On a chill and cloudy night in Seward Alaska was not the place I expected to meet a native of Concord Michigan, just a few miles away from my own home of Marshall. The fact that she looked for us (the Alaska Great Lakes Project) all over town to bring us a box of cookies she had baked for us was even less expected. But Alaska is the sort of place that attracts interesting people. I have yet to meet anyone here who could be described as either normal or boring. For example, a mother of two young children deciding to uproot her family and move to Alaska is not the most common of decisions. But in 1969 that is exactly what may Daniel did.
â€œI thought a two or three year adventure would be fun and my husband at the time said â€˜itâ€™s a one way tripâ€™â€ Mary told me when we first sat began to talk. She has been in Alaska ever since. The hardest part, for Mary, about her decision to move to Alaska was that her children grew up without knowing their extended family, â€œthat they didnâ€™t grow up going to grandmas, knowing cousins and stuff.â€ Now retired after twenty years of teaching in Seward Mary runs a local art shop, â€œStarboard Studioâ€ for her daughter.
Marysâ€™ daughter, also a teacher, is unable to look after the store most of the year due to her job at a school in the Athabascan village of Ft. Yukon north of the Arctic Circle. Ft. Yukon, located about 160 miles north of Fairbanks, or one hour by plane, is completely off the road system making air travel the only way to reach the town. With a population of 600 people the town is slightly larger than the previous village she worked in, and even has its own store, though most of her food is still flown in from Anchorage. â€œI wasnâ€™t worried â€¦ we know a lot of things she would have to do to be ready.â€ Mary said. She then added that there was not a lot of preparation by the school district and that a new comer to Alaska would have a hard time adjusting.
This is just one example of one a normal part of Alaskan life that is considered strange by those from the lower 48. Other items that one could add to this list include an average of six weeks with temperatures of 35 below zero each winter in Fairbanks. Seward, however, is a bit more temperate but comes with its own challenges. The massive amount of snowfall each year is a major one, but not in the way one would expect. For the most part the roads are kept clear all winter by the road crews, so school cancellations are unbelievably rare, around three or four in the last 45 years. The biggest problem caused by snow is avalanches. However Alaskans have their own way of dealing with that. The highway service keeps track of avalanche prone areas and when conditions are right they preempt the problem. â€œThey block the road. Then they bomb the avalanche. And if it hits the road then they clean it up. Then they open the road up again.â€ Said Mary. In case you were wondering, â€œbombâ€ is exactly what it sounds like. They hit the snow on the mountain with military grade explosives to create a controlled avalanche.
Mary still keeps in touch with her family in Michigan even though she doesnâ€™t get to see them often. And this brings me to how she met up with the Alaska Great Lakes Project. A few weeks ago she received a newspaper clipping from the Battle Creek Enquirer. The article detailed the Alaska Great Lakes Project, its founder and director Dale â€œIshtar â€œ Rosene, and some of the trips history, including the fact that 2014 would be its 25th and final year. The fact that the trip originated so close to her hometown interested Mary. She looked up the website (aglp.com, though if youâ€™re reading this youâ€™ve already found it) and noticed on the itinerary that we would be coming to Seward. Mary then decided she should meet up with us while we were in town and that a heard of hungry travelers would like nothing more than an enormous box of cookies. (She was right.) Following us online and remembering what she had heard from her past interactions with the trip (This was not the first time she had been interviewed for this project) combined with some good old fashioned detective work she was finally able to track us down to our camp site.
â€œIâ€™ve always wanted to face the challenge and make it work and I think I did.â€ Mary said about her life in the 49th state. I think Marysâ€™ words can be applied to a lot of people who come to Alaska. People who canâ€™t keep still, who find life other places too easy or too boring, for some those two words mean the same thing. Alaska does not attract people who are looking for a comfortable life. It attracts people who thrive on challenge, on pushing themselves seeing how far they can go, to see if they can do it. The people here are a whole other breed. They are uniquely special, the kind of people who go out of their way to be kind to total strangers, like making cookies for 70 travelers from out of state.
Authors Note: The cookies were delicious.
By: Stuart Murch