Throwback Thursday: Ode to Alaska   17 comments

Glacier flying in the Alaska Range.

Glacier flying in the Alaska Range.


For what a lot of folks call “Throwback Thursday”, I’m going to post a few old film shots of a place near and dear to my heart.  While I make it a policy never to apologize for any of my pictures, I will say that the camera gear I had for these pictures of the past was not up to the high quality of either that era’s best film stuff or even today’s digital.

Alaska is where I spent my twenties, not so long ago (well, okay, I lied; it was awhile back!).  After graduating college I drove the Alcan up with some buddies.  Alcan, if you don’t know, stands for the Alaska-Canada Highway, which then was still gravel-surfaced over much of the northern stretches.  I rode in a little 4×4 Subaru wagon owned by my friend and college roommate.  He was born in Alaska & had attended the Univ. of Oregon with me.

Unfortunately we were delayed when his car was nearly totaled.  We hit a bear!  I remember the horrible feeling I had when I stupidly got out and listened to the wounded bruin crashing around & roaring in the brush below the road.  I also remember the scenery getting much more spectacular when we crossed into Alaska (Kluane excepted, sorry Canada!).

Some old cabins at a mine site just west of the Denali National Park boundary.

Some old cabins at a mine site just west of the Denali National Park boundary.

Near the village of Kiana in the Brooks Range.

Near the village of Kiana in the Brooks Range.

Alaska is where I burned all that ridiculous energy of youth.  It’s where I learned the false lesson that I was invincible.  The truth is that while young we tend to get second chances.  It’s as if we’re all cats with 9 lives, at least in youth.  We use up most of those chances in our late teens and twenties.  Then when we are older, if we try to skate along the edge, we almost always get spanked hard for it.  One of the sad parts of getting older is not being able to get away with very much anymore.  I used up nearly all of my 9 lives in Alaska.

I was a geologist there, which means I got around and learned much about the land and the culture of the natives.  I remember getting into intense pickup basketball games with Inuit youths in the village of Kiana above the Arctic Circle.  Basketball is as big in bush Alaska as it is in Indiana.  I recall marveling at how impossibly cute the children were.  And how some men would drink themselves into oblivion.  And how native men would head off into the wild on a moment’s notice to hunt when we thought they had signed up to work for us.

Out of the six summers I spent up there, two were in the Brooks Range, one was in the Alaska Range, one in the southwestern part of the state, one roaming the interior, and one (the 1st) in Anchorage and various other places.  I spent one autumn in the southeastern panhandle.  Winters were mostly spent in Anchorage, learning how to ski well.  What else is there to do in the long winter besides drink?  Whichever of these you choose, you’ll have plenty of practice, and you’ll get damn good at it!

An unnamed peak my friend & I climbed and named broken-horn mtn for the dall mountain sheep we saw up there.

An unnamed peak my friend & I climbed and named Broken Horn for the dall mountain sheep we saw up there.


Alaska embraces extremes, the edge: its people as well as the land.  There is no halfway.  Incidentally, the book I think really gets Alaska right is Going to Extremes by Joe Mcginnis.  I’m not sure which is truer:  is it the character of the place that makes the people more extreme, or do those who move to Alaska become more extreme?  I suspect there’s a bit of both going on.  Those born there, like my college roommate, are different from the rest of us.  He would routinely sleep 12 hours in winter’s long nights.  Then in summer he would get by on 4-5 hours.

I still have affection for the place, which means I really loved it when I was there!  I remember getting a little airsick in a chopper and offering the pilot the excuse that I wanted to sample a rock formation below.  Not really fooled, he set me down and went to refuel.  After the ship’s noise faded away, I lay down and buried my face into the moist tundra.  I did what I had been wanting to do, without knowing it, for a long time.  I gave Alaska (and the Earth by extension) a big, hour-long hug.

Caribou in the Brooks Range.

Caribou in the Brooks Range.

You may think, given how I love the “Great Land”, that I would visit often.  But other than a couple trips in the 90s I have moved on.  Part of me regrets this.  I’ve never been anywhere that I felt matched me as well as good ole AK.  I really love the Pacific Northwest, but it really isn’t the same.  Alaska seemed to know it had my number.  I still wonder how I was able to leave all those years ago.

But I did leave.  I can still see those fall colors along the Copper River in the Wrangell Mountains, dusted over with termination dust (season’s first snow).  Autumn, that season of change when I get itchy feet, was the only time it was possible to leave.  After seeing a stupendous display of northern lights on a freezing night at Thompson Pass (the only time I actually heard them), I drove away for good.

To be young and full of piss and vinegar again!

To be young and full of piss and vinegar again!

It really is time to go back for a visit.  But both Alaska and I have changed so much.  I am worried I will be disappointed.  I don’t want to be a tourist there, despite knowing a bunch of ways to get off the beaten track.  Of course it would be interesting to see the effects of climate change, which are quite obvious in a high-latitude place like Alaska.  Especially for someone who once knew it well and has been away so long.  But I have my doubts about going back now.

Well, that’s enough reminiscing.  I sure hope there’s such a thing as reincarnation, because I really really want to do that young & strong thing again!  Stay tuned for another post on Alaska, this time giving some advice for a visit that hits some good sights off the beaten tourist track.  Thanks so much for reading!

An early winter's sunset over Cook Inlet as viewed from the Chugach Mtns. just above Anchorage.

An early winter’s sunset over Cook Inlet as viewed from the Chugach Mtns. just above Anchorage.

17 responses to “Throwback Thursday: Ode to Alaska

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  1. Lovely post Michael… With some profound thoughts on youth, life and change. Sounds like u really do love Alaska. The last picture of the sunset is absolutely stunning!

  2. Beautiful photos! My in-laws lived there until my husband was 5, I always love hearing their stories. I hope you made it back for a visit soon!

  3. I really enjoyed reading about your nostalgia for Alaska, and your youth, Michael 🙂

  4. A mountaineers smile!

  5. I loved the story! Thanks for sharing and I look forward to the next installment. Reincarnation with the piss and vinegar of youth wouldn’t be a bad deal either. 🙂

  6. Fabulous scenery. I love the shot of the old mining camp.

  7. Wow! Thanks for sharing awesome photos.

  8. I always enjoy your posts. I might actually get back to my blog one of these days, but I have my work cut out for me as I purge, organize and edit my photos of Africa. It was a fantastic experience, by the way. Rosemarie

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