It’s 8pm on a Friday night, and I’m sitting in the large dining hall of the Homer Senior Centre in Anchor Point, Alaska, surrounded by a large number of friendly white-haired folks who are all waiting patiently for dinner. I’ve been informed it’s a full house, and they’ve had to turn away people at the door, because tonight’s dinner is very special — they’re serving moose burgers. A lanky cook with a ponytail is sweating profusely just outside the door, flipping huge moose burgers on a roaring fire, while the other volunteers prepare salads and vegetables and burger buns with condiments. And I tell you, it smells amazing.
Alice, a native Alaskan (meaning from a native tribe, not just someone born in Alaska), is leading the event tonight, and invites a few tables to get in line for the buffet, while the rest of us sit and wait our turn, eyeing the food hungrily.
“So can you buy moose meat in the supermarket?” I ask Bonnie, whose sitting next to me.
“Nope, not at all,” she replies over the din of the crowd. “That’s why everyone wanted to come tonight — moose burgers are a real treat.”
“So… where does the meat come from then?”
She gives me a meaningful look, and I hear two distinct words being murmured amongst the people sitting around me: “roadkill”, and “donation”.
But who am I to fuss? So someone hit a moose with their truck, and then decided to use the meat to make burgers and donated them to the senior center. That moose is probably way healthier than any hormone-injected corn-eating cow in a slaughterhouse anyway, right?
I dig in. The moose burger is absolutely huge, and unbelievably delicious. It’s the best damn burger I’ve ever had, ever, even if it was a victim of the Sterling Highway.
After the meal, with everyone satiated and many carrying home half of the burger in a styrofoam box, Alice then calls out the numbers for the door prize, and much to my surprise I’m the first winner. I run up to the table where I’m asked to choose a prize. I claim an old sign from a local hiking trail, which I figure will make a good souvenir, one day when I actually have a house and a garage to hang it in.
Alice then surprises me again by saying it is “someone’s” birthday, and with a wink in our direction she sings Happy Birthday in her native tongue, and then in English. I look around and realise the birthday girl is none other than Eileen, the friend that we’ve been staying by all week in Alaska. She sits there blushing as everyone teases her. “Why didn’t you tell us?” I ask her. I feel terrible that we’ve been staying in her house for so long and had no idea her birthday was coming up. I guess some people are just shy about birthdays. But I should have known something was up when she went out and got her hair done that morning.
Homer is a pretty little coastal town about a five hour drive south from Anchorage, and although fishermen probably are familiar with the name, those of you who aren’t married to salmon-obsessed spouses may still have heard of Homer since it is now famous for being home to the fleet of ships on the TV show The Deadliest Catch. At Homer Spit, a tiny finger of land sticking out into the sea, you can see all the fishing vessels lined up, and watch both professional and amateur fishermen trying their hand at catching some salmon, trout, and halibut.
I’m not into fishing, but my husband is (if there ever was an understatement), and this is my second time to visit Alaska. The drive from Anchorage to Homer takes you down the scenic Sterling Highway which has many places for you to stop and take pictures of incredible glaciers, sweeping mountains, and snow capped volcanoes. The kid is asleep in the back seat and the husband is asleep in the front, so I’m driving, and enjoying the scenery.
But maybe I’m enjoying it too much. There’s just so much to see. We drive along the ocean, and past lakes and rivers where the water is almost a turquoise blue. The only word I can think of to describe the scenery is ‘majestic’. The sky is so blue and clean and endless, the forests of green pine trees stretch into infinity, and everywhere you look are the mountains.
Then I notice a sign on the side of the road that says it is illegal under Alaskan law to hold up more than five cars behind you by driving too slow. I glance in my rear view mirror and much to my horror see about twenty five vehicles behind me, probably cursing me for driving so slow. Everyone else is driving massive RVs, Mack trucks, and pickups towing boats, and are roaring along way past the speed limit. They seem so huge compared to the tiny, defenseless Japanese rent-a-car we picked up in Anchorage Airport. I drive on a bit and find a place to pull over to allow them all to pass. They go speeding by, with sunglasses on, dogs in the front passenger seat, kayaks on the roof, boats in the back. There’s no doubt who the overseas tourists are.
My husband spends his days trying to catch salmon and trout in the rivers, but our hosts Gary and Eileen tell us that every year it gets harder and harder. The salmon simply aren’t returning, and many rivers that were once popular fishing holes have been closed to try to allow the fish a chance to get their numbers back up. Eight years ago, I remember my husband came back from Alaska with one suitcase of clothes, and one suitcase of fish (cleaned, vacuum sealed and frozen for the trip back to Hong Kong). But those days seem to be over, because by the time we leave Homer, he’s only caught two.
They joke that the amount of money we spent to travel to Alaska to catch fish could have been used to buy about 150 salmon in the supermarket, but that doesn’t mean the trip is a waste. On the contrary, it’s an amazing place to visit, fish or no fish. It’s the tail end of summer, which means it’s t-shirt weather during the day, and the sun stays out until almost 11pm, which makes going to sleep a little bit difficult, and doesn’t help with the jet lag.
We pick wild flowers, and go for walks on the beach to see the wild birds, including bald eagles. By the way, bald eagles might actually be lazy bastards. During the trip I notice that lots of eagles seem to build their huge nests near to the road. “I have a theory about that,” I tell my husband. “It’s because it’s easier to pick up road kill than to go catch a rabbit.”
Indeed, running into wildlife is almost a guarantee in Alaska. Every parking lot and campsite has signs warning you to dispose of your food properly and to be aware of bears in the area. Even outside Gary and Eileen’s house, I always keep one eye on my little child, and one eye out for hungry carnivores. Much to my relief, we don’t run into any bears during this trip.
But we do run into some moose — not in the way that would result in any burgers being served, but it’s a close call one day while turning a corner. The moose was just as surprised as we were, and jumped off into the forest, but not before we could snap a few pictures.
The thing that surprises me about Alaska is that a lot of people have moved there from other parts of the United States to retire, including the friends that we stay with. Usually you’d think of people retiring to some warm sunny beach in Florida, rather than a place that suffers a lot of snow. But I realise that even as a retiree you can have a lot of fun in Alaska — you just need a lot of gear. On our last day, Gary invites me to go on the ATV down to the beach to look for fossils. We get on our helmets and go slowly down to the endless expanse of beach of Anchor Point. We drive down the beach, and Gary, who at one point was studying geology, looks for certain areas of rocks. We get off and look around, and before long find the soft, grey slate rock, and most of them have something in them, even if it’s just flecks of branches. A few reveal beautifully preserved leaves, and even a few critters. We pocket a few and take them back home to wash them off and see what else they reveal.
But like I was saying about the gear, most Alaskans seem to have a lot of fun stuff to play with during retirement, ATVs being one of them. You also need a boat for fishing, an RV for camping, and a pick up truck for hauling stuff around, such as kayaks. Not to mention a woodworking area in your garage. Alaskans are outdoorsy, and I suppose in order to survive the winter, you better have a lot of good gear.
It’s with great reluctance that we pack our suitcases again and prepare to say goodbye to our wonderful hosts, Gary and Eileen, who have taken such good care of us in their beautiful home, and fed us the freshest fish in the world, and plied us with cold Alaskan Amber beers. The kid has had such a good time enjoying the wide open spaces, and playing with Farley the cat and Mack the dog. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so happy. As we strap her in to the car seat and wave goodbye, her face drops. I swear the child is depressed to be leaving.
She’s not the only one whose depressed. My husband closes the car door with a sigh, and we drive off. “Now I have nothing to live for for another year,” he says, being dramatic, but kind of also being honest.
Hong Kong is such a far cry from Alaska. Don’t get me wrong — Hong Kong has its fair share of beautiful scenery, and I like where we live with the cows passing by. But when you’re in a place like Alaska, with so much clean, pristine, vast wilderness, it is hard to imagine ever going back to China.