Growing Up In Alaska
June 23, 2017 / By Chris Oudean
rowing up in Alaska is a unique experience. The geographical and weather extremes, and the vast wilderness and distance between you and the rest of the country can affect everything in your life. Residents seem to readily counter this adversity with proportional amounts of boisterous music and unbridled adventure. When we moved up here, our family quickly embraced these finer points, and did the best we could in this wild place.
We lived on Elmendorf Air Force Base at first. I was what they call a military brat. When my dad joined the Air Force, they let you choose two places you would prefer to move in order to create some sense of control over your life. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that you could end up anywhere. Texas was my dad’s second choice, Alaska his first. It would be a few years before he got his first choice. After a one year stint in South Korea, and a few more years stationed in Texas at the then Carswell Air Force Base (before all of the base consolidations during the George W. Bush presidency), he finally got the call he was waiting for. We said goodbye to the “lower 48” and took a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy military transport plane up to Anchorage, Alaska. I was seven years old at the time.
I remember it being a very traumatic experience for me. I was excited for sure, but also scared of the unknown. We were whisked away to the small town in a massive and loud military cargo plane, leaving all of our family and friends behind for a new life. I was too young to realize just how far away we had moved, but by the pomp and circumstance, I felt like it was the other side of the world.
The next few years were spent adapting to our new life on Elmendorf. We lived in a small house that looked like all the other houses in the entire neighborhood, so it was easy to get lost. I remember my parents missing the turn a number of times driving home. There were people from all over the country here, and no one we knew. We would rarely saunter outside the base, but when we did, it was an epic adventure every time. My dad would drive us to many places big and wild and spectacular that kept my sister and I consistently on the edge of our seats. We would take our first stroll right up to a calving glacier and put our hands on the giant ice chunks at Portage Glacier; we’d drive to Seward and take an 8 hour cruise through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, experiencing humpback whale breaching, porpoises chasing us alongside our boat, and orca pods gently swimming by, making it impossible to wipe the big grins off our faces; we would visit Denali National Park and take a tour bus out into the middle of nowhere for a view of the tallest mountain on the continent, Denali (a.k.a. McKinley).
Learning about Alaska’s geology taught me to both respect and, honestly, fear the place. The one overarching thing they drill into your head in school is the constant threat of earthquakes. They have pictures, diagrams, illustrations, chalkboard presentations, and then they take you on field trips to view exhibits, museums, and even the actual affected historical locations all about the monster that lives in the earth. There wasn’t a single fourth grader in the entire state who didn’t know a thing or two about the ring of fire, and the unbelievable devastation of the 1964, 9.2 magnitude earthquake, the second largest ever recorded in the world. I remember thinking for years that my parents were crazy for moving us up here to the most dangerous place in the world. But eventually you learn to live with it, and in some twisted way, love it. Living here becomes a sort of badge of honor. Knowing everyday that your daily life resides upon the ruins of such an extreme event in history is enthralling. There is always that voice in the back of your head saying, if it can happen once, it can happen again. It tends to make everything just a bit more interesting.
In the first five years of living here, we got to experience the fallout of two volcanic eruptions firsthand. The first was Mount Redoubt in 1989, and the second was Mount Spurr in 1992. With each eruption, ash fall covered Anchorage. The worst was Redoubt though, which closed airports for an extended period of time and blanketed Anchorage with ash for five months. These experiences along with a few other small ash-falls and minor earthquakes fueled my imagination. My developing brain translated this stimuli into recurring nightmares of world ending apocalypses played out on the stage of my mind’s eye. By day we would embrace the immense beauty of Alaska’s wilderness all around us, and by night the sleeping monster below the blanket of majestic mountains would come out to play.
Even walking to school felt dangerous. Despite my elementary school being less than 1 mile away from my front door, on many occasions, I would see moose sauntering down the streets. Moose are everywhere in Alaska, and will oftentimes inundate Anchorage, wandering across streets and sometimes to great alarm, into buildings. Moose are huge here. They are even known by a second name, “Giant Moose”. A male Giant Moose can be up to seven feet tall at their shoulders and weigh over one thousand, four hundred pounds! So they can basically trample a ten year old without batting and eye.
Noticing a trend here? Everything in Alaska is big. It is the biggest state in the US, has some of the largest wildlife, has the most earthquakes, the most active volcanoes, the most snowfall, the longest days, the longest nights, and not surprisingly it has the location of the coldest winter temperature ever recorded in the US (-79.8 degrees Fahrenheit) at Prospect Creek on January 23rd, 1971. Even the fish are monstrous. The aptly named King Salmon (a.k.a. Chinook Salmon) can reach fifty eight inches long and weigh over one hundred pounds! I remember visiting a neighbor that was selling some of his catch laid out in the yard. He must have had a thousand pounds of meat between 1-2 dozen King Salmon. He saw me gape and decided to cut out a tooth from one of the larger fish for me to take home. They have very sharp canine-like teeth, and this one was longer than one of my own. I don’t know how fly fishermen find the strength to wrestle these things out of the water. Little did I know at the time that I would find out first-hand years later, while gripping the end of a fly fishing rod at the edge of the Kenai River.
The other thing about Alaska that perhaps the people of the lower 48 (A popular term there to reference the 48 contiguous US states) may not realize, is how big the music culture is. It’s rampant, wholly shared, and welcomed nearly everywhere. People of all skill levels come together regularly at coffee shops, restaurants, bars, campsites, and festivals to play in large groups, oftentimes with total strangers. The style of music is a little folk, a little country, but mostly bluegrass. There is a sense of community that binds the state in the embrace of these popular music circles, and it’s a great way to make friends. Shortly after moving to Alaska, my family found out for themselves just how social the music scene is.
A few minutes after attending church one Sunday, my father walked by another father in the halls. Each was carrying a guitar case. My father inquired about his music endeavors, and an expectedly short conversation lasted nearly an hour. That day began a lifelong friendship of our families forged in food, faith, and bluegrass. For the first time, we began to grow a social net, and our family was no longer alone in the far flung 49th state.
We started out going to group music sessions after church each Sunday. As everyone played traditional hymns, I would listen along while gorging myself on cookies, fruit wedges, sugar cubes, and hot chocolate. This went on for a while until we eventually entered a merry band of 6 or so into the Anchorage Folk Festival, an annual festival held at the University of Alaska, Anchorage in their Wendy Williamson Auditorium. This became yet another place to make many, many more friends in the musical community. Soon my family was spending much more time playing bluegrass, which is a form of old-time music that incorporates a little bit of country, Irish-folk, American-folk, Appalachian, blues, and jazz styles all together. Instruments used typically are the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, dobro, and the stand up bass (same one used in the orchestra).
Along with the weekly church music get-togethers, my parents were now fully engaged in the early 90’s Alaskan bluegrass music scene. One of my fondest memories in the early days was staying up at night, often until 2am or later, at a pizzeria called Legal Pizza. It’s been closed for a long time now, but back then, you could find a romping stomping good time starting at 8pm every Friday & Saturday night, in downtown Anchorage, on 5th Avenue & K street, right next to the Hotel Captain Cook. There might even be a recording somewhere on YouTube, of a 12 year old me singing “Love, Me” by Collin Raye. My sister and two friends would get in on the fun as well, creating their own little band of misfits called Fiddlesticks. A local videographer Bob MacArthur, aptly nicknamed Video Bob, loved to film the local musicians and hand out free copies of their performances. He was there almost every time I remember being there, filming away. Legal Pizza was the first place I remember trying Dungeness crab pizza. Not exactly one of my favorites, but definitely an Alaskan style treat.
Year after year, bands would come together and go their separate ways only to form new bands, over and over again. My mom & dad and some friends had a rather popular band at one point. They called themselves Frontier Spirit. The mid 90’s for me was a whirl of summer music festivals as each year Frontier Spirit would tour around the state and I would get a front row seat to an entire summer of free music festival access. We even had a hand in starting up our own music festival called the Hunter Creek Bluegrass Music Festival. In fact, it became so popular that they decided to hold the festival twice a year, once during the Memorial Day weekend, and once during the 4th of July weekend.
The Hunter Creek experiment exploded in popularity, thanks in large part to the well known Frontier Spirit band member Ken Terry. This beer guzzling, banjo picking, larger than life guy who inserted himself into the music scene anywhere he could, co-founded the Hunter Creek festival, and advertised the living crap out of it. We had to erect a permanent vendor stand, revamp the main stage, and build a second stage due to high attendance and the large number of bands wanting to perform. They even let me help out with construction. That was the year I fell in love with the industrial, battery powered nail gun. The festival was held in an old dry creek bed just an hours drive from Anchorage, and down a dirt road that was part of the original Glenn Highway (before the modern upgrades). It was the closest full fledged music festival to Anchorage where you could spend an entire weekend camped out, basking in the sun, and listening to constant, tap-your-feet music that went on until 5am most nights. The food was amazing, there was a dance floor built in front of the stage that was always full, people were hooting, hollering, clapping, dancing, and singing along, and every single man, woman and child left their woes at the gate for an existentially rip roaring good time. It’s an experience that I’ll never forget.
The summers spent touring the festivals and camping were a welcome contrast to life in school. Growing up in Alaska from an educational standpoint was hard for me. When my dad left the military, I was in 4th grade. We moved to Anchorage and into our first home off-base, and I was in a new school with no friends. There was some employment stuff going on at the time with my parents. I was too young to really know what was happening, but in a year’s time, we had to move once again to another home, and me to a new school for sixth grade. After this, it was on to yet another school for two years of middle school. Now we had a stable home but with so much moving around, I hadn’t forged a group of friends, and when I entered high school, I knew literally no one. This is not an uncommon situation for a lot of the young population in Alaska. There are a number of military bases and this is how many families come to the state, some by choice, others not so much.
Throughout high school, I had a difficult time trying to make friends, not to mention, good friends. There were many a hoodlum in my day, and I was dangerously close to becoming one of them. I started off very shy and would often try to avoid social gatherings. Over time, I would exercise my more rebellious side, and fall in and out crowds that tended to be the less savory type.
My involvement with the music community throughout school helped keep me out of trouble. It gave me an outlet and a way to engage with other kids my age in a way that I wasn’t able to at school.
I rode out the rest of my time in high school in relative solitude, aside from meeting my future wife and all, but that’s a story for another time. My graduation was the year 2000, and with it came the hysteria of the dreaded Y2K bug.
In case you don’t remember, Y2K was a pretty big deal in 1999. There was actual panic occurring on the streets. The problem was that back in the day, digital storage was really expensive. Bits of data were of such value that programmers were inclined to save space anywhere they could. A common practice was adopted where they would only use 2 digits to represent the year in their programs. That meant that the moment the year went from 1999 to 2000, programs written in this way could not distinguish between 1900, 2000, or any other year for that matter that would end in “00”. In hindsight, it would seem to be a hilarious oversight of humankind to think this wouldn’t be an issue. People were so scared of what might happen, that whole governments stepped in and began investigating possible solutions. There were news anchors making statements that the entire planet’s economy would crash overnight if they couldn’t find a fix for the problem. As we all waited with baited breath on New Year’s Eve with Prince’s “1999” song playing on repeat, nothing happened. At least nothing of major consequence. It seemed, from my perspective, that Alaskan’s largely shrugged off this event in history. The entirety of the state just ignored it, never bothering to read into the problem, and went about their business. The only Alaskan that was flipping out seemed to be myself. Boy, did I feel foolish. I remember the lead up to the year, having this ominous, end of the world feeling again. It was as if my child brain had become trained for this moment, with all the terror of volcanoes and earthquakes popping up all around me over the years. I had even recently finished a rather long school paper on the history and use of the atomic bomb, so my mind was deep into the paranoia of armageddon. It also probably didn’t help that I was brought up under the gospel of the Holy Bible. They tell you to keep an ever watchful eye for the end of days and what is often referred to as the second coming of Christ. And just like that, the bubble of trouble popped, and we were in a new millennium with not a care in the world. I learned a pretty big lesson at that moment in my life: never take anything too seriously.
I was now free of school, had a beautiful girlfriend, and no idea what I was going to do with my life. Also, I was trapped in Alaska. You know how, once you’re free of the bonds of the general education system, your teenage mind yearns to get a car, and explore your heart out? (Well that’s if you’re not immediately pushed into a higher education by your parents of course). In Alaska, you can certainly explore great distances, but you will never escape the feeling that you’re trapped in this midnight sun paradise. Unless you’re willing to hop on a plane, or travel thousands upon thousands of miles, you will not be crossing state lines and experiencing the rest of the country you’ve been born into. It’s certainly a twist of irony for a freshly minted 18 year old adult resident. So what’s a boy to do?
We learned to love it. We got our kicks in wandering. Like, everywhere. My wife and I would drive all over the state, logging countless hours and driving through what at times felt like endless wilderness, with one poorly maintained two lane highway straight through the middle of it. Most of the time, there wasn’t a single ounce of visible human impact on the land aside from the road that took you through it. To the left was nothing, to the right was nothing, and somewhere in between was a campsite or a hiking trail. The middle of nowhere was where we found our bliss. If we couldn’t hop state lines to party like a rockstar, we would settle for epic views and the thrill of discovery. We were living our very own fairy tale, pretending we were the only people on earth, and were perfectly content. I would relish in the effort it would take to set up a campsite, forage for wood, build a fire with care, and meticulously roasting foods over the flames for consumption. The passing of time takes on new meaning when it’s so devoid of civilization that you never hear the sound of a single commercial airline passing far above through the entire day. I remember hours going by, and doing nothing but watching clouds change into various shapes above a glacially fed lake where I would dip my toes to make the only waves I could discern. When Alaska’s endless twilight nights arrived, we would revel in watching the sparks from the campfire drift upwards as the moths fluttering overhead were systematically consumed by swooping bats casting swift shadows. We were untouchable from the anxiety and stresses in life.
Over the years growing up, I would face many challenges. The thing that really stuck with me though growing up in Alaska is that love of nature. Whenever things were going south for me, I would once again feel the urge to dive deep into a long hike, or expel myself from the city for an extended weekend at a quiet campsite. The sound of nothing but the gentle wind fanning the leaves of birch trees is my kind of nirvana. The stillness brings meaning to anything that breaks it. Conversations become deeper, more interesting, and thoughtful. When we re-emerge from our cocoon of nature and come back to civilization, we somehow have a newfound appreciation of ourselves, and a clearer picture of what we want to do with our lives. I suppose you could say its our form of meditation. If this is mediation, then anyone can do it. It’s not like you have much choice about it anyways. A good trail will whisk you away from your thoughts, and you’ll find yourself in awe of the views all around you. There’s so much stimuli happening all at once, all the time, that your brain can’t find the time to worry about the things you might worry about while being encased at home in your square rooms and white walls. We get overloaded. Call it an unintended side effect of the civilized world.
That catchy Bluegrass Music really sticks with you too. Everyone in my family, including myself, has become enthralled in performing and creating music. My sister has been in a number of successful bands including the popular Bearfoot and Cold Country, my father has continued his passions in church performances and releasing his own album, my mother has enjoyed performing solo and in a number of bands over the years, and I have fostered a leisurely relationship with songwriting and the occasional performance.
Music and nature have been my solace, and they have served me well. Growing up in Alaska taught me that even if the world threatens impending volcanoes, earthquakes, feet of snow, freezing temperatures, giant creatures, or anything else it can muster, if you try hard enough, you can always find a beautiful trail to wander down, a quiet place to pitch a tent for the weekend, or a tune in your head to hum. Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll miss all the good stuff!
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