The Truth About Alaska

First of all, Alaska is big. No. Like, really big.

Montana. California. Texas. All big states. But you’re no fool. You already know Alaska is bigger than each of those behemoth territories. But did you know…

…it’s also larger than all those states combined?!

In Alaska, I fulfilled a lifelong pipe-dream of backpacking in Denali National Park. Upon return I retraced my steps on the park map spanning the entire wall of the ranger station. With a quarter, I could have covered the territory it took two days and thirteen hours to travel.

Although the Denali wilderness is twice the size of Glacier National Park and almost three times the size of Yellowstone National Park, it’s just a drop in the bucket when compared to the rest of Alaska. So when I say “the truth about Alaska,” I’m being a bit facetious. But somehow, “a few observations about the very small slice of Alaska I visited” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

The Truth About Alaska

Days after leaving the Denali backcountry, as I pulled into the parking lot of “The Lodge” in Talkeetna atourist enclave, Denali climbing expedition launchpad my new Italian companion uttered something I took to mean, “Whoa! Look at this fancy place.” To which I responded with a dichotomy observation that had been brewing for days:

“Alaska is full of people who either have a lot of money or a lot of courage.”

There is it. My Alaska analysis distilled into a single sentence. Given the wealth distribution in our country and the economic realities of remote places, Alaska has a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

At a roadhouse one night, I sat next to a guy who builds planes and an environmental scientist who packages beer. What do they love most about Alaska? The barrier to entry (both arriving and surviving are challenging) works as a filter. Almost no one “just ended up” in Alaska. People are here because they want to be. That authenticity and courage, combined with a breathtaking and pristine backdrop, makes Alaska life rewarding in all the ways that matter most.

The Best of Both Worlds

Minutes after touching down in the mythical land of Alaska, I started to feel uncannily at home. First, a small-talk conversation at the airport about fishing and hunting. The next morning at my new friend’s house, “Wait… you guys have fireweed up here? The same indicator species that I used to teach tourists about in Yellowstone?” Then on the drive to Denali, “Hey… this plant looks a lot like the wormwood my friends have in their chicken yard. Oh, it is wormwood? And you have horsetail, too? And blueberries and service berries?

They should make fireweed the official Alaska state flower. Locals use it to track the summer – when the top-most flowers bloom, summer is over. A friend who grew up in AK tells me they used to say, “When the fireweed turns to cotton, then the summer has been forgotten.” photo: bgeissl

Everywhere I turned, little elements of my past lives popped up. I kept bumping into bits of culture, vistas, and plants from my childhood in Wyoming and my coming-of-age in the Pacific Northwest. Alaska, for me, was a beautiful blend of the very-familiar with an edge of novelty and adventure. Is this love?

Grizzly Bears Are Real

Just like my childhood home, Alaska has Grizzlies. Lots of them. Denali National Park is infamous for its wildlife viewing. Generally, people visiting want to see bears. Heck, they want to see it all! Wolves, caribou, moose… bring it on! They do so from the relative safety of old green school buses, shutters happily clicking away.

Backcountry park visitors – the kind of visitor I was – are slightly less keen. Sure, we want to experience the majesty of these creatures, but at a distance that all-but-requires binoculars, please.

photos: jacob w. frank (cropped, L) and booizzy (cropped, R)

The managers of the park do their best to make sure backcountry visitors are armed with enough knowledge to keep themselves and the animals safe. bIf you are too selfish or lazy to participate in encounter-prevention and end up having a violent encounter, the animal will probably be tracked and killed, even if you survive. To be allowed in the backcountry, one must watch an hour-long video, listen to two safety talks, and be issued a bear-resistant food container.

They can’t do anything about what happens when idiots like us fail to follow their advice.

Survival Farming

Work-exchanging on a farm was the anchor of my Alaskan days. Great people, all the microgreens I could eat, having my own little tiny house on the property, being surrounded by gardens and the Alaskan woods… heaven!

The owners of The Grove – permaculture farm, event venue, lodging provider – love a strategy-heavy table-top game called Agricola. Generally, I’m not one for spending my mental energy on imaginary variables, but how could a boot-strapping farm girl resist a game that brings the realities of homesteading to life?

I probably spent at least 10 hours over two weeks playing this awesome game. photo: oliver hallmann

One non-Agricola night, a bearded dude walked into the Grand Hall – the common building where we all eat, hang out, play games, do yoga, internet, and in my case lay stretching on the floor. A friend of the owners, I found out he was a living version of the game we all loved to play. His homestead is 150 miles from the nearest road and 70 miles from the nearest collection of buildings around a community airstrip.

He allowed me my typical interrogation as we flipped through photos on his tablet. He and his partner milled all their own wood on-site to build a cabin on the property, all while living in a teepee in bear country. They flew in Icelandic horses and now run a small business – Apricity Alaska – catering to bush hunting parties and other wildland adventurers. Turns out I’m not the only one impressed with his ingenuity. I’d find out later, from others, that he’s also featured on a television show. Since he didn’t mention it, I won’t reveal which one.

The Midnight Sun

By the time I got to Alaska, sunset was technically 11:45 p.m. and getting earlier three times as fast as it does in the lower 48. (Most of America gains or loses daylight at a rate of about 2 minutes a day. At the end of the Alaskan summer, that rate is almost 6 minutes a day.)

To me, the extra daylight didn’t feel much different. Instead, I finally got to experience the afternoons I’ve always longed for… full of as much time as we all wish we had. I can’t tell you how many times I glanced at the clock and found it was hours later than I thought… 5 or 6 p.m. instead of 1 or 2 in the afternoon.

I thought the extended daylight might be mind-blowing. Instead it simply made up for the poor time-estimating skills most of us employ. I didn’t have extra time, but I finally had enough time.

The insane sunlight also makes plants really happy.  Right before leaving, I got to see the state fair’s ridiculous prize veggies that grow in 24-hour sunlight.

Turnips are normally the size of an orange and weigh around a pound.

I can confidently claim this won’t be my last trip to Alaska.  I’m definitely open to moving to the final frontier in the next few years!

References   [ + ]

a. tourist enclave, Denali climbing expedition launchpad
b. If you are too selfish or lazy to participate in encounter-prevention and end up having a violent encounter, the animal will probably be tracked and killed, even if you survive.

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