I’m heading home from an eight-day, action-packed vacation in Alaska. Hiking, biking and sea-kayaking, I saw snow-capped mountains, the largest ice field in North America, a couple of glaciers, countless bays and rivers, abundant and beautiful wildflowers, salmon swimming upstream, bald eagles, seals, a sea otter, marmots, a porcupine and bears (three!) – all in one corner of the state, the Kenai Peninsula. But what really impressed me was the women.
There are surely more women who call themselves feminists on New York’s Upper West Side than there are in, say, Anchorage. But women in Alaska — at least the ones that we met – are plenty strong and self-reliant.
Of the 199 runners who completed the grueling Crow Pass marathon this past Saturday, twenty-eight were women. I hiked the first three or four miles of the course, which was rocky, steep, snow-covered in parts and criss crossed by several streams that were tricky to negotiate. (They say it gets easier after an icy, waist-deep river crossing.) Along the way, we met a couple of large, white-haired women who had to be well over 60. No, they weren’t runners, but they had come out to cheer the competitors and so had camped out amidst the bears in the mountains above the trail the night before, backpacking in for several miles with their tent, sleeping bags, gas stove, etc. I wish I’d asked them if they were carrying guns.
Our guide that day was a forty-something woman named Beth Branson. Beth grew up in Colorado, coached women’s basketball for a few years at Colorado College and then worked as a teacher in Colorado and Hawaii where she took her students on diving and camping trips. She and her husband, Perry, raised their three boys in Hawaii but decided about five years ago that they missed the mountains and wanted to see more of the world.
Since then, they’ve been renting a house during the summers in Girdwood, a touristy town outside Anchorage. During the rest of the year, they travel, following the sun to the southern hemisphere and living out of a tent. (They store everything else they own, mostly books, in their Chevy truck back in Girdwood.) They’ve seen lots of the backcountry of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and will head back to South Africa in a few months and then meet up with their sons in Thailand.
Needless to say, Beth is tough—she once completed a 111-mile, day-long bike ride over three mountain peaks in Colorado, known as the “triple bypass.” She is also a nature enthusiast, who is able to share her knowledge through her work as a guide with a small Alaska company called The Ascending Path. By being purposeful about her life, she has carved out an unconventional existence for herself that aligns her values, her passions and her work.
A few days earlier, Alison O’Hara, another forty-something transplant to Alaska, had led a group of us on a sea-kayaking expedition around a small island called Yukon Island in Kachemak Bay. It was a marvelous trip, despite chilly, cloudy, drizzly weather; that’s where we saw the sea otter, seals and eagles, as well as a slew of sea birds. Alison got a bunch of kayaking novices (including me) safely around the island, fed us lunch including hot tea, and shared her knowledge of the bay and its wildlife.
A native New Yorker, Alison came to Alaska more than 20 years ago and in 1992 started a business called True North Kayak Adventures in Homer. She’s got six employees, and seems to be doing very well, especially after winning favorable reviews in places like The New York Times and Frommer’s. She clearly loves being out on the water
Alison and her husband, who works as a brewer, along with their seven-year-old daughter and dogs, live in an eco-friendly house they have been building for about five years that’s a mile from the nearest road. The dogs are more than pets; they are sled dogs and the principal means of transportation from home into town during the winter when the path to their house is covered in snow. While the house is connected to the electricity grid and to phone lines, water is delivered by truck and they have yet to get around to installing indoor plumbing.
“That’s crazy,” exclaimed a dyed-in-the-wool feminist on our trip.
But is it? I’m all in favor of indoor plumbing, but temporarily giving up some comfort may be a price worth paying in order to live in a beautiful place and do work that you enjoy.
What’s crazier—living in the Alaska woods without plumbing or living in a distant suburb of Washington, New York or LA and spending a couple of hours every day commuting in rush-hour traffic to a joyless desk job? Millions of Americans spend their lives that way, and no one calls them crazy.