Posted on July 3, 2012 - by Nadia
July 3, 2012 Wrangell, Alaska
Independence Day is a four-day fling that builds in intensity here in Wrangell as soon as June is history. I arrived two days ago to the log rolling contest; sadly, I watched the canoe races start while I was at the chiropractor; now I hear live music from downtown while I watch skinny kids fling themselves off the dock, off the cargo containers on the dock, into the mid-rising tide at the center of town. Celebration, hoc and ad hoc is in the air. This morning, I listened to women discuss their Fourth of July outfits – one if it’s warm, one if it’s not. There is much discussion of how long it took to warm up after last year’s parade when a hard, cold rain relentlessly fell. Everywhere, people greet and part with, “Happy Fourth!” and “Have a safe and happy Fourth.” Wrangell is a funny blend of bruised knuckle working town and tourist stop, and it has been since Josie passed this way. George Vancouver cruised through in the 1790s. Then the Russian’s came in the 1840s and erased his names and plunked down their own, engaging in a bit of a mini-great game over control of the mighty Stikine River, which empties here and gives whoever controls it – Tlingit, Russian or Brit – a sense of merchantile control over the unreachable but rich interior of British Columbia . Josie may have stopped here. Many of the Klondike crowd did, sleeping in tents pitched in a clearing near the church. Thousands of them took a forced rest here as steamships stopped for fuel and supplies at a town so richly situated that it has served as a supply stop for more than 1,000 years. They were a scary crowd to some, who told their daughters not to stray across the mid-line of town because you never knew what ne’er do wells were among the gold rush crowd. For awhile, modern Wrangell was a town that timber built. As I type, two guys are on the dock, turning big logs into big discs with extra long chain saws. It seems to be part of the Fourth, but there is no crowd. Maybe they’re chunking up the podium for the Queen of the Fourth competition, which is hotly contested, judging by the posters in windows and the number of contestants and their emissaries who have asked me to buy raffle tickets, the sale of which seems to be a measure of one’s royalty. As timber faded, and the Stikine fishery was put on a greatly reduced limit, tourism grew. The couple at the table next to me sound British, and are very seriously instructing their children on the importance of seeing wild animals in nature and not a zoo. Apparently they took a tour of the Annan bear reserve, just around Wrangle Island from the town itself. Bears are big business on Wrangle, and an even bigger presence on the mainland just a short blast away. Bear Fest comes in two weeks. It’s hard to imagine how it measures up to the Fourth, but it has quite a buzz and attracts bear experts from all over the world and hungry bears from as far as bears care to travel. It’s all tied to the salmon run, of course, but you can’t buy a bite of salmon in town. The salmon have started running late this year. I’ve spoken with many anxious trollers on my trip, hoping the salmon at least pay for the effort to catch them. But now, the kings have started to run and people are bragging about big hauls and going back out. The salmon that slip through the fishing fleet and make their way back up the rivers, those are the salmon that bring the bears that bring the fest that fuels the tourism edge of Wrangell after the Fourth is done. I will leave these kings and queens behind and spend my fourth where the sparks that fly are ice chips. I’m going to ride high tide over the broad Stikine River delta at mid-morning tomorrow and head toward the LeConte Glacier, which is known for such prodigious calving that I won’t try to see the face itself but be satisfied, I hope, if I can just glide among some icebergs and camp where the bears would rather not go.