Recently my coworker, Sarah, posted on Twitter that “Alaska journalism is not being able to eat the dinner you left in your car in between city council meetings because there is a moose blocking the door.”
My response was, “There are so many squares to fill out on the Alaska journalist bingo card. This is like the center.”
For someone who’s lived here only nine months, I’m impressed that Sarah punched that one so soon.
That got me to thinking. While Alaska journalists do tend to have adventures and meet a lot of interesting people, most anyone who has lived in Alaska long enough will have weird and crazy experiences. What would be the squares on the Alaska Adventure Bingo Card?
Here’s my list, starting with “encounters with wild animals.”
Most everyone has stamped “couldn’t get to work because a moose blocked the path,” but there can be variations. Charged by a moose? Check. Getting charged by your dog who’s being chased by a moose? What about slowing or stopping for a moose walking across or on the road?
You get points if you had to take dramatic evasive action, like one winter evening when I rounded that curve in the Sterling Highway right before Ninilchik and a cow moose sauntered across in front of me. I had no time to stop (because ice) and so I made a split-second decision to swerve into the oncoming lane. It would not have ended well for me and Little Red, my wife’s old Subaru, if the moose had stopped or a truck had come around the corner. Neither happened. The moose kept going, I drove around it and all ended well. Alaska lesson No. 3,678: moose always have the right of way.
If things go bad with moose and you live, you can fill in the box that says “getting trampled by a moose while hiking, skiing, snowmaching or running a sled dog team.” One time my friends Janet and Dan had that happen when they trained a puppy team on the Tozier Track in Anchorage. The moose came right at the dogs, with Janet sitting in the basket and Dan on the runners. Make that “almost trampled.” The moose walked right over the team, feet landing over but not on the dogs, and then it walked by the sled, Janet and Dan. Whew.
Moose are not the only big wild Alaska mammal we encounter. The others would be bears. Alaskans tell bear stories like some people talk about the men and women they have wooed: They came close and maybe got hurt. Fill in a square if you’ve ever seen a black or brown bear and take a bonus if you’ve seen a polar bear outside of a zoo. Take a bonus square if you’ve been charged by a bear, gotten treed by a bear, pepper sprayed a bear or banged a pan to chase away a bear and it worked.
Let us not forget other wild animals on land and sea. Fill in a square if you’ve seen a wolf, coyote, wolverine, porcupine, lynx or caribou. Take a bonus if you saw a caribou coming up the hill while you squatted over a slit trench doing your business while on a remote archaeological dig in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and at first you thought it was a grizzly bear. I might have had that experience.
On sea, people pay good money to see humpback whales, orcas, otters, seals and porpoises. If you sailed with a grizzled old Alaska geologist and a pod of porpoises swam in the wake of the bow of Capt. Bill’s boat, count yourself blessed. Some of us have seen marine mammals washed up and rotting, like the Semester by the Bay students at Kachemak Bay Campus who one fall learned a lot when surveying the dozens of otters that died on Kachemak Bay beaches. Take a bonus square if you helped carve up a sperm whale or gray whale to collect the bones for the Pratt Museum & Park, as my wife did one summer. She burned her rain gear afterward.
Some wildlife sightings can be magical, like watching the dance of 10,000 Western sandpipers swirling over Mud Bay. I still remember the kayak trip I took out to Gull Island where a flock of murres came toward me. Murres fly low to the surface, creating a ground effect, and they flew around me as if I was a log in a salmon stream.
Many of us have seen bald eagles sitting on a driftwood log as we walked by on the beach, the eagle firm and unmoving, only its head and eyes following you. But I have been harassed by jaegers near Utqiagvik. Once on the beach of Peard Bay, a fox came to me for refuge as a jaeger chased it.
Alaska adventures involve doing things as well as encountering things. Not everything in this state should be passive, for the whole point of living here is to seize the day. Stamp a square if you’ve run a sled dog team (bonus if you made the sled and raised the dogs yourself), if you’ve learned to cross country or downhill ski, and if you’ve learned to skate on a newly frozen pond. If you’ve skated through pond rushes and looked down to see a muskrat swimming below, oh my, and wow.
Riding a lift up a mountain to ski down it can be glorious, but take a bonus if you climbed up the mountain on skis with skins and then swooshed down. If you took a boat across the bay in spring to Grace Ridge, climbed and skied all day, and then basked in a hot tub on the way back, dude, you’re an Alaskan a hundred-fold.
Have you run a skiff, crewed on a commercial fishing or charter boat, or paddled a canoe or kayak? You can add “mariner” to your bingo card. If you rolled your kayak and popped right back up, I am in awe. The time I did I went in the water. The bonus there was having good friends to rescue me and surviving. Triple bonus: Personal flotation devices really work, and even in 50-degree water, you do not die instantly, though it feels like it.
We haven’t even gotten into other Alaska experiences, like chopping wood and carrying water, using an outhouse at 20 below (thank you blue foam seats), digging an outhouse hole and building your own cabin. The Alaska world can be your oyster if you work hard enough — oh, and don’t forget eating a fresh Kachemak Bay oyster right out of the bay.
In his novel, “Gateway,” Frederik Pohl wrote, “Anyway, that’s what life is, just one learning experience after another, and when you’re through with all the learning experiences you graduate, and what you get for a diploma is, you die.”
Whether new or seasoned on Alaska, we have a darn huge bingo card we can fill out. Start playing.
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.