One of the things that has struck me, as we cruise by in luxury, is just hard life is out here for the people who live in the small towns and remote areas of Alaska. Skagway is mainly a cruise ship town in the summer, with an influx of businesses that descend on the place for a few months to sell jewelry and cheap souvenirs to us tourists, but some 800 people live there year-round. Our tour guide was telling us about how the winter brings 15 feet of snow accumulation, winds that routinely reach 50 mph, temperatures that average between zero and 10 below—sometimes dropping to -30 with -100 windchills, and, what is even worse than that, darkness that lasts all day. The sun is over the horizon for about 28 minutes with only 4 hours of daylight. In Skagway barges come in once a week with supplies for the grocery stores and such, and the pickings can get pretty bare by the end of the week. (Forget about fresh vegetables.) Skagway was the model for the town in Northern Exposure. (Indeed, there is no doctor. There is a nursing station, but if you need a doctor you have to travel six hours on the ferry or fly out to Juneau.) But the people are still happy, right? Well, the rate for alcoholism and suicide is many times what it is in the lower 48 states.
I could appreciate living in a place like Anchorage (pop. 300,000), which has the diversions of civilizations and economic activity. But in the remote towns people make their living mainly by fishing (think The Most Dangerous Catch, which is about fishing in Alaska) or by doing other kinds of physical labor that is much more difficult due to the challenging conditions (think Ice Road Truckers, which is about driving a truck in Alaska).
But surely living out here must have its compensations. The Northern lights. The frontier spirit. None of our tour guides, after all, have been full-time residents, just followers of the tourist trade who go back to California when it gets cold. I’d like to hear from some real Alaskans! Please comment, telling us how things really are where you live. What are the joys that keep you there?
In the meantime, I salute the hardy souls who live through the Alaskan winters, the remnants of those pioneers and frontiersmen who made our country great. Most of us Americans have grown soft, unable to endure even the most minor hardships, so no wonder we are in decline. I honor you Alaskans, even as I myself am thinking, I don’t think I want to retire here.