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Stopping to consider Alaska's import-export ebb and flow

  • Author: Erin McKittrick
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published December 14, 2013

TACOMA, Wash. -- The ocean fits in giant boxes here -- great rectangular harbors carved to fit the bulk of a container ship. I look out across an empty slip, listening as a pneumatic hammer starts up, then another, their staccato sounds joined by the beeps of reversing trucks and the dull grumble of engines.

We return to the van, aimlessly circling the purposeful buzz of trucks and machinery in the sprawling Port of Tacoma. Gas flares from the top of a refinery. Claw-like cranes feed a mountain of logs into a great debarking machine. We drive past vast parking lots -- here a row of shiny white cars, there a row of shiny red ones. Another lot holds Caterpillar backhoes, hundreds of them all in a line. And everywhere, containers. Corrugated boxes in white and bright primary colors, lined up and stacked up, filling great fields of pavement.

I recognize the names on the side. TOTE. Horizon. Carlile. Lynden -- the company name printed in green beside an iconic map of Alaska. It makes me homesick. I imagine slipping inside one of those boxes, swinging beneath a crane as I'm lifted onto one of those great ships. In three days, I'd be in Anchorage -- perhaps traveling beside the extra books I mailed home to myself, the rice bound for the Seldovia grocery store, or a neighbor's new car. Some 90 percent of what I could buy in the store was once in a container at the Port of Tacoma. A third of the port's business involves shipping to Alaska.

I'm not in Alaska. But I might as well be. More than half of Alaska's stuff comes from here. Of the 4.5 million tons of stuff shipped into the 49th state each year, 2.5 million tons come from Washington state. Adding the barges and ships from Asia, Canada, and everywhere else, our imports add up to more than 12,000 pounds for every one of us. It's mail and food, books and pencils. Plus 50,000 cars and the fuel to drive them. And cement -- enough of which goes into the Port of Anchorage each year to build a sidewalk from Homer to Barrow and back.

I try to picture my family's share -- what it might look like in our yard. How could such a number even be possible? It seems as if our imports should tower over all of us, overwhelming our streets and living rooms. My family's portion of cement would build 50 feet of sidewalk every year, where we could park our one-third of a new car, next to our one-and-a-half shipping containers full of food, clothes and bathtubs.

We build Alaska out of what we bring in from Washington on four container ships a week. And then we send Alaska back -- mostly on different ships. Despite frozen fish and recycled cans and the beds and couches of people fleeing the state, 80 percent of those containers return to Tacoma empty. But 35 million tons of Alaska flows south each year, our exports easily dwarfing our imports. The vast majority of this 35 million tons fills the holds of oil tankers -- around 14,000 gallons per Alaskan. Some of it is offloaded at Washington's Cherry Point refinery, a short hop from the marine highway terminal that offloaded us.

Our family's portion of that oil would overflow the yurt we live in. It would fill a 30-by-30 cabin more than 8 feet deep. I imagine placing our share of all the exports in that cabin, diving through the 9,000 pollock and 1,400 salmon floating on top of the crude, to sit in a solid zinc armchair, clutching a marble of gold.

Erin McKittrick lives on the southern shore of Kachemak Bay. She and husband Hig Higman have trekked many thousands of miles across Alaska, including traveling from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands by human power. She is the author of "A Long Trek Home," which documents that trip, and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska," which adds two small children to the expedition team. Find her here.