September 23, 2014

ALASKA: The Last Frontier


I’m flying in a tiny plane over Mount McKinley, and I’m about to die.


This was not exactly what I had in mind when I decided to strap on my hiking boots and forge my way into the wild a la Cheryl Strayed, but as I soon learned: You make plans, and then Alaska makes plans.

For years now, I’ve been dreaming of venturing to Alaska. Whales, bears, guys that look like the outdoorsy section of the J. Crew catalog; I’ve been mentally packing my backpack since I was in third grade, which is when I told Mrs. Klein that when I grew up, I was going to live on a mountain in Alaska and be pulled around by a fleet of 20 snow white dogs like some C.S. Lewis Ice Queen. #divastatus

So you see, Alaska has been calling to me for a very long time. Finally, at 25 years old, I was able to answer.

Here was the plan: first to Juneau, where we would board a small boat that would take us to see Glacier Bay. Next, we’d fly North to Anchorage, and board a seven hour train through the forests and a five hour bus ride through the mountains, all to experience North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley. Or, as the natives call it, Denali. The great one.

Our route.

It seemed like such a good plan.

We arrived in Juneau in the pouring rain. Juneau may be the state capitol, but it still feels like a small town. Nestled at the foot of looming, foggy mountains, Juneau is built on a series of hills, giving it a miniature San Fran-ish feel. There is only one major road leading into Juneau, and most of the city’s traffic is by boat. Like all true explorers, my first stop was the bar. Within minutes, we were on our way to a brewery.

Our bus driver to the Alaskan Brewing Company was a strapping young lad named Jedediah, who looked like the Brawny Man if the Brawny Man also played acoustic guitar and volunteered at a shelter for abused dogs. *Cue the violins* After several minutes of serious flirting, I asked him if he grew up in Alaska. He turned to me with his piercing blue eyes, ruffled his raven black hair, and said, “No, but I came up here one summer for a job, and just fell in love.” Sigh.

As I journeyed further into Alaska, I realized that this was not an uncommon response. Barely anyone I met was born in the state. In fact, most Alaskans are from the lower 48. However, there was a common theme: this pull to Alaska. There was something they could not quite explain waiting for them here, and they had come to claim it for their own. As one local told me, “I’ve dreamed of Alaska since kindergarten. When I turned 18, I got in my car and drove straight from Alabama to Anchorage, and I’ve never looked back.”

We arrived at the Alaskan Brewing Company in the early morning for the breakfast tour. Because technically, breakfast is anything you eat in the morning, and by that standard, it was time for #beerforbreakfast. So, I bid farewell to my newest boyfriend and headed to the brewery floor.

We began tasting. I gotta say, the stuff was good. That crisp glacial water really affects the taste of the beer, and you notice the difference right away. Our first was the Amber, which has since become my new steady. Based on an old townie recipe, it was light, smooth, and easy - your classic beer. Then came the White, a Belgian-style wheat beer - nothing to write home about. Next, we tried a malty, German-style seasonal Summer and a wicked double IPA called a Hop-o-thermia which made me pucker like a baby eating a lemon in a YouTube montage.

Finally, our bartender Lydia poured us a long, dark glass of the Smoked Porter, and my life was changed forever. It was like drinking in a campfire. As I downed the thick, dark liquid, I could taste the rising smoke and the blackened alder wood. The Smoked Porter is one of ABC’s limited editions, inspired by smoked salmon (so Alaska) and produced only on November 1 of each year. Like wine, the beer gets better with age, making it a collector’s item around the region - though I have no idea how anyone could resist drinking it for more than ten minutes, nevertheless ten years.

As for the brewery itself - I just liked the vibe, man. Women in hiking boots and bandanas and big burly men with long white beards clamored around pumps and valves, twisting levers and pouring kegs. Everyone wore plaid, everyone had messy hair, and everyone looked like they neither knew nor cared who Kim Kardashian was.

Like most places in Alaska, there was a pioneer spirit to ABC. The brewers exuded a toughness that befits a people who endure seven months of winter blackout, but there was also a soft, hippie-ish aspect to them. Like all mountain folk, they loved nature, and its influences were clear in their work, such as the Icy Bay IPA, a cool, malty beer inspired by the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Ice Fields. I was also impressed at the level of innovation in the brewery, from pilot series brews like the Jalapeno IPA to their state-of-the-art, sustainable CO2 Reclamation System. Company policy allows any employee, from packaging to accounting, to test out their ideas in specialized 1-barrel systems. When I was there, they were trying out three ales: Alaskan Gold Creek, Taku River Red, and Sentinel Rye. Most of these experiments will never leave the floor, but a select few will be chosen for the ultimate honor of bottling.

Eventually, I was dragged away from the brewery to spend seven days sailing the seas of the Inside Passage, a network of islands and inlets that weave through the Pacific Coast. Part of our voyage included exploring Glacier Bay National Park, a 3.3 million acre span of icy glaciers, temperate rainforest, and long narrow fjords.

I don't know about you, but sometimes I become pretty skeptical of our government and their ability to do good stuff (or any stuff). Especially when they start wars, or raise my Metro fare. But every so often, they have decent ideas. One of these good ideas is conservation. In addition to providing a safe haven for the often hunted whales and other animals that call this place home, another reason we need these parks is that unlike us, this place is timeless. Its very existence reminds us that the Starbucks lines out the door or that broken escalator are not really what matter. There's more at play here. A naturalist I met at the park told me that wilderness is officially defined as “a place where man is only a visitor.” As a visitor here, I began to truly understand the importance of these protected places, which have lived long and will survive long past you or me. As Henry David Thoreau said, “We can never have enough of nature.” I think he was right.

Which brings us to our next phase of the trip: the part where I die.

Well, almost.

You know that I am not a good flier. The only reason I survived half my travels with you on Ryan Air (the only airline where the flight attendants enthusiastically clap and shout through bloodshot eyes when you land) was that we were usually too hungover to focus on anything but not barfing all over the luxe pleather seating. However, since Alaska is massive, our only way out of the wild involved a flight in a small, one-engine plane, otherwise known as a bush plane.

Now, I get nervous in a 747, so the idea of a “small” plane was not appealing to me. When I inquired as to how small we were talkin’ here, the locals said, “Oh, you'll be fine! It's a little cozy, but good fun." When we got to our plane, which looked like a relic from World War II, I assumed it was some adorable antique prop that the airfield put there to be cutesy. To my surprise, our pilot Greg opened its doors. “Jump on in!" he said, after crushing a cigarette under his foot on the tarmac. I peered inside, skeptically. Upon closer inspection, the plane had a very familiar interior: that of a taxi cab.

The propeller began to furiously spin.

“Wait! Do we need any safety instructions?!" I anxiously asked.

Greg shrugged.

“Pull that red handle if we crash, I guess," he replied.

There was literally nowhere to go but up, so I strapped myself into the seat, put my ID in my bra so they could identify my body, and began my Hail Marys.

Up, up we rose over snow peaked mountains, glacial blue rivers, and hundred-mile forests. It was beautiful, and terrifying. Every little cloud induced me to bargain with God.

I will never not recycle again.


And I'll volunteer tutor at that school I took the brochure for but haven't followed up on.


AND I will stop swearing!



Suddenly, the plane became deathly cold. Like, the-dementors-are-coming kind of cold. “There she is," Greg said. “Denali." I peered out of the window, and saw the huge mountain face. It was magnificent - all 20,322 feet of it. Because of the testy weather here, only 30% of park visitors get to even see the mountain. “Welcome to the 30% club," Greg said.

Denali: The great one.
You would think that the majesty of the mountain would calm me, that this rare privilege would soothe me, that I'd have some spiritual awakening and suddenly have the grace of Amelia Earhart.

You'd be wrong.

Because shortly after clearing the mountain, Greg flew us right into a massive gray cloud. The rain was pounding on the windows, steaming past me in thousands of small, angry rivers. The plane rose and fell like a yo-yo, tilting right and left with every gust of wind as the skies blackened around us. After several bouts of circling, Greg said, “Well ladies, it seems like the weather has turned on us. I guess we'll have to head to Fairbanks."

I looked to the skies and frowned. I said I'd do the tutoring thing! 

Greg had mentioned a survival kit in the back. I wondered if it had a gun in it, because I was going to need to shoot bears since I was going to have to become a wild woman now, living in post wreckage rags, making a hut out of the remains of the plane, and domesticating a timber wolf as a hunting companion. By the time I had picked out a suitable name for my wolf bestie (McNugget), we were in Fairbanks.

“That was super fun!" my Mother squealed after we landed, jumping giddily out of the plane. I scanned the airfield for a trash can to barf in.

Human for scale of death trap.
Despite the abject horror I felt for those three hours, I do feel a sense of accomplishment. I survived, and now I can cross this feat off the bucket list I never had nor wish to do again. I mean, I would. If I had to. But please don't make me.

I’ve since returned to the East Coast, and gone back to a life where I no longer carry bear spray in my pocket. However, I somehow know that this Alaskan adventure was not my last. After all, as John Muir said, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

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