Consider these numbers. In a state which encompasses some 663,268 square miles (the largest state in our country – far more than double that boastful Lone Star state) there resides only 735,132 people. That means that for every person in Alaska, there is approximately nine tenths of a square mile that they could have exclusively for their own use. Almost a full square mile. For everyone. It’s the lowest population density of our nation and it’s so clearly evident nearly everywhere you go in Alaska. Even when you factor in the tourists – almost two million between October of 2012 and September 2013 – there is still nearly a quarter mile square for everyone (1). A Californian, by comparison, has a measly four portions of a mile split one thousand ways. So what does it take to be one of those people? How does a place that defines the word ‘space’ define the people it contains? What’s it like to be an ‘Alaskan’?
I had the privilege of befriending many Alaskans as I traveled there recently. Some I only met in passing and others I got to spend some real quality time with. No matter what the situation, they all had amazing stories to share. Here are a few of my favorites:
I met Mary while on a day trip kayaking near Ketchikan. She works as a kayak guide for an outfit there that only hires locals to guide their trips. Mary wasn’t my guide, but she was working on the boat that was our ‘base’ on the trip. Mary moved to Alaska from West Virginia to study at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. While she was living there, she stayed in a ‘dry’ cabin off campus. Dry cabins are any type of housing that has no water hookup. You carry home the water you’ll need in five gallon containers. Shower at school. Do your business in an outhouse. In winter. In Fairbanks, where the average winter temperature is about 0 degrees fahrenheit. She’s a tough girl. She’s also about to head off to Thailand for a year to teach english and enjoy some warm weather for a change. She took me hiking up to the top of Mt. Ward in the pouring rain. 10 miles of slogging it up and then back down. We never saw the view, but getting to hang out with such a fascinating person for a few hours was well worth the soaking.
Roger is the second-in-command in the galley of the MV Matanuska; a ferry vessel for the Alaska Marine Highway System. I rode the Matanuska from Ketchikan to Juneau, an eighteen hour journey. We met while having a smoke break onboard. Our meeting was fairly brief, but I thought about it for a long time afterwards. Originally from the Philippines, Roger came to Alaska for work almost three decades ago, landing a job with the Alaska Marine Highway System not too long after that. He worked his way up from deck hand all these years and now has the freedom to choose which vessel he wants to work on. He’s stayed on the Matanuska for almost two decades because he loves the crew. ‘On a ship, your enjoyment of your work is equal to the quality of the crew. When you find a good crew, you don’t leave’. He talked proudly of his family as well. Especially of his son and the grandchildren he had ‘down in Seattle’. He was excited to soon be retiring and to have all that time to spend with his family.
Dennis is a sustenance fisherman in Sitka. I met him while on a bike ride with friends from the kayaking trip in Juneau. Dennis was waiting for the bus to take him, his bicycle and his catch back to town. He was happy to show us his catch for the day; lingcod and rockfish. ’Trashfish’ according to some of the local fisherman, Dennis told us. ’They only want to eat salmon. Not just salmon. They only want to eat King salmon’. Since I, too, had been regaled with the stories of how delicious the salmon were up here, I found it fascinating to hear his perspective, as this was his source of everyday protein. He told us he even shared his catch with some of the elderly folks who live close to him since he had more than he needed. All from a state permit that cost him just ten dollars a year.
Later that same day in Sitka, my friends and I rode up to the Medvejie Hatchery. Located several miles up a dirt road, past a gate that prevents private vehicles from entering, the hatchery doesn’t get a ton of visitors. We were just standing there reading the sign wondering if we were allowed to be there when Rich drove up in his forklift and told us to go ahead and explore as we wished. We were hesitant at first, but lo and behold, every single person that was working there gave us a big smile and a friendly hello as we passed. Rich found us a few minutes later and offered to take us on a tour! He’s been working there for more than twenty years now and you can tell how much he loves those salmon and his job. He showed us tanks filled with salmon that were only a few months old. Coho, Chinook (King) and Chum salmon are supported at the hatchery and he showed us how we could tell the differences by the color of their skin. He was especially excited to show us how the baby salmon will nip at your fingers if you put them in the water. It didn’t hurt, but it sure made us all jump every time they nipped. I couldn’t get over how happy he was with his work and how happy everyone at the hatchery was that day. It certainly put a smile on my face to see people so satisfied with their work and their part in the fishing industry in Alaska.
Whittier is a small town on the Kenai Pennisula that is accessible only by boat or through a single-lane, mixed use tunnel that is used for both vehicular and rail traffic. I had driven there through the tunnel to hop on another Alaska Marine Highway ferry to go to Valdez and then drive on to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. It was here in Whittier that I met Brenda, the proprietor of Log Cabin Gifts. I was buying something for my wife and somehow we just started talking. Brenda has the kind of voice that can only come from years of heavy smoking so it should be no surprise that our twenty minute conversation took place on the patio of her store while she smoked cigarette after cigarette. She’d come to Alaska in the eighties when the economy in the ‘lower-48’ wasn’t so hot. ‘Alaska really is it’s own country’ she told me. Separated from us by Canada, the 49th state has it’s own economy that doesn’t necessarily reflect what you’d find in the rest of the country. What Brenda found back in the 80’s was a town where there was one teacher for every ten kids. School trips weren’t to a local museum, they were out to the Kenai Fjords National Park to go whale watching and learn about the wildlife of Alaska. Oil money kept the town flush and the tourists loved the little knick-knacks she made from local bone, antlers, driftwood and such. She could hardly keep up with the demand, she told me. She says her kids always thank her for bringing them up to Alaska to grow up.
Gabe was our fearless leader as we kayaked and camped the Tracy Arm Fjord near Juneau for three days. Born and raised in Juneau, he’s an avid skier, climber, kayaker and hiker. He absolutely loves his home city. He often told us of the hikes he did in his ‘backyard’ up to the ice fields and the many explorations he’s done as a guide on the Mendenhall glacier. He’d compare Juneau to other places in Alaska and the ‘lower-48’ (and the rest of the world for that matter) and say ‘where else can you have glaciers, mountains and ice fields going right into the ocean, right out your front door?’. He certainly had a point. I watched this guy handle a screaming, yelling boat captain with calm and grace. Watched him make fire out of soaked wood, in the rainforest, in the rain. Gabe also carried the exact same multi-tool that I did. Except that he used it more times in those three days than I have since I bought mine almost a year ago. A true Alaskan, I’ll wager he’ll be calling Juneau home for the rest of his life.
Dont fret; this ride ain’t over yet! Stay tuned for more stories of Alaska coming (very) soon!
The math for including tourists was figured in an extremely rudimentary fashion. Rather than 663,268 / 735,132, I did 663,268 / 2,735,132. Certainly far from scientific when you think about the fact that the majority of tourists visit during the summer and visit only a very small portion of the state. But still, it helps you get the idea. More info here.