One thing I notice after returning to my home in Alaska after nearly three months working and traveling elsewhere: I spend a lot more time than I remember standing in lines. With the population of the town nearly doubling with the influx of snowbirds and seasonal workers, not to mention the large numbers of tourists arriving by train and cruise ship, the town suddenly takes on a bustling character that is difficult to imagine were you to visit the town in January. Everywhere I go, it seems I need to wait in line – gas stations, coffee shops, the post office. In the winter months, the only place I ever seem to wait in line regularly would be the grocery store and (this being a small town) most of the time I’m waiting in line behind someone I know, and probably wouldn’t mind talking with.
The rain, always a persistent phenomenon on Alaska’s coast, and even more so now that we’re approaching the end of the summer season, seems to intensify this, giving everyone in town an excuse to linger a little longer over their coffee. Or to duck into a gift shop to get a closer look at the scrimshaw carving on display in the window. Or spend an hour at the local aquarium, watching the resident octopus peer disinterestedly through the glass of his newly refurbished exhibit tank. Coffee shops and gift shops become islands of wet people checking their phones, coats and jackets draped across the backs of their chairs as steam rises from both the coffee cups and their sodden gear.
Aboard the whale-watching boats chugging their way out of the harbor, days like these are battles with moisture. Any time spent on deck is being plastered with rain, the motion of the boat, even at a relatively sedate twelve knots, being more than enough to send the rain streaming under your coat collar. Keeping the condensation off the windows becomes a continual chore; passengers are continually worrying into their collars and cuffs, wiping off their glasses and camera lenses with edges of sweaters and fleeces. By the end of the tour, finding a reasonably dry piece of clothing with which to do this becomes a challenge in itself. People tend to huddle inside the ship, peering through moisture fogged windows and trusting to the crew (and small number of passengers, often young and German, who brave the rain in some halfway sheltered corner of the aft decks) to alert them to the presence of anything – orcas, sea lions, eagles – that will inspire them to snatch up their cameras, give one final wipe of the lens, and dash outside to look at it.
The one place where it is still possible to gain some degree of solitude on a rainy day is anywhere along the town’s local trails. While there are still, thankfully, many folks who still choose to get out and hike even in the rain, it’s still nowhere near as crowded as in town. Even places like the Exit Glacier area of Kenai Fjords National Park (the only area of the park that can be accessed by car, and often extremely busy during sunny summer days) become, for the moment, blanketed islands of mist, briefly turning these well-trampled trails into islets of mist and solitude.
Outside of the National Park, the trails are even more deserted. Earlier this week I went for a hike out to nearby Meridian Lake. Stopping frequently to pick blueberries, the hike took nearly twice as long as it would have without all of the snacking stops, but I still saw no one else on the trail until I was nearly back at the parking lot. As dismal as the can rain sometimes seem, it’s difficult to find too much fault with a climate that can produce a full sandwich bag of wild blueberries over the course of a one-hour hike.
So, the next time you despair at the crowds lining the counter at the local coffee shop or taco stand just check your weather forecast. Solitude in a tourist town during the high season might be as close as the next rainy day…