You’ve found your way to post #6 of my series of articles on the Urban Alaskan, written for my non-Alaska friends, where I talk about how my day to day experience is exactly like yours, mostly, except for the moose and timezone. If you’re interested in catching up, you can go here.
When I was college, I spent my first two summers working at a small tour company out of Seward (note: It’s not not pronounced See-ward, it’s pronounced Sewer-d.), called Kenai (Keen-eye) Fjords (If you pronounce it with a j sound, I’ll smack you, seriously) Tours, or KFT. What was most interesting about the job was not the free any time you had time tours or four free passes you could give to family and friends, it was the absolutely ridiculous questions we got. To start, I was in data entry, which meant I rarely took phone reservations, but the second year, that was my job. Answer phones and get customers all set up on the tours to include making sure they got on the tour that was going to make sense for them. Birders where the easiest, they wanted to be out on the water the longest and go the furthest. I’m pretty sure most of them didn’t even ask the price, they just confirmed there was space and rattled off a credit card number. Other folks, however, not so much. In any case, it was that year I got the best questions.
Before I start, quick geography lesson: Seward, the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad, is a city 3 hours driving distance south of Anchorage bordering the Kenai Fjords national park, which contains the harding ice field, some 700 square miles of ice that feeds a dozen or so glaciers. The picture above is pointing at a narrow stretch or road that is, quite literally, one of the end points of the highway. Seward is also home to the state’s only maximum security prison (not pictured). And arguably the most scenic maximum security prison in the universe. It’s a part of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, which is about the size of West Virgina (I know I already used that comparison for a different borough, but really, I’m not making this shit up. Wikipedia will sort you out if you don’t believe me). In the winter, some 2000ish people live there, by some estimates summer-time doubles that with seasonal workers. When a cruise ship is in town, the population increases another two thousand or so, if only for a few days. There is an annual foot-race on the fourth of July that leads 3000 feet up Mount Marathon and back down again. Seward sits between a deep bay and the towering Chugach mountains on little more than the fan-shaped debris field of rock left behind by a creek that was long ago diverted to empty as an angry rush of white water south of town. To put it bluntly, Seward may as well be the poster child for Alaska tourism. The image below is literally 5 minutes EASY walk on a road from my father-in-law’s house.
Now you know where I was sitting and what I was looking at when I picked up the phone: “Kenai Fjords Tours, how can I help you,” or some shit, I can clearly lay out all of the absurd questions. Or at least some of them, because, let’s face it. You’re not going to have the patience for all of them.
Best Question: “Do you accept American Money”
My answer: Silence. Then, after entirely too long waiting for the laugh of a joke that wasn’t, “Yes. Yes we do.”
Alaska isn’t even the last state admitted to the union, and we’re a pretty sizable chunk of the overall US foot-print.
Question: “When do they let the animals out at Denali Park”
Answer: “Er. Well, it’s not like a zoo. The animals live there and we just get to go visit them at their house. You have to ride an old school bus.”
Question: “I found the exit to the glacier, but I couldn’t find the entrance.”
Answer: I may have hung up on this guy. To be fair, this one needs more set up. Just outside of Seward, you can drive into the Kenai Fjords National park and then hike about a mile or so up to a glacier. It just happens that the glacier is called Exit glacier. So, the sign, a big blue one with an arrow, says Exit Glacier → 5.2 miles or something. I don’t remember how far.
Question: “Can I take a boat up to McKinley Park?”
Answer: “No, you bloody can’t. It’s 250 miles inland.”
Question: “So, I’m going to be in Valdez on the 23rd and we’d like to take a cruise on the 24th. What time do you reckon we’d need to leave to make the 8am boat?”
Answer: “Did you intend to sleep? If you left at midnight, you might make it.”
Question: “Oh, really? Well, what if we stopped off at McKinley park on the 24th and came down on the 25th instead.”
Answer: “Would you drive from Nashville, TN to Cleveland, OH in one day and then on to Washington DC the next and expect to see anything? Because that’s what you’re talking about. Plus there’s road construction, so just slap a few extra hours on top of that.”
Runner up (to be fair, we actually got this one when we moved to Maryland)
Question: “Alaska is an island isn’t it?”
Answer: “No, we drove here and everything.”
Questioner: Pulls skeptical face. “You’re having me on. I’m going to check the map when I get home.”
The Alaska Highway is, quite literally, the only road in or out, but you can drive it and it will absolutely get you to Ellicott City, MD from Wasilla, AK.
Really, the questions weren’t all bad, and for the most part centered around trying to explain to folks just how damn far apart everything was and also the fact that if there is a road, it’s probably a 2-lane highway and under construction. You’ve got to go to an urban center to get a multi-lane divided freeway. For an Urban dweller, such as myself, getting from home to work is not profoundly different than taking route 100 down to the Baltimore-Washington parkway to pull into an office park. Really, I think my western state friends from places like California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada will understand.
Next Up: Moose.