Where else but in Alaska do moose have lunch in the family’s backyard garden, or drive-in theaters show movies only in the wintertime because it doesn’t get dark enough during summer months, or going “outside” means a trip out of the state? And where else does your just-out-of-the-shower hair freeze solid on your way to early-morning seminary?
For the young people of the Anchorage Alaska Stake, life in one of the last frontiers is an adventure. And their Church membership provides a guiding light in their lives as vivid and awe-inspiring as the aurora borealis that shimmers in the northern sky.
The vast state of Alaska is 1 1/2 times larger than China, yet only half a million people live there. Nearly 5 percent of that 500,000 are members of the Church. The LDS youth like having other members of the Church in their schools and in town. Mike Novakovich really noticed a difference in the closeness of the Church members since moving to Alaska. “Mormon kids are very friendly here. You are close to all the members of the stake. They are like your family.”
Indeed, the stake and ward members become like family simply because most of their relatives live so far away. Anchorage is 2,500 miles by road to the Canadian-U.S. border, or a three-hour plane ride to Seattle, the closest entry point into the Lower 48, as Alaskans call the contiguous United States. Because of the isolation of their state, many young people don’t get to see their cousins or grandparents very often. Ward members fill that void of an extended family. Garrett Gebhart explains, “It’s like a brotherhood. We’re a long way from anyone in the Lower 48, so we stick together.”
The youth, most of whom were born in other states and have moved here with their families, really feel quite at home in Alaska. The average age in the state is just 26. In fact, one girl who attended Brigham Young University said she was surprised to see older people in the university town. She said she would catch herself staring at older people in stores or on the street. She rarely saw anybody in Alaska that would rank as a senior citizen.
The Anchorage Stake holds early-morning seminary at the stake center. It isn’t always easy to get there. With the deep snow and bitter temperatures plus the dark, many have to be truly dedicated to make the effort to get to seminary. One girl and her brother paddle a canoe across the lake in front of their home. When the lake is frozen, they take a snowmobile. After seminary, all the Mormon students catch the school bus at the same stop. They sometimes get teased about always being together, but it causes their friends to ask why they all are in the same place at the same time early in the morning. Several friends have become interested and started attending seminary too. Michelle Warner says, “Everyone at school knows you’re a Mormon. Even though they sometimes make fun of our standards, you can tell that deep down they respect you.”
Does it get depressing to have it dark so much in the winter? Michelle says, “We go to school in the dark and come home in the dark. But we don’t sit around. We get together and play games or watch movies.” They get used to long hours of dark. When Robert Hancock talks about how beautiful the sunrise is at noon, no one even thinks that sounds a little odd.
How do LDS youth have good, wholesome fun when the sun only comes up long enough to start going down again? In winter it’s light from 10:00 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon. There’s not much daylight for outdoor activities. But energetic teens adapt to the situation. As Matt Queen puts it, “We ski because the resort has lights. We play indoor sports such as volleyball and basketball. And we pray for stake dances.”
Stake dances are held often and are well attended by members and their school friends. Those participating have been taught to be polite. As Garrett said, “All the kids dance the proper way, and we escort the girls to and from the dance floor. I couldn’t believe it when I first moved here, but now I think it’s nice.” Some of the proper dance etiquette has rubbed off on the school dances. Nancy Hancock explained, “We are used to taking a boy’s arm to walk onto the dance floor. The guys at school were kind of surprised, but now they are escorting us correctly too.”
Even though they participate in indoor sports in the winter, the Anchorage youth like to get out and enjoy the snow as well. They especially like to go snowmobiling. Nearly everyone has snow machines because it’s often the only way to get around when the roads are snowed in. They know how to dress for a climate where snow depth is measured in feet, the temperature rarely rises above freezing in the winter, and the wind chill factor can drop the temperature to -50° F. (-10° C.) Everyone realizes the importance of having survival gear with them. They know how dangerous it is to be unprepared in case of an accident on snowmobiles or in a car. Nature often won’t give a second chance.
With its outdoor lifestyle and the necessity of respecting the extremes of nature, Alaska appeals to many because of the pioneering spirit and sense of self-reliance needed to enjoy living there.
Alaskan youth live a different lifestyle than their counterparts in the Lower 48. It’s rough in many ways. Alaska has one of the highest rates of alcoholism in the United States. Experts speculate that the high rate is due to the isolation combined with the long winter cold and dark. But LDS young people have learned to resist and stay excited and active even during the long winter months. And their example has rubbed off on their friends. School buddies know that the Mormons know how to have a good time without relying on alcohol or drugs.
In other ways, their way of life is a dream. The beauty of the state is often breathtaking. Rugged mountains with snow caps and green forest skirts circle the towns. There is always some place to go where you can have a lake to yourself. There’s plenty of room, and it’s easy to get away from the crowd.
Man is still the newcomer in Alaska. Bear, moose, and caribou are abundant; and run-ins, especially with moose, are common. Moose are plentiful and have no fear of man. The huge beasts are surprisingly quick on their feet and can be provoked, especially in defense of their young. Allison Jasper, a member of her high school cross-country track team, says one race was brought to a screeching halt when three moose were grazing on the race route. The runners had to skirt the moose by cutting through the trees before they could continue. In winter, the moose like to meander down the plowed roads, so motorists have to be constantly on the alert. Everyone has a story about meeting a moose on an icy road. Often the moose comes out the winner, leaving a badly dented car to limp home.
Summer is a different story in Alaska. Although it never gets truly hot—80° F. (26° C.) is considered a heat wave—the weather becomes mild, and it never gets dark. If the Mutual wants to play a late game of baseball, it doesn’t matter what time it is scheduled; it will be light enough to play. Now instead of watching the sun rise at noon, Alaskans watch the sun set at midnight.
The young people love the outdoors, and Alaska is an ideal place for enjoying nature in a pristine, untouched condition. Tree-covered mountains surround Anchorage and perpetual glaciers are still crawling at their infinitesimally slow rate down the ravines feeding dozens of lakes. Canoeing is a favorite activity because of the number of lakes. And the fishing makes it a sportsman’s paradise.
Garrett says, “The fishing is great, but it’s a different kind of fishing. In the Lower 48, you catch trout that weigh a couple of pounds, but up here you catch fish that weigh 20 or 30 pounds.” Salmon spawn in the streams running right through town.
All summer the bright pink fireweed lines the roadways and fills the grass meadows. The three-foot stalks emerge with their pink flowers tightly closed in bud. Starting at the bottom of the stalk, the buds unfold one by one as the precious weeks of warm, summer weather pass. It is said that old timers used the flowers to tell when winter was coming. When the buds at the tip of the stalk blossomed, then it was the end of summer, and it would soon snow. The first flurry is known as termination dust.
For LDS youth in Alaska, the Church is a standard—a guide to lead them to the full life that such a place can offer. As the Anchorage Alaska Stake youth say, “We stick together.” But there is always room in their group for another friend trying to follow the light.