Once upon a time, a girl from Orlando, Florida embarked upon a journey to Hawaii with her best friend. The two girls were both flight attendants, which made traveling fairly easy as they were both flying stand-by. The plan was one night couch surfing in Vegas, a week and a half or so in hostels or couch surfing 3 islands in Hawaii and then straight over to New Zealand for a few weeks. Well, that plan was doomed from the start with the entrance of a new friend. At our first hostel on the island of Kauai, we met Tom from Fairbanks, Alaska.
Neither of us had ever met anyone from Alaska, so we were intrigued by the tales of a land that sounded so foreign with such extreme temperatures. After a few nights of games and family dinners in the hostel we’d developed some great friendships. It was mid-January, the perfect time of year to enjoy the tropics of Hawaii, whereas Alaska was enjoying some negative temperatures. We soon overstayed in Hawaii to the point that it would no longer make sense to fly halfway around the world for a brief stay in New Zealand. Tom was far gone, back to the wilds of Alaska at this point, but still near the front of our thoughts. Whilst lying in our hammocks in the Maui hostel one late morning, bikinis on for the day, painting our nails a mermaid-gold, we devised a new plan. We would reroute a few days up to snowy Vancouver and then take up Tom’s standing invitation to visit Alaska if he had the time and availability. Within 10 minutes of texting back and forth with Tom, the plans were finalized.
Being a native Floridian, I was completely unprepared for any type of winter weather, let alone an Alaskan winter. Unlike my fellow people however, I enjoy cold weather and cozy winter clothes. That being said, I don’t happen to really own anything outside of light sweaters and jackets made more for style than for actual warmth. Since we had planned to go to New Zealand where it was their summer, I didn’t have anything warm packed. I stepped off the plane in Vancouver’s winter wonderland in a tank top, light sweater, some hippy pants and open sandals. I ignored the side glances of other passengers as I slipped around the icy tarmac in my sandals with my backpack on, excited by the snow, a rare sight for me. We went straight from the airport to the mall for a little shopping, where my two friends Jamie and Gordon, who are both veterans in winter weather, coached me on the essentials for surviving the cold. I learned the art of under armour, the importance of jeans, not jeggings, without holes in them and the necessity of a down coat. This was the just the beginning. . .
Fast forward a few days later to our arrival in Fairbanks, Alaska. Tom had warned us that the weather may be a bit extreme to us, but nothing could prepare me for this. Hawaiian temperatures had been in the mid to high 70s, absolutely perfect for hiking volcanoes and snorkeling in the reefs. When we stepped off the plane in Fairbanks to -45F/-42C weather, it was something I had never in my life experienced. Tom was as excited to see us as we were to be in Alaska. We could not have found a more gracious host in Tom and his family, who also had us over for an amazing home-cooked meal. I quickly fell in love with the mysticism of Alaska. His little cabin in the middle of the woods shrouded in snow with some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen casting purple and orange reflections on the sheets of white is an image I cannot forget.
The next few days to follow were a whirlwind of very Alaskan outings. One day we went to Chena Hot Springs. Along the way we counted various moose along the mostly empty road. It was my first experience seeing the massive animal in person and Tom kindly stopped along the side of the road a few times for our viewing pleasure as we oohed and ahhed at the animals lazily lumbering through the woods. The visible heat of the springs drifting up into the freezing air, surrounded by snow on every side and beautiful mountains as a backdrop enchanted me. I couldn’t get enough of the blue green pool’s warmth sharply contrasting with the nipping outdoor air on my nose and ears.
On another occasion we went to the North Pole! Don’t be fooled, this is the real deal! We went to Santa’s House, where children mail their letters to Santa each Christmas and get letters back in return. The house is marked by a candy cane pole and a massive Santa figurine out front. Just off the side of the house (and gift shop) is the barn, where the reindeer are kept. I couldn’t help but feel giddy at the sight of Santa’s reindeer. I will never forget the moment a little girl was jumping up and down in excitement and one of the reindeer, whom we quickly knew must be Prancer, began jumping up and down with her and running back and forth. Clearly, with personality and responsiveness to humans like that, these really were Santa’s reindeer. Winter naivety tip: do not attempt to run in negative temperatures. You will cough and your nose will burn. It’s simply too cold! However, if you ever make it to North Pole, Alaska, be sure to thaw out with some Chinese food at Pagoda. They have one of the best authentic places around!
We also happened to be in town to witness the end of the Yukon dog sled race. I had never realized all of the details that go into training for this kind of thing. The extreme weather conditions in addition to the challenge of the Alaskan terrain gave me a new respect for what these teams go through. Dog sledding as a sport never really crossed my mind until I saw it in person. If you ever have the opportunity to witness the start or end of a race, I highly recommend it. Dogs and people are simply one. You can see the love and compassion that these men and women have for their dogs. At the finish of the race each dog gets its own raw steak as a reward. Don’t forget your coat! We waited out the cold before the first team of dogs arrived in a cozy little café across the street. The clouds cleared and the sun came out just in time to enjoy the victorious and tired teams of dogs arriving after days of running.
The Alaskan way of life continues to impress me with the addition of every detail I learn. Their everyday life is completely normal to them, but extremely foreign to what I now see as a privileged lifestyle in Florida. To start, many people live in dry cabins, meaning they have limited or no running water. Outhouses, which I’ve only seen used in old shows like Little House on the Prairie, actually still exist! Driving trucks and large vehicles seems to be a pretty common choice for some of the more rustic terrain, as well as to be used to haul water to their cabins. What I was most impressed with in the Alaskan people I’ve encountered is how self-sufficient they are. Living in a place where you’re often driving on isolated roads, hiking into seemingly untouched terrain or in quickly changing flying conditions where just about anything can happen, has educated people to learn to fend for themselves in the worst of times. Many of them carry survival kits in their vehicles and airplanes. It is common for some to carry a satellite device when hiking, such as a Delorme inReach, that can send messages and GPS coordinates for help in an emergency when out of cell service range.
Speaking of flying, Alaska happens to have the greatest number of pilots per capita in the entire U.S. So of course, Tom happens to be a pilot outside of working a day job in a hatchery. It doesn’t get much more Alaskan than that! The day he took Jamie and I out to see his Cessna 150 was an exciting moment for two flight attendants. The small planes were all covered in snow, but we were able to drive out on the tarmac for a meet and greet with one of the cutest planes I’ve ever encountered. He opened up the doors and allowed us in the cockpit, explaining some of the functions of certain buttons and levers. We were two kids in a candy shop asking lots of questions, which he patiently answered. The weather conditions were too dangerous to fly that day, but we were promised a flight and mini lesson if we returned in the warmer months.
Of course, our experience would not have been complete without a perfect viewing of the northern lights on our final night in Alaska. The shifting and swirling green lines in the sky seemed to be painted by pixies. We stood on the side of a mountain in the dark with music playing from Tom’s truck as we watched the show, soaking in the special moment. (Photo credit to Jamie for this amazing capture of the lights)
Fast forward again to the last few days of August. Florida was really starting to get on my nerves with the heat and humidity that completely drain you with any small amount of time spent outside. I needed to get away immediately. I had some time off work so I weighed my options between a trip to Montreal, Colombia, London or a return to Alaska. In the end, I decided it was time to make that return trip to Fairbanks to visit my good friend Tom. Tom and his family welcomed me with open arms, something that I can never thank them enough for. I immediately felt like a member of the family, getting to know his cousin in town from the Philippines and his sweet sister Nikki.
As promised, I finally got my flying lesson. Tom took me out in his plane to the practice field where he explained some of the basics and taught me what to look for when making turns and changing elevation. Sitting with the controls had a nice feeling to it, and one that I hope to permanently pursue one day. Back on the ground, I was introduced to an older experienced pilot called Stoots, known for his wonderful story telling ability and humorous nature. Within an hour we had plans to venture out into the wilderness in Stoots’ plane the following day.
In typical Alaskan fashion, Stoots owns a cabin that he built in the middle of the woods, about a 45 minute flight away. The only way to really reach it is via a plane that lands on the lake bordering the cabin. What an adventure that became. We swooped and banked and took the scenic view, close to the ground. Stoots had plenty of stories to supplement the time we flew and I couldn’t stop laughing, all while taking in the scenery. I spent an afternoon drinking hot chocolate with whiskey by the wood stove, listening to his tales. The silence of isolation felt cozy and welcoming. I listened in fascination as he described the process of building his cabin and bear-proofing it. I was eventually taken outside to learn the basics of shooting, an important lesson for living in Alaska. There’s simply so much to be learned! Ultimately the most exciting part of the day came from taking off and landing on water; more new experiences to add to the list. I fell a little deeper in love with flying that day.
After a day of flying, we were ready for a beer. Alaska has some great breweries. My favorite one in Fairbanks is called Hoodoo, which offers the vibes of a cozy house party on top of having some fantastic beers. I highly recommend the stouts. Everyone is friendly and welcoming once you get to talking and drinking. I met some lovely people there on one of the family beer outings. One of the first questions I encountered was if I planned on going on the group hiking/camping trip. At this point I had briefly heard about the trip, but didn’t think I’d be in town. That evening I dropped a few flights that I was supposed to work when I got home and committed to spending a few more days in Alaska.
I believe my exact wording on the matter was, “Well I came for the Alaskan experience and I want the full experience! I like a good challenge.” Things to keep in mind if you come from a flat, warm place in the suburbs, such as I do: elevation is a whole new challenge; Alaska autumn can actually mean winter; you really need to have hiking boots; bears are a real concern; layers, layers, layers; stick with the locals; be prepared for anything and keep a positive mindset!
It sunk in pretty quickly that I had absolutely no idea what I was in for, nor did I have any of the proper gear with me. Luckily I keep myself pretty active and exercise frequently either in a gym or hiking in other states or countries when I can. I hadn’t planned to do any serious hiking, so I only had my basic Nike Air running shoes with me. Thinking I was catching the end of “summer”, I didn’t even have a proper jacket with me. This all hit Tom a little harder than it hit me, as he knows how serious Alaska weather can be, and he proceeded to get a bit stressed out in the preparation process whereas I couldn’t contain my excitement for the new adventure. We went to the nearest sports store, where I invested in a pair of hiking pants and we stocked up on dried food and supplies. Tom’s sister, Nikki, became my real knight in shining armor by bringing me armfuls of winter clothes and a hat to borrow. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know that I would’ve survived the experience.
Early the next morning, backpacks packed full of camping supplies and food, we went to meet the group. Adam, John and Ariel were immediately warm and welcoming despite the fact that I was clearly out of my element, having no idea what to expect. Adam let me borrow one of his ice axes and Ariel let me borrow some gloves and bear spray, patiently explaining how to use bear spray while the men all strapped on their guns. After a bit of discussion over what everyone brought and what we could leave behind, we piled 5 humans and 3 large dogs into Adam’s vehicle. I couldn’t contain my excitement over every minor detail. We stopped for coffee and breakfast at a cozy drive through stop along the way. The motherly figure taking orders offered dog treats to the delight of the dogs and we continued on our way. The further we drove, the more beautiful the scenery became. Alaskan views are by far some of the most breathtaking I’ve ever experienced.
After a few hours of driving, we finally arrived at the head of the trail. There was some last minute packing and pulling out of supplies as we passed around a growler full of Hoodoo beer to start our journey. In good spirits with beautiful cool weather we hiked out to where we planned to camp, dogs trotting alongside us. The scenes along the way felt straight from a fairytale. From mountains and waterfalls to rivers and crystal lakes, my spirit soared at the beauty. We eventually came to a clearing amongst the mountains, just above one of the majestic clear blue lakes to set up camp. The temperature dropped quickly as we set up our tents and sleeping bags and I couldn’t stop shivering from my cold sweat. A light rain broke out as we scrambled to cover things, but then the most magical thing happened. The rain drops turned to light snow! This was a minor inconvenience to them, but a summer miracle to this Florida girl! As freezing as I was, I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear. I was as happy as the dogs.
I watched everyone cook over their mini fires, fascinated with my first experience eating the dried food that came to life with the simple addition of boiled water. I never did quite get warm, even in my sleeping bag. I tried every angle, but couldn’t quite stop from shivering. It was a fitful night, but I couldn’t be happier being out in the middle of such a gorgeous location.
The next morning we decided it was time to hike up to the glacier. This is where those hiking boots would’ve really come in handy. My running shoes couldn’t quite grip into the precarious rocks and there were a few occasions where I really thought I wouldn’t be able to make it in those shoes. Using the ice ax for stability at times, I pushed myself to new extremes, sometimes having to crawl along the rocks on all fours, testing my footing in the small loose rocks as I went. I brought up the tail of the group for the majority of the hike, but everyone cheered me on and kept me feeling encouraged and energized. Reaching the peak of the mountain that truly looked impossible to climb from the ground made the entire journey and exhaustion worth it. From the peak we could see a beautiful view of the mountains and lakes that we had come from in one direction, and a mesmerizing view of the glacier, as well as a plane crash site from years ago in the other direction.
We lowered ourselves over the cliff onto the glacier side with a rope, landing on some remaining rocks before the ice. Ariel let me borrow her pair of yaktrax to hook onto my shoes for a better grip into the ice as we explored the glacier. They warned me to be wary of the crevasses below, something I’d never seen before. We soon decided it would be too dangerous to explore further and turned back. It felt like an entirely other world from the one just on the other side of the mountain. Hiking back out posed a new challenge as I quickly released the entire soles of my shoes had become threadbare. I spent most of the way down letting myself slide on the loose rocks and catching corners with my hands to slow myself down when I started going too fast. I’ve learned my lesson: always be prepared when traveling to Alaska. You just never know when you’ll end up hiking to a glacier at the end of summer. I returned to civilization a bit rough around the edges, but victorious at the accomplishment.
All in all, I could not be more thankful for my Alaskan experiences. Tom and Nikki and their family and friends made me feel like I could truly stay forever. Alaskan hospitality is one of a kind. If you go into Alaska with an open spirit to learn and appreciate the place and people and respect nature as much as the locals do, then everyone quickly becomes family. I already know that I need to return to experience another season with these amazing people. My next mission is to learn ultimate self-sufficiency in the outdoors, the Alaskan way. Thank you, Alaska, for introducing me to a unique way of life. The journey so far has been incredible.