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HETRICK: Visiting Alaska, and sticking final pin in the map

July 27, 2009

In my parents’ basement hangs a cork bulletin board. On the bulletin board, there’s a map of the United States. On the map are hundreds of multicolored push pins.

The pins show where my folks have lived and visited in their 75 years of life and 55 years of marriage.

Having been along for the ride for 51 of those years, I know the stories behind the pins: Where we’ve worked and played. Where there was promise and peril. Where there was joy and suffering. Where there were straight shooters and swindlers. Where life came easy and where it demanded struggle and sacrifice.

Until a few weeks ago, there were pins in every U.S. state but one. The missing locale: Alaska.

As their 55th wedding anniversary approached, my parents wanted to notch state number 50. So they signed up for a two-week tour. And they asked my wife Cheri and me if we wanted to tag along.

You betcha.

At the end of June, we flew to Anchorage. From there, we traveled overland by train and bus to Denali, Fairbanks, Tok, Chicken and Eagle. Then we sailed into Canada’s Yukon Territory and took more trains and buses through Dawson City, Whitehorse, Carcross and Skagway. There, we boarded a cruise ship and sailed to Glacier Bay and Ketchikan before disembarking in Vancouver.

On “free” days, the self-described “old people” read, relaxed and toured the towns while Cheri and I went hiking. Via helicopter with a naturalist high atop a ridge near Denali. With a First Nations historian along the Auriol Trail at Kluane. With European transplants at Tombstone. With an Iowan through a rainforest and alongside a roaring stream toward a towering mountain glacier.

My camera’s memory cards overflow with images of bears and bald eagles, caribou and Dall sheep, beaver and salmon, wandering whales, misty mountains and foggy fiords.

But pushpins and beauty aren’t the only takeaways from our summer vacation. This trip was ripe with history, too. And where there are stories from the past, there are insights and questions for the here and now.

To wit: As we hiked through rain and hail toward a mountain overlook at Kluane National Park, John, our First Nations guide, told us about his oral history project—converting thousands of tape recordings into digital files more easily preserved for future generations.

He told us how the government, a half-century ago, tried to assimilate his people. Banned them from their hunting and trapping grounds. Put their kids in mainstream schools. Punished those kids if they spoke their native language.

But John also said those errors have been recognized and remedied—fortunately, he said, while there are still elders around to teach old ways to new generations. What’s more, he said Kluane First Nation today jointly manages Kluane National Park with Parks Canada.

Having been to Denali, and having heard about locals’ frustration that U.S. explorers renamed it Mount McKinley, we asked John whether there was a native name for Mount Logan, the tallest peak in Canada, which falls within Kluane’s boundaries.

“No,” he said, because his people never went there, there being no reason to go somewhere so cold and ice-covered. “Indians don’t climb mountains,” he said.

But folks from the Lower 48 do—especially when there’s greed or fear in their hearts.

Thus, we heard often about the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s and the building of the Alaska Highway during World War II.

The gold rush came on the heels of economic panic. When gold was discovered near Dawson City, the get-rich-quick crowd arrived by the tens of thousands, ill-prepared for mining, mountains and 50-below temperatures.

Trying to save lives, the government required each prospector to carry a year’s supply of goods—some 2,000 pounds’ worth. But the love of money drove them on.

In the end, few found gold. Many died. While most survivors went home, some stayed and helped make the Yukon Territory and Alaska what they are today.

Fifty years later, so did U.S. troops, who suffered cold and mosquitoes, blew passageways through mountains, slogged through mud and paved over permafrost to build a roadway to Alaska.

Initially, that highway helped protect our nation from Japanese invasion. Today, it provides access to “The Last Frontier.”

 Hiking a small section of the Chilkoot Trail, one of the routes that prospectors followed in their quest for gold, Cheri and I found what locals call “artifacts”—century-old cans, camera cases, mining supplies.

In the rust, I imagined the pain, chills and determination of miners and road-builders who blazed the trail for me and my family.

We have the same ambitions and anxieties today. We dream and dare, plan and scheme, succeed and fail.

But I wonder, in this age of entitlement, how many would bear a ton of supplies through 500 miles of mountains, at 50 below, out of hope, or duty or just to put another pin on a map?•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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