Alaska: A Letter of Recommendation

bear152

The height of summer can be so blissful, carefree, and unhurried. But here in Teton County, it is full-blown tourist-crazed, crowded, uncomfortably hot and the wildlife is hiding. I always seem to forget about Angry August until it arrives. It’s time like these that my mind remembers the sweeter, calmer places I’ve spent summers in. It makes me think of other places I’d rather be in.

Like Alaska. I wrote my old boss and dear friend a “letter of recommendation” for Alaska for the girl he really wanted to move there. I think she was a little put-off and confused by my letter, more specifically, why I wrote it. But she did move there. This letter is part memory-keeper, part inspiration for you to high-tail in up to Alaska in the middle of summer one year. It’s absolutely blissful, carefree and unhurried.

12039192_472929036211552_389748124190202596_n


Hi [________],

This letter is in reference to your fence-sitting about whether or not you should to head to Alaska this summer. I understand more than putting your career on hold and uprooting your current life are on the line, but I assure you, you won’t be thinking about either of those things by the season’s end.

You’ll be thinking about how much you miss the northern lights, your friends and coworkers who became family, the streams filled with more salmon than water, all the bears, and how green everything is. You’ll even miss seeing lichen on trees and the sun waking you up at 4:30 am. You’ll also wonder when you’ll see 40 eagles at once again.

I know, because that’s what I missed. Even now, living in Jackson Hole, I still think the trees here look puny, the rivers void of life and the bears are nowhere near close enough. Despite being 680 miles north of Seattle, well into rainforest territory, the sun still shines in Ketchikan. If you have any concerns about the 160-inch annual rainfall, rest assured, it is not that bad — in the summer. I thought I was saying goodbye to sun for 6 months as my ferry left Washington, but it didn’t rain for a month and a half after I arrived. In fact, one of my most developed Chaco tans happened right under the Southeast Alaskan sun.

I also met some of my favorite people during my summer in the Tongass (which, by the way, is one of the last remaining intact coastal rainforests left on earth- who could turn that down?) You’ll meet really strange people who spend too much time alone, drunks and comics and probably hitchhike with all of them. Other and better notables include Clint, Skyler and Tay-Tay, who you will be acquainted with shortly. You’ll also meet people taking a break before med school, a real job or adult life in general. You’ll work with crazy men who always underestimate how far or how long a hike or paddle will take and only bring flour and water to make a tasteless dough concoction to fuel you through the escapades. You’ll work with dirtbags, musicians and incredibly talented artists. There will, of course, be those who always seem to be in between shitshows, but for the most part, intentions are pure and you will fall in love with the absurdity and miracles of daily life there.

 

IMG_1572

It’s a small town on a small island, but it offers something for everyone. If you’re into food, the foraging and fishing is top-notch. As are the Fish House tacos. If you like boats, there are skiffs and canoes to rent, sailboat races, and paddleboards courtesy of Rhet. If you don’t like boats, you and Rhet will have that in common. But if you do, a whole other world is opened for you there. And maybe you can even persuade Rhet to get in one. If you like music, there’s a piano at the bar down the road, open mic nights and a surprisingly concentrated population of talented musicians. And if you like exploring, a sea plane can take you anywhere.

The town of Ketchikan is nothing to gawk at (and thankfully there’s no need to spend much time there), but it’s the people and experiences that will get you. I’ve worked in ALOT of places, but the one that people always ask me questions about is Alaska. Some like to call it the Alaska card. “Oh wow, A-LAS-ka! A-LAS-ka! What was it like?” And you’ll say “Amazing,” because it is, and beyond that, it’s difficult to convey how unique and inspiring it is until you’ve been there, and so many people don’t carve the time out to do it. But you don’t want to be one of those people.

Not like the good times will stop rolling once you leave Ketchikan, Rhet will provide you with plenty of adventures no matter where you go. Speaking of, let’s talk about Rhet. Rhet is, hands down, the best boss I’ve ever had. When an idiot zipline guide hand-fed a juvenile bear, Rhet got me to laugh about the situation through my seething fury. He even watched as I decorated the guide’s car with “DO NOT FEED THE BEARS” signs and stickers. He can fill you in on the little episode upon your arrival. Then there was one of my very first tours, back when I took the job way too seriously and thought the rest of the world signing up for these tours cared as much about bears as I did. It was a group of Indonesians who didn’t speak a lick of English. They snacked down the whole bear-infested trail and at the end, one woman asked about the bathroom through charades (sometimes that’s all your tour is), and when I lifted the rope up to show her where to go, the entire group left me, and Rhet witnessed it all, laughing his ass off at my inability to be assertive in Indonesian. The more tours I did, the more I believed in Rhet’s mantra/solution to everything to maintain sanity: Fuck ’em. Of course, deep down, he actually has a huge heart and cares an awful lot. (Don’t tell anyone).

IMG_0850

Rhet will never fail to make you or anyone else laugh about anything. Sometimes, the fun is all pointed toward you, but he means it in a loving way. He’s really good at remembering these things too (i.e. he’s good at listening). There was this kid who worked as a rover at the store who told me I was going straight to hell for not going to church, ever. Rhet liked to remind me the rest of the season that I had nothing to worry about, because my fate was settled already. He even got me to laugh after witnessing a cub getting mauled. He has a knack for raising your spirits, a solution for everything and the most adorable, loving dog to get you through any lows over the season. And who really cares what the weather is like with a joy bomb like Tuff around? Rhet, Clint and Skyler aren’t half-bad to hang around with either.
Alaska feels like the greatest show on earth. No element from the cycle of life is missing. Just watching humpbacks and how much moves in their presence is a gift. And you have it all to yourself. Where else do you have that? How many places will still be that intact and untouched 10, 20 years down the line? How many places still have all their pieces? The whole place feels like poetry.
IMG_0925

Look, worst case scenario, you go back to the Paul Revere statues with a boatload of good stories. You hone in on your acting skills while on tour, hike/bike/paddle all over the island, pick up the Oboe with Clint, forage delicious berries to go with your fresh-caught salmon, spend so much time watching bears that you forget you aren’t one of them, camp under the protection of old-growth giants, and hammock the afternoon away before playing music or games at night with your new best friends.

At least, that’s what I did.

That’s the worst case. You don’t even need to worry about the abundance of bears trying to eat you. Imagine the best case.

Let’s review, shall we? Reasons to go to Ketchikan (in whatever order you prefer):

1. Clint

2. Tuff

3. Salmon

4. Bears

5. Rhet
6. Long summer days
7. Northern lights
8. Whales
9. Eagles (or birds, if you like birding)
10. The A-LAS-ka card

 Whatever you decide to go for, know that the going is worth it, if only to know life at its fullest.

 

I look forward to hearing about your first few weeks in Alaska.

Sincerely,
Shelby Huff, Former Bear Guide
And if none of this sounds like a neat thing to try, here is a visual.
IMG_1606