues. It has vast resources. Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope produces about 400,000 barrels of oil, a day and is the largest conventional oil field ever found in North America. The oil gets from the North Slope, where it is not really needed, to Valdez, where it can be shipped to places where it is needed, via the 8oo mile Trans-Alaska pipeline. Valdez, though, is a name that is forever etched in the blotted history book of the oil industry, courtesy of the infamous Exxon Valdez.

On March 24th 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood eased his three hundred meter long oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez, down Prince William Sound, thinking he was headed to Long Beach in California. Where he was actually headed was straight for the Bligh Reef, a reef named after William Bligh who served as Master aboard ship on Captain Cook’s third, and last, expedition. Running aground on Bligh Reef, Hazelwood quickly swore, perhaps knowing then that he would became responsible for one of the worst oil spills in US history, a spill that ultimately cost Exxon almost a $1bn.

The Exxon Valdez was subsequently repaired and put back to work, although was banned from ever sailing in Prince William sound. “Amen to that!” you wail. Indeed. In 2010 sailing as Dong Fang Ocean, under Panamanian registry, it sailed straight into a Malta-flagged cargo shop the Aali in the South China Sea. It was retired for scrap shortly afterwards. Not then, a glittering career.

Other interesting things about Alaska is that it was home to the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Fortunately being so sparsely populated the massive 9.2 Richter quake, which was over one thousand times more powerful than the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, killed ‘only’ 133 people.

The King Salmon is the State fish.

The Four-spot Skimmer Dragonfly the State insect.

And dog mushing, whatever that involves, is the preferred weekend activity.

So then that’s a bit of Alaska for you.

Good for glaciers and oil, not so good for Wi-Fi.

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