Whenever a bunch of fellows would get together, someone would start talking about going up north…Things were pretty much settled to the south of us…It’s only natural we’d start talking about the north. We bought out the Russians. We’d built canneries up there. The fellows who hadn’t been up was hankering to go. The rest of us was hankering to go back. ~ Martha McKeown, The Trail Led North
When I heard the word frontier, I always immediately also heard, “these are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise….to boldly go where no one has gone before”. This idea of strange new lands where few ever stepped foot was my idea of a frontier, and I didn’t really think there was a frontier other than outer space and possibly the depths of the ocean. Then I moved to Alaska.
Most people have a preconceived notion of Alaska. It’s cold, snow-covered, dark in the winter, moose and polar bears abound, brown bears and wolves eat salmon in your backyard. This is not untrue, it just doesn’t apply to all of the state.
Here’s the thing, Alaska is huge. If you cut Alaska in half, both halves would still be larger than Texas. If you overlay the state on top of a U.S. map, Alaska spans the map with Southeast Alaska taking up Florida, the interior filling the central U. S. and the Aleutian Islands reaching all the way to California. Due to the size, there are numerous ecosystems within the one state, thus, one notion of Alaska doesn’t quite fit.
Ketchikan is located in Southeast Alaska, regarding the U.S. map, it’s the Florida of Alaska. And Ketchikan is in a temperate rainforest. This means the weather is moderate and it rains – a lot.
When we stepped off the ferry in Ketchikan, our first stop was Buggies Beach, a rocky, log-laden beach on the south end of town. There were eagles flying, sea glass and kelp washed ashore, the sun was shining, it was beautiful. Our next adventure was Ward Lake. We walked the trails and noted the interesting plant life – prehistoric looking ferns, dwarf dogwood and devils’ club. It was misty and damp and smelled like wet earth and moss. We made it to our home and noticed it was surrounded, indefinitely, by the Tongass National Forest.
I have only one other time in my life felt the sense of bigness I felt when we moved to Alaska, and that was in Big Sky, Montana. As soon as we drove through Big Sky, I immediately stared upward and proclaimed, “Wow! That’s a HUGE sky!” Profound I know. But truly, there was an overwhelming sense of expanding horizons, a grandness that I never expected.
Alaska is this feeling for me. A bigness that is unmatched, a beauty and sense of place that runs deep, and heritage that is complex and intricately woven into the very rock of the island. Moving here gave me perspective. Perspective on people and culture, the difference between a mile and an Alaskan mile, family, and myself.
I am continually outside of my comfort zone. I hike up mountains! Not North Carolina mountains, but Alaskan mountains. I ride helicopters and land in the alpine, or take float planes to remote lakes in the Misty Fjords Wilderness, or boat past humpback whales to access recreation cabins as part of my job. The only way off this island is by boat or plane, and it basically takes a full day to get anywhere close by, and two days to get anywhere else. Most folks that live in town think the 20 minute drive to our house on the north end of the island is a haul. Food is expensive and choices are limited (in February the only guaranteed fresh fruit are apples and oranges). And the community here take these things in stride, and mostly, don’t mind.
These differences from the lower 48 and challenges have given me perspective. And I appreciate this experience and the people who have helped me along the way. They have helped me test myself and participated in my growth. In this big place that is still wild, I have found a home in a small community. I have found friendship and mentors. I have watched my children thrive and be loved by strangers. This big wild place, this last frontier of the north, has imprinted on my heart and mind. It’s more than just post card perfect photographs and cruise ship memorabilia, it’s community and stewardship and living. It’s a place where strangers become family, and where you are welcomed just as you are. I know that when I leave, I’ll have a hankering to return.