City Girl Gone Wandering
Springtime in Alaska, that time of year when everything slowly starts to thaw and life returns to a land still reeling from the somberness of its winter haze. Mountains with lower elevations are lush and green, smiling with their new-found prosperity. Behind them, towering giants climb into the sky with peaks still covered in snow. One can actually straddle the line between seasons as one stands on borders between states or countries.
Tiny planes don’t usually scare me, but my Wings of Alaska commuter flight from Juneau to Skagway was unlike anything I had ever seen. Creaky wood planks lined the floor of the 9 passenger plane. The seats seemed like a transient after-thought. They were probably designed to be removable so the plane could alternate between flying cargo and flying humans. Needless to say, I was slightly terrified. The plane looked like death in a box and I had no way out.
The pilot was a typical Alaskan guy: large, broad, sturdy, and projecting an air of fearlessness. It was comforting, actually. I told myself that surely this big, burly, lumberjack of a man was capable of getting me to Skagway safely. I settled into my chair of death and stared out the window.
Like Hawaii, Alaska is even more impressive from the air. Floating through the sky above the Alaskan Inside Passage shows you just how many mountains there actually are. Rows upon rows of them–mountains upon mountains–all stacked up like snow-covered dominoes towering above the clouds.
A bit lower, the mountain slopes drop off into the still blue water running along the sandbars.
When I finally got to Skagway the exhaustion from 18 hours of travel and stolen naps on airport floors had been purged from my body. I was here, I was doing this, and I was ready to rumble.
The cabin where I was to spend my summer was tucked away in the forest, a few miles outside the 6 block town. The woods were barren and desolate, silently awaiting their springtime bloom. Across the road from my porch, more snow-capped mountains loomed in the distance.
Skagway itself was in transition. Alaska’s tourist season amps up in May and runs through September. When I arrived in April many of the businesses in town remained closed. Aside from locals painting the facades of their buildings, the streets were mostly empty. It had an air of silent preparation and an energy of a town gearing up for the onslaught of cruise ship passengers whom it would soon be accosted by.
The weather wasn’t as traumatic as I had expected. I did hear about blizzards going on a few hours away in the Yukon, but Skagway remained snow-free. Until that point the Yukon had always seemed like an abstract place where people dare not go. It was then that I realized just how far north I actually was, lost in a land notorious for its unforgiving nature. But, to my surprise, I found it strangely uplifting and serene.
The town of Skagway came into being during the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s. It was the last level plot of land before the White Pass Trail so a thriving base camp quickly sprung up on its shores. As the Gold Rush moved on to other parts of Alaska and the Yukon some chose to stay in Skagway and make it a real town.
These days the town boasts a permanent population of approximately 900, with a significant increase during the summer months as seasonal employees filter in. Despite it’s small size, Skagway is host to upwards of a million visitors each year–primarily cruise ship passengers who come in and out in a day. I didn’t get a chance to see the hustle and bustle of the summertime but I hear that it looks like the Alaskan version of Disney World. It certainly didn’t appear to have the infrastructure to host that many people, but every summer it somehow all comes together in a parade of claustrophobia and historical nostalgia.
It would have been lovely to spend the summer there but, unfortunately, I was unable to stay. My one requirement for any job or work exchange that I take on is that I have steady access to reliable internet so that I can keep up with this blog, for one, but also so that I can continue to perform the job that I do remotely. In this type of lifestyle a steady source of income that can be garnered from any location in the world is indispensable. So, after five days of being unable to work I found myself so far behind that there would be no catching up even if the circumstances were remedied as promised. I realized that I had to leave and within 24 hours I was on a plane bound for Juneau.
My flight out of Skagway was far less luxurious than the flight in. A heavy storm was passing through and the first words out of the pilot’s mouth were, “Buckle up tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” Not really what you want to hear on a dinky plane that seems to harbor destruction in even the best of weather. But this pilot was as equally well-equipped as the first and he gently circled us around the storm. The sights were novel, yet familiar, and nothing if not humbling.
In Juneau I checked into the Driftwood Hotel and promptly set about catching up on my work. The rain let up long enough for me to journey into the downtown area in search of Indian food and Alaskan IPAs. Like Skagway, Juneau was in the process of gearing up for its season and many of the quaint art galleries and craft stores remained closed. However, unlike Skagway, Juneau has a year-round population of approximately 30,000 (large by Alaska standards). Juneau may wake up in the summer, but it’s never fully asleep in the spring.
Juneau is known for its art scene and this was evident in my time there. It reminded me of Northwestern Massachusetts but with a little more spunk to its step. The town seems to combine the hard grungy edge of Seattle with the creative laid-back mountain vibe of the Berkshires. It manages to be prickly and soft all at the same time. I was intrigued by its energy, and left with a feeling of bottomless curiosity.
The rain prevented me from exploring Juneau to my satisfaction and it’s a part of the world that I plan to return to. As for Skagway, I think it may be just a little bit too small for me. I am happy to have seen it, and would go back if the right opportunity beckoned, but it’s not a place that I foresee myself purposefully seeking out in the future. Maybe that’s because I hold grudges despite my effort to break such a terrible habit, or maybe it’s because I’m still a city girl at heart. A city girl who has fallen in love with country living, certainly, but a city girl nonetheless.
That said, Alaska impressed me far more than I expected it to. For a self-proclaimed hater of winter I was surprised to fall so strongly for the landscape of the north. I will return. Maybe as early as next summer, maybe a bit later. But I will definitely return.
For now, I will soon be departing for the Rockies. I’ve replaced one summer job with another and am off to explore the wilderness of Northern New Mexico. Stay tuned.