Alaska, Montana and Heaven

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Alaska, Montana and Heaven

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on July 02, 2014 FREE Insights Topics:

Ramona and I have returned from a memorable two weeks on a small cruise boat on Alaska's Inside Passage.  She takes a vacation trip to some exotic location nearly every year but I mainly travel on business. I had twice been to Alaska, both times in the winter. One was to the North Slope, the other to the Valdez spill. I enjoyed both. 

I enjoyed this Inside Passage trip and it enhanced my appreciation for home.  One book I read as an undergraduate decades ago, John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, influenced my life.  The book is Steinbeck's account of a 10,000-mile trip with his dog Charley. 

His suggestion that Montana would be heaven if it only had an ocean alerted me to Montana. I've lived here for over forty years and in late June, the southeast coastal waters of Alaska seem like Montana with an ocean.  We had a great time and upon our return I reread Steinbeck's observations about my state. 

I grew up on a Midwestern farm and had not acquired a love for oceans.  Hence, Montana's ocean deficit wasn't a drawback to me.  Here are a few of Steinbeck's reflections.

I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it... It seems to me that Montana is a great splash of grandeur. The scale is huge but not overpowering. The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda. Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans.

…If Montana had a seacoast, or if I could live away from the sea, I would instantly move there and petition for admission. Of all the states it is my favorite and my love. 

Were he alive (he died in 1968 at 66 years), I'd tell him I agree.  Strongly.

This was my first cruise and a worthwhile experience on several dimensions.  I had long wondered how I'd evaluate a cruise, two weeks with no responsibilities and an endless supply of good food excellently prepared and served. 

We flew to Sitka and sailed on a small, Alaskan owned cruise ship.  It is only 140 feet long and carried less than 50 passengers.  The large cruise ship vessels carry several thousand.  Our size, plus the owner’s many local contacts, enabled us to visit small villages, both native and white, inaccessible to large vessels.  We were never among large crowds and had excellent tour guides.

The trip permitted me to once again witness the importance of culture.  Contrasts were dramatic when comparing the Norwegian fishing town of Petersburg with native villages. We met in the Sons of Norway Hall to watch children in costume perform Norwegian folk dances. We also enjoyed traditional baked goods. The houses, shops, and streets were neat and clean, and the people were friendly. It reminded me of The Little Apple, aka, Manhattan, Montana. 

Out trip included gentle hikes through and from various villages, kayak and ATV trips, and a great deal of whale watching.  Our favorite animals were sea otters, truly amazing creatures.  Compared to our otters, these are huge.  Adults weigh from 30 to nearly 100 pounds. 

Baby sea otters are born in the water--but can't swim at birth!  They are born buoyant.  The mothers catch them and put them on their own stomachs as they float on their backs.  While the mothers dive to forage for food their baby floats on the surface. 

They are the only sea mammals lacking a layer of fat for insulation.  Instead, they have the densest hair of any animal, some 1,000,000 individual hairs per square inch.  This fine quality both protects and threatens them. 

The threat comes from the fine quality of the fur.  In Russia a prime otter pelt sold between 20 and 40 times the price of a sable pelt. The sea otter is a classic common pool resource.  The relentless logic of the tragedy of the commons nearly led to its extinction.  (Concurrently, native tribes were abused and exploited as hunters.)  Today the otters' biggest threat is oil spills. 

Due to international management, regulation and cooperation, sea otter populations have largely recovered.  Their recovery story resembles that of the American bison. These two conservation victories have strong lessons that merit celebration and emulation.  However, finding harmony among ecology, ethics and economics is always a challenge. And it always involves science and politics.  Let's now turn to people.

Although Ramona told me what to expect when touring with the cast of people who elect such explorations, I wasn't quite prepared.  People normally select companions with congenial views.  Here, the majority of our fellow tourists were pleasant people holding moderate statist views.  The common view seemed to be something like this: "Government is badly flawed and we need more of it."  If we identify a problem, let's have a government program address it.  This was not a dominating theme, just a mild, and assumed shared, predisposition. 

Only a few of our quite nice fellow travelers understood the logic underlying the sorry outcomes justified by good intentions and advertized by opportunistic and cunning politicians.  Most of our shipmates did not understand the pathologies inherent to political decisions and allocation of goods.  During the first night's dinner a perfectly pleasant and attractive, recently retired federal bureaucrat assured us Obama Care is a good thing.  She really said this and surely believed it.

Having been on several trips of this type Ramona was not surprised.  Few people think seriously or systematically about public policy.  Most of those who want and can afford these adventures are well-intentioned modern liberals.  They tend to evaluate policies and proposals by intentions not predictable consequences. When hearing a policy proposal they don't ask, "And then what? What are the likely consequences of the incentives created? ” Over the long haul, incentives usually trump intentions.

Several Bozeman friends asked us if we recommend this cruise.  My answerer is a qualified yes.  There are great advantages to being on a small ship.  These include an absence of crowds, getting near a caving glacier, and visiting small villages.  Our trip was an excellent adventure and all of our shipmates were pleasant, really quite nice people.  No exceptions. 

It is surely good for me to spend two weeks with people whose views differ substantially from mine and those of my economist and libertarian-oriented friends.   I better understand American culture. In sum, I found this adventure a valuable experience. Further, I feel even more blessed to live exactly where we do, on a ranch between Bozeman and Yellowstone Park. Steinbeck would understand. 


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