Alaska – The Last Frontier: Our Final Days

The final two days in Alaska were spent at Gayle’s cabin on Horseshoe Lake. I had some initial concerns at the prospect of using an outdoor, unheated shower, when highs were only expected to reach 60 or so, and no sunshine was forecast. Turns out that concern was misplaced – we just didn’t shower! Unlike being in the south however, we also did not sweat, so never got terribly icky. Still, Sunday afternoon’s return to indoor plumbing and hot showers at Gayle’s house in Anchorage was not unwelcome.

Saturday morning we awoke to breathtaking views of the sun peeking through the clouds and covering the mountains in the distance and across the lake. The large windows across the front of the cabin allowed us to literally wake up to this view. I just opened my eyes and there it all was.

The lake was as smooth as glass in the morning, so Ryan and I headed out in the kayaks for a tour of the lake. We were escorted on our paddle by loons, diving for breakfast, and cheered along by the sandhill cranes. As we inched through the lily pads, one of the small fish jumping around us almost landed on the front of my boat.

As we arrived back at the dock, we were greeted by Bill, who was busy fiddling on the boat or the float plane, or both – I’m not sure because he was moving so fast. The drive to Horseshoe Lake from Anchorage takes about 1:45, but Bill can just walk out the front of Lake Hood Inn, hop in his plane, and be at the front door of the cabin in about 15 minutes.

Gayle was already busy fussing over preparations for yet another festive gathering that evening. Though we all stopped for breakfast of poached eggs, bagels and oatmeal, before hopping in the boat to motor over to visit with Karen and Roger Pfeifer.

The Pfeifer’s also have a cabin on Horseshoe Lake, around the horseshoe from Gayle. Karen’s son Sloane Unwin was just married two weeks prior and they held the reception at the cabin. The Pfeifer’s cabin was creeping along in early stages of renovation/addition around March, when they learned of the plans to use the cabin for wedding reception. Because they had a 5 week trip to Africa already scheduled for May/June, they were quickly under the gun to finish MUCH earlier than planned.

By their account, it wouldn’t have been finished without Gayle and Bill pitching in to ensure electrical, insulation and sheetrock were all completed. Gayle and Bill even continued working after the Pfeifer’s had gone on vacation. Such is the way it is here. Family, friends, neighbors – people here just do.

In the week before we arrived, a very good friend of this group, Nancy, was hit by a car while biking to work. Throughout our stay we’ve heard regular updates on her pelvic, hip and back surgeries, from folks who go to the hospital daily to sit with her, and offer some time for her husband, Doug, to get out of the hospital a bit.

People here do not stop to question if they have time or can work something into their schedules, or even if they can afford it. When someone here needs help, others simply stop and help. I don’t know if it’s the remoteness of it all, drawing the community in closer, or if it is the general overriding sense of being one with nature, here in this state where you can hardly think of a thing to do that can’t be done within a couple hours drive, but it’s a beautiful sense of humanity that makes you feel like you’re home.

The Pfeifer’s also have a dog named Tarmac, a dog well trained to retrieve ducks during hunting season. As you can see, he’ll also dive in head first for a simple Frisbee! Tarmac and his brother Tundra joined us that evening for our dinner cookout, when the Pfeifer’s, as well as Sloan and his new bride Rebecca, came over.

Also joining us for the day was Cherie Anderson, Gayle’s sister. Cherie, like Gayle, is an interesting and intriguing lady. Cherie is well educated in essential oils, and was kind enough to bring a special concoction with my name on it. Thanks to the White Verbena, it has all my favorite anti’s: antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-anxiety, and much more!

In time for dinner we also had one more guest, Leo von Scheben. Leo was appointed by Palin as the Commissioner of Department of Transportation. Prior to that he was principle in USKH (Unwin, Scheben, Korynta, Huettl), where Gayle worked for 25 years. Leo has done surveying, industrial engineering, civil engineering, and has an MBA. Leo lives on Horseshoe Lake and has had a very interesting life. I wish I’d had more time to chat with him.

One more very interesting life is that of Roger Pfeifer, by whom I was very intrigued. Roger is married to Karen (Unwin) Pfeifer, whose husband Gordon Unwin was also a principle in USKH, but was lost in a helicopter accident 19 years ago. Roger tells it like it is, something I greatly appreciate, even if the story is less than flattering.

One story that IS flattering however, is Roger’s 1982 climb to the top of the 20,320 ft Mt. McKinley. I couldn’t get enough information from him about this, and he probably grew tired of my incessant questions (how many people, what did you eat, how long did it take you, did everyone make it, how bad was the weather, etc.). It took his team 38 days (34 up, 4 down), and they lost two team members on the way (they both lived, just didn’t make the peak). In spite of consuming 6,500 – 7,000 calories per day, Roger lost 35 pounds in those 38 days.

Roger is some kind of interesting. He made his way to Alaska from Ohio, via the Army, which sent him to Vietnam to fly helicopters. He fell in love with Alaska, like so many have, and never left. You can see the sparkle in Roger’s eye as he starts describing the vast array of activities available at his doorstep. He’s a hop, skip and a jump away from retirement after a couple decades with FedEx, and would love to offer vacation planning for folks traveling to Alaska who aren’t sure how to pack everything Alaska has to offer into their 14 day once-in-a-lifetime visit. He clearly wants everyone to experience the joy he has in this state.

We sat around the campfire until late into the night, drinking Alaskan ales and philosophizing about life and pondering the deeper meaning of it all, thanks to Bill who kept posing thought-provoking questions. I’m pretty sure we sketched out the path to world peace that night… if only we hadn’t accidentally dropped the map in the fire. Shoot, I guess we’ll have to do it again.

Sunday morning we repeated our breakfast from Saturday. Ryan went kayaking and fishing for trout. He said the fishing was great, the catching – not so much. Gayle and I sat on the end of the dock watching Bill and Ryan do touch-and-go’s in Bill’s plane on the lake. Finally it was time to pack up and head back to Anchorage, where we all headed straight to a hot shower, and Ryan and I began packing up for our return to the lower 48.

We left with far more than we brought, including a 42 pound box of Halibut. I left with more than can be measured by a scale – a new understanding and appreciation for The Last Frontier, a lot of sore but happy muscles, almost 1,000 pictures, and the love and joy of more new family members than I could have imagined.

My deepest thanks to all the Roth’s, Anderson’s, Pfeifer’s, and all the other family and friends I made in Alaska over the past 10 days. Thanks for the stories, the history, the experiences, for making sure Ryan and I had a wonderful time, but mostly for allowing me to become part of your wonderful family.

Alaska: Day 1

I never seem to sleep well when I know I have to be up early. This morning’s flight was not too early, but still required that I be up before 6 a.m. But of course, I was awake from about 4:00 a.m. I guess I’m always afraid I won’t wake up, even though I now have another person next to me, with his own alarm. It’s even more unlikely we’d both oversleep, but still I awaken early.

This is the same fear I always had before a big road race, especially a marathon. I’d sleep a few hours, usually dreaming that I was late for the race and got lost on the course somewhere. Maybe it’s just that I don’t use an alarm most days, so I’m not sure I can trust it.

As always though, we were up with plenty of time. Since we’re headed for my first trip to Alaska, Ryan’s home state, it is certain I over-packed. Not sure how cold it might really feel to me (in spite of everyone’s assurances that highs will be in the 60’s), and given that I rather enjoy the thermostat set at 79, I’ve thrown all my warmest clothing in a giant duffel bag. Granted, growing up on the coast means my warmest item is a rain jacket (this is what concerns me).

Just to get myself ready, I spent the flight time listening to Jimmy Buffett, Bob Marley and some of Kenny Chesney’s island tunes, thinking nice, warm thoughts!

Since the airlines now charge per bag we combined all our bulky items into one checked bag. Upon arrival at the airport we were proud to find the bag weighed in at exactly 49.0 lbs., just one pound below the weight at which they start assessing additional fees. We really love getting our money’s worth!

Our first flight was through Minneapolis, about a 2 hour trip from Knoxville. After about an hour layover, we boarded for the 6 hour leg to Alaska. The only time I’ve ever spent 6 hours on a plane I ended up in another country where they spoke another language. It’s hard to imagine concluding 8 hours worth of flight time and STILL being in the United States. But here we are! As Michelle Shocked would say – you know you’re in the largest state in the union when you’re anchored down in Anchorage.

Due to a 4 hour time zone change we arrived before 3:00 p.m. (I’m writing this at 10:30 p.m. eastern time, but the sun is high in the sky here, only serving to confuse my weary body. It will be another 4 hours before sunset, and midnight before it really gets dark.) Leaving the airport we drove around Lake Hood, which is the largest and busiest sea plane base IN_THE_WORLD. We made a stop at the Lake Hood Inn, our friend Bill’s place. It’s an awesome spot, right on the water, where you can watch the steady flow of sea plane traffic.

Since there is a Roth family wedding tomorrow, there’s a large BBQ this evening, with lots of extended family. It’s very exciting to be here in Anchorage and I’m looking forward to meeting the very large Roth family (now my family!), most for the first time.

Below are pictures of Bill’s place, the Inn.

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