Alaskan trip proves gold isn’t just in the ground

My wife Miriam and I just returned from an Alaskan cruise.

It was a terrific vacation – with emphasis on that last word. Those in the know won’t need to hear this, but if you’ve never taken a boat to Alaska, Mexico, the Caribbean, or places beyond, it’s the way to travel. It’s enforced rest.

Usually, when I take a “vacation,” between running from this attraction to that, I stay in pretty close contact with Sweet Home because, frankly, our staff at The New Era is more skeletal than we’d like and when two of us leave, it can be pretty taxing. So our vacations sometimes are more a change of scenery than respite from the daily grind.

Of course, in today’s world we’re rarely without options – even on a ship. But we decided, instead of paying beaucoup bucks for constant Internet and cellphone access, to take the plunge and leave our daughter and the rest of our staff on their own.

It was great. The ship pulls away from an isolate Alaskan community and you lose your cellphone signal. You’re at sea for the next 12 or 18 hours and all you can do is … relax, meet interesting people and engage in all the interesting activities available on cruise ships – something for everyone.

But enough of that. I want to talk about what I saw that pertains to Sweet Home.

Our particular ship stopped in Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway during seven days on the deep blue sea, plus a couple of other locations that were interesting or spectacular, but don’t relate that much to us here. We don’t have glaciers.

What we do have is lots of terrain surprisingly similar to what I saw north of the border – tree-covered hills and mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls and plenty of opportunities for people to recreate.

Loyal readers will recognize that this is not a new topic for me. Our newspaper has devoted a lot of space and effort to covering local efforts to boost tourism here, which we see as an opportunity still waiting to be developed in the wake of the decline of the forest products industry from which Sweet Home once profited greatly.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, it’s easy to live among riches and fail to recognize them for what they are. I think we have that problem in Sweet Home – myself included.

As I relaxed on the deck of our ship, I watched Douglas fir-covered mountains and hills roll by as we sailed through the Inside Passage.

Yes, some of it was more spectacular than what our region has to offer, by way of scenery. Those slender waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet down the sides of the giant cliffs around Juneau are amazing – partly because they emphasize the ruggedness of the landscape surrounding the state’s capital, which is not accessible by land.

We obviously don’t have any glaciers here – certainly not ones that are 300 feet high and miles in length, which “calve” house-sized chunks of ice into the sea with resounding booms. We don’t have moose and grizzly bears and whales.

What do we have? The folks around us on board, most from cities, seemed just as impressed with the acres of green trees as they were with the glaciers. Passengers from Southern California and Arizona loved the rivers. Frankly, I wasn’t very impressed at all. Our trees are bigger, and although our rivers may not match up to some of the ones I saw there, running water isn’t as exciting to me as it is to people who live in the desert. I see these sights every day.

And really, when I think about it, we’ve got a lot of great waterfalls here, particularly in the winter when seemingly every hillside is spouting water. If you want the truly spectacular, we’ve got Sahalie Falls or McDowell Creek’s Royal Terrace Falls.

We’ve got hiking, too. Frankly, most of the communities in Alaska didn’t offer a plethora of hiking opportunities for the average walker. When we pulled into Juneau, I eyed the steep mountain behind the city and calculated how long it would take me to climb it. I could, of course, have paid big bucks to ride the tram to the top, but I’d been sitting around on a boat for a couple of days.

I decided it wasn’t a good idea because I wasn’t sure how Alaskans viewed trespassing and it would have been a strenuous hike that would have taken a good part of the afternoon – which is how long we had there. We paid to ride a bus to the Mendenhall Glacier instead and took a two-mile walk to the big waterfall there.

The point is that while we in Sweet Home have the privilege of viewing great scenery on a frequent basis, most people do not. That’s why they come here. They don’t have lakes nearby, so they bring their boats here. They don’t have forest trails, so they hike here.

That brings me to the other aspect of Alaska that I found really interesting: commerce.

When my brother worked in the the canneries in Ketchikan a couple of decades ago, things weren’t what they are now. The growth of the cruise ship industry alone has been substantial, not to mention all the other activities people engage in there.

Downtown Skagway, founded during the Yukon gold rush looks like Sisters – well-appointed, tasteful stores catering to nearly every tourist’s desires and needs line the streets. They’re staffed by people who exhibit the kind of customer-service skills that are necessary to cater to folks who aren’t used to seeing scrawled signs stating “You break it, you buy it” or be waited on by someone with rings in their nose who acts like the visitor is a bother.

Some of these are franchise chain stores owned by people who likely don’t live locally, but many are owned and operated by local folks whose enterprises, frankly, are a lot more fun to shop in. The same is true in the other towns we visited.

The facts tell the story: In 2013 1.96 million people visited Alaska, just over half by cruise ship and most of the rest by air (45 percent) highway or ferry (4 percent). They spent $1.8 billion, not counting travel expenditures, and when you add the labor income from visitor industry jobs, the spending increases to $2.42 billion. Tourism accounts for one in eight Alaskan jobs, according to the state’s Resource Development Council; 78 percent of those who the people working those 39,000 jobs are residents.

That is Alaska and this is Sweet Home. But we’ve got plenty of what draws people north, many of them multiple times.

We’re not going to draw people from all over the world because, frankly, Sweet Home is never going to be what explorer and naturalist John Muir (who is credited with helping to spawn tourism there) once described Alaska as: “a thousand Yosemites.”

He knew what he was talking about, because that is an apt description of what’s there. I told my wife (before I heard a ranger quote Muir’s statement), “There are Iron Mountains everywhere here.”

But we’re close and Alaska is far away. We’ve got the same things, on a lesser scale, that Alaska does. We just haven’t followed the Alaskans’ lead in cashing in on their opportunities. When you get off the boat there, the locals are ready with tours (by seaplane, bus, train, bike, Jeep, trail bike, foot). They will get you to where you want to go, for a price, of course.

We have local efforts under way to build a trail along the South Santiam River, connecting Sweet Home and Cascadia. We have the opportunity to create a well-appointed park/concert venue on choice land bordered by the river. We have lakes and rivers that are ripe for water equipment rentals, guided trips, etc. We have the proximity to large population centers full of people who want to experience these things and will spend money for that experience.

Each summer I watch from my office as the RV’s roll by on Main Street, loaded with people looking for outdoor scenery and fun.

They’re coming here for the same reason they’re visiting Alaska, though maybe not on the same scale.

Nonetheless, we need to remember what we’ve got here and show some of the innovative spirit that’s made Alaska what it is.

The opportunity’s here for Sweet Home.