You don't have to love the outdoors to live in Alaska, but it helps
ANCHORAGE, Alaska —If you’re assigned to Alaska, it’s probably good to love the outdoors, because there’s plenty of it to go around.
America’s largest state, with the lowest population density, is a place of striking contrasts, where the sun barely comes up in winter and barely goes down in the summer, where mountains and glaciers create scenic masterpieces that can quickly turn deadly, where tourists flock to hike in Denali National Park when the weather is good and flee south when things turn cold.
For servicemembers, it’s a place to embrace hunting, fishing, skiing and snowmobiling, or to simply survive the brutal winters, when cabin fever can drive people to alcoholism and drug abuse.
Even though a winter road trip can mean packing a wide array of survival gear — the military encourages personnel heading into the wild to sign out emergency locator beacons — Alaska gets into the blood of many. More than 76,000 veterans — more than a tenth of the population — call it home, eschewing the warmer climates of Florida, Texas, California and Hawaii.
Fairbanks, known as America’s coldest city, is home to a brigade of soldiers 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle. In winter, which typically runs from September to May, average low temperatures range from 15 below zero to 25 below zero but can get as low as 75 below zero. Parking spots have electrical outlets that cars and trucks plug into to keep their engines from freezing.
In Anchorage, where the weather is milder than in most of the state, there are tall buildings, bars, cafes and government offices that you’d find in any large city.
There’s also crime; police launched a crackdown in February prompted by 11 shootings and four suspected homicides related to the drug trade. It’s yet to be seen what impact Alaskans’ recent decision to legalize marijuana use will have.
The social problems don’t appear to have much impact on tourism. Visitors don’t have to search long to find carved bone ornaments in the shape of polar bears or hand-sewn moccasins in gift shops and gas stations.
In fact, it’s hard to escape that this is a dream for hunters, who can fill their fridges with all the moose meat they can eat. Walk through the arrival gate at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, and you’re greeted by an impressive collection of stuffed bears.
Hunting trophies are ubiquitous in a land teeming with big game. There seems to be a set of antlers in every office on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and another pack of fierce-looking stuffed bears threatens to feast on diners at the Base Exchange food court. Inside the store there’s an arsenal of rifles, shotguns, fishing rods and 1,000 other pieces of essential outdoors gear on sale.
“If it’s in an REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) catalog, it’s going on here,” said Alaska Air National Guard Maj. Keenan Zerke, 39, an Anchorage native who takes full advantage of the lifestyle afforded by his home state when he’s not coordinating military search-and-rescue efforts out of Elmendorf.
Zerke sleeps under the skin of a buffalo that he shot a few years back after riding 250 miles to track it on a snow machine — the Alaskan name for a snowmobile.
“I throw it down in front of the fire when I have a friend over,” he said of his buffalo skin. “It kind of sets the mood.”
It took two seasons to eat all the meat harvested from the great beast.
“All the meat is organic, natural with no preservatives, and groceries are expensive here,” he said of Alaskan game.
Most soldiers and airmen who arrive in Alaska are keen to try their hands at sports such as skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, mountaineering, hunting and fishing, Zerke said.
“You only get a limited time to be here if you are on active duty, so take advantage of it,” he said.
In a land where there’s so much to do, it pays to invest in the right gear.
“Everything here is further, more demanding, more expensive,” Zerke said. “You can’t just get into these sports for free. If you want to go hunting, for example, you need a rifle, a four-wheel-drive, a pack and more.”
The latest extreme sport involves riding fat-wheel mountain bikes, which perform well on snow and retail for more than $2,500. The Susitna 100 involves racers biking, skiing or running over a 100-mile marked winter course.
Another popular new sport here is pack-rafting, which involves hiking into the wilderness with inflatable rafts in backpacks, then inflating them and riding down rivers, Zerke said.
“A quarter of the pilots in my squadron own their own planes,” he said. “All of us are into boats and snow machines. It’s a very active group of people we have here.”
Not everyone enjoys the outdoors.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michelle Gillett, 34, of Florida, has been stationed at Elmendorf for four years and has yet to be drawn into the hunting and fishing lifestyle.
"I'm not really an outdoors person," she said, adding that her family is keen on backyard summer barbecues.
But overall, the obsession with the outdoors translates well to a military environment.
In January, when an ice climber fell 1,200 feet, his partner called for help but didn’t know his coordinates, just the name of the mountain, Zerke said.
“The (military) rescue guy had climbed the same piece of rock and knew where to go,” he said.
The search-and-rescue crews have had some memorable missions.
During a Yukon Quest race, a blizzard snowed in several teams of sled dogs that were rescued by the military. One pilot packed 26 dogs into his helicopter.
Capt. John Romspert, 40, a guardsman from Anchorage, rescued a trapped musher with his dogs after the man’s sled broke down in a deadly storm with a wind chill of 73 below zero — temperatures of 27 below zero with 30-knot winds.
After the rescuers located the musher, who was curled up in a sleeping bag, they started loading his dogs into the helicopter, Romspert said.
“I grabbed two dogs, but these guys are directional,” he said. “I had the left dog on the right and he wanted to be on the other side and kept pulling me over. The dogs were paranoid about getting into the helicopter, but once they were in there, they didn’t want to get out.”
Running into trouble in the great outdoors or even on the drive to work is something that Alaskans prepare for. Drivers carry emergency kits with spare boots, sleeping bags, food and water in case they get stranded by a breakdown or bad weather.
A trip away from the road is even more dangerous. Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild” tells the story of adventurer Christopher McCandless, who died in the Alaskan bush after becoming trapped and running out of supplies on the wrong side of a snow-fed river.
Anchorage businessman Justin Green, a native and keen outdoorsman, said he typically takes a large canvas tent with a stove when he goes hunting.
“You have to figure out a way to get warm and dry because moose hunting season is late September, which is a cold time of year,” he said.
Green carries a first-aid kit and a .44 caliber revolver for bear protection on trips into the bush. He also has his own emergency locator and satellite phone that he keeps in a waterproof box.
“If the boat sinks or the truck goes into a river, I tell people to make sure they take the yellow box because that is what is going to get us home and save our lives,” he said. “There’s no walking back so you are stuck until somebody comes to get you.”
The summer threat is mosquitoes. Repellent and nets are essential for trips into the woods, Green said. Bears that have been hibernating for the winter are out looking to stuff themselves before heading back to their caves again.
Servicemembers interact with native Alaskans when they fly missions to far-flung villages that are accessible only by air, ship or snowmobile. At Christmastime, the military flies school supplies and presents to children in some of the state’s most isolated communities, which gives the crew a chance to experience indigenous culture and food.
“The only way to get to the real Alaska is by air,” said G Chief Warrant Officer Pamela Vitt, 47, an Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk pilot.
“We have the biggest training areas here,” she said. “When you go anywhere else, it seems like you are training on a postage stamp.”
Vitt is a keen hiker who conquered Pioneer Peak, near her home in Wasilla, after a six-hour trek.
“It’s the tallest point in the area,” she said. “I can drive by and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been up there.’ ”
Army National Guard Maj. Todd Miller, 25, of Watertown, S.D., said soldiers from his unit — 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, known as the “Arctic Cowboys” — have helicopters stationed all over Alaska that help with search and rescue.
The soldiers recently flew a mission to Little Diomede — one of the Alaskan islands closest to Russia in the Bering Strait — to ferry a pregnant woman with labor complications to a hospital in Nome.
It’s also common for the soldiers to rescue people who run into trouble traveling between isolated villages, Miller said.
“Between many of the towns there are no roads, and people move on snow machines along the rivers,” he said. “When people get lost traveling, they call for help.”
Helicopter crews marvel at the spectacular scenery, but it pays to stay alert to the dangers posed by the wilderness.
“It doesn’t take long to get away from support,” Miller said. “If you are on the other side of the (Cook) inlet and weather pushes you down — it’s not like in the lower 48 where there are roads and people can pick you up.”
“Alaska is just huge,” said another guardsman, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mike Edwards, 39, of Chugiak, Alaska. “Until you see it in all the different environments — the different types of terrain — it is hard to get a grip on how huge it is.”
While the mountain scenery is spectacular, there are parts of Alaska that look like a desolate wasteland with miles of flat, white nothingness. Edwards compared it to his time flying over the desert in Iraq.
Many of the veterans living in Alaska stay on or come back after an assignment to Fairbanks or Anchorage, while others head north after hearing about the lifestyle from their buddies. Locals tend to be right-of-center when it comes to politics and are apt to thank soldiers in uniform for their service. In a land where there’s immense freedom to roam, responsibility can be a matter of life and death.
Asked about the state’s relationship to the rest of the country, Edwards said, “We identify ourselves as Alaskans and we feel a little separate from the lower 48.”