Freefalling into Alaska: Written in the Aleutians, 2010

When I arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, in August of 2010, I was under the impression that Alaska primarily attracts adventurers and weirdos.  This assumption was based primarily on hearsay, from the few people I knew who wanted to go there, the books and articles I had read about it, and the general place of the state in the collective consciousness of America.  Alaska was home to a gold rush that left quite a few people victims of the spirit of adventure, dirt poor and often dead in the end.  Alaska is home to Sarah Palin, who believes that Russia is a lot closer to home than it actually is.  The state harbors towns with attractive names like Barrow and Deadhorse.  It features in books like Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s report on a young man who was equal parts adventurer and weirdo and who managed to get himself killed because he failed to prepare for the months he meant to spend in the wilderness.  Alaska also is home to the tallest mountain in North America and thousands if not millions of moose and bears, some of which roam the streets of the states few major cities.  As far as I could tell before I arrived, Alaska is majestic, mesmerizing, and potentially lethal, like some sort of natural Siren.

            My understanding of America’s largest state has matured somewhat over the time I’ve spent in it.  Though as I write this, it has been less than three months since I arrived, I have already spent a month in its largest city and a few weeks each in its largest fishing port and the village that holds its largest fish processing plant.  I am here as a fisheries observer, meaning I help the government to keep track of the country’s most important fishery.  My hundreds of coworkers and I take data on the catches and fishing practices of Alaskan fishing boats to ensure that just the right amount and the right types of fish are being caught.  The job is the reason I’ve seen more of Alaska than your average tourist, and indeed the reason I came to Alaska in the first place.  I haven’t been here long enough or seen enough to write down a truly educated impression of the state and state of being that is Alaska.  However, I can say that if Alaska is a home for the brave and the strange, either those Alaskans have more personal nuances than I expected upon arriving, or there are additional categories of Alaskan that I haven’t taken into account.  I suspect that both possibilities are true.

It cannot be denied that the Last Frontier still has a strong supply of frontiersmen, some of whom are weird and all of whom are adventurous.  Oil workers, bear hunters and mountain climbers live on the Frontier, but as it turns out, so do fashion designers and the hundreds of homeless people living on the streets of Anchorage.  I was surprised to see so many vagabond alcoholics living in such an unforgiving environment—where do they go in the winter?—but it probably is a testament to Alaska’s allure that they come here and stay.  Did they get chewed up and spit out by life before or after they came north?  Maybe it doesn’t matter.  In Alaska, I get the feeling you’re always in the fight, regardless of whether you’re dangerously alive or barely breathing.  And they all seemed happy so long as they had smokes, whether they were trying to bum cigarettes off of me as I walked by (sorry, I don’t smoke) or looking for half-finished ones in ash trays.  These and all the frontiersmen of Alaska seem to have an unusually strong will to survive.  They live off what they can, even if that means their cigarettes have to be pre-smoked.

A man or woman of the Frontier need not be a burly bare-handed bear killer.   The average Alaskans I’ve seen all have the spirit of adventure within them, but that applies even to the taxi drivers.  During my carless time in Anchorage, I met quite a few taxi drivers, all of whom were foreigners, spoke excellent English, and had worked what seemed like a hundred jobs during their time in the state.  They were resourceful, to say the least.  Immigrants became fishermen became oil workers became taxi drivers.  They’re just trying to make a living, and just confirming to me that everyone has a story, but especially Alaskans.

Take the fashion designer I met in Los Angeles while waiting for my flight to Anchorage:  I’m not sure if I started talking to her because I thought she was cute or because our flight was delayed or because I suspected that Alaska keeps its own and that a present Alaskan would be interested in talking to a future Alaskan; whatever the case, I found out that she had come to Alaska not knowing anyone within a thousand miles of the place, as had I.  She also confirmed to me that nearly everyone in Alaska has something in them that brings them there or keeps them there.  She didn’t put it in those terms, but I understood her to be saying that.  I didn’t get her full story, since for some reason it’s difficult to extract life stories from total strangers, but it was clear that she had one.  And it made me wonder:  What brought her to Alaska in the first place?  What is it about Alaska that draws people from all over the world and brings them to a place that at first glance is an infinite emptiness?

Numbers have no meaning when trying to describe Alaska’s size.  When the number of zeroes brings a number from the hundreds of thousands into the millions, the human brain ceases to understand the scale of the number.  I’m sure there’s a science behind it.  All I mean to say is that nobody really understands the difference between a million and a billion, except that one starts with M and one with B, simply because nobody has ever been able to count that high.  And so it is with Alaska.  Maps of the United States always draw Alaska in a different scale than the rest of the country because Alaska wouldn’t fit on the map without such editing.  Perhaps the best way to make Alaska’s infinite size more finite is to reference a T-shirt I saw at the Alaska state fair.  It places Texas to scale inside an outline of Alaska and reads “Alaska:  Pissin’ off Texas since 1959.”  I can attest from multiple cross-country trips that Texas takes two full days of driving to cross.  Alaska is at least twice as big.  Spaces as large as this are frightening, especially when they are empty.  And Alaska, with a population smaller than that of Rhode Island, is almost entirely blank.

Roderick Nash wrote a thick book entitled Wilderness and the American Mind, about the role of empty land in the history of American thought.  Alaska is perhaps the essence of wilderness, being huge and unpeopled.  Yes, there are maps of Alaska, but they cover places in Alaska that no human may have ever visited, and I therefore doubt their accuracy somewhat.  Alaska has very few roads.  One mostly gets from place to place by airplane, and in coastal areas by boat.  As I write this, I’m staying on an island I traveled to on a flying boat built in the 1930s.  The plane is so old that it’s a wonder it flies anymore.  But that is the essence of Alaska—the people are resourceful, even to the point of religiously maintaining old airplanes so they can keep up regular travel between islands.

Alaska is a state of being.  Alaska is alive, and it lives in the people who live in it.  The place makes its residents resourceful.  They don’t necessarily live off the land like the natives or early frontiersmen did, but they have learned to fend for themselves in other ways.  I met a man in DutchHarbor who had bought an old, closed-down bar and had at least ten potential new business plans for the place, Laundromat and adventure tours headquarters being two of them.  And then there’s the fishermen, who make on-deck coffee tables out of old reels of line and slippers out of old Xtra-Tuf boots.

Xtra-Tufs are part of the Alaskan state of being, incidentally.  I have never seen them elsewhere, whereas everyone wears them here.  I’m required by insurance to wear that particular brand of boot for my job.  They are calf-high neoprene boots that only come in brown with tan trim.  They are completely waterproof and skid-proof, essential for the wet Alaskan summers and icy Alaskan winters.  I read a book recently that was written by a woman who married into Alaska, and I joked that it was clear she was a true Alaskan because she was wearing Xtra-Tuf boots in the photo on the back of the book.  This isn’t an advertisement, but rather a proof of concept—if you want to survive in Alaska, you must do it the Alaskan way, and that means buying a completely utilitarian pair of boots.

The Alaskan mindset seems to me to be similar to that of the military.  In Alaska, you adapt or fail.  If you can’t survive in Alaska, you weren’t cut out for it anyway, and you shouldn’t have come here in the first place.  So whether that means you buy the ugly Alaskan boots or you suck in your stomach and stop being seasick or you bundle up to brave a walk through the freezing wind and rain day in and day out, you do it, because that’s Alaska.

This is where I admit that I am not Alaskan.  Though I currently live in the state, I won’t be here long, and the spirit of the state does not live in me.  Not yet, at least.  I’m willing to give it time, but as I’m writing this I’m seriously wondering if I’m cut out for the Alaskan winter.  It’s already dark and cold here, and it’s only late October.  It’s only going to get darker and colder, the weather nastier and the waves bigger.  My job is unpredictable, and I could be on a boat in the middle of the Bering Sea in 30 foot seas for days on end, for all I know.  That’s Alaska.  Can I handle it?  It’s a good question to consider, as I work through these observations.  The above considerations are what I’ve learned in a short period of time here; Alaska makes for quick learners, part of its sink-or-swim attitude.  There’s only one way to find out whether I can handle Alaska year-round, and that’s to try it.  The problem is that I’m afraid.

I think anyone sane must approach Alaska with a healthy fear.  Much like any harsh environment, it’s one that can quickly become lethal if one does not come prepared.  That’s less the case when sticking to civilization, it’s true.  I’ve been out fishing in the western Bering Sea, which is about as far from the United States as one can get while still being in American-claimed waters, but that presents itself as a mixed case because I took a slice of civilization with me.  On the one hand, I was on a very large fishing boat with a crew of over 100.  On the other hand, I was fishing in the western Bering Sea.  There are few things more terrifying than a storm at sea, I think, and being the only boat within 100 miles can be fatal in certain less than ideal situations.  So I came prepared, with a cold water immersion suit and government-issued personal locator beacon should I need it, as well as the healthy fear I mentioned.

Alaska is in some ways a terrifying mystery to me.  Here there are the world’s largest land predators (bears, and lots of them).  Here there is the opportunity to drown or starve or freeze to death if I take a wrong turn.  Here is the infinite embodied:  Vast, empty expanses of land, and a similarly vast and empty sea.  The infinite, like the wilderness, is an object of fear, but for me it’s a respectful fear.  I, like any sane man, am afraid of dying a horrible death.  And I, like any sane man, intend to be careful that a horrible death does not befall me.  That isn’t to say that I see Alaska as a deathtrap.  Alaska is marvelous and beautiful, too, but it is completely beyond my control, and I like control.  It’s rather strange, really, because after all some things are always beyond my control.  But I’d rather not psychoanalyze myself trying to find the source of this problem.  I’ll just say that Alaska somehow manages to be more out of my control than most uncontrollable things, possibly because there’s more of it to be uncontrollable.

Alaska is terrifying, and Alaska is a mystery by nature of its being out of my control.  I will never see all of Alaska—nobody could—and I will never understand the ins and outs of it.  I don’t think I want to.  That would take too much time and struggle, and I suspect I would have had to start much younger.  I’ve been told that natives who grow up in the small backwater, backwoods villages of Alaska usually end up coming home after leaving.  They like it where they came from, though it’s dark and cold and there aren’t entertainment opportunities like those of the big cities of the continental United States, or even Anchorage.  Maybe it’s a matter of scale.  The same emptiness that fills me with fear and awe fills them with life, perhaps.  It could very well be that they prefer the smallness of community nestled within the immensity of the Alaskan wilderness to the bigness of community wedged into the cramped confines of suburbia.  I fall somewhere in between.

But maybe that’s what attracted me to Alaska and to the line of work I’m in now.  Where I am, with what I’m doing, I get a taste of Alaska, but I can also leave at any time.  While I despise suburban “paradise,” I also can’t handle wilderness for long, though I love it.  I’m no John Muir.  I think I’m one of his many modern children, in love with the wilderness and afraid of it at the same time.  My presence in Alaska is much like a bungee jumping excursion—I get the exhilaration of a freefall into infinity with the comfort of knowing that I have a lifeline ready to yank me out at just the right moment.  I’m freefalling into Alaska right now.  I’m in an unnatural place, pretending to be a part of the world around me and ready to snap out of it when it gets too dangerous.

Throughout this essay I’ve been musing about what might attract people to Alaska.  People like me.  I think I’ve found the answer:  It’s the adrenaline rush of the infinite, the thrill of the majesty, the vastness, the aliveness, and the danger of it all.  It’s the knowledge that we’re experiencing something that few tourists are willing to try.  We don’t just come on cruises here to see the glaciers and a few moose.  We come here to stay, hoping for an experience of glory and undoubtedly finding it in the presence of the state of being that is Alaska.  But I only came to stay for a while.  As I said, I am not Alaskan.  I’m not even sure if I want to be, though I must admit that I’m awed by Alaska in every way possible.  I may change, it’s true.  Maybe it’s something I’m lacking right now.  I like the outdoors, but I’m no wilderness adventurer.  I have a rather offbeat personality, but I’m no weirdo.  And though Alaskans are far more than just adventurers and weirdos, I think without being a little of both, it’s hard to be Alaskan.

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About Joel Wilcox

I'm a writer, photographer, visual artist, and world traveler who is also currently an academic slave (read: Graduate student). I put the (de) in the fine lines.
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