North to Alaska: How a little island taught me a lot about living

Alaska absolutely enchanted me. It was the new crush I couldn’t stop talking about and still haven’t stopped talking about since I got home in November. Luckily, I’ve been surrounded by people since that want to hear about it. Wasn’t it cold? Isn’t it dark all the time?

Alaska was the revelation that I needed to start this blog. It feels like I had the opportunity to be a part of some secret. Alaska is rarely talked about in everyday life in the lower 48 (or “down South” as they say in AK). I honestly didn’t even know South East Alaska existed when my recruiter called and told me about an opening in Ketchikan.

Another “everything happens for a reason” moment: My friend that I planned to travel with that summer drove across the country hoping for a job to open in Alaska, then waited it out in Anchorage for a week when there was still nothing opening. It’s hard as a traveler to have your heart set on a certain place. You’re at the mercy of what facilities have job needs during the time you’re available. We knew it was going to be tough to find 2 positions in the same city. She kept her faith and waited it out. I interviewed and accepted a position in Ketchikan as at that point it was unlikely we were going to find 2 positions together. Two days later, my facility happened to open a 2nd need, my friend jumped on it, and just like that our Alaska dreams were answered.

To set the scene, Ketchikan is a small city of less than 10,000 people on the island of Revillagigedo, the southernmost island of Alaska. (For perspective, Ketchikan is still the 4th largest city in Alaska. For more perspective, there are about 20 bears to every 1 person in Alaska.) Anyway, it’s a rainforest. Another thing I never realized, that the US even had a rainforest. Ketchikan is the rainiest city in the country, rainier than Seattle. It’s not that cold. It’s a moderate climate so the summers are beautiful, getting up to the 70s-80. The winters don’t get that cold, it’s far colder in the Northeast. There is no way to get on/off the island besides a boat or a plane. Even the airport is on a separate island, so you take a ferry from the airport across the channel to Ketchikan. It’s a cruise ship stop for the Alaskan cruise lines so the summer is very busy. The population nearly doubles and downtown opens up with shops and restaurants and tourists galore and then boards up at the end of the season when the cruise ships are gone. That’s when the locals come out from hiding and literally throw parties to celebrate the tourists leaving.

At first impression, most things looked pretty outdated, many of the buildings straight out of the 50’s, many looked like they hadn’t been touched since. It was raining, it was gloomy, and everyone was wearing these weird looking brown rain boots. My first few weeks I was just trying to figure it all out. The people at work were really cool. My patients were interesting.. But luckily I had my friend there with me to explore this interesting place. Mind you, I had just come from San Francisco, where the city was picturesque and most people look like they stepped out of an Anthropologie add. I had a touch of culture shock and struggled at first to see how I was going to bond. So, like you have to do as a traveler, we jumped in. One of our coworkers hosted a party after our first day where a spear fishmerman she was hosting at her house prepared a feast of sushi with the fish he had been catching there. He was currently pending the world record for free dive spearing the largest king salmon. He showed us videos of some of his dives and was a very interesting and passionate human. He traveled the world on his own and experienced an underwater world that so many of us never even realize exists.

Later that week we drove down south (on the only main road there is in Ketchikan) to Herring Cove where you can often see a lot of wildlife. I’ve seen a handful of Eagles in the past, bears only in zoos. So when we pulled up on 4 black bears fishing in the river and 20+ eagles flying around overhead, I realized I was truly in the wilderness. We watched a bear catch a salmon out of the water and it was incredible.

I was realizing that Ketchikan was going to give me a run for my money. The first few weeks we learned how to be “Bear Aware.” Ketchikan only has black bears, which tend to be a little more skittish than brown bears which are found more on the mainland. What I’ve learned: If you encounter a black bear, depending on the situation, you are supposed to make yourself appear big, get loud, and scare them off. Staying with groups and talking loud with the occasional yells “Hey bear!” will usually keep them away long before you see them. Brown bears on the other hand will typically get aggressive if you show aggression toward them. If a brown bear approaches you, you are supposed to lay face down with your hands over your head and play down, letting them bat you around (right… I would have a heart attack and die long before the bear ate me). So all of this was a lot to take in for my first experience in this type of wilderness. I was really hesitant to hike for the first few weeks. People also warned us of the quickly changing weather conditions in the mountains here and told us to always be prepared in case we got stuck and had to weather out an overnight.

My first “aha” moment: I badly wanted to explore this land. If I let my fear take over, I would either avoid hiking, or would be anxious the entire time I was doing it, making it not even worth it. I think we often let fear heighten our perception of risk. Our emotions make situations seem insurmountable or more dangerous or threatening. Our human ancestors had to stay conservative in order to survive. Fear was a defense mechanism. I think we still carry those traits into every day decision making. Should I stay in this situation that I hate because I am afraid of how to go about getting out of it? Should I not move across the country because I’m afraid of what it will be like being on my own? Unless you could die, what is the worst thing that could possibly happen if you take that risk? Is that really worth that fear? In this situation, yes, the worst thing that could happen is that my friends and/or I could be eaten by a bear. But what I realized my fear was clouding was that there was a small chance of a bear encounter, and if that became a reality I could be prepared.

So into the woods I went. Armed with bear spray, bear bells, and loud friends. And then the magic started happening. The lush rainforests were full of moss, old growth, ferns, and giant pines. There were some hikes that were even more incredible on the gloomy rainy days because of the aura it gave them. But when the sun came out, the scenery was absolutely unreal. No words and no pictures can give credit to how beautiful that wilderness is. There is something different about Alaska that is so humbling. A quote I read (in one of my 1000 Alaska books): “A person didn’t stroll here and admire the views. A person stood in awe, had to feel his smallness, his insignificance. He had to know there was something greater than himself, beyond all his control.” – Nancy Lord. One of my patients called the rain “population control.” If the people getting off the cruise ships saw Ketchikan in the sunshine every time they would likely stay, and it would ruin this best kept secret. It seems like nature does things it just doesn’t do in other places. I stood on top of a 3,000 ft mountain and saw layers of mountains and other islands dotting this middle of nowhere place in the Pacific Ocean while two bald eagles flew over my head. One of my coworkers saw a baby humpback whale being born from her back porch while she was drinking her morning coffee. A fisherman we met one night spoke so passionately about the harsh and frigid conditions of winter fishing but that was all overshadowed by how incredible it was that he had the experience to watch wave caps freeze upon cresting and then falling back into the ocean. Nature has always had a way of pulling on my heart strings and Alaska began blowing me away. My reward for not being afraid of the risk.

And then I started understanding the culture. I think Alaska is how American used to be, when people helped their neighbors and took care of each other. There are benefits of a small community in that everyone has to play a part to sustain themselves. There may not be as many resources but they seem to have what they need and they help one another. I had a patient with severe depression that had trouble leaving her home. A community member would bring groceries to her and the library brought books and videos right to her home.

They are also respectful of their place on Earth. They live in subsistence which means they support themselves in only the minimum way. Before Alaska was a state, fish traps were depleting most of the fish, which wasn’t sustainable. The fishermen voted to tax themselves 3% to fund fish hatcheries. The hatcheries spawn the fish that return up the river to die at the end of their life cycles. They collect their eggs and raise the fish until they are big enough to be released. They drive them out to certain release sites because the fish will return to those locations when they are grown. The hatcheries are able to hatch about 90% of a fish’s eggs, where in nature only about 10% live. The salmon are such an integral part of this community. These people respect our Earth, our place in it, and our future generations’ well-being.  Life here is rich and meaningful and productive. They enjoy life, they sustain it, and they thoroughly buy into those ideals. It’s eye opening to see the stark contrast of other cut throat, business driven industries in America, whose goals are monetary and not out of regard for our people and our planet.

I experienced this caring and generous Alaskan culture over and over. My friend and I were going fishing one day and pulled over to ask a man washing his boat where a good place was to fish from the shore. A simple question turned into a ½ hour discussion that culminated in the man asking us if we’d had halibut since we’d been there. We hadn’t, he told us to wait for a minute as he went into his garage, and he returned with a freezer bag of $100+ worth of frozen halibut and a bag of frozen shrimp (which was the most incredible shrimp I’ve ever had in my life, along with most of the other seafood I ate in Alaska).

We became friends with one of the camp hosts who also invited us over and cooked us a halibut dinner. He also took us on some skiffs to Naha River, on a more remote part of the island, for an incredible hike in to go fishing, an excursion to a place that very few people have the opportunity to go to.

The people from Ketchikan are awesome, but they are a rare breed. The fishing industry brings a lot of male workers to the island making the male to female proportions very skewed. One of my favorite Alaska lines is “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” There is a pretty famous news story about a bar fight where a man literally slapped someone across the face with a fish. Ketchikan is an extremely talented community of artists- musicians, painters, poets, everything. In the summer they have a Blueberry Festival that is a weekend long event with an arts fair, music, road race, a beer garden, and of course, a beard and mustache competition. It’s such a close knit community, and events like this go on all the time. For a remote island, there is always something to do. There are multiple small bands that rotate around the bars and other events that make the nightlife surprisingly so much fun. I can honestly say I’ve had just as much if not more fun there as in any other city I’ve been in. One amazing experience was an event called “Raining man” (a play on “Burning man”) which is a locals only music festival on someone’s property in the woods. A stage hosted Ketchikan’s finest local bands and it was complete with a bon fire, a water slide, a tire swing operated by a crane, and we all literally danced in the rain. I’ve found one of the best ways to bond with a city is to party in it, and Ketchikan did not disappoint. You haven’t lived until you’ve jumped into the Alaskan ocean at 2am.

I made the absolute best travel friends while I was there with a few other travel PTs who were working on the island and every weekend we would adventure and live out the Alaskan experience fully. We all really bonded in those mountains, experiencing together some of the most incredible beauty we will ever see.

By the time I had to leave, I felt so incredibly attached to this place and the people I met there. I was obsessed with my XtraTufs, which I initially judged as those weird brown boots that everyone was wearing. Coming home from this assignment felt very different than coming home from the others. It became drastically highlighted how distracted we are by materialism. When we can get away from that, we can see how we are constantly being hit in the face with commercials and advertising.  We’re preoccupied by material things and it can be overwhelming. What people often get stuck on when I talk about Ketchikan is how it’s an island and how there is really “nothing” on it. It has really made me think about what those things are that they consider it lacking.  My few months in Ketchikan I felt so entirely full. When I break down what truly makes me happy, I realize that for me, Ketchikan was just void of all of the distractions. What it offered me in purity was beautiful nature, mountains, hiking, wildlife, incredible sunsets, places to explore, surprisingly fun night life, amazing food, and great people. No excess, no lavish lifestyles, no keeping up with the Jones’s. When many people are asked to describe Alaska, they say freedom. With the exception of not having my family there, Ketchikan felt like home because their priorities aligned with mine. With other distractions out of the picture, my soul was screaming out telling me I was happy. I think we need to truly look at what adds value to our lives. We are bombarded by other people, companies, advertisements, and society telling us what we need to have or what we need to spend our time doing. I’m finding that your soul inherently knows what it needs and it will tell you when you have found that. Alaska was the refreshment I didn’t even know I needed to find.

“Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction.” -Rumi

Hannah

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