I never had any strong desire to go north, but when I found an internship opportunity that gave career experience in renewable energy finance based out of Anchorage, I figured I’d have an adventure. I stumbled off the plane at midnight into what I knew as afternoon sun. By the time I got to my new home I was exhausted, but my body refused to let me sleep.
As I tried to unpack and get oriented, my host’s daughter came to my room and invited me downstairs to hang out for a bit. There I met the people who would eventually become close friends of mine: an artist, a future politician, a future Wall Streeter, an elite angler, an ex-national guard member, a bartender and a professional boxer. The house was microcosm of Alaska — different people from different backgrounds all coming together to share in experiences and goodwill.
With such a small population spread out over such a large area, community takes priority in America’s northernmost state. After all, who in their right mind would take on the last frontier alone? My new friends explained to me that, despite the constant sunlight, endless nights were not too far away. There was only one chance per year of enjoying the sun and we were going to make the most of it.
Most weeknights I would return from work around five and ride my longboard or fish for a couple hours. Once I returned, I would find my friends playing lawn games and grilling fresh salmon or halibut caught by someone a few days prior. People would be chatting about their days, their lives or just general nonsense.
What struck me most about these gatherings was the lack of individual claims to anything. The food and revelry was entirely communal. If someone had a successful fishing trip, we all did. If someone brought a bunch of caribou to grill, another would grab the zucchini, corn and beer to accompany it. When someone had a reason to celebrate, everyone shared in the occasion. It was more than just being happy for each other; it was being a part of each other.
As soon as everyone got out of work on Friday, we would load up our tents and (sometimes) a change of clothes, stop at Fred Meyers for food, and hit the road. Most of the time, we followed salmon to wherever they were supposed to be running, often along the Kenai. I was either the worst or unluckiest fisherman in Alaska. Nearly every trip I beat the water with my line and returned to camp empty handed, but satisfied. It was therapeutic in a way. The turquoise waters constantly pushing against my waders from the current, seagulls and bald eagles flying overhead or perched in the trees watching fish jumping up the river and me going through the routine: Cast, drag the hook along the bottom of the riverbed, rip up to try and set it, repeat. As my thoughts disappeared, what felt like a few hours turned out to be entire days. River time turned my existence into cast, drag, pull, repeat. For someone whose mind is constantly racing towards the next thing, this was a welcome change of pace. There was no next, just now. Cast, drag, pull, repeat.
I ate from the same blueberry bushes as grizzlies, trekked the same plains as wolves and climbed the same slopes as the sheep. I was swallowed there, away from any sort of societal expectation or pressure. Being in such vastness reminded me that we are part of a system much larger than ourselves, both natural and social. We are products of geographic boundaries, yes, but also the connections and relationships that forge our path through the landscape.
Remembering that is the beauty of Alaska.
Peter Gerson is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .