I went to Alaska! Many people have a list of places they'd like to visit before they die. Alaska was always #1 on mine. So, I went! While I was there, I jotted some notes in a travel journal. A selection of my musings follows.
Sled Dogs - Big dogs abound in Alaska. Everywhere we go, we see them. In the frontier town of McCarthy, dogs traipse proudly through the saloon (a terrified puppy didn't know what to make of his first hoedown). However, no dog experience tops the one we had in the Denali sled dog kennels.
Upon arriving at the kennels, we stroll through the pens petting the dogs, who remain largely aloof. They laze around, unimpressed by the visiting tourists. Shortly thereafter, a park ranger gives a talk. He provides some background on the animals, then asks the crowd, "who's ready to see these dogs run?" As soon as he says this, the dogs go apeshit. Every single one rouses from their nap and leaps up and down in excitement. The barking resounds for miles. As the rangers move through the kennels to select dogs for a sledding demonstration, each canine bounces spastically, yapping its head off. One doesn't need to speak dog to know what they're saying. "Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!" If you tell me you love your job as much as a sled dog, I tell you that you're a liar.
Geography - Normally, the only place you'll see so much geographic diversity is in a videogame. The above shot was taken atop Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Much of the hike to get here was spent sloshing through snow in a T-shirt. From a single vantage point, I see a glacier, an ice field that stretches ~300 miles (walking across means almost certain death), a flowery meadow, a dense woods, and snowy mountains. The way these different features blend with each other barely looks real.
Campsite International - Our tour group includes three Americans (including myself), a British couple, a German, and an Australian. We spend a week and a half together. By the end, these relationships have become the most significant I've ever had with people from other countries. I like hearing everyone's thoughts on America and learning the appeal of Alaska from a foreign perspective. I ask the German (Olaf) if touring the mountainous landscape here is really that different from traversing the Alps or other European mountains. He points out that the major difference is the level of civilization. Climb a mountain in his country and you're likely to pass through a village on the way up. European campsites, he tells me, resemble tent cities.
Speaking of camping, I strongly feel that that's the proper way to experience this place.
The People of Alaska
The People of Alaska - We take a bush plane to the sprawling metropolis of McCarthy (summer population: 400). While airborne, I grill the pilot (Toby) about Alaskan life. Unlike most of the people we've met, he was actually born and raised here. The majority of folks staffing tourism jobs hail from other parts of the country. They spend their summers here leading whitewater or ice climbing or hiking expeditions, and maintain permanent residence somewhere in the lower 48. You always think about Alaska as the reddest of red states, but an adventurous visitor moves from hippy enclave to hippy enclave. You can't judge a state by looking at the color.
When we went to McCarthy's lone saloon, our entire group was shocked by the male to female ratio. We expected ten smelly mountain men for every woman, but the split seems to be more or less 50/50. And the women aren't bad! No one showers, but everyone spends so much time outdoors that they're generally in excellent shape. The ladies don't comprise the most traditionally feminine assembly, but if you dig outdoorsy chicks, you'll rarely do better.
McCarthy is a town straight out of a western. The muddy thoroughfare recalls Deadwood (or any other of a hundred American movies) and the downtown boasts roughly four buildings. You can't reach the place by car. Instead, people get around by bike, foot, or four wheeler. There's no law enforcement, not even a sheriff. Astonishingly, the bar serves craft beers.
From McCarthy, we go ice climbing on a glacier. On the trek there, it comes out that one of our guides (Brian) hails from the Cleveland area. Indeed, his climbing helmet boasts a Cleveland Browns stripe and his innermost layer is a Browns T-shirt. We quickly commiserate over the recent Cavs championship (which he paid an obscene amount of money to watch on his phone) and I tell him about going to the victory parade in Cleveland (which was attended by roughly twice the population of Alaska). Brian named the glacier's most spectacular climbing formation "LeBron Moulin," and the name stuck. I approve.
Wildlife - Videogames have seriously warped my notion of how frequently wildlife should occur. When I look out at expansive landscapes, I expect to see bears and moose everywhere, but more often I see only trees and mountains. Ironically, I have more close encounters with animals in cities than in nature. On the Anchorage bike trail, I (foolishly) get up close and personal with a moose, and in Seward the docks are practically swarming with sea otters.
I find it amusing how little the Alaskans care about these things. Beneath the above bald eagle, three fishermen cleaned their day's catch. They seemed utterly unmoved by the profusion of nearby eagles and otters. They treat them with the indifference I'd treat a squirrel I saw while walking to my car.
Scale - Things look close. They aren't. The sense of scale here is remarkable. Pictures don't do it justice. Leave the main road in Denali National Park, and you won't find any trails. Instead, you simply pick a spot and walk towards it. Akheil and I set our sights on the nearest mountain. "We'll climb this in no time at all!" we say to ourselves. We walk towards the mountain for over an hour, only to realize that we remain miles away, separated by a pair of impassable rivers. Our initial goal appears impossible.
Resource Extraction - It ain't all sunshine and roses. In terms of industry, tourism places a distant second to oil, which one could place under the sinister-sounding umbrella of "resource extraction." In fact, many of the tourist destinations are themselves harsh reminders of why this land was settled to begin with.
The Bonanza copper mine (pictured above) sits 4.5 miles from the ghost town of Kennicot. Back in the early 20th century, this place did some major business. Then, one day, it didn't, and everyone left. Rather abruptly too, from the looks of things. Tools sit abandoned at the entrance to the mine, and the ground itself is littered with more copper than I've ever seen. There was no demolition when the mine closed, instead, everything was just abandoned to rot and fall apart on its own. Big business hit it and quit it, as they say.
As we near the top, I engage our guide about the history of the place. He opens up about the perils of capitalism and Alaska's unfortunate dependence on resource extraction. I like money, but I do not understand how a person could spend their lifetime so shamelessly plundering the natural world for personal gain. Who wants that kind of legacy?
Bearanoia - I say "Alaska," you think "bears." Venture a mile from Anchorage, and bear awareness becomes a big thing. People hike the trails with bear bells and bear spray (one coffee shop owner we met struts around town with a six shooter dangling from his person). I see eleven bears in my travels, none close enough to hit with a rock.
In addition to the bears, visitors are instructed to avoid close encounters with moose (who cause as many injuries each years as bears). I didn't learn this until after stumbling across a moose on the bike trail from Anchorage. I didn't perceive the animal as dangerous, so I approached it like I would a deer or cow in Ohio and took a series of shameless selfies. Later, when I share this story, one Alaskan tells me "you could have been one of those tourists on the news!"
Before heading into the wilderness, I spent a couple days in Anchorage. While there, I did some swiping on Tinder. Instead of pursuing dates or hook ups with any of my matches, I settled on asking them to recount their most harrowing encounter with a bear. Some of my favorite responses:
"They [bears] used to hang out by the garbage shed about 10 feet from my front door when I lived in Girdwood, just sniffing around trying to get in. So every morning I'd wake up and throw rocks at them so I could go to work. They always skedaddled from the rock throwing and I never had any issues."
"Target parking lot. Muldoon. Terrifying and very anticlimactic. I'm still waiting for the thrill of death in the actual wilderness."
"There was one on campus during middleschool. They put the entire place on lockdown."
"Walking through the grocery parking lot when I was a kid. My mom yelled at us to stop and made us all sing really loud."
"Well, I was at this gay club once..."
Isolation - I fear that this place is ruining nature for me. In all nature activities I do from here on in life, noting will be as wild. Nothing will be as remote. There will always be traffic noise, or cell phone reception, a profusion of tourists, or some ass hole who threw a soda can into the river. Here you can spend all day at a feature as spectacular than anything in the lower 48 and never see another human aside from the people you came with.
16 Days, 1 Video Montage
I did a lot in Alaska, and left with but a few regrets:
1. I didn't ask my bush pilot if I could fly the plane for a little bit. I danced around the subject, but choked at the moment of truth.
2. We drove by a place called Alaska Yaks. I didn't really have time to buy a T-shirt, but still, I should have bought a T-shirt.
3. I met a girl on the last day of my trip that I really, really wish I had met on the first day. Alas! In Alaska, you can do what you like, but you can't turn back time.
Otherwise, great success! I wouldn't mind returning one day to ride a sled dog team beneath the northern lights (you can't do this in summertime).