Tourists watch as one of two cubs belonging to an 18-year-old sow black bear crosses the path between groups of tourists visiting the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Wednesday, July 18, 2018. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Tourists have pushed us to critical mass in parts of Juneau

I don’t go to the glacier in the summer now to hike or watch bears.

  • By Sue Oliphant
  • Monday, May 16, 2022 2:21pm
  • Opinion

By Sue Oliphant

I knew it was going to be bad, but not this bad. After two years of quiet, or at least normal quiet, during the pandemic with no helicopter noise, my life once again is at times nerve wracking beyond belief.

For the last several hours there has been barely five minutes without the din of helicopter noise. I cannot sit on my deck and listen to the birds sing. I can’t talk on the phone or in person to anyone if I am outside or with the windows or doors open. I can’t call my dog. I was trying to play the piano, inside, with the doors and windows closed and could not hear the notes. The pictures on the wall are never straight from the vibration.

I am retired and looking forward to spending time tending the flowers on my deck, sitting in the sun reading, and watching and learning the bird calls in my neighborhood. There are many times like the last several hours that I cannot spend time outside on my deck or in my yard or have the windows and doors open without going deaf or becoming a nervous wreck. This is simply not right. Having to leave home because the noise is unbearable is not right.

I understand that people have to make a living and that people want to see this beautiful land we call home. I worked many years to enjoy this beautiful place as well, and chose to retire here in the splendor of Southeast Alaska. I have been a tourist and will be again. I have enjoyed it. I do not begrudge people wanting to see and enjoy what we who live here love. I do not begrudge people making a living.

I do know one thing. When I volunteered at the glacier there was a breaking point where people were enjoying the bears and scenery and then all of a sudden it became a survival of the fittest as crowds made bear viewing or glacier viewing impossible and making the bus back to the ship became the paramount objective. Rangers and volunteers found themselves acting as traffic managers, not interpreting or answering questions. Visitors found themselves in long lines or bunched groups trying to see the bears or the glacier, only to be frustrated at the back of the pack trying to dodge the umbrellas with sharp tines that could poke one’s eye out.

There is such a thing as critical mass. It sneaks up on you, and before you know it, things that could be and should be enjoyable become lost in the effort to manage the crowd. I saw it in the school setting where I worked for many years, when that one extra child changed the dynamic of the group and things went from teaching, learning and sharing to managing crowds, and no one benefited. It didn’t matter who the extra child was or their temperament. Too many changed the dynamic of the group.

We are and have been for several years, excluding the years of the pandemic shutdowns, at critical mass in parts of Juneau. What was once an enjoyable walk for visitors or locals alike to Nugget Falls or Steep Creek, or the Trail of Time or the Moraine Ecology Trail has become a march, a wall of people. The wildlife has probably suffered. The people who enjoy nature have probably suffered. I can’t speak for anyone but myself.

I don’t go to the glacier in the summer now to hike or watch bears. I can choose not to do that. It becomes much more personal and difficult when I cannot escape the unbelievable intrusion on the peace of my own home. I cannot choose to just not go here. This is where I live. This is my home. This is where my children were raised. This is where my husband died. I don’t want to leave.

It is only May, but for several hours today, as the noise and vibration increased beyond my threshold of acceptable living I realized what is in store for me for the rest of the summer. I don’t know the answer but I don’t like the question.

• Sue Oliphant is a longtime Juneau resident. She resides in Fritz Cove. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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