Story last updated at 6/10/2009 - 1:36 pm
In 2005, I retired from the Alaska Marine Highway System and moved to China to be a teacher. After I had retired in the US, I wanted to move overseas to pursue the next adventure and Alaska was a good training ground. I was not the first person to use such a method. Charles Schroeder, an American cowboy, Klondiker and Nome gold miner, found that his training in Alaska enabled him to run camel caravans from China across Mongolia to Russia in 1905. Some authorities say that Jack London got his determination to be a writer from surviving the Trail of '98. Sarah Palin made a good run for Vice-President of the US. Alaska can be a tough place to live, especially in the bush, but skills might be learned there.
In China, I went to visit a student's village in the winter and my bedroom was 11 degrees Fahrenheit. The Chinese have no fuel or money for heat, but they do create a warm bed by burning wheat and corn stalks while cooking which also heats the bed above. After camping out in the Brooks Range in Alaska at 20 below zero, 11 degrees did not seem that bad. Also, on my homesteads in Southeast Alaska, I drank muskeg water for 20 years. It bothered some people, but I got a strong gut from that water and I don't have many problems in international travel where one eats a lot of strange food.
When an opportunity opened up to go look for pandas in the Qinling Mountains of China, I felt I could deal with that. I had done a lot of hiking and climbing in Alaska as well helping to found a hiking club in Juneau. For a week, those camping skills became rather important as we trudged through a down pour to reach the area to view a panda. We had guides, but they were less prepared that I and my interpreter were. We did see a panda along with the mountain ox that provided the Golden Fleece for Jason and the Argonauts. Good camping skills and previous exposure to Alaskan adrenaline producing situations also helped me make the Everest Base Camp trek as well as deliver tents to earthquake victims last year in China.
One might think that good camping skills are something that we use only in camping. But campers are well organized. A camper doesn't survive very long if he has not brought all that he needs to survive. Many older folks, such as myself at 59, are discovering that they can travel like they did at age 20 and live in youth hostels while they travel around the world. One does not always need a formal hotel or a travel guide to get around. Traveling and living in youth hostels is just another form of camping and organization is a plus - particularly if you are older.
Having two homesteads in the bush in Alaska for 20 years teaches some good lessons about survival. After using an outhouse for 20 years, a Chinese bathroom is not a big problem. The trick in both is that you breathe through your mouth. Out in the Alaskan bush, you meet some interesting food: bear, moose, interesting fish, goose tongue, canned beef, etc. If you can survive that food, you can survive Chinese food.
Once at a homestead I laid down some linoleum with an empty scotch bottle, because that was all that I had. Creativity becomes a plus, and it is a good survival skill. In 2005, I was traveling with a friend in China when she suddenly decided that it was not working out. I woke up in Xian, China alone with old, rusty and untested international travel skills. "Possibly this is where I'm supposed to be," I thought. Three days later I was a professor of history at a university in Xian, China. When I went to Alaska in 1973 at age 23, I was just looking for a summer job to make money for college. I left Alaska 27 years later. Life is what happens to you when you are busy making plans. How many people came to Alaska for a summer job and never went home?
If you have ever built a log house in the Alaskan wilderness, other things just don't seem that difficult. At times the Alaskan bush has not changed that much for the American West and that is probably why some people go there. After a drunken logger threatens to kill you for a week in town where everyone owns three guns, other confrontations don't seem quite that difficult.
Some Alaskans might find, as I did, that Alaska is good training ground for the next adventure.