Alaska Revisited (at last)

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After allowing a gap of 24 years to pass between my first visit to Alaska and my subsequent return, the most compelling lesson that I’ve learned is that it’s really dumb to wait even close to that long.

It’s hard to generalize about a state that’s over twice as big as Texas, and of which I’ve seen only a minute sliver, but I feel comfortable saying that the best thing about Alaska is not its scenery or fisheries or incredible unspoiled wilderness, but rather her people. They are rightfully proud of what they’ve built and what they’ve preserved, and no one is there by accident. Either they were born and raised in the outdoor mecca and can’t imagine ever departing, or else they came from somewhere else, but upon discovering what was on offer they made a commitment to stay.

In many respects it’s not an easy place to live – the short-daylight winters can be brutal, and the cost of living is high – but for those drawn to it, the benefits outweigh those downsides. For occasional visitors like me, we can only hope to bask in their reflected happiness and pride. That’s why in addition to encouraging you to make the trek, I also suggest that you do it in a specific way. Rather than venturing onto a cruise ship, or traversing the state via a bus tour, find a way to get up close and personal with the people who live there.

Keith Combs and I just returned from Bear Trail Lodge in the Bristol Bay region. I’m sure both of us will be describing that epic adventure in more detail in the weeks to come. Right now, though, my memories are filled with the words of lodge operator Nanci Morris Lyon, who unlike many outfitters is not an absentee owner, but rather a full time resident of the region. She has guided there for three decades and raised her daughter in the remote environment. She also founded the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy, from which several of her locally-raised guides, including Kvichak Aspelund and Reuben Hastings, graduated. Rather than extracting from the region, Nanci recognized its many resources – both natural and human – and found a way to build upon them. During our day in the boat with Reuben, his love for his home region and attachment to it was most evident, even if not stated explicitly.

So to all of you who’ve rejected my suggestion that you go to Mexico or Brazil or some other fishing destination on the grounds that you don’t want to go abroad, you can’t use that excuse this time. I know that I will be headed back to Alaska again sooner rather than later, to chase fish, take pictures, and most of all to learn about it through the eyes of those who are most tightly woven into the state’s fabric.