Monday, September 22, 2008

What is it about Alaska?

There is just something about Alaska. For many people it's on the list of places they want to visit before they die. For others it's a journey ending with roots taking hold deep into the tundra. I was one of the former. Not wanting to wait until I got older, retired, had an empty nest or lost those 10 pounds, I just went. Why miss out because of "waiting". You could miss on the journey of a lifetime, or the love or your life. You never know. Missed. Gone.

It's long been a beacon for dreamers and misfits, people who think somehow the unsullied vastness of the wild will fill in those gaps in the windows of their lives, where the cold slips in. But Alaska is an unforgiving place, that has nothing but disregard for your dreams and your longings, and if you go, you need to go prepared. There's a movie called "Into the Wild" about a young man that left an affluent life and family that loved him and went to the wilds of Alaska, only to (I can't spoil the ending, but it's not pretty). The book on which it was based was a great read and brings to mind these very concepts of nature as a harsh reality. For there's places that if your plane goes down they won't find you for decades, if ever. The mosquitoes will eat you alive if given the invite for dinner and you are definitely on the bottom of the food chain. It's a place you need to live with both your heart and your eyes wide open.

The people that inhabit that great state are unique. Probably as much like the folks of Idaho and Montana I grew up around, and perhaps why I felt so at home up there. These are people that survive everything. Earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods and they only take root deeper, growing stronger. They have found that handling such things is a lighter load than remorse.

But once you go there it will lure you back. I will probably always be the occasional lone wanderer of the wilderness. I have always been slightly unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live perhaps not as an adventurer, but certainly more richly. And I experienced that up there and learned from it how to live that way even once I came home The beauty of the country becomes part of you. You will feel connected yet distant from the life you left behind and more reflective and calm. It's the closest thing I've experienced to the detached peacefulness of sitting in a tree blind as the sun comes up, or sailing along the edge of the clouds in a Piper as the sun goes down.

I first went up on a flight into Fairbanks to visit a pilot friend and ended up staying for a week. My longest visit was 8 weeks, where I rented a plane and wandered around. I thought I would be bored in that length of time, and lonely. But I wasn't. I never tired of it, and I grew to really enjoy the beauty and the vagrant life I lead during those weeks of wonder. I grew to prefer the obscure and difficult trail to any highway, and the deep peace of a stand of ancient pine trees to the discontent bred by living in a habitat of highways and noise. I missed talking with others, but I had been through so many years where I couldn't share these things that mean so much to me that I had learned to contain myself. It was enough then to simply be surrounded by the land.

I told few I was going, an emergency contact of course, my folks simply thought I was working, as that often took me around the world and when I called they didn't ask too much other than was I OK and happy. It was nice, I'd never been away from work or school or anything for that long of time and I felt like a little toddler learning to walk and explore all over again. There was no one around, family or people whose opinions mattered that I had to explain myself to. I was able to simply commit myself to something absolute, life or truth or beauty, and be ruled by it rather than the rules of the past, surrendering to it more unreservedly than I had ever been able to in life in the past. It was a truly frightening and liberating feeling and when I came home still the same person, yet I was somehow stronger, self-confident and full of peace.

I met some interesting along the way. A retired Baptist minister who ran a trading post and made sure I had enough Diet Pepsi and Beef Jerky. And there was the time I offered a ride in my airplane to two French tourists who had come up for their idea of adventure, paying probably $10,000 for the privilege of camping out alone for a few days, then a carefully orchestrated raft or hunting trip they could go home and brag about. They had missed their pilot who was to drop them at their camp. Since I was taking my plane up that way to check out an eagles nest I'd seen from the air, I told them I'd drop them off close to where they were going to camp as I was going there anyway. I'd like to say that they were gracious, joyous people and we had a wonderful experience, but they were the rudest, nastiest couple I'd ever met in my life. It got to the point I gave up being polite and started to burp and pretend to nod off at the controls muttering the phrase "boy I wish I hadn't drunk that bottle of cough syrup".

In any event, as I left them, I reminded them that if they had any problems, ANYTHING, to put an X on the sandbar or hang out a flag and someone would check on them. They weren't far from town and I, or others would pass over as I frequented the area, and I'm sure the guide service would as well. Well they lit into me and screamed and yelled that they wanted to be ALONE in the wilderness and if they saw a plane they'd ^&#*@ sue everyone for everything they owned. . etc. etc. So I didn't stop, nor did anyone else. When they were picked up days later in the float plane they were a sight. They didn't put their food up in a tree like directed, and slept where they cooked. The first night in camp a bear tore it to pieces. Ate all the food (apparently Mr. Bear didn't like French food or they might have been dinner) and destroyed everything else. They spent the next 2 nights being gnawed on by mosquitoes, wet, cold and munching on some bitter berries. They were a bit nicer on the flight back I imagine.

I landed at one lake on which there was a beautiful cabin. There were no roads to it,you could only fly in and the nearest place was 20 miles away by dog team or snowmobile. A widow lived there, the wife of a Alaska Airlines pilot, she'd never been to the state until she fell in love with a resident and moved. She offered me some gas and coffee and I ended up staying for two days, sharing stories of life in the wild, and learning just how deep love will lead you into the wilderness of your heart.

Don't wait until you retire to grab life's dream, be it a fresh start as you leave heartache for promise, a career change no matter how late in life, or simply a grand vacation. If Alaska is on your "list", find the time somewhere in your life to go.

Haven't you ever dreamed of soaring in a float plane over white-blue mountains untouched by man, to cast a line into pristine rivers for your dinner, the hush of a thousand acres enveloping you as the fire crackles outside your tent? No adventuresome adult with any of the juices of their youth in them has moved beyond that dream. Make the choice to follow it. What you gain for that choice will be more than a few photos and a empty bank account. The true harvest of your dream will always be as intangible and indescribable as the tints of an Arctic sky. It will be a landscape of magic, a segment of the Northern lights which you have reached out and held on to, if only for a moment in time.


  1. I read McCandless' "adventure" (or, rather, misadventure) and while he did some interesting things, running away from your family, trying to "test" your mettle to prove that you're not "materialistic like them" doesn't seem to be one of them...

    I heard it described as, "Alaska is a good place to test yourself, but a bad place to find yourself."

    Sorry to call you out on that, it's just that I get upset when other folks (not you, mind) idolize him for what he did and overlook the rest of the folks out there...

  2. I have a lot of family in Alaska, including an uncle who once drove himself to the hospital after falling off a ladder while working on the roof of his cabin. It was anywhere from a twenty to fifty mile drive (I'm fuzzy on the distance), over unpaved roads. Alaska's not for wimps. I've never been there myself, though. I keep telling myself, "one of these days..."

  3. Amen, amen! Good Lord is Alaska everything you say, and more.

    So... when ya comin' back? :)

  4. Brigid,
    Thank you for putting into words
    feelings I never could have expressed
    quite so well. I moved up here in
    the winter of '75 and never left.
    Its hard to articulate just why,
    but I think you came damn close...

  5. I'm one of the "would like to visit before I die" but that is increasingly unlikely (the visiting, not the dying.) My sole exposure (and it was definitely "exposure") was on one return from Southeast Asia where a hop-hop-hop contract airliner refueled from Bangkok to Saigon to Clark AB to Yokota Japan to Fairchild and eventually into Travis AFB. Second day of the trip and fourth sunrise/sunset cycle, still in short-sleeved summer uniform, standing on the ramp in a snowstorm in Alaska...invigorating.

    Had to chuckle at your French tourists. While we love to vilify the French, the fact is that boorish behavior is not a national characteristic. They could have been Brits or Belgiques or Italians or Argentinians and equally distasteful.

    Some of my best memories are from France where gracious people made me welcome ranging from hoteliers to shopkeepers to four farmers sharing a tractor ride down a dirt rode as my wife and I picnicked on wine, bread and cheese not far from Beaune.

    It's all good.

  6. Thanks for the pictures, it was much better than the thirty minute stop-over I had on my way to mis-adventures in the Asian hemisphere in the sixties. Close enough now that I could ride my motorcycle in that direction, but I would still be just on the edge of Alaska instead of in it... well, maybe a ferry and bus tour for old folks would work better. Those mountains are awesome.

  7. Lived there twice for a total of 4 years.
    Beautiful place, and I would love to visit, but I really don't want to live there :)

    There are many reasons why I wouldn't want to live there full time but they are strictly personal preferences and not things that detract from the allure of the place.

  8. Aye, we're certainly not getting any younger. I have an ever-changing list of things I want to do. I'm sure I'll not get them all done, but it won't be for lack of trying. I've knocked off a few in the past year or so with more planned for the next couple.

    Living your dreams is better than dreaming your life away.

  9. Thank you, Brigid. Now, get out of my head. I think.

  10. Brigid, were you on floats or wheels?

  11. Alaska does ask different things from you than the Lower 48 does.

    They have enormous feats of engineering up there. Just listen to the stories of how they got the gold dredges in place. And walk the Davidson Ditch near Fairbanks.

    And you're right, the people are different.

    When we lived there, I had to shovel my roof every February or so. Flat roof, deep snow, wanted to avoid the caving in. I fell off the roof once while she was on the phone with a friend.

    Wife: "Hmm. My husband just fell off the roof. But what was that about your daughter?"

    Friend: "!?! Do you need to go check on him?"

    Wife: "No. He falls off every year. It's really slick. He's probably fine."

    And I was. No big deal.

  12. I spent a little over a month in Juneau during the winter (2003). It was amazing and left a spot in my heart that yearns to go back.

  13. I've been to Alaska twice. After leaving the army in 1980, I stayed for two months in Naknek and returned again in 1991 to take a break from a very stressful job. I'm not sure that I "found myself" or even tested my mettle, but did have some adventures quite different from anything I had experienced in my Midwestern upbringing. Because of the remoteness, the people there are more self-sufficient than most in the lower 48. It is a hard place where death can come suddenly. It isn't only the outsiders seeking whatever is inside them that die. One cousin fell overboard into cold water and drowned. Another died when his plane crashed into Lake Iliamna after taking off in a high wind. It can be beautiful, but also unforgiving of the smallest mistake or misjudgment. I've thought of going back again, maybe after I finish my Ph.D., but now that I'm older I know that whatever I'm seeking it's already part of me. Though perhaps I just need some place to reflect on that in order to bring it to the surface.


  14. Thank you all for your comments, what variance and feeling it all brings out.

    But I was truly expecting one of you lads from down south to notice the Texas A & M sweatshirt. :-)

  15. Re: Texas A&M sweatshirt-

    I'm a Rice guy. I got used to ignoring A&M shirts.

    Although I did occasionally hang a big "E" on each side of the ATM logo just to get a rise out of an Aggie in my office during my time in Texas.

  16. They had missed their pilot who was to drop them at their camp. Since I was taking my plane up that way to check out an eagles nest I'd seen from the air, I told them I'd drop them off close to where they were going to camp as I was going there anyway. I'd like to say that they were gracious, joyous people and we had a wonderful experience, but they were the rudest, nastiest couple I'd ever met in my life.

    They missed him, or he missed them? That could be a fine distinction. I've never been to Alaska, but I suspect that the folks who live there don't tolerate fools graciously.

  17. Hmmm... memories. I went to Alaska right after college graduation, planning to get a few months of field experience before starting to graduate school the next year. Three months turned into 11 wonderful years. Now, I've picked up where I left off, and I'm almost 'Phinally Done'... but sometimes, something will trip the internal memory switch, and for just a second I'm back in a cold Aleutian rain, or in a warm summer glen in the Interior, or any one of a hundred other places. Life took me away from Alaska, but I brought part of Alaska home with me. It has now been 7 years since I drove through the border station southbound, but very soon it will be time to head that way again to smooth out the rough edges of regimented "civilized" living. Perhaps a one-way trip this time...

  18. Thanks Brigid,
    Though your entry is about the Interior, the SouthEast rain forest is yet another view of Alaska. Water everywhere, snow above, glaciers behind, and the ocean in front. We got off of a 20' sailboat in 1999 and haven't left yet.
    Alaska, more so than anywhere I have lived, allows you, nay, begs you, to reinvent yourself.
    All of you, come on up and see for yourself. Don't make it on a cruise ship, come up with a duffle and be prepared to stay at least four weeks. If you leave after that, it will only be a matter of time before you are back, with a moving van in tow.


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