Common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) seed head growing along the southern perimeter of Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.
Danby Street, Fairbanks, Alaska: 14 June 2017
Blockbuster Video retail store still open for business in North Pole, Alaska.
320 North Santa Claus Lane, North Pole, Alaska: 14 June 2017
Did you know that Blockbuster Video still has retail locations in business? I did not until Wednesday, 14 June 2017, when I spotted one in Fairbanks and another in nearby North Pole, Alaska. I would pass a third location in Wasilla a few days later. Although there are many unique and wonderful aspects to the forty-ninth state, the sight of Blockbuster Video stores was unanticipated and rather surprising. Knowing that I would learn more after the trip, I hypothesized that high-speed internet must not be widely available or is still too expensive for Alaskans to switch to streaming services.
Even when they were ubiquitous, I never cared for Blockbuster Video. My first experience with them was in the early 1990s after they took over a local video store in Altamonte Springs, Florida where I used to rent movies on VHS cassette as well as the occasional Nintendo game. I recall Blockbuster trying to overcharge by adding late fees for items previously returned on time, that is when they actually had the titles I wanted in stock.
As it turns out, I saw half of the Blockbuster stores still open today in Alaska. In addition to the ones in Fairbanks, North Pole and Wasilla, there are also two stores in Anchorage plus one in Soldotna near Kenai. The six Alaska locations are not the only surviving ones, however; there are also three stores in Oregon and one in Texas for a total of ten nationwide. Despite their continued operation, Blockbuster and other independently-owned video stores in Alaska have not been completely immune to the shifts in how people consume film and television media.
When Dish Network, the satellite television provider that acquired Blockbuster in 2011, announced the closure of the final 300 remaining corporate stores on Wednesday, 06 November 2013, there were thirteen locations in Alaska staying open. As the Midtown Anchorage location prepared to close in September 2016, it was noted that Kenai's store closed earlier in 2016 and that "other locations in Juneau, Kodiak and Anchorage have also gone in recent years." Most recently, the store in Eagle River northeast of Anchorage closed in July 2017.
Returning to my hypothesis, articles published on Wednesday, 26 April 2017 and Sunday, 30 July 2017 support my original conclusion — "internet service is substantially more expensive than in most states, since most data packages are not unlimited." There are additional contributory factors, however.
First, Alaska has a strong but small retail market. Even as stores in the lower forty-eight close, locations in Alaska frequently remain open. Reasons cited include a lack of retail supersaturation, fewer competing businesses and the high cost (and long wait times) for shipping items purchased online to Alaska addresses. Second, many Alaskans have higher median household incomes than in other states. Third, Alaskans maintain a desire to use retail outings to socialize in a place where winter is very cold, dark and long.
Even as their website proclaims that "Blockbuster stores may be a thing of the past," there continues to be a market in Alaska for the traditional way of browsing the rows and rows of titles and renting videos for home entertainment. With the closures over the past two years alone, Blockbuster's future and that of local video retailers is far from certain in the last frontier. Even if broadband internet becomes more affordable, there is still the social aspect to help keep the businesses afloat. I may feel no nostalgia for Blockbuster, but the closure of the remaining video stores in Alaska will signal the unfortunate conclusion of an era.
A moose (Alces alces) bull browsing and eating grassy vegetation next to the Dalton Highway (AK 11).
MP 193.9 James W. Dalton Highway, Yukon-Koyukuk, Alaska: 25 June 2017
As numerous as they were across the region — see "The Moose On The Loose" and "The State Mammal Of Alaska" — most of the moose I encountered were either cows or cows with calves. Fortunately, I did see at least four moose bulls including two while driving southbound on the James W. Dalton Highway.
The first Dalton bull was browsing and eating grassy vegetation southeast of the highway when we drove up and then stopped to check him out. Although it looked our way a few times during the five minutes we watched, this moose was not interested in or concerned by our presence instead staying focused on his foraging. As we were seven hours into our drive with thirty minutes left to Coldfoot, I resumed our course south and left this moose to his herbivorous meal.
We encountered a second bull the following day after being on the road for three hours and fifteen minutes. Spotting the bull walking south through grassy flatlands east of the Dalton, I pulled over into a Trans-Alaska Pipeline access road not far from the site of Old Man Camp (1974–1977), one of thirty-one temporary construction facilities that housed the thousands of workers who built the pipeline.
The moose was walking at a rather rapid pace, focused on an unknown destination without browsing or eating any of the grasses he passed through. After a few minutes, the moose was at his closest point to us not only latitudinally but longitudinally as well. Almost as if the moose was preoccupied in thought and then suddenly noticed us sitting there, he stopped suddenly to look at us head-on. A minute passed before he turned around and walked east away from the road, apparently wanting no part of us.
A moose (Alces alces) cow wading in a small Middle Fork Koyukuk River tributary eating aquatic vegetation right next to the Dalton Highway (AK 11).
MP 205.4 James W. Dalton Highway, Yukon-Koyukuk, Alaska: 24 June 2017
Only twenty minutes after our lucky Canada lynx sighting on the James W. Dalton Highway, we came across a moose cow wading in a small and shallow tributary of the Middle Fork Koyukuk River. Even after seeing many moose throughout Alaska and having a very close encounter in Denali National Park, I was always very excited to come upon another of these large and lovely herbivores.
This moose cow was browsing the water for and eating the grasses growing very close to the road. After I pulled over next to the moose, she looked up at us but did not seem in the least bit concerned about our presence. We took a number of photographs while she ate the plants, watching her for about five minutes before continuing our journey north to Prudhoe Bay.
Visit the Wiseman to Prudhoe Bay album to see all nine published photographs of this moose.
Meltwater flowing from the base of Exit Glacier to the Outwash Plain from a lookout on the Edge of the Glacier Trail.
Edge of the Glacier Trail, Kenai Peninsula, Alaska: 20 June 2017
In the middle of our day visiting Seward, we decided to take advantage of a break in the rainy weather to drive to the nearby Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Known for its accessibility to visitors, Exit Glacier was named following the first expedition across the expansive Harding Icefield in 1968 by Jules Jakob "Yule" Farenorth Kilcher (1913–1998), David L. Spencer (1915–2000) and several other men. Traversing the ice mass on skis from Kachemak Bay northeast over several days, the expedition ended their journey by coming down a glacier near the Resurrection River, which became known as Exit Glacier.
Given its ease of access and resultant popularity, Exit Glacier also serves as one of the more visible indicators of climate change. Starting soon after the Kenai Fjords National Park entrance sign are a series of markers with a year printed on each. Showing the extent of Exit Glacier in that year, these markers traverse 195 years of recession beginning at 1815 — over two miles from the current extent — and continue past the end of the road up the trail to the glacier where a final marker depicts the 2010 extent.
Not far from the nature center trailhead is a pavilion with several information signs discussing the retreat of Exit Glacier and the broader affects of climate change on the seasons, flora and fauna. The pavilion was originally built in 1987 as a shady spot with excellent views of the glacier. Today, the entire area surrounding the pavilion is lush woodland with zero visibility of the ice.
Continuing past the pavilion, the paved trail ends and a more strenuous hike winds up and through the woods, over a creek and finally onto newly de-glaciated bedrock. Along the way, there are a few spots where breaks in the canopy permit viewing of the valley, Outwash Plain and mountains. These spots were also welcome because of the breeze they offered. The air moving through the valley kept Alaska's notorious mosquitos at bay everywhere except in the sections of dense forest on the trail.
Emerging from the forest, the scenery changes to sweeping views of the valley, glacier and snowy mountains. Hiking on rocks that were entombed by the glacier not that long ago, the trail passes its former endpoint and then continues on a 540-foot spur added in 2006 to a lookout. As impressive as it was seeing the glacier, its meltwater flowing from the base to the Outwash Plain, I could not help but wish that I had visited sooner when it encompassed more of the valley.
It was possible to get a bit closer, so I hiked the 420-foot spur extension added in 2010 to the end of the Edge of the Glacier Trail. The steep terrain beyond this point means that the National Park Service will not be able to make any further extensions. The 2010 year marker and the current distance to the glacial toe offer a blunt reminder of how quickly this amazing ice mass has been melting over the past forty years. If the trends continue, it will not be long before visitors to this point will not see Exit Glacier.
Visit the Kenai Fjords National Park album to see all fifty-two photographs published from my trip to Exit Glacier.