By Anne Vitabile, for The Philadelphia Inquirer
In Vienna, I waltzed to the music of Strauss. In Paris, I floated down the Seine in a barge. I trod the Appian Way in the footsteps of my ancestors. I stood in wonder a the magnificence of the Grand Canyon, but nothing moved me like the icy splendor of Alaska and her people.
The vacation began with a luxury cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage. During the cruise, I heard a lecture and saw a video by Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, who lived on a primitive home in Alaska near her 35 devoted dogs. Later, I saw a slide show and lecture by Michael Modzelewski, who lived alone on a remote Alaskan island through two devastatingly frigid winters, surviving on wildlife. The native people said he was crazy and would never survive. They stopped to pick up his bones in the spring. He fooled them and lived to write about his experiences in Alaska.
When we disembark from the ship in Anchorage for the trip to Denali National Park and Mount McKinley, I felt a lack of pioneer spirit — I need my hair dryer. But my husband was excited at the prospect ahead, so I pressed on.
The primitive beauty of Alaska is beyond imagination. On a bus tour, we peeked into the Ice Age, seeing caribou, wolves, moose and grizzly bears living in icy splendor. In Glacier Bay National Park, the majesty of 4,000-year old glaciers left us breathless and awestruck.
The native Alaskans we met, like our tour guides, cannot imagine living anywhere else. My curiosity was piqued. Why would a person choose to live where winters are nine months long, where the temperature drops to 60 degrees below zero and the nights are 20 hours long, where mountains of ice are treacherous and earthquakes occur? Or where one season brought 24 feet of rain, as it did in Ketchikan?
Alaskans are a hardy breed of rugged individualists. I admire their acceptance of the struggles to survive, the risks they take, and their sense of humor about it all.
“We don’t get depressed in the long winter night,” our tour guide said. “Now we get ‘seasonal affective disorder.’ ”
Their lack of materialism, their work ethic, their passion for the environment are values diluted in the Lower 48. There is a rawness, a mysterious, otherworldly presence that is both chilling and exciting, and, at the same time, a serenity, a spirituality that is unique.
In Alaska, I saw life in the raw. I saw the strife of European immigrants who came to a strange new world and made themselves, through hard work and grit, fit into a cruel environment. I saw them working and adapting themselves until it fit and became home.
Can we even begin to understand the struggles of those who brought us to this place, this time? When I think of Alaska, I will remember.