We usually experience a place through the sense of sight. Since eating local cuisines is a major part of any travel, we also deploy our sense of taste. Sound, however, is often ignored.
But in Alaska, the experience of listening is inescapably bound up with any exploration of the region.
In September, I spent a couple of weeks exploring this remote area to discover whole new worlds of sound.
Setting the tone: Anchorage Museum
Amongst my first stops was the exhibition, “Listen Up: Northern Soundscapes” at the Anchorage Museum. This set the tone for my travels.
Sound chambers were suspended from the ceiling. There was the plaintive cry of seagulls and the blare of fog horns. The eerie otherworldly calling of whales, the whirr of snowmobiles and the music of artists from all around the Arctic region were also featured.
I was particularly taken by the breakdown of sounds into Anthrophony (human related sounds – such as voices and machines), Biophony (sounds made by animals and birds) and Geophony (sounds of natural forces).
Embarking on a “listening journey”
More than ever before, I began listening.
Roaring over human voices and the thrum of traffic in downtown Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, were the seaplanes. I was told the “De Havilland Otter” is the workhorse of Alaska. A plane that has single-handedly built the state.
Alaska’s lightweight planes, particularly the Piper Super Cubs, are adapted with thicker Tundra tyres to land on sandbars in the wilderness and can take off and land on the shortest of runways. I heard them soaring low overhead before they gained height and disappeared above the clouds.
“Flightseeing” and the “anthrophony”
Flightseeing is a way of life here. Visitors based in cities like Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau are ferried via small planes on day trips to fish, hunt, view landscapes and wildlife.
There are more light Aircraft in Alaska than anywhere else on the planet. Around one in every hundred locals is a licensed pilot. Many others who fly, they joke, were taught by grandma.
Connected via sea planes
Sea planes were often the last link of my journeys, depositing me to the closest point of my destination. The sound of the water spraying up from lakes and rivers, as the floats sliced through it upon take-off and landing set my pulse racing.
In contrast, the swirling blades of the Robinson 44 chopper of Seward Helicopter Tours in the Kenai Peninsula was deafening at close quarters. But the clamorous chuff-chuff was also a harbinger of excitement and adventure, depositing me atop glaciers and icefields.
I took a boat trip around Resurrection Bay in Seward, a small, waterside town a couple of hours drive south-east of Anchorage. The captain cut off the engine for us to take in the humpback whales, jellyfish, sea stars and mountain goats on the craggy hilltops.
Harbour seals politely ark-arked as they wriggled for space to lie on flat rocks, settling into the comforting pillows and duvets of each other’s rolls of fat.
On another shore, the sea lions growled and roared raucously at higher octaves, butting chests as they nearly dislodged each other off their perches.
While the calls of the bald eagles, terns, puffins and seagulls constantly swirled like confetti through the air, it was the huskies that tore my ears off atop Godwin Glacier on a nearby mountain that empties into Resurrection Bay.
An earful of Huskies
The astoundingly loud cacophony of yaps and barks conveyed the dogs’ eagerness to be strapped up and taken for a run. “Look at me! Take me! I want to go!” didn’t stop until their owners complied.
Mushing, or driving dogsleds, is alive and well in Alaska. In some parts, particularly in snowy conditions, it may be the only means to get kids to school, receive basic supplies and trade goods.
The brown bears, also known as grizzlies, make surprisingly little sound for creatures of their mammoth size. I encountered several of them at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park. Many were leaning into the waterfall to catch a leaping sockeye salmon with a snap of their teeth.
Other than a few growls between males, they seemed to let size and body language settle matters. On nearby Kodiak Island, the year-old cubs squealed every now and then for their mother’s attention, demanding fish. They nudged her and whined for milk.
The Sitka deer, foxes and minks made nary a sound, dissolving into the foliage the moment they clocked us.
Perhaps my favorite were the geophonic emissions of Bear Glacier. This is a part of the Harding Icefield that is steadily breaking off at the edges.
As large icebergs caved, their cracking sounded exactly like gunshots. Clear, precise, singular and piercing.
These were followed by loud splashes as vertical chunks fell into the water of the lagoon. The clouds that emerged in the aftermath were discrete, moving with the silent grace of geishas on the cobbled streets of faraway Kyoto.
Sometimes, the sounds resembled the roll of distant thunder. My guide and I were the only visitors overnighting at a remote, yet to be named tented camp run by Seward Helicopter Tours.
We would stop talking and point to the direction of the sound when we heard one. The mother glacier and its offspring- free-floating icebergs groaned and re-settled themselves.
All through the night, in the absence of any other sounds, their moaning and grinding against the pebbled seabed played a nocturne.
The sounds of silence
In Alaska I also experienced a kind of silence, so deep that it was a sound in itself. Alone in my cabin at night, at the Kodiak Brown Bear Lodge, I was engulfed by a pure and delicious quietude. The lake outside remained unruffled, the mountain held back the wind.
I fed on its sweetness, one that comes from being in a place so remote, in such a vast and unaltered land. A place where a seaplane is needed to come get me at some point in the future to plug me back into the links of humanity that I call home
In Alaska, the experience of listening is inescapably bound up with any exploration of the region.
We usually experience a new place through the sense of sight and taste. Sound, however, is often ignored.
There are three soundscapes through which to explore Alaska: the anthrophony (human-related sounds), the biophony (sounds made by animals and birds) and the geophony (sounds of natural forces like glaciers).
There are more light aircraft in Alaska than anywhere else on the planet. Around one in every hundred locals is a licenced pilot.
As large icebergs cave, their cracking sounds exactly like gunshots. Clear, precise, singular and piercing.
In Alaska you experience the kind of silence that is so deep, it is a sound in itself.
“De Havilland Otter” is the workhorse of Alaska. A plane that has single-handedly built the state.