Did you know, gentle reader, that Obama is in Alaska right now, renaming mountains (and angering Ohioans) and being the first sitting president to visit the US Arctic (thanks, NPR)? Of course you did, you’re smart people. You probably don’t know that my in-laws are there as well – if you do, I’m a little concerned.
But right now, I want to tell you about MY trip to Alaska. This trip report is only about. . . 6 months late. Ooops. But read on, if you’re interested in our experiences in America’s final frontier and the hunt for the Northern Lights.
We’d been planning the Alaska trip for a while, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t approach the whole thing with a certain degree of trepidation. Apart from the cold – our tour operator seemed to email us every other day reminding us to prepare for snow – there was the serious possibility that we wouldn’t see the aurora at all, or that we’d only see a smudgy haze in the sky, and return disappointed. But I was venturing into the land of the midnight sun, of dog-mushing, salmon and reindeer, of dramatic and deadly landscapes and a lot of volcanoes. But also the land of Sarah Palin and ‘Deadliest Catch’. So, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t 100% sure what I was letting myself in for.
Nevertheless, we packed up all the snow gear we could find and headed off. First things first – it was fucking FREEZING. When I tried on all my gear back in Seattle, I started to overheat within seconds. In Alaska, this was not a problem. On our first day in Anchorage it was -17°C.
By the end of the trip, we were considering anything above -10° as ‘mild’. At one point, just south of the Arctic Circle and at about 1am, it was -40°. That’s the point where it doesn’t matter whether you’re using Fahrenheit or Celsius, because the temperature is TOO FUCKING COLD. Stepping outside the van that night to look at the lights, I foolishly did not fully zip my jacket or pull my giant mittens over my gloves. By the time I went to do so, my hands were shivering so much that I literally was not able to. It was THAT cold. However, I have realised that actually it’s not totally unreasonable to live this way. Most Alaskans were used to the cold, and just layered appropriately. I even saw insulated skirts, which were stylish in a “I want to feel slightly feminine today but by god I want to keep my knees warm” kinda way. (N.B. My outfits were in no way feminine. I was basically the Michelin Man, with fur trim).
So it was cold. But we didn’t really go there to experience extreme cold – although it was kinda amusing the way my hair would start to grow icicles. I digress. We went to Alaska to see the Northern Lights. And um, we did. Literally every time we looked for them, we saw them. The first night it was just a haze in the night sky. The second night I stayed in the cozy hotel room – but Niall put his snow gear on and caught them in the parking lot. We saw them on the drive South from the Arctic circle, a hazy green line dancing across the sky – although after having a beer just over the line into the Circle, and nearly freezing my fingers off, I must admit I was reluctant to venture much outside our somewhat rickety vehicle. And on our final night, after dipping in some hot springs and some early hazy moments, they came out in force.
I have tried several times since this trip to explain to people what the aurora actually looks like. It turns out that I’m shit at describing things. So courtesy of our travelling companion Lauren (as we lacked the equipment and expertise to get our camera to take anything), here’s the aurora borealis:
Pretty neat, huh?
While writing this, I keep wanting to say that Alaska is an odd country, rather than an odd state. Alaska just feels different to the rest of the US – and that’s quite a statement for a nation that spans a continent. I know I’ve not explored even a third of the rest of the country, but Alaska just feels. . . distinct. Perhaps when I eventually get around to visiting the South and the Midwest, I’ll get some of the same feeling from those places. But I think there’ll always be something different about Alaska. Maybe it’s the pioneer spirit (you have no idea how weird it feels writing that phrase) or the sense of wilderness and a genuine frontier. For example, one of our guides only eats meat that he’s harvested himself, and the other one predominantly guides bear hunts. Maybe it’s that distinctness that has lead to so many reality TV shows being filmed there.
One of the things that struck me most is how friendly everyone is. Not just in contrast to the brittle and superficial pleasantries of the Seattle Freeze, either. People genuinely wanted to talk to us, and hear our stories. If I hadn’t been raised by my mother (who, I’m reliably informed, does actually hold some kind of record for most strangers talked to in one weekend) then I might have found it overwhelming. One bartender summed it up: “People think we’re crazy, cus we’ll talk to anyone, but it’s just that we’re lonely – not too many new faces up here”.
I know that I did have more thoughts -on how humongous the place is, on the trains that drop people off places where there’s no roads, on the roadkill-for-impoverished families, on meeting people who don’t believe in insurance (because taking out insurance is like saying you don’t think God will pitch in when you crash your car). Sadly it’s been months since the trip, so articulating those has become a little fuzzy. I will however, leave you with some photos, which hopefully will make you jealous.