A Chance to Start Over
"Just got back from Alaska," I wrote a friend of mine last week. "If you want independence and an annual check from an oil company, this is the place. A bit chilly and not much sunshine for eight months but an opportunity to do your thing - that is if you don't need or care about electricity and paved roads."
I could have added that there are lots of bears and moose, wolves and caribou, and gobs of fish in the rivers and lakes (no snakes) and majestic scenery to go with with your out-of-doors activities. I might have added that parts of Alaska appear to be tiny bits of land surrounded by water and swamps, kind of a northern Everglade. He wrote back, not unexpectedly, that he preferred the Ritz-Carlton and could have added "the warmth and sunshine of Florida". However, Alaska is not for those seeking physical comfort, but it does have an intriguing lifestyle.
As tourists (we went as a part of a 40 person Tauck company group) you go for the scenery, the hard-luck, rough time history, the animals and to see the native tribes. Alaska is the biggest of states, the number one of number one; it extends the furthest east and west; it takes more than a couple of Texas's to fill it; it has the tallest mountain - Mt. McKinley, known there as the native name Denali; it has the coldest of the cold, 80 below zero; and on and on.
However, what piqued my interest was the way people lived and their integration and phase-in with nature and their surroundings. It's nothing you step back from. You may not surrender, but you must adapt. It is our last frontier and there's plenty of room, depending upon the kind of room you like. As big as it is there are only an estimated (2012) 730,000 people and nearly 300,000 live in the relative comfort of Anchorage. The capital, Juneau, accessible only by water or air, or as another friend wrote, "birth canal", has 31,000 people. Fairbanks to the north of Anchorage is a biggie with nearly 100,000 people. The rest are scattered over vast and sometimes frozen over landscape. Huge mountain ranges dominate from the southern coastal regions to Pt. Barrow in the tip top north.
"You can't get there more here" has meaning in Alaska. There are relatively few roads: a nice road from Anchorage to Fairbanks and from Anchorage down into the Kenai peninsula and the trans American-Canada roadway from the lower 48. There's also the Denali highway, a 100 mile dirt, washboard road, that takes you from Denali National Park into the Copper River Valley and a paved road from there down to Valdez and Whittier. The Denali road closes in the winter.
Most people fly - big plane, little plane, land plane, float plane or float/land plane, helicopter, or boat - big boat, little boat. One in 16 have a pilot's license. There are lakes to land on and some people have cut landing strips in the wayback although I'm still wondering how they got "wayback" when you can't, from the air, spot any roads reaching their houses.
We met a family of homesteaders from 1962, a farm family up from South Dakota, who hacked their way into the wilderness near a town called Talkeena whose main paved road today is the one running through it to Fairbanks. A few roads run hither and to the more rural areas to feed the schools and the commerce. These people came, settled, without just about everything, built a house over the years, raised the four children they brought with them and now live in a moderately modern and electricity supplied home. One child, no longer a child, of course, still lives without amenities, and makes part of a living giving tours of her mother's home. One of her sons is at a university. Another lives so far back that he walks three miles to his car. He says he likes it that way.
For younger kids walking either to school or to the bus stop carry guns in case of meeting a moose or bear. Moose, by the way, are far more dangerous than bear. Moose challenge cars and even houses. They're like the mountains. They dominate. Anyway, the kids aren't allowed to bring the guns into the schools any longer so they have to stash them in the bushes so they can pick them up on the way back home.
Summers - four months - are for getting ready for winter. Lots of sunshine - up to 18 hours a day in midsummer - allows you to work lots of hours so you can hoard up on food and supplies for the winter, or get enough money to escape to the lower 48. Not much loafing. Tourism is big and tourists are really appreciated. The well mixed and integrated society makes do with what they got and when they can get it.
When fishing and hunting seasons pass there is mountain climbing (not an amateur thing), and mushing. That's dogsledding which, in addition to being a competitive sport, is another way to travel. Big deal is the Iditerod, the dog/sled race from Anchorage to Nome, 800 miles of brutal travel in brutal weather. However, mushing is a general sport and it's for men and women. Women, by the way, are real women. That means using a chain saw, an axe, a gun and fishing rod, and being able to fix vehicles or whatever has to be fixed or worked. While we were there I read a story about two Washington, D.C. female reporters who were heading to Alaska because men are scarce in D.C. I never finished the story, but I doubt that cute and sophisticated worked too well in Alaska.
Anyway, more on that next week. In the meantime, when you hear Sarah Palin hyperventilate about Alaska and its rough and ready ways, know that it is not an exaggeration. By the way, Alaska's population is growing at about 10,000 a year. As I wrote, there's plenty of room.