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Know the West

Real men head for Alaska

  There is the West, and then there is Alaska, a region so wild and isolated as to make Wyoming appear tame as a strip mall.

Flying to Kodiak Island ("America's second largest island") is risky on a good day. The day I chose to travel to the island on business was not a good day. The stewardess had cautioned us before takeoff, "All pukers off the plane now!"

The two-prop plane from Anchorage bobbed and heaved like a broken roller coaster. I tried to concentrate on my breathing, but all I could think of was that my ex-wife's name was still listed as the primary beneficiary on my life insurance policy.

In my clenched fist was a newspaper clipping I had torn out from that day's Anchorage Times, with the headline, "Rabid fox snaps at Barrow cabbie."

After I got over the shock of cabs in Barrow, I read on. "The grader driver warned the cabbie away and straddled (!) the animal with the grader. A rabies quarantine set to expire on Tuesday was extended to April. Several rabid foxes have been destroyed this year inn Barrow..." I was now in a state that had rabies quarantines in effect.

When I had the guts to peek out the window all I saw were water and sky, waves and clouds. Kodiak's runway ends at the base of a soaring mountain, and just when it seemed we would crash into the mountain, the nightmare ride was over.

Russian influence dominates Kodiak. Blue onion domes, the Byzantine architectural flourishes of the Russian Orthodox Church, rise above a fishing harbor and several processing plants. The landscape is wide rivers ringed by massive mountains, and two main roads out of town end at the edge of wilderness.

Death, animals, fish runs, weather, boats and especially planes are common topics in Alaska. Over breakfast, a man from Bristol Bay tells me how to kill a fox. "You grab him by the tail and snap him like a whip. Breaks its neck every time." He stands up and demonstrates with a napkin. He then tells the story of a buddy who was out on his trap line and tried the same technique on what he didn't know was a wolverine.

"That wolverine turned on him and bit him square in the gut. He dropped that tail, pulled out his .357 and bam! bam! emptied the entire chamber." We nod like a team in an agreeable way, in a gesture that says, "He had no choice but to kill that pesky wolverine," and pass the plate of fried over-easy eggs, sausage, bacon and pancakes around the table.

The men then look over at me to see if I could top their adventure stories. After all, I'm a writer. All I can think of is how an installation of a Zip Drive on my computer killed the monitor and I had to ship it all the way down to San Jose. And how lost and sad that made me feel -- vulnerable, too -- and how I almost just gave up. I stare down at my soft, pink hands, my limp, carpal-tunnel-ravaged wrists, and decide to eat some more bacon.

A few days on Kodiak convince me that even though I am biologically a male, in Alaska I am more of an eunuch. After all, I have never skinned a large, warm mammal, eaten fresh lynx meat, lost several toes to frostbite or left a buddy to die in a blizzard. I have never had to take out a charging brown bear or pull a halibut hook out of my thigh.

On the cab ride back to the Kodiak airport, strong Arctic head winds of 40 knots prevent the cab from going faster than 25 miles per hour. Eagles roost on light poles and church steeples. Incredibly, the fishing boats are leaving the harbor for open water. These are tough people. I am not.

I'm dumped off alone in front of the terminal. I listen to the howling wind and notice that the inside walls of my nostrils are beginning to freeze together. As the snow drifts up around my shins, I hear the drone of an airplane in the distance as it banks across the bay to attempt a landing. The thought of climbing into that tiny plane brings on an uncomfortable rumbling in my lower intestine. I hustle inside to get warm and search for a bathroom.

Stephen J. Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). After living for 30 years in the West he now lives in a farming town in central Illinois.