Alaska? Been here, done this. That sentiment is written in stone #2110 among more than 13,000 other bricks in Town Square Park in Anchorage, AK where I lived, explored and discovered the love of my life.
Twenty years ago this month I made the decision to move to Anchorage. I had never been there, didn’t know anyone, nor did I have a job. Yes. I’m bragging about being young and fun.
My 13-year-old German Shepherd mutt had just died and I was given 6 weeks notice that my year-round gig as a ski reporter was about to become seasonal. It would have been hard to find any part-time work that would pay enough to allow me to continue living in the picturesque town of Woodstock, Vermont, so what’s a single girl to do? Move to Alaska, of course!
Back in the mid 1970s, thousands of hands were needed to construct the 800 mile long Alaska Pipelinebetween Prudhoe Bay and Valdez. Reports from the frozen further-north out of the “girl pipeline” was that there were ten men for every woman. “Raining Men?” Not really. More like “Snowing Men.”
I had pretty much given up on finding my soul mate but the odds were good up there, so, what the heck. The prospect of cold and dark did not scare me so I threw caution to the wind and started my job search.
Around that same time, I met Mike, the Production & Music Director at a classical radio station on the Boston North Shore. To him, I was an automated voice he recorded daily giving ski reports that ran on his station. To me, he was one of the 50 radio stations that carried my reports…meaning I didn’t know he existed. Mike had also reached a “whatever” attitude towards relationships with the opposing sex, though he confessed to being smitten by my husky skiing descriptions such as “conditions are fast and firm.”
One of Mike’s jobs at the station was producing a show featuring people not associated with classical music, with his assistance, introducing Bach and Mozart and in between doing a bit of self-promoting. In my case, I would talk up the ski industry in New England.
Give Mike credit for persistence. I hate classical music. It makes me nervous. But over the long-distance telephone line, he gently twisted my arm. Long story short: I came down from the mountain. We did the show. I invited him up for his first-ever ski experience and sparks flew in the snow of Vermont.
Then the ax fell. My job was cut. Mike offered to let me use his station’s production studio to put together a demo tape showcasing my on-air reporting. We had a grand time together and embarked on a six-week, long-distance romance.
Regardless of how much fun I was having with this guy, soon I would be unable to pay my rent. I started sending demo tapes and resumes to radio stations in Anchorage.
I just slipped into a time warp. There are people reading this who might not know what a “tape” is. Nowadays we email a couple of attachments, a resume and an audio file. Back in the day, people would snail-mail a demo reel on a cassette, (Don’t make me explain. Google it.) in an envelope with a cover letter and resume. I have even sent tape on a “reel.” (Again. Just Google.)
Of the nine packs I mailed, six managers eventually responded saying they would hire me if I was there. No, they would not move me (I was told there was an Alaskan law that if an employer moves a prospective employee up there and things go sour, the boss has to pay for the move back.), but if I was there, I would have a job.
Suddenly this trans-continental move didn’t seem so risky, and with barrels of men from which to choose, it sounded like fun.
I heard furniture was expensive there so I packed mine on a pallet and shipped it up on a freighter. As a veteran of many moves, I had invested in an extremely light couch and love seat. More weighty was my king size bed, box springs and its cheap metal frame.
A complete array of kitchen needs and clothes topped off the pile of belongings that would make the 4,500 mile trip.
At the end of April, I loaded my Subaru with my Cornish Rex cat, along with my can’t-live-without apartment camping gear (meaning some small kitchen stuff, bedding and other must-haves) and pointed west to Denver.
Denver’s my favorite former stomping grounds. There I hung out with friends for a while, then sold my car and flew to Anchorage. Just me and the cat.
Someone had given me the name of somebody they knew and that family generously said I could crash at their place for a couple of days. I rented a minivan in case it didn’t work out so I could have a place to sleep if I was desperate.
In spite of all my previous confidence, as I drove out of the airport, my first thought was “Holy s**t, what have I done?”
Not to worry. Within a couple of days I rented a tiny apartment, quickly bought a car, found a job, and made a few friends. It was summer, and when I was out after midnight I would get in my car and debate with myself whether or not I needed to turn on my lights. The sun came up around 4:30 am and set around 11:45 pm. My new home was amazing.
Eagles flew by my bedroom window. Moose were common sights and ten days after I arrived, there was a bear that was caught in downtown Anchorage. Animal Control was called in and tranquilized the poor guy. The Anchorage Daily News caught the process on film and the 3 photos appeared on the front page. First he’s in the tree, second he’s caught in mid-air falling head first out of the tree and the third of him being transported while he’s asleep. I sent that front page to Mike back in Massachusetts. These were not normal headlines in most of the Lower 48. I was definitely a wide-eyed Cheechako, a newbie to Alaska.
When I left Vermont in April, Mike told me he might come and visit in January. I scoffed but knew he could be persuasive if needed. Even though I was moving to the land of men, I had a good time with this guy and kind of wanted a visit sooner than January.
Finally, after lots of long distance phone calls and looming large phone bills, Mike stepped off a plane in June to “visit”. He brought an interview suit and resumes just in case.
We had a blast exploring this wild and wondrous land. In the short time Mike was there we managed to pack in a whole lot of adventures.
We started small with a trip to the Alyeska Ski Resort in the town of Girdwood and the Portage Glacier, both at the end the inlet called Turnagain Arm. The scenery is breathtaking along this 45 minute drive down the Seward Highway. A stop at Potter’s Marsh just south of the city was rewarded with spawning salmon. The school of fish is parked in one spot, wiggling every so often. It’s mesmerizing to watch.
Further down the road on the steep mountain side are dall sheep. They are easy to spot – just pull off the road where all of the cars are stopped and people are pointing.
Our first destination is the Portage Glacier. Enroute, we pass thousands of dead tree trunks in the mud. This was some of the destruction from the 1964 earthquake and tsunami. That Good Friday quake had a magnitude of 9.2 and dropped the coastal edges of Turnagain Arm as much as ten feet. We didn’t take the cruise on Lake Portage, opting instead to learn about glaciers in the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center.
Coming back towards Anchorage, the town of Girdwood is filled with pretty baskets full of flowers hanging everywhere. It’s an explosion of color. It’s June and everything is bright green.
Alyeska Ski Area is the only ski area in the world with a base at sea level and the mountain rising up 2,300 feet. On this trip our only choice is a regular ski lift. A couple of years later the sleek Alyeska Resort was built and now there’s a 60 person aerial tram for a quick ride to the top. Whatever the ride, the view is spectacular.
We ended the day with dinner at the Double Musky Inn – a funky, family owned Cajun Restaurant in this minuscule town. It may be 44-hundred miles from Bourbon Street but the atmosphere and food transcends the miles. It combines Alaskan seafood and beef with Cajun spices in a wooded area off-the-beaten-path from this off-the-beaten-path ski town.
The rest of the week was spent with Mike exploring job opportunities. For a long weekend, I made plans for us to travel to the remote towns of McCarthy and Kennicott in the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This former mining metropolis is across a river at the end of a 60 mile dirt road that most Alaskans have never visited. Once I heard about the towns, I had to go.
The mines were in Kennicott and the brothels and parties were in McCarthy. At the time of this trip, there were 12 year-round residents of McCarthy and one lonesome fella in Kennicott. They were not deterred by the fact that McCarthy was the site of one of the largest mass murders in Alaska. In fact the Kennicott guy survived it. A guy gunned down six of the twelve residents who were waiting for the mail plane at the airstrip.
We took a rental car for the 630 mile round trip because I had bought a junky temporary car until I had a steady job and I was afraid it wouldn’t make it. We are probably the reason rental cars were banned from the McCarthy Road. That car was a gritty mess when we returned it. It took us almost five hours, partially on the Glenn Highway, to get to Chitina where the pavement ends. From Chitina it took another two and a half hours, because the dirt road is wavy like a washboard.
It is built on top of the old railroad tracks so there was the possibility of hitting loose railroad spikes left below the road surface. The potential for flat tires, the wildlife and a scary one lane Kuskulana Bridge made the drive exhilarating!
Basically it was a porch swing on pulleys. Etiquette required us to help anyone crossing and they were to reciprocate. If no one was on either end to help, we would go it alone using the heavy work gloves we were advised to bring for this purpose. We loaded our backpacks on the rickety contraption and luckily someone helped pull us across.
A five-minute walk along a path took us to another tram, this time a shorter river to cross. A little more walking and we found ourselves on the dusty road in the center of the town of McCarthy.
I had made a reservation at the McCarthy Lodge but because of a mix-up, it was never received. The only available bed consisted of a single iron army cot in a drafty hut across the street from the lodge. The exterior door didn’t lock, and the bathroom was in the lodge which didn’t open until seven in the morning!
Adding to the rustic charm, someone had shot and wounded a bear so it was recommended that we didn’t spend much time outside. Interpretation: if you’re going to go outside, you better really have to go. We paid $150 for that uncomfortable, sleepless night…what seemed steep at the time has become a tiny price for a lifetime of fun memories!
The next morning, our second order of business was to buy bug repellent. People are not kidding when they say that mosquitoes are the Alaska state bird. The lone store had a good supply but for a price we later learned is called the “Alaska mark-up.” I was getting eaten alive and would have paid just about anything for some bug spray. Obviously, I wasn’t the first person in that position, nor would I be the last.
Coated in Deet, we hopped aboard a creaky old school bus for the 5 mile ride to the ghost town of Kennicott. Our transportation had license plates last legal in 1975. Life is funny. Years later in Charlotte, we lived two houses away from a former driver of that school bus!
Kennicott is incredible! There’s a lovely B&B that’s open in the summer with a porch that overlooks the gritty glacier. We immediately wished we had been able to cough up a few more bucks to stay there.
In its day this was a bustling town because of the copper ore mines. In 1938, the mines were depleted and abandoned. Most of the buildings, including a hospital, were left intact some strewn with books, kitchen utensils and other interesting items.
We didn’t venture up to the 14 story mine building because Chris said it was unsafe. We definitely didn’t want to fall into a mine shaft this far away from help. What we did see was a glimpse into the life of the miners on the day they closed up shop in 1938.
After the tour, we climbed the steps to the Kennicott Glacier Lodge to sip a beverage and soak in the sights from our perch on the porch. It was an excellent adventure. We managed to make the trip unscathed, except for a few mosquito bites. Luckily there were no flat tires but dust was imbedded in that car, so much so that we couldn’t read where the shift was – Park and Drive were covered in dust.
Nowadays, the road is better maintained and reports of flat tires have been greatly reduced. The trams were replaced by footbridges and entrepreneurs charge for parking at the river. The National Park Service has acquired many of the Kennicott mine buildings and allows some tours inside. They even have a visitor’s center there. Sadly, we heard from our former neighbor that Chris, our tour guide, committed suicide a few years back.
Mike’s radio station contacts we encouraging. He felt that there were enough possibilities that he moved in with me a couple of months later. A year later we got married.
At least back then, females had a larger crop than men when it came to “pickens” in Alaska. A caveat on that could be heard frequently uttered by single, Alaska gals. “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” In my case, by luring Mike to Alaska, my odds were good and my goods can be a bit odd, but quite fantastic too!