Back to the Last Frontier

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In the summer of 1995, after studying for and taking the bar exam, I went to Alaska for just under a month with my friends Matt and Cory. We planned to tent-camp around the state – from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks to North Pole to Chicken to Dawson City (Yukon) to Wrangell-St. Elias, to Valdez to Seward to Homer and back to Anchorage. Just reading that itinerary takes me back and makes me tired at the same time.

Despite the plans to stay exclusively in the tent, we did vary our accommodations on occasion. At least two times friendly locals allowed us to sleep on their floors. Twice we arrived at our campsite to find it was raining too hard to set up our tent, so we slept in the already-overstuffed Chrysler Concorde that we’d rented. Finally, in Wrangell-St. Elias, we booked a small section of a heated trailer for a night because Matt had some sort of hellacious cough and we feared that if we stayed outside we’d have to build him a shallow grave in the semi-frozen tundra.

If I recall correctly, after using frequent flier miles to book our airline tickets, we each spent in the range of a thousand bucks for the month. That included food, beer, the rental car, gas for 3,000 miles of driving, campsite fees (when Cory couldn’t rouse us early enough to escape without paying), one speeding ticket, countless Pixee spoons, and a halibut charter. Not a bad bang for the buck, especially since I had so few bucks back then. For the last 10 days or so, we were low on cash and exclusively ate silver salmon we’d caught – putting the fillets in tinfoil and cooking them in a campfire (often with sauces pilfered from McDonald’s) and then digging in with our three plastic forks.

Shortly after arriving home, I started my first law firm job, and in the ensuing 24 years I haven’t been without a paycheck except for one three-week period between jobs in 2001. That’s good for the bank account, but in some ways bad for the soul. I often joke that my goal in life is to be the guy at the airport who can jump on the opportunity when they offer a voucher for a thousand bucks in air travel if you’re willing to get bumped and stay an extra day or two. My 50 hour a week job, plus the second gig as a writer, doesn’t really allow for that. In Alaska, though, that’s who we were. After Denali, we’d planned to stop in Fairbanks just long enough to do some laundry and pay for showers at the laundromat (soap and towels extra) but we met some friendly locals and ended up staying a few extra days.

Since then, I’ve often contemplated a return to Alaska, but I hadn’t made concrete plans to head back to see the midnight sun. Then an unbelievable trip essentially fell into my lap, a chance to go back and experience it in a way that regular Joe’s like me don’t normally enjoy. The planning has been fun, and I’m literally counting the minutes until I’m back in late July, but I don’t know what to expect. I’ll be visiting two of the areas I went to in 1995, but the lion’s share of the trip will be spent elsewhere — in a place that I expect to be even more spectacular and fishier than any place I visited the last time around.

As it gets closer, I plan to blog about some of those 1995 experiences, and after the fact I’ll likely blog about what went down in 2019. I’m certainly a more experienced traveler than I was back then, and possibly a bit harder to impress, but unless Alaska has changed completely I’m pretty sure that I’ll build another lifetime of memories. While I haven’t seen Cory or Matt in nearly a decade, I have no doubt that if we were to hang out tomorrow it would be like picking up from where we left off, largely because of all that we experienced together up there. This time I’m going with one of the world’s best anglers (although one with minimal experience on trout and salmon), and I expect that to open my eyes to all that the fisheries have to offer. I expect that it won’t be 24 more years between trips again.