I saw the island rise from the cold ocean like a gigantic arrow dipped in white poison, but at the same time also like a big chocolate cone capped with whiter than white ice cream. It was so overwhelmingly beautiful that I had tears in my eyes, but that could also have been from the icy cold wind cutting through my clothes. The Aleutian Islands lay before me and the desolated scene makes me wonder about all the other places of isolation in the world. We are making a detour via the Aleutian Islands because of a medical emergency and a more isolated place to fall ill will be hard to find. Our final destination after the eight- day crossing from Osaka will probably look very similar I thought, and after experiencing two Monday the 13th s in a row (crossing the international date line) all I want to do is walk on solid land.
Usually the ships decks are filled with people drinking, tanning or chilling. Today, however, it is filled with people slipping, sliding and freezing. The snow is pelting down sideways and the small village of Whittier is in a complete whiteout. I watch a fishing trawler navigate its way into the small harbour. The captain has a massive beard and he reminds me of some hipsters I’ve seen. As soon as I go through immigration and try on my new snow gear, I set foot on American soil for the first time in my life. I feel fortunate, and somewhat proud, that it is not in some major city such as LA or New York, but rather in a place where freedom stretches well beyond the horizon and deep into the glacial wilderness. Alaska, I have made it.
I overhear what could only be a local fisherman say: “It is not supposed to be snowing like this you know, for all I know the Yukon is closed so I might as well have me a few Ambers”. I ask him what is the Yukon and how Amber is related to it. He just points me in the direction of the only bar in town. “ Go on in, you will find Amber there”.
After the third one I am hooked. The full-bodied, somewhat sweet- with- gentle hints -of –mischief- and- adventure beer, is a beautiful Amber colour, hence the name Alaskan Amber. The quaint little pub has fires going and beers flowing. I immediately like the place not only because Mumford and Sons is playing on the radio, but also because of the view from inside. I watch the snow change the landscape with each flake that falls. A good friend asked me to please listen to Eddie Vedder when I walk around in Alaska, so when I exit the pub I turned up the volume to a song that had me gazing into the wild. The natural beauty of the place is unlike anywhere else. I don’t even think of the cold, my senses are overwhelmed.
I have been fortunate to visit the towns of Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan and Whittier. On a normal day in some of these towns there are no more than 2000 people, but when the cruise ships dock it can escalate to well over 15 000 people walking the streets. I am not a big fan of so many people all doing the same thing, so the first chance I have I escape the madness. I found myself walking along a dense forest with snow all around, no one in sight. When I stopped to take in the silence, I noticed bear droppings. My heart started racing and I wondered what would I do if I got hassled by a bear out here. I quickly make my way back to civilisation and decide to rather jump on a bus to go visit a Native American village. After learning all about totem poles and their significance to the Tlingit people, I have some tasty Halibut, Alaskan style.
One of the highlights on this trip was by far the helicopter ride to the top of a glacier. We had the chance to go on dog sleds up there too, which was absolutely amazing. The mixed bred dogs anticipation to get going was about 6 decibels loud while the height of the snow covered mountain range sored well above what I ever thought existed. The pure rush from being on top of the glacier had me feeling all inspired and somewhat brave, until I learnt about the life of the owners of these dogs. They live up there with the animals year round in these camps that look similar to Igloos, tending to their needs and taking the odd traveller on a sled ride. They have to watch out for avalanches all the time and brave the icy conditions on a daily basis. If something goes wrong up here you are far from any help, so no wonder I get a ‘ that’s- a –silly- question- look’ when I ask about snowboarding one of the slopes facing the camp.
From the comfort of the deck, wrapped in my warm clothing clutching a cup of coffee I watch one of nature’s impressive events unfold. Before this however, on our approach to one of the glaciers I notice icebergs scattered about the surface of the water in a beautifully unorganised manner. Some as big as a double decker bus, some as invisible as a thought. The glaciers are constantly moving, and you can hear it loud and clear. The sound of the glacier moving and crunching its way toward the inevitable drop into the water is like listening to a lion cracking through the bones of a fresh kill. It is eerie, yet spectacular. When the weight of the tightly compacted icebergs become too much for the glacier to hold, it plummets into the water with a thundering sound, equal to that of a gigantic wave breaking over a shallow reef. This is nature at work, and a more immediate observation of geomorphology would be hard to find.
Alaska is a wild place. It is a beautiful place, but the soft snow should not be misinterpreted, for it is a hard place too. The winters are harsh and I feel fortunate to have been here at the start of summer.
Like with all the places we visit, there is always more to be seen. On the last day before we sail back to Whittier to catch our connecting flights somewhere warmer, I meet an elderly gent in a typical Alaskan bar in Ketchikan. When I order my beer from the bar lady, my accent blows my camouflage and thus the question come up, “ Where ya from?” I love this question. It can lead to many endless conversations and this time around is no different. After introducing myself, I become Ken the retired crab fisherman’s new friend. He shares stories of high seas and near death experiences out in the Bay of Yakutat. When I ask him about the surfing possibilities around Alaska, he draws me a map on a Budweiser napkin. Without hesitance he draws from his memory a neatly detailed map of supposedly epic long waves. Because I am sentimental about small things, I fold the napkin and put it away safely. I have always wanted to be given a secret treasure map, and this one I sense, may have some adventures of epic proportions involved. For now, the map is in a safe place, but I cant wait to pull it out one day when I came back to Alaska, the last frontier.