Ruggest Time for Rugged People


Ruggest Time for Rugged People

  As I wrote last week, Alaska is bigger than big, majestic and rugged of scenery and hosts a lifestyle that may not be big, but is rugged - at least by my standards. It's cool in the summer, with an occasional exception, but there are few exceptions about cold winters. On the other hand, I can guarantee that Alaskans would find central Florida highly uncomfortable for ten months of the year.

  For Alaskans, the 50 to 60 degree temps we experienced in our two weeks there appeared to be shorts and tee shirt weather. Of course, ponchos and umbrellas were always handy, not to mention bug repellent for a state where mosquitos are considered the state bird. In fact we noted that some outdoor workers were wearing what we would consider bee-keeper gear. Mosquitoes aren't bee-sized, but they are big enough and a walk in the woods can turn into a jog, then run, then mad dash. Native Indians smeared bear grease over their bodies, but bear grease is probably hard to get today and a bit smelly. But, then, there aren't any snakes or alligators or sharks.

  I wrote "rugged", but how rugged? It depends what you are doing. I just finished reading a book about Alaskan "bush" pilots which is an old aviation term that still applies to Alaskan pilots today. Flying in the Alaskan wilderness in the winter is more than challenging and summertime flying isn't for the careless. Both the weather and the terrain are very unforgiving. We took an hour and half float plane trip from Wasilla (took off next door to Sarah Palin's house) to Talkeena near Denali. It was low over cast, a bit of drizzle, five or six miles visibility, but good enough eventually to fly below the mountain tops to follow glaciers up the canyons and back.

  Real Alaskan flying involves flying to remote Indian villages year round in all kinds of weather where the best weather reports come from observers on the ground. Pilots are pretty ho-hum, at least on the surface, because most of the time the flying is kind of boring. But, did I mention that the name of the book is  " Map of Dead Pilots"?

  Of course, you can travel by boat or canoe or powered skiffs. We tried a rubber raft down a swift river a portion of which was what they call a braided river - an ever changing shallow delta like part of the river where the trick is to find a channel deep enough to float an eight person raft. We did a bit of rock-and-ravel bar walking enroute (the sand is more like silt and can act like quicksand). The water, flowing from the glaciers, was about 37 degrees.

  Winter-time traveling is often by snow machines - they don't call them snowmobiles - as well as cars and trucks, if the roads are passable. And, some use dog sleds. The dog sled dogs we saw weren't the Disney type Huskies which are the power dogs. What we saw were sleeker, half the size, pulling dogs that looked more like German shepherds.

  Jeff King is the king of dog sledders having won the Iditarod four times and he owns a breeding kennel. He introduced us to his newest batch of puppies - we each got to hold one - and harnessed up his professional dogs to an ATV. They are bred and trained to pull and run and when left out of the harness are really bummed. Friendly, good-natured dogs, though.

  The people seemed that way, too, but it might change in the winter time. Not only is there little daylight during the long winters and the weather is often bad, but food supplies in the smaller, remote towns, or islands, come by river barge. Yes, they supply some of their own produce (long summer days for a few months), some of their meat and dairy products, but they rely upon barge loads of supplies for their markets - had to say "super". As one woman told us, you want to get there as soon after the supplies come in because what you get at the end of the week probably only has a day or two of freshness left.

  Of course, you can't know what it's like unless you live there, nor did we have an opportunity nor time to mix much with residents. The closest we came was on the Fourth of July when our Tauck tour group of 40 was included in Juneau's (the state capital) annual parade. We lined up (with flags, hats and red and white and blue glasses) next to a float of four belly-dancers (it was 60 degrees). A guy on a motorcycle asked us who we were and when we said "a tour group", he smiled and noted that each tourist drops $197 during his visit. Locals are tuned in and tourists really are welcomed.

  It looked like the whole town(31,000) turned out and we got cheers from the crowd. We did cut it short since the route was three miles and lunchtime at the Red Dog Saloon beckoned. Literally ran into a real native there. Let the swinging door go as he was entering. I apologized, but this 6 foot 4 guy, a Tlingit (pronounced click-it, I was told) was very friendly. A body builder and former bouncer at the saloon, he noted that everyone comes to town for a good time for the Fourth. Then he corrected himself. " No. I mean the third AND fourth. Now I'm going to drink a bit".

  I'm a little curious what Alaska's like in the winter, but it's not on my bucket list.

Read more from: Something On My Mind