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July 26, 2017

A Winter Alaskan’s First Summer

By Alex Stein

I pull over to take yet another picture on the Seward Highway.

“Unspeakably beautiful,” a man in a Grateful Dead t-shirt says. I nod. How can you argue with that?

We talk for a long time about Alaska. Then we both stare out over the water at the snow-dotted peaks.

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Another car pulls in next to us and a woman gets out. She takes a few photos, says it was prettier the week before, and speeds off.

I have a confession to make.

On my first trip to Alaska, I drove a rented Toyota Tercel up the Dalton Highway (aka “the Haul Road” that leads to the North Slope). This wasn’t technically illegal, but it definitely wasn’t a great idea. I didn’t realize then that most people caravan up the Haul Road. I didn’t know that having a car towed on the Dalton can set you back more than $5.00 per mile (or require towing you more than 100 miles). Still, since the statute of limitations expired, I’m happy to admit now it was pure luck that I brought the Toyota back from the Dalton with no serious damage.

My girlfriend Amy and I were tourists from Outside who thought we knew Alaska from reading old novels and pouring over the Milepost. So we went all out on our first trip to Alaska, planning an epic 17-day adventure that took us almost everywhere on the road system. Anchorage to Seward, Kenai, Homer, and Valdez. Up to Fairbanks and on to Coldfoot (where we were married at the Northernmost saloon in the world by the bartender – because any adult resident of Alaska can legally perform marriages). Then down through Canada to Skagway. Over by water taxi to Haines because it was too foggy to fly to Juneau.

This brief window into Alaska convinced me it was everything I’d imagined it to be. And more.

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But when friends talked about coming to Alaska in the summer, I laughed.

Summer in Alaska?

Too touristy. Too crowded. Too expensive.

I just didn’t get it.

In the years since that first trip, I’ve been back to Alaska over a dozen times.

But until last week, I’d never been to Alaska in summer.

The last thing I wanted, I told myself, is to be stuck behind a group of tourists fresh off a cruise ship, all traveling together to the same scenic overlook or the same hiking trail (or even the same public restroom).

Plus, I love Alaska in the winter.

There’s little that compares to the sight of a moose walking downhill on a shoveled Anchorage sidewalk, the heat from his breath visible in the moonlight.

And the Alaskan winter daylight is magical: the sun struggles up past the horizon, limps across the sky for a few hours, then gives up and slides down.

In late June, I learned that my Iditarod documentary MUSH was going to screen at the Balto Film Festival in Seward. And I decided to come up for a quick trip. In the summer.

The culture shock is clear immediately. My plane lands just before midnight and it’s still light out. Am I really back at the same airport I know so well? Hard to tell without the snow.

Up in Wasilla, I catch up with June Price, whose book Backstage Iditarod was a huge inspiration. We marvel at the new stores (crowded into a tiny area of town). I drive past the Gorilla Fireworks stand in Houston and wonder again who thinks it’s a good idea to give fireworks to gorillas. I stop at the Willow Community Center to dip my hand into the gentle water of Willow Lake. Seven months from now this water will be frozen enough to support more than 70 trucks, 1100 dogs, and thousands of spectators hollering encouragement to each team at the start of Iditarod.

Later, I hang out with my friend Robert Forto (host of Mushing Radio) and his human and canine family. We talk training and dogsleds and the progress he’s made since moving to Alaska from Denver to chase his Iditarod dreams.

Coming back to Alaska always reminds me that the world is a fragile, beautiful place. And it always inspires me to realize how many Alaskans are dreamers who’ve managed to hang onto their dreams.

Here are some things I’d forgotten since my last trip to Alaska:

• The drive to Seward is literally awe-inspiring. (And if the price for those views is road construction and “pilot cars,” it’s worth it.)

• Spending 45 minutes scraping fresh bear scat off your boots is not the worst type of bear encounter.

• The sunsets are amazing. (Thanks, Jeanne, for pointing me towards Earthquake Park!)

• Mile 0 of the Historic Iditarod Trail is in Seward (right next to the water).

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Iditarod veteran Fred Agree brings Dan Seavey to see my movie. Movie stars don’t faze me, but I’m starstruck around Dan. He ran the first Iditarod in 1973 (finishing 3rd) and is the father of two-time Iditarod champ Mitch (and grandfather of youngest-ever Iditarod winner Dallas). Dan even ran Iditarod in 2012 at age 74 to celebrate the Centennial of the Iditarod Trail. After the movie, he corrects me on historical details I got wrong (but makes a point of saying he enjoyed the movie). Later, MUSH is voted an Audience Choice Award (which is great, but not as great as meeting Dan and Fred).

Outside, people scatter. It’s bright out even though the sun has technically set. I wander around, talking to locals, visitors from Anchorage, and folks from Outside on long-planned vacations. I rave about the light and keep hearing it was better a month earlier (when it never got completely dark). I find obscure, improbable connections to everyone I meet and realize again we’re all part of a larger community.

Just out of town, I’m struck by the quality of the sound. There’s a soft silence that’s just mesmerizing. And if I occasionally hear the wind or a car or people talking, it just shores up the silence instead of drowning it out.

The light messes with my biorhythms and I’m wide awake during the few short hours of darkness, so I drive back towards Anchorage.

 

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When the sky turns pink, I pull over to watch the mountains. Moments later, another car pulls in next to me.

The driver tells me this trip to Alaska is his retirement present to himself. “Hard to believe this is always here,” he says, admiring the scenery.

“The secret,” I tell him, “is to find a way to take this beauty home with you, knowing you can return here mentally any time you need to.” Hearing my words, I realize I’m saying this more for myself than for him. But he grins and shakes my hand before he drives off. I linger, mesmerized by trees on the hillside. After a while, I cross the highway to watch the mudflats in the pre-dawn light.

Suddenly, I realize I don’t care about the crowds. Or the mosquitos. Or the road construction. Or if it was prettier a week ago.

I luxuriate in the scenery, basking in the growing promise of sunshine even as the morning air makes me shiver.

Alaska. In the summer.

I finally get it.

**************

Alex Stein is an author, storyteller, and filmmaker in love with The Last Frontier. You can follow him on Twitter, and Facebook.

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8 Responses to “A Winter Alaskan’s First Summer”
  1. AKliberal says:

    As a year-round Alaskan (chosen, not born) I appreciate all her seasons, but Winter, especially the last one, is my favorite. I was born in L.A, lived many years in a nearly snowless Pacific Northwest. The Christmas card winters here were, and still are, a novelty to me after 9 (can it be!?) years

  2. Zyxomma says:

    Thanks, Alex.

  3. John says:

    Every time of year in Alaska has its own special magic. Except maybe the end of summer when it starts to rain. And rain. And rain. And rain………

  4. beth. says:

    Note to Alaska Chamber of Commerce: Hire this man. Full time. beth.

  5. Kate McKenzie says:

    We spent a weekend in Alaska with our good friend Sam Rhodes and we were truly stunned by the beauty of the landscape, the warmth of the people and the realities of seeing real, yes, real moose. We’d urge everyone to visit – what an amazing place. Thank you Alaska.

  6. slipstream says:

    It’s true. You just can’t beat a beautiful summer day in Alaska.

    And every year we have one. Some years, two.

    • AKblue says:

      This year we were blessed with many!
      So glad you could experience it, Mr. Stein, and write so eloquently about it.

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