Alaska – The Last Frontier

When we planned to spend July in Alaska, we had some idea of the things we’d see. We expected lots of wildlife, from bears and elk to moose and eagles. We expected mountains, forests, and glaciers. We expected millions of acres of untampered wilderness, much of which isn’t accessible by car. On all of those fronts, we got exactly what we expected.

Several things that we found in Alaska were unexpected though. After just a week of our 3.5 week stay in Alaska, we knew that Alaska truly is The Last Frontier.

Running Water & Outhouses

First of all, we didn’t expect to have to use outhouses as a normal part of life. Given that we’re from the very developed land east of the Mississippi River and that it’s the year 2012, we had no idea that everybody in the US might not have running water.

It’s actually quite a common thing up there. Neither of our CouchSurfing hosts in Fairbanks or our host in Homer had running water, and 2 of the 3 had outhouses (the other had installed a holding tank and composting toilet). The Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik had an outhouse. We saw numerous outhouses on our drive out to Chena Hot Springs outside of Fairbanks.

The good news about Alaskan outhouses is that they don’t stink. Since the temperatures in July were only in the 60s (when we were lucky), the doo doesn’t fester in the heat. In fact, the worst part of the outhouses were that it could be a tad chilly for that early morning visit.

In one of those “only in Alaska” moments, Scott was outside in broad daylight (at 11:30pm) using an excavator (mostly watching, though) to dig a new outhouse hole since the first hole had collapsed before our arrival.

Of course, once the permafrost situation was explained to us, it all made sense. It’s very expensive or impossible to run water pipes through the permafrost, which Fairbanks sits right on top of. Therefore, a house either installs a cistern and hauls water from a city water dispensing station (like a gas station, but for water) or they go without running water, using an outhouse, taking showers at area businesses that provide hot showers for a fee, and hauling water in 5-gallon jugs.

We were even educated on proper etiquette for males. In a house without a city water connection, even in the Fairbanks house that had running water from a holding tank inside, it’s considered polite for males to just go #1 on the bushes.

Mosquitoes

If the lack of running water was a big, but not unpleasant, surprise, the mosquitoes were a big and very, very unpleasant surprise. And these aren’t your run of the mill mosquitoes like us southeasterners are used to. These things are freaking HUGE and don’t wait until nighttime to attack you in swarms.

Alaskans actually joke that the state bird is the mosquito. These things are big enough that the scientific name for them should be Pterodactylus mosquitini. It’s nothing to see a mosquito that’s a half-inch or bigger.

In certain areas, particularly in the boggy areas of Fairbanks where the permafrost starts to melt in the warmer months, being outside for just a couple of minutes results in new itchy spots. Long sleeves and pants, plus a state of constant vigilance, are required to keep from getting bit.

All of this was rather surprising. We expected the the harsh cold winter, particularly in Fairbanks, would kill off the entire species. Instead, in response to tough evolutionary pressures, mosquitoes developed into a super-creature, able to lay dormant during the cold and emerge stronger and hungrier in the summer months.

When the dogs came in from outside, we had to quickly wipe them down to make sure they didn’t bring in a handful of stowaways. If you have a small dog, be careful…a couple of mosquitoes might just pick up Muffin and carry her off.

Before heading to Alaska, be prepared…you will get bitten by mosquitoes.

City Kids Are Soft

We like to think we’re semi-rough and rugged. We’ve spent the last 10 months living in a truck. We camp and hike and generally get dirty without much concern. A couple days without a shower isn’t really a big deal anymore.

And then we met our first Alaskans. Our first Fairbanks hosts told us about going cross-country skiing when it was -50 degrees. Yes, negative 50 degrees. We think we’re really roughing it when we’re camping in temperatures below 40 degrees. At -50, we’d probably just sit inside, curled into a ball, crying.

A lot of the Alaskans we met are in another class of rugged and bad-a$$. They hunt and fish a good bit of their own protein. They do without running water. They manage to stay alive and active when the temperatures are somewhere near absolute zero (give or take a few degrees).

And to think that those of us from the city huff and puff if websites load too slowly or there’s a small traffic jam.

Seeing New Worlds

A lot of long-term travelers go overseas, typically to Asia where costs are much cheaper. Given how much it’s cost us to drive around the country, it’s hard to argue with that. We definitely want to go see quite a few other countries and cultures, too.

But if adventure and culture is what you’re looking for, you can still find plenty of it in the US. The time we spent in areas like Montana and New Mexico exposed us to people that live life differently than we’d have expected. Each area of the country has its own distinct culture and we’ve realized that the people we know and the ways we’ve lived our lives make up about 0.01% of the ways people go about their lives.

If we just read some books and watched a documentary (or maybe any of the current crop of reality TV shows depicting “life” in Alaska), we’d have thought we knew something about the place. Other than the natural wonders, we had no idea what life in Alaska is like. After 3.5 weeks of summertime in Alaska, we still only have an inkling of real life there, but we’ve learned that no amount of reading or watching can compare with a little time spent exploring.