Part of the fun with going to Alaska was meeting the “locals”– those hearty souls who live in the last frontier year round. I was curious to find out firsthand what brought them there and what it was really like to live in those very unique, Alaska small towns.
Our first stop on the cruise was to Ketchikan, the “Salmon Capital” of the world which also happens to be the southernmost city in Alaska. A town of 8,000 people, it is the fifth largest city and depends heavily on fishing and tourism.
Our visit was short; only six hours to explore. We ended up discovering this quaint town via duck tour and walking. The first shop we ventured in to was Yukon Heath’s Popcorn Emporium which had some of the best caramel corn we have ever tasted. While I was waiting for my fresh popcorn to be bagged, I struck up a conversation with two of the employees, Jake and Megan, teenage residents of Ketchikan. Being on a school board, I wanted to hear firsthand what it was like going to high school in their small town. Ketchikan High School has 400 students in grades 9th -12th. The 2013 graduating class (of which Jake was a member) had a grand total of 70 graduates!! Both Jake and Megan participated on their school sports teams. Traveling to play opposing teams was long and arduous. I asked them what were the ups and downs of living in their small town. They said the good part was living by the water and being able to go fishing. They liked it when the cruise ships came in because it provided all kinds of jobs for the locals. The bad part of living in their small town? The cruise ships because they cause a lot of traffic for the otherwise quiet town. They also said the rain and constant overcast conditions tends to get to them. It rains 154 inches a year in Ketchikan!!! What happens after they graduate? While they have enjoyed growing up in a small town, they are anxious to leave it for the closest big city–Seattle– to pursue college and bigger opportunities.
It was raining when we landed in Juneau, the capitol with 32,000 residents and the second largest city in Alaska. Juneau only gets 91 inches of rain a year. We didn’t mind at all experiencing the weather (all part of the Alaska adventure) although we did have to change our original site seeing plans.
Seeking some indoor activities, we ended up taking the Mt. Roberts Tram up the steep hillside to the local museum. A musical extravaganza, Southeast Alaska Odyssey, just happened to be playing when we got there. This show combined string instruments, dancing, photography, costumes, and stories all depicting the history and culture of the area. A local family, the Zahasky’s, were the performers and shared what their lifestyle was like. While the parents grew up in Iowa, they brought their children to Alaska to pursue a simpler life. They have all embraced their adopted home as a place to cultivate and share their talents.
No small town visit to Alaska is complete without visiting Talkeetna. With a population of 876 people, and a mayor who is a cat named Stubbs, it was the town the television show, Northern Exposure, was patterned after.
Talkeetna still pretty much resembles its pioneer heritage as a haven for miners, trappers, railroad builders and climbers. We met Isabelle and her 10 year old daughter Jennifer, on the path leading to the river.
They had a tent set up, selling homemade cinnamon almonds and pastries to raise money for a trip to Puerto Rico to visit Isabelle’s family. “Following the promptings from the Lord,” they moved here three years ago from North Carolina and still have a hard time with the long winters because everything basically shuts down. That is why Isabelle home schools Jennifer and her three brothers: so they don’t have to go outside during winter.
What I learned from these and other locals I met were that they all enjoyed the challenge of living in a harsh environment and are proud to call Alaska their home. While I appreciated the beauty and slower pace of Alaska, I don’t think I could live there year round. I need a few more necessities and a lot more sunshine. What about you? Could you do it?