Alter-Ego Alaska: Exploring the Last Frontier through the Locals Who Live There

Bush pilots, tour guides and vaudeville performers share their perspectives on this wild state.

In a place where halibut can weigh more than NFL lineman, where the sun may not rise or set for six weeks and mountains soar more than three miles high there is no shortage of colorful characters and extreme lifestyles.

Reality TV mainstays like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers and Bering Sea Gold showcase some of Alaska’s wild spirits and eccentric ways of life. Those careers are a little too far out on the fringe for most of us, but in a time when we may all have to consider reinventing ourselves for the future job market, there is a plethora of alter ego ways of life in Alaska that might just become reality.

Northern Lights in Alaska.
Photo credit: @planetbrandon
The author crossing the Arctic Circle in Alaska during his quest to visit every county in America.
The author crossing the Arctic Circle in Alaska during his quest to visit every county in America. Photo credit: John DeLeva.

Top of the World Bush Pilot

Years ago, in order to win to a bet by visiting every county in the USA, I needed to touch ground in every borough of Alaska, too. Hiring Bush pilots was the only way to reach many of those distant jurisdictions. Talk about fantasy jobs, flying in a single-engine aircraft above the Arctic Circle – where caribou, bear and reindeer outnumber humans 100-1 –put that on the top of alter ego ways to make a living.

Getting paid to go to amazing places is how Danielle Tirrell describes the third-generation business she and her husband Dirk Nickisch run near the top of Alaska. Many days, these spirited bush pilots drop-off passengers into otherworldly parts of the Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park or the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Other times, they soar high above magical landscapes in their De Havilland Beavers or Cessna 185’s before delivering supplies to outback cabins, materials to research scientists or picking up other hikers they left somewhere in the massive Alaskan wilderness a few days earlier.

Coyote Air is based in Coldfoot, Alaska (population 10) in the summer and Fairbanks in the winter. They fly “on-demand air taxis” year-round using either floats (pontoons) or tundra tires, depending on season and destination. Despite the temperature extremes and long dark winters, they are still doing exactly what they want to be doing and can’t imagine doing anything else. I have to think a lot of alter ages are in that space right now.

Tour Guide in Sitka

Hand carved Tlingit totem poll in Sitka, Alaska.
Hand-carved Tlingit totem poll in Sitka, Alaska. Photo credit: Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

An Orthodox Church with an onion dome, a park full of historic totem poles, an iconic volcano, a rehabilitation center for raptors and another for bears, a castle where the American stars and stripes replaced the Russian hammer and sickle in 1867. There is so much in Sitka that you will not find anywhere else. Oh to be a tour guide in a small historic town, surrounded by forest, on an island in Alaska’s most historied city.

In Sitka, tours show off the Russian Bishop’s House, the center of Russian Orthodox Church authority in a diocese that once stretched from California to Siberia. The tour continues into the Sheldon Jackson Museum, where the vast collection of a Presbyterian missionary showcases totems, masks, baskets, carvings and fascinating native collections. Then there’s that top of the hill spot (Castle Hill) where the American flag went up as the Russia flag went down in a deal where the USA spent two cents an acre for Alaska. 

Outside Sitka, tours lead folks on foot, with paddle, on wheels or with high-speed motors. What do you want to see: raptors, bears, seals, sea lions, porpoise, whales? Imagine that as a new career – hitting the trail or the water and leading folks to watch wildlife like they have never seen before. The job is your gym and happy hour is every hour as you see visitors enthralled with the beauty that surrounds a place you call home.

Star of the Stage in Skagway

It’s a turn-of-the-last-century story about the scrappy people who made up a raucous outpost on the edge of the wilderness: a vaudevillian musical about a conman and a trio of Can-Can dancers. It’s 400 live stage performances in season and then a half-year off . . . another Alaska alter ego way of life.

Skagway is home to but a thousand souls but host to a million visitors. It offered Klondike gold seekers a last dose of civilization before heading into the wild. Today, most arrivals are much better behaved and groomed as they exit their swanky cruise ships to visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, ride the narrow-gauge railway, and take in the Days of ’98 Show.

The live stage show started in 1923 as a fundraiser for the local hockey team and continued every year through two world wars, the Great Depression the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the financial crisis. It’s about the music, the laughter and the devious charisma of a notorious huckster known as the uncrowned king of Skagway. But after 97 years in a row, Covid-19 has forced the troupe to take this season off. President and co-artistic director Charity Pomeroy hopes this year is the once-a-century exception.

Charity joined the show on a six-month contract – 20 years ago. She has seen a large percentage of the community involved in the show over the past two decades and understands what it means to “Skagwegians.” She has no doubt the passion for the performances and a desire to keep a colorful past alive will have the Days of ’98 back for its 98th season in 2021. What alter ego doesn’t love working hard for half a year then taking the other half off? Especially when that hard work is all about making guests laugh, smile and think back about a fascinating time and place in world history.

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