Wherever you go in Alaska, there’s one two-word phrase that you hear from Alaskans when you complain about how the weather changes on a dime or how you need rubber boots to take a hike in the woods because a dry creek bed might be overflowing or a bear might have left a steaming deposit along the trail or a sudden gust of wind might turn your small aircraft sideways or the calm bay might turn into a stomach-turning rollercoaster once you hit the ocean. “It’s Alaska,” they say.
I can’t tell you how many times I heard that, but during the eleven days I was there in July, I’d say at least forty.
“Man, we almost hit that Orca,” I said to the captain of the catamaran as she tried to steer through the nine-foot swells on our way to the Kenai Fjords National Park. The whale’s tail actually scrapped the side of our boat.
“It’s Alaska,” she said.
“Sorry I couldn’t make it to dinner on time, but there was a bear in front of our cabin and he was just hanging around for the last twenty minutes.”
“It’s Alaska,” our host said, pouring a much needed glass of wine.
“I thought we’d get a better view of the Exit Glacier,’ I said to our guide in Seward, “but the sun just disappeared and the clouds came from nowhere to drape the sky.”
“It’s Alaska,” she said with a shrug. “When the clouds lift, it’s pretty spectacular.”
“The rain in Seward hasn’t stopped for three weeks,” I noted to the manager of the Windsong Lodge, “but we got lucky, the sun came out for an hour. So we took a hike, only to get drenched before we got back.”
“It’s Alaska,” he said. “Got to be prepared for anything.”
And yes, there you have it. When you go to Alaska, be prepared. For anything.
This wasn’t our first trip to Alaska. Six years ago we took a cruise up the Inside Passage, stopping at all the tourist cities: Ketchikan, Wrangell, Sitka, Juneau, Haines, and Skagway. We didn’t like it very much. At each stop, there were a half dozen other cruise ships that unloaded thousands of overstuffed tourists swarming the streets for souvenir knives, fur caps, bone and ivory carvings, and cotton-filled otters, seals, and reindeer toys. The second time we flew directly to Anchorage, rented a car and drove to three different lodges, fished for salmon and halibut, took a bike ride along a gravel path and almost hit a moose, and came home with stories to tell and a desire to return. So this was our third visit to the land Sarah Palin recently governed. And it’s true, many Alaskans actually do say “You betchya,” the way she did whenever she was interviewed during her losing vice-presidential run Many Alaskan women seem as hardy and independent as Palin, so it came as no surprise that a lot of Alaskans admired her. They may not have agreed with her politics, but there was something substantial about the way she hunted, fished, and walked into rivers in thigh-length rubber boots.
“She was a disaster for tourism and for the ecology,” Carl Dixon said as we sat in the comfortable living room at his Winterlake Lodge (www.withinthewild.com), 198 trail miles (and 75 air miles) northwest of Anchorage. Carl was an audiologist, his wife Kirsten a nurse, when they decided to leave their professions and open the first of three lodges they now own and operate. Carl’s an affable, easy-going host when he’s not clenching his teeth and whitening his fisted knuckles over Palin, who had no qualms hunting wolves from helicopters and encouraging the oil pipeline to destroy some of the country’s pristine wilderness. One has to fly to the lodge by seaplane (so much of the Alaskan experience is seeing the wild beauty from the air); the nearest neighbor is 44 miles away; and sometimes guests get more than they bargained for.
“We had one family from India fly in (www.flyrusts.com),” Carl said, “and I don’t know what their travel agent told them, but they weren’t at all prepared for this. Just as they arrived, they saw a black bear walk out of the brush and they got scared. They saw the dirt trails we trek on—they’re actually bear trails, but the bears don’t bother us as long as we make some noise and don’t surprise them—they looked at the rain gear and our casual dress, the lack of a TV and phone in their cabin, oil heaters that had to be lit, mosquito netting over the bed, and they didn’t bother to unpack. They just asked us to summon another plane to come get them, and they were gone forty minutes later.”
Carl just shook his head when he told this because had this family overcome their initial fears they would have seen that the lodge was a pretty good place to see what Alaska has to offer. There’s the fishing, of course. The lakes, rivers and ocean offer fishermen plenty of challenges, whether it’s trout, salmon, dolly vardens, or halibuts so large you need to bean them with a baseball bat before pulling them onto your boat. There’s river rafting, which is always exciting. A helicopter ride to the Trimble Glacier, where you fly so low it’s easy to spot the wildlife—bears, moose, geese–and so close to the glacier that the cold air chills you as you look down upon the blue-white ice and see how the surrounding land has been carved from the way the glacier moves. There are canoes and kayaks there for you to explore Winter Lake. There are the 21 dogs Carl keeps away from the cabins, but there for those who want to learn about dog sledding (the lodge is a stop along the Iditarod Trail). There’s a hot tub to soak in as you sip a glass of wine and enjoy the scenery. There’s Ping Pong and a dart board in the recreation room. Morning yoga and stretch classes. A complimentary hour-long deep-tissue massage for each guest by a professionally trained masseuse. Tea, coffee, and homemade cookies available throughout the day. Wine and cheese tasting an hour before dinner. Gourmet food prepared by a proud chef who comes out to explain what you are about to eat. A late afternoon cooking class with the chef (I helped make Gruyere cheese pastry puffs). Interesting people to meet and share your experiences with. And, of course, there’s Carl and Kirsten. Besides her nursing background and co-managing the three lodges (Tutka Bay and Redoubt Bay are their other two) she’s also written two cookbooks. And Carl is mild mannered and easygoing, with tales of the wild to tell if you ask. When I asked him about a white dog I noticed in one of the pictures on the wall, he said he lost that one to a grizzly bear, along with another dog. “What happened to the grizzly?” I wondered.