People of My Year: Alaska Superstars

For several years I’ve followed a traditional year-end path of The List. You know The List – every news outlet has one, it seems. From bloggers to public television, ranking memorable places and events is popular, even in Alaska. With 2014 slowly breaking from behind an ever-brightening winter landscape, I thought I’d take a different tack.

I want you to meet some people, individuals who crossed my path in unexpected ways and left indelible reminders of why I love Alaska and travel. People who reminded me, especially this year, that hard work, passion, and daily frustration are critical elements of humankind, if we choose to embrace them.

You might remember…

Wish Kid Hannah and musher Ramey Smyth near the finish of Iditarod, day one.

Hannah. When I sent a short note to the social media team of Make-A-Wish Alaska and Washington, offering support for families traveling to Alaska, any impact on my own life was unanticipated. Then I spent a few days tailing Hannah, her family, and the team of Make-A-Wish and Homestretch Kennel during the 2013 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. A reflective kid, Hannah was a tough read at first, but over 48 hours, I came to admire this young lady’s fortitude, grace, and fierce desire to mush on, and on, and on. She continues to do well at home in Connecticut, and hopes to return to Alaska some day for an even longer trail run behind a sled dog team. And AKontheGO now partners with the Make-A-Wish team on a regular basis.

Matt Hunter explains the layout of Fort Rosseau near Sitka.

Matt. I crammed a week of travel industry convention activities and story research into an October trip to Sitka during a time of personal loss and emotional cloudiness. A representative from Sitka’s visitor bureau convinced me that a trip to Fort Rosseau Causeway to explore the ruins of WWII gun emplacements and such was just what I needed. Matt Hunter came along. A history geek, city council member, and high school teacher, Hunter has spent his life poking around this state historical park, and now dedicates much of his free time toward preserving it. Did I mention he’s only 31? Raindrops pelted gear, my face, and the Allen Marine boat, but eagles soared, and waves crashed against rocks as a generation of history unfolded, thanks to the dedication of a community, led by a youngster who simply could not the lesson go untaught. Nor, as it turned out, could I.

Natie goes north after selling thousands of cupcakes to finance a trip from his home in South Africa.

Natie. Who could forget Natie, an imp from South Africa who sold 1,000 cupcakes, a bushel of apples, and trinkets at his village’s market in order to pay for his ticket to Alaska? An eight-year-old with incredible insight that belies his shyness, Natie and his mom were recipients of Alaska’s hospitality as the phrase “Just do it” took on new meaning, with scores of grownups scrambling to make his visit special. Dreaming big, to see the world. We got it, did you?

Captain Stan doing what he did, best.

Stan. The legacy of Stan Stephens carries far beyond the success of Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises in the town of Valdez, but it took years for me to realize it. The calm, decisive presence of Captain Stan at the helm translated into protection of pristine Prince William Sound, most notably after a 1989 oil spill from the Exxon Valdez. One of the first captains to arrive on the scene, Mr. Stephens henceforth initiated preservation and policies for one of the richest areas in the world, so my children, your children, and their children can forever embrace its uniqueness. Oh yes, he loved ferrying tourists around the sound, and fishermen, hunters, and hikers hither and yon, but Stan knew about legacies, so with his passing in September he left a lasting one, indeed.

Who will you meet in 2014, and what footprints will they leave upon your traveling soul? Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

Happy New Year.

~EK

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