First Steps in the Last Frontier

One late autumn day in the early 1990s, my friend Jerry and I met for lunch in Chicago.  We both had a milestone birthday coming up and he turned to me with an unexpected proposition.  “We should celebrate with something really special,” he said.  “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska.  How about we go fishing there next year?” 

Like Jerry, I had never been to Alaska, and I was only too happy to oblige.  I embraced the suggestion on the spot.  Which is how we came to be in the Anchorage airport one afternoon about seven months later. 

As with most trips, we flew first to Alaska’s largest city, arriving in mid-afternoon.  Due to the vagaries of airplane schedules and time zones, we had to stay in Anchorage overnight before catching an early flight the next morning to a regional hub town, Dillingham, on the western shore of Bristol Bay.  We had plenty of time to kill, since summer evenings are long in Alaska.

In the lobby of our hotel, we noticed a 3x5-inch index card thumb-tacked to a bulletin board near the desk.  It advertised a “flight-seeing” opportunity for a couple of passengers.  They would accompany a scheduled package delivery flight in the evening from Anchorage to Seldovia, which is across from Homer on Kachemak Bay.  The cost was $25 per person.  Apparently,  the enterprising pilot was supplementing his salaried income by bringing along some bootleg tourists on his regular rounds.

Of course, we jumped on it.  The pilot took a few aerial detours to show us glaciers and to scout along ridges of the Chugach Mountains looking for Dall sheep and mountain goats.  We followed the Kenai River for a while and he showed us Kachemak Bay from the air, including the long, skinny finger of Homer Spit pointing out into the water.  We touched down at Seldovia, dropped off the freight and headed back, with more sightseeing along the way amid a constant narrative from the chatty pilot. 

After a long day of traveling, it seemed much later than 10 pm when we arrived back in Anchorage.  In midsummer, it would stay light for hours yet.  Despite my fatigue, I had difficulty sleeping that night, not so much because of the unfamiliar midnight sun as due to the excitement and anticipation of the week that lay ahead.  I was in Alaska!  I did not fully comprehend the significance at the time, but as John Denver puts it, I had “come home” to a place I’d never been before.

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