When I tell people I’m from Alaska I get a variety of responses from “You must get a lot of snow!” to “Doesn’t it get dark there all the time?” to “Do you have penguins?”. I’m not kidding about these. I’ve heard them all, and more. Alaska has such a distinct character that most people feel they’re well acquainted with the “Last Frontier.” Unfortunately, this acquaintance often seems to stem from a regrettable combination of Sarah Palin and TLC.
My hometown isn’t stereotypically Alaskan. Because we’re in the southern part of the state, we see warmer temperatures—even in winter—and a lot more sun. Alaska is huge (I mean, it’s twice the size of Texas), so the defining characteristics of a particular region can vary radically—from the frozen tundra of the North, to the windswept, barren landscape of the West, to the sprawling, temperate rainforest of the Southeast that I call home.
And, of course, it’s far away. When I came home for winter break, I took a five-hour flight from Boston to Seattle, slept overnight in an airport, and got on a plane from there to my hometown of Ketchikan —located on the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle.
More specifically, Ketchikan sits on the remote island of Revillagigedo, though our airport is located on the island of Gravina, a nearby slab of land separated from Revillagigedo by the Tongass Narros, a half-mile channel. Before I can officially be deemed “home,” I have to board a ferry from Gravina and spend five minutes (literally, the ferry trip across takes five minutes) filled with excitement and exhaustion.
But then, yes, I’m home. Ketchikan is a small town with a population of just over 8,000 people. When I tell “southerners” this fact, they usually try to one-up me, claiming their hometown is even smaller — population-wise— than Ketchikan. But the “smallness” I’m speaking of here really has very little to do with population; it’s all about isolation.
All Ketchikan residents are connected by the Tongass Highway, which isn’t a highway at all, just a two-lane road that’s a whopping 37 miles in length. You can go north for about 30 minutes, hit an actual “END” road sign, turn around, go for just under an hour south, and hit another “END” sign.
We have no big cities to hop to, no huge metropolitan areas. We have one movie theatre, with two screens. For we Ketchikanites, winter break pans out a little differently.
Over these many weeks, I have been to bonfires on beaches (our beaches are cold, covered in rocks instead of sand, and dark, dark, dark), attended the huge basketball tournament that just about the entire town shows up to because we have one high school we all raucously support, curled up indoors with a book while the rain pounded away at our living room windows.
We average a little over 150 inches of rainfall a year. Not exactly the snowy Alaska everyone imagines. We’re gray. We have cloudy skies just about every other day. My own wisdom says for every day of sun experienced we get two days of rain. My winter is wet. Even as I write this article, the sky is clouded, the air is cold, and everything yields to a steady downpour from the sky.
So my break was a little different. Instead of polar vortex snow, I faced a steady but comforting front of rain. Instead of exploring cities with friends, I spent nights catching up with towering evergreens, the cold gray ocean only a few feet away. And, in place of week-long ordeals, our road trips ended in a matter of minutes.