Four years ago, when I was 25, I went to Alaska to work as a wilderness guide. I bought my first pair of XtraTuf boots and my first set of head-to-toe rubber rain gear, and between seven-week trips in the backcountry, lived above a Laundromat that smelled perpetually of halibut.
The first spring, my boyfriend and I celebrated the returning light by taking a trip to Juneau to go skiing. Only it rained the whole time, and instead of skiing we sloshed through the alleys and backstreets, lingering in bookshops and stopping at every coffee shop we could find. The last night before catching the ferry home, we stayed at the state’s oldest hotel, The Alaskan. Even on a weeknight, the bar – a former speakeasy – was utterly raucous, and the adjoining hotel was much the same. When it first opened in 1913, the building operated as a thinly-veiled Victorian brothel, and in 2010, if you squinted your eyes just right, you could imagine that it still was, that the man with the stained white beard spinning across the dance floor had just paid his tab with a sack of gold flakes and would soon slip upstairs behind a woman's lace stockings.
The wallpaper was yellowed and peeling, the wood floors scuffed and creaky; the entire place smelled faintly of spilled beer and musty sheets. The walls were thin – in most rooms, you fell asleep (or passed out) to the sound of boot-stomping fiddle music drifting from the bar. If you were in Juneau and wanted a good night's sleep, you went to the Westmark or the Best Western. If you wanted an experience to remember, you went to The Alaskan.
That was before the reality TV craze struck Alaska, turning the Last Frontier into something akin to the “Real Housewives of Orange County.” This year, in addition to “Deadliest Catch” and “Alaska State Troopers” – the old standbys – the 49th state is getting “Alaska Gold Diggers” (five Newport Beach women reviving their grandfather's old mining claim), “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” and an episode of “Hotel Impossible,” a show in which an interior designer and a consultant give hotels the touristic version of an extreme makeover. The show has been to Alaska before, to Yakutat's Glacier Bear Lodge, where celebrity consultant Anthony Melchiorri, an admitted germaphobe, was appalled by the old carpets and fish guts outside the doors. The owners reportedly spent $100,000 on renovations following his suggestions, and occupancy rates increased only 1.5 percent.
Now “Hotel Impossible” has come to The Alaskan. I have to admit – when I heard this, my heart sank just a little bit. I want to give “Hotel Impossible” the benefit of the doubt – maybe the show’s chosen designer, Blanche Garcia, has a fondness for stained ceilings and dusty fixtures, and Melchiorri abhors private bathrooms. Maybe they'll preserve the hotel's historic character while bestowing the fame and prosperity that (sometimes) comes with reality TV. But I’m not optimistic. One of their first demands was to try to soundproof the rooms.
The influx of reality TV has changed the reality of Alaska. Everywhere the cameras go, locals grumble that television producers turn them into stereotypes: The backwards, comical hillbilly or the handsome, rugged outdoorsman. Yet as resource extraction in parts of Alaska diminishes, the money spent by the entertainment industry could be a welcome shot of revitalization. Following New Mexico’s lead, Alaska adopted entertainment tax incentives in 2008, and the number of commercials, TV shows and movies filmed there shot up from six in 2009 to 38 last year. A decade ago, even those set in Alaska were usually filmed elsewhere: The Proposal, which takes place in Sitka, was filmed in Rockport, Mass.; Northern Exposure was shot in Washington. The cost of getting equipment to Alaska and doing business there was too prohibitive.
But no more. Now, the state's allure to armchair voyeurs has proven too great to resist. Celebrities like 50 Cent and Nicolas Cage get spotted strolling through downtown Anchorage, and reality TV shows are imposing their own version of authenticity on local landmarks like The Alaskan. When I went to that 100-year-old hotel, I wasn’t expecting a comfortable bed or a good night’s sleep. The thin walls and cheap bedding imprinted me with a distinct memory from a distinct place – an experience that’s becoming increasingly rare in U.S. tourism. At The Alaskan, you couldn’t close your eyes in a climate-controlled, antiseptic room and forget where you were; everything, from the smells to the sounds to the sensation of the lumpy mattress under your back, placed you on that rain-streaked street in Juneau.
The makeover of The Alaskan wrapped up last month and will be featured on the season premiere of “Hotel Impossible” in spring or summer 2014. Until then, the owners are staying mum.
Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.