HurleySB/Shutterstock.com

Obama Embarks on Alaska Trip to Talk Climate, Glaciers

Warren G. Harding had a different kind of trip north, and didn’t live to tell the tale.

As President Obama embarks on the most ambitious presidential exploration of Alaska in U.S. history, he hopes to call attention to the threats facing that state's precious and majestic glaciers, attending a State Department-sponsored conference on glaciers and meeting with locals concerned about their melting.

That probably means he won't do what the last president to spend a lot of time in Alaska did: have the Navy bombard a glacier for his amusement. That was part of the entertainment for President Harding during his historic tour of Alaska in July 1923. With the president aboard the USS Henderson going from Juneau to Skagway, the ship's gunners fired several rounds of 5-inch shells into the wall of the Taku Glacier "so that Harding could watch the flashing ice avalanche," according to Harding's biographer, Francis Russell.

What Harding saw is called "calving," when huge chunks of ice "calv," or break off, a glacier. "It is very dramatic. I'm sure President Harding liked that," joked Michael Hawfield, an expert on Alaska history and an associate professor at the Kachemak Bay campus of Kenai Peninsula College in the University of Alaska system.

The glacier survived Harding's trip, though the president himself didn't. He died just 10 days after leaving Alaska exhausted and worn out by the exertions of the trip. Harding was the first president to visit Alaska, followed by Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, and nine of the 11 presidents after Alaska became a state in 1959. But most of those were refueling stops as they jetted off to Asian summits. One met a pope in the state and another met a Japanese emperor. But none had Alaska as the prime destination between Harding in 1923 and Obama, who will be in the state Monday through Wednesday.

With Air Force One and Marine One at his disposal, Obama will not face the strains and stresses that contributed to Harding's death. The president's journey will take him 8,400 miles in only three days, leaving Washington on Monday morning and returning to the White House on Thursday morning. In contrast, Harding's trip in 1923—which he called his "Voyage of Understanding"—was planned for 15,000 miles. It is unthinkable by modern standards for a president, with half his cabinet in tow, to hit the road for a three-month trip with multiple events scheduled for almost every single day. That is what Harding attempted. Alternately by train, boat, and horse, he was to go as far north as Alaska and Canada and as far south as the Panama Canal and Puerto Rico.

But he never would reach the end of the itinerary. Even before he reached Alaska, he was near-death. He had driven a wheat binder under a broiling-hot sun while wearing his suit, had given 80 speeches, had stood for hours in rainstorms, had endured severe sunburn and blistered lips, and had taken an excruciating 75-mile car ride in Utah on unpaved roads. According to his doctor, the next leg in Utah was even worse—a horseback ride on the rocky bed of the Virgin River. "The president cut a figure in leather chaps, blue flowing neckerchief, and Panama hat," wrote Dr. Joel T. Boone. But, he added, the president "suffered from hemorrhoids and with the saddle acting like a file, he could find relief from pain only by standing in the stirrups."

By the time he reached Tacoma, Harding was in trouble, finally complaining about his schedule. "Unless it is radically modified ... it will kill me," he said, adding, "I just cannot keep up such a pace without dire consequences to me." His doctors hoped Alaska would be more relaxing. But instead of taking the ordered rest, Harding insisted on staying up late every night on the ship, playing poker and bridge and shuffleboard, and watching movies on deck. Once in Alaska, things got worse. His aides had told him to wear long underwear and winter clothes. But the temperature when he got to Alaska was in the mid-90s. With stops at 10 ports, nonstop speeches—including one during heavy rain in Juneau—and seemingly endless ceremonies with native groups and politicians, Harding was exhausted.

Again, he ignored orders to rest, driving a spike to complete the Alaskan railroad, touring a coal mine, and visiting fish markets, baseball fields, and midnight banquets. Toss in some tainted crabs, a destroyer ramming his ship and tossing him out of his bed, and more speeches, and Harding was done. The White House physician had secretly brought a coffin on the trip out of fear that the ailing first lady would not survive. But it was the president who succumbed to the rigors the trip, dying in San Francisco.

Some 92 years later, Obama will not face similar rigors. He will be away from his White House bed only three nights, spending two in Anchorage and one aboard Air Force One. There will be no speeches in the rain, no midnight banquets and no tainted crab on his menu. With the temperatures in the mid-70s, he'll leave his long underwear home. He will, though, face some of the same issues that were on Harding's Alaskan agenda. Primarily, that will be the tension between development and preservation.

"We still see the same thing today," Hawfield told National Journal. "That is a longstanding tug in Alaskan society." At the time of Harding's visit, there were fears that overfishing would soon wipe out the stocks of halibut, salmon, and cod, forcing some government regulation of the industry. Again, there is concern about the fish, something that makes Obama's trip to a fishing village at Dillingham very topical.

"That is ground central for the fishing issues," Hawfield said. More so than in Harding's time, the concern is over the general health of the water, with acidification of ocean waters in the north as well as the general warming of the waters in both south and north.

Additionally, Obama's decision to be the first president to venture to the Arctic will bring him face-to-face with other environmental challenges when he goes to Kotzebue. "That is a perfect place to get a sense of the delicate nature of the Arctic as well as the struggles of the small bush communities, as they are called here," said Hawfield, who sees some of the challenges out his window. "We see right now a major die-off of sea birds where I live. We don't know why. We think maybe they are starving to death, that something is happening in the water that is causing stress."

He also can see three glaciers from his office window and he's glad that the president is coming to take stock, undeterred by the fact that Alaskan is a solidly Republican state that gave him only 38 percent of the vote in 2008 and 41 percent in 2012. "As an Alaskan, I'm just happy that he's going to take more time here than is usually the case," he said, noting that past presidents have rarely strayed far from Anchorage and the military bases where their planes were refueled. "The fact that Obama is actually going to the real Alaska is especially important."

And, it goes without saying, he is grateful that the president will not be ordering the Navy to shell any glaciers while he's there.

(Image via HurleySB/Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.