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Alaska: "You don't land at the end of the road without a reason"

by Kristin Nord

In western Connecticut we whine about snowstorms and warn in dramatic tones of fast-approaching "winter events." But situated as we are along the rain-snow line, it's rare to have the grim forecasts fulfill our expectations. Our "dangerous" storms often peter out, leaving us with crusty mushy chowder.

As our lives remain relatively safe and contained, the lives of Alaska residents offer a dramatic study in contrast. As my older son, Wesley, now living there, tells me, "You don't land at the end of the road without a reason." Drifters, gamblers, adventurers, dreamers — an astonishing roster of wildlife. This is the last great frontier, to a great extent, and it certainly lives up to that billing with its unfolding stories. But whatever has drawn its people, it is winter that tests their mettle.

Snow, called "termination dust," arrives by August, and lingers the following summer on snow-capped glacial ranges. The volume and even the consistency of snow varies widely as the land extends more than a thousand miles north, beyond the Arctic Circle. Alaskans know that winter is to be taken seriously. You must dress each day for warmth and protection, travel with provisions, and have plans ready for dealing with any challenge nature might send your way.

What might they be? Frozen pipes, dead engines, fierce winds and frigid temperatures — like the batch of minus-30 degree nights that descended on Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, in January. (The farther north you travel, the minuses escalate rapidly, hitting 40 and 50 degrees below zero on a regular basis.) Avalanches can cut off road travel and close towns and villages to the outside world for days.

And this year, a fierce dragon known as Mount Redoubt has been shaking cupboards and rattling windows. Mount Redoubt is an active volcano across Cook Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula, and scientists have been tracking its tremors under an orange alert since January 18. Scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory believe the question is not whether, but when, Mount Redoubt will erupt, and when it does, how much damage there will be. Its last eruption, in December 1989, spewed ash 40,000 feet into the sky in intermittent bursts and nearly brought down a Boeing 747. This year, Air Force planes were evacuated to Seattle, Wash., more than a month ago. Offices, including the one where Wesley works part time, were handing out dust masks and directing workers to use computer sites to monitor the volcano's threat.

With the clatter of the beast as daily background noise, and from my son's vantage point, it seems characteristically Alaskan the way residents absorb the potential of danger but proceed with their daily lives. School is never cancelled because of snow. The rule is you get there if you can, notes Joy Norman, a Connecticut resident who spent the early years of her marriage living in the little town of Soldotna and working as a teacher at a school in nearby Sterling.

I trace my son's passion for Alaska back to Mrs. Norman's third-grade class which offered a little boy, impatient with mimeographed sheets and the strictures of suburban life, a window on this exotic world. Mrs. Norman's slides of Mount McKinley and dog sled teams and villages where children played with Eskimo yo-yos proffered proof there was a rich and dramatic place in Alaska. It was a circuitous route that took Wesley to points increasingly north — the Adirondacks and the University of New Brunswick in Canada for forestry studies, and eventually the University of Alaska in Anchorage, where he is earning a degree in civil engineering.

Interestingly, Mrs. Norman's influence, at once informative and later perhaps subliminal, steered Wesley to Homer, Alaska, a town on the Kenai Peninsula not too far from where she and her husband, Clay, a missionary bush pilot, had lived. The historic working town of Homer draws fishermen and boat builders, as well as artists. The late nature photographer John Pezzenti Jr. imagined the peninsula as a kind of phantom limb, as if "God simply picked up New Zealand and placed it in south central Alaska."

Imagine a landscape of mountain ranges, plateaus and frozen lakes transformed into a huge recreational multiplex. Imagine needle ice and frazil ice, hoarfrost and rime; and between September and March, at latitudes above 60 degrees, the aurora, or Northern Lights, erupting in the sky as brilliant colored streamers. If the living in Alaska is sometimes scary and dangerous, it is also breathtakingly beautiful.

By March, my son has found, adults are often exhibiting signs of cabin fever, irritable perhaps from the lack of sunlight and hungry for the energized pace of a sun-soaked summer, when daylight is strong for as long as 18 hours.

The major antidote to the late-season ennui and winter's last gasp is the 17-day Iditarod, the legendary dogsled race that begins in Anchorage and ends 1,140 miles away in Nome. The Iditarod commemorates a historic 1925 expedition to bring food and medicine to native villages where hundreds of Inuit were sick and dying from diphtheria. The safe arrival of the provisions marked a turning point in controlling the epidemic.

Alaskans transform their huge state into a little town with heart during the race, with many residents — even young ones — using vacation time to volunteer their services. They staff more than 20 checkpoints along the route; shuttle dog food and supplies by plane; cut, mark, and pack the trail ahead of the racers in windswept areas; and clean up after them.

While the contributions of the volunteers and the skill of the mushers is extraordinary, it is the dogs, fierce in their loyalty and their drive, who capture the imaginations of Alaskan families. These dogs come from stock dating back thousands of years; they are lean and seemingly fearless, having trained for months for this grueling northbound journey.

Come to think of it, they remind me a little of Wesley, and before him, Mrs. Norman and the other adventurers who have been drawn to this place of extremes for their own reasons.

©2009 Kristin Nord

Northern Lights Photograph by Dave Parkhurst for Alaska Travel; Mount Redoubt Photograph by David Wartinbee

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