With the recent announcement of Sarah Palin to be John McCain's running mate, Alaska is in the news. Since my family and I recently returned from a vacation in Alaska, we are following the story with even a bit more interest in this most interesting election cycle. Last night as we were sharing our Alaska stories with some friends, somebody said, "At least half of what makes visiting Alaska so interesting is the people." And we all heartily agreed.
Amidst all the big animals, big mountains, big fish to catch and big vistas, there were a number of seemingly larger than life characters whom we met and who treated us with big, open-armed hospitality. Most of those we met were long-term transplants. They lived in Alaska because they chose to live there, loved it, and were unafraid to share the secrets of this big wild place.
Maybe it's because they know that practically none of us visiting would ever make it through an Alaskan winter, but unlike so many other places I have visited, Alaskans seem to have little resentment or irritation at the adventurers and travelers who are passing through.
Indeed, I experienced exactly the opposite. Our two hosts, Laura at Alaska Heavenly Lodge on the Kenai Peninsula, and Jon and Karen at Earthsong Lodge by Denali National Park, were perfect guides and mentors for being introduced to Alaska.
Laura and her beautiful dog, Greta greeted us each morning. Laura took my friend Charlie and me on an early morning hike and filled us in on all kinds of tips and tricks to making our visit the best it could be. An experienced outdoors-woman and world traveler, Laura was a repository of experience generously shared. She sent us on a great hike to Crescent Lake, shared with us her favorite fishing site on the lake (where we caught and released a dozen grayling), taught me about fishing for big trout with "beads" (again, with GREAT success) and tipped us off to one amazing hike and fishing spot after another. It was generous--and most necessary--hospitality. As we have told one story after another about Alaska, Laura has taken a starring role.
When we left the Kenai Peninsula to travel to Denali, we grieved leaving behind the comfortable lodge and Laura's Alaskan "mentoring". But then we arrived at Earthsong Lodge and met Jon and Karen Nierenberg. Jon is a dog musher, homesteader and former park ranger who has literally "written the book" on hiking in Denali National Park.
Two different mornings, Jon took us into his "kennel" and introduced us to his sled dogs. Jon sent Brooks and me on a great hike to the top of a peak and ridge that was breathtaking, and one evening he showed beautiful photographs of his 25 years of guiding and mushing in the Alaskan Wilderness.
Perhaps most touching was when Jon shared about marrying Karen and how she and her three teenagers all moved to Alaska from Ohio into Jon's homesteaded cabin without electricity, running water or indoor plumbings. Sitting there with our brood of teenagers and pre-teens we couldn't imagine how this was even possible. A 12, 14 and 16 year old moving to Alaska and learning how to walk two miles across the tundra to catch the bus to school? No electricity? No cell phones? Only a wood stove for heat?
When we asked Jon how they did it he said, "If you have someone to show you a few tricks, you can adapt to anything."
That line has stayed with me these past weeks. And I want to spend a bit more time in the next couple of posts reflecting on what it takes to be this kind of "adaptive" leader and "adaptive" learner. But today, I'll close with another word of gratitude for our Alaskan hosts and mentors. And encourage anybody who wants to visit Alaska to take the time to meet and learn from such interesting, engaging people.