How does one start a story about packing up their life in sunny Florida and moving to… Alaska?! I could go into the sad details about why it was I decided to run as fast as I could to a place as far away as my legs (or plane) would take me, but I’ll save that novel for another night when I’ve had a glass or two of wine. Don’t bust out that pad and pencil just yet, though. I’ll go over a very long list of things to do, some great places to eat and drink, possibly some sad stories, and much more in later blog posts. This, friends, is just the beginning to my very long, yet very short Alaskan story.
Shall we start with the flight then?
I remember looking back as I walked through the security checkpoint. Totally cliche, I know. But I mention it not to que the slow music and slideshow of my life as a child, but instead because I remember feeling… well, nothing. I wasn’t sad (sorry mom, I swear I missed you) or scared at all. To be honest, I wasn’t really that excited either. I was just… alive. There was no school or job or groceries or oil changes or significant other (debatable) or anything that I had to do or be or want. I was just… breathing. In and out.
Fast forward many breaths and planes and ferry rides later to a 22 year old Florida girl in flip flops and Billabong jacket standing on a ferry dock with her mouth wide open staring up at the mountains around her. I had just been greeted with skeptical eyes by my first co-worker, who took my mouth-wide-open astonishment as an opportunity to pull the company van around. I grabbed my 1 suitcase (that’s right ladies, 1 suitcase) and climbed into the silver van to – start. over. At this point my life was moving in slow motion. The short ride took what seemed like an hour as the snow capped mountains and tiny Alaskan houses flashed by through the windows of the silver van. What does a Florida girl say to an Alaskan anyway? Your guess is as good as mine because if I indeed did say anything at all, I surely don’t remember it now. All I remember doing was staring at my Billabong “jacket” (let’s be real, a jacket in Florida isn’t really a jacket) and thinking… “I may be in over my head”.
The town of Skagway is all but about a mile long, and we lived on the other side of it than the ferry dock I arrived on. We pulled up to a rickety white house with two identical sides, one of which would be my home for the next few months. After dropping my bag off in a bedroom that contained 2 beds, a nightstand, and not much else, I walked with my new co-worker over to the other side of the duplex to find a group of people similar in age talking and laughing. As I walked past the window, I stopped in my tracks as a bearded man in worn jeans and a faded red shirt caught my eye. We’ll just keep it at that for now, because that ladies and gentlemen, is definitely a story for another day. I regained my composure and was crowded back into the silver van with my new roommates to have what would be my first (but definitely not last) Alaskan beer.
It took a few days for life to get back to normal for me, whatever normal is in Alaska. My first adventure was taking a tiny, old plane to meet my new boss in the neighboring town of Haines, Alaska. The flight to Haines takes about 30 minutes, a ferry ride about an hour, and driving a little over 8 hours (the route takes you up through Canada and back down). Immediately after getting off the plane we sat down and went over some of the duties I would be responsible for, of which included getting my Commercial Drivers License to help bus people between docks and also networking with the 8 cruise ships I was assigned. Back in Skagway, I spent most of my days and a good portion of the nights checking and responding to emails, speaking with Tour Excursion Managers, creating transfer schedules, and busing clients from dock to dock. The mile long stretch of road closest to the main cruise ship dock was called Broadway Street and it was packed with thousands of cruisers from about 7:30 in the morning all the way until about 8:30 at night. The first ship would arrive at the crack of dawn and then sometimes up to 7 or 8 more ships would trickle in during the day. I’d get up bright and early every day to meet the first tour on the docks and would return the last tourists to their ship just in time for it to pull up the gangway.
Once the last ship pulled out and started down the Lynn Fjord, the town came alive with music and debauchery. The sun never really set during the summer (it would be dusk only from about 11:00pm until 4:00am), so we’d spend our nights competing at the local softball field, hiking whatever trail we could find, sitting (okay, drinking) around a campfire, or enjoying one of the few bars in town. Trivia Nights were spent at the Red Onion Saloon, Karaoke nights at the Bonanza, Burger nights at the Skagway Brewing Company, Open Mic nights at the Gold Rush Brewery, and those realllllly drunken nights (which were quite often) at the Skagway Pizza Station. Then of course mornings were spent at Glacial Smoothies trying to get rid of the hangover from the night before. We’d stay out all night, sleep for a few hours, work all day, and do it all over again.
“We’d stay out all night, sleep for a few hours, work all day, and do it all over again.”
Drinking, working, rafting, and hiking consumed about 90% of my summers in Alaska. In addition to those, there were 2 celebrations that everyone in town looked forward to every summer. Summer Solstice was one of the largest events in town and was a celebration to honor the longest day of the year, generally in late June. Locals would get off work and spend the night at the softball field eating hot dogs and socializing or at Jewell Gardens for their annual Solstice party, and then head back to whichever bonfire sounded most promising. July 4th trailed just after the Summer Solstice and was a chance for both locals and the lucky cruise ships goers of the day to enjoy daytime festivities downtown. Activities lasted throughout the day, including the annual Independence Day parade and Ducky Derby. Hundreds of people would crowd the streets as cars and floats went down Broadway Street and once the parade was over they’d scurry over to see if their duck won the rubber duck race and $1,000 cash. Celebrating would continue on into the night and would conclude with a fireworks show over the docks and of course, more drinking and more dancing.
After several months of drinking, laughing, and sometimes loving, the hard part would come. It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to what seemed like a dream and move onto the next journey, whatever that may be. Most seasonal workers sought winter work at ski resorts in Colorado or Utah, and some would travel further to work at tropical locations like St. Thomas or Hawaii. The smart ones saved their money (what they didn’t spend on beer) and traveled the world for a few months, and a few tough souls would brave the winter months in Alaska, just to say they did. But no matter where the winter took us, we all had one thing in common. For a short time, we were Alaskans. Whether we loved it or we hated it, whether we were running away from or running to something, we could all check one thing off our bucket list that most people never would. And perhaps, if we were lucky, we would check it off again the next year.