Alaska really is one of the places that you can’t describe using words, pictures or even videos. It’s one of those places that you just have to experience for yourself. I’ve tried to come up with many creative ways to show my family back home what it is like to live in Alaska and to be part of an Alaskan university. Here’s a short impression from text messages I have either received or sent in the past few weeks.
1. “Northern Lights are out!”
It is quite a dilemma if you have to do homework at night, because all you really want to do is look at Mother Nature shining her green and purple lights in the Alaskan night sky. Sometimes I can see them from my bedroom window while trying to fall asleep. Other times, we get a group together and go into the forest or go down to the ocean to watch them for hours. Because Juneau is so isolated from any other city, there is barely any light pollution. The result: dancing Aurora Borealis in the sky surrounded by millions of stars and the Milky Way.
2. “Care to go rock climbing after class?”
There is no such thing as a boring day here in Alaska, especially if you’re into outdoor activities! To name a few examples of daily after-school activities: hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, paddle boarding, fishing and so much more. All of this is either on campus or within walking distance from campus! Even if you just have a super short study break, you can grab a paddle board or a canoe from campus and paddle on Auke lake.
3. “Will be out of service from Friday until Sunday!”
Camping is one of the best ways to spend your weekends here! Hike up a mountain with all your camping gear and find a great spot with an amazing view. After you’ve set up your camp and warmed up by the campfire, it is time to relax and snuggle in your sleeping bag while you wait for the Northern Lights to appear.
4. “Careful, bear spotted near the Glacier building.”
Back home in The Netherlands, I would often receive text messages saying, “Careful, unknown man has been spotted in the building,” whenever somebody would try to sneak into our dorms. Not in Alaska! The only thing we have to worry about is not getting eaten by bears. All trashcans are bear-proof on and off campus, and people here have accepted that we share our habitat with bears. My exchange coordinator even said, “I like to pick the fresh blueberries but always make sure I leave enough for the bears to eat!” Besides bears, many other animals can be found on campus like bald eagles, porcupines, ravens, squirrels, salmon and from one of the buildings you might even see some whales.
When I arrived here in August, the weather was lovely and on most days I was able to hike in a t-shirt. Less than two months later, on October 15, snowflakes covered the University of Alaska Southeast in a white layer of crystals. This was not Juneau’s first snowfall, however, as the mountain tops transformed into white peaks a few weeks earlier. Besides the campus looking like a ski resort, downtown Juneau transformed into a winter wonderland, with Christmas lights and cute shops. What’s more fun than building a giant snowman at 1 a.m. in early October?!
6. “Hey do you have a headlamp I could borrow for my class tomorrow?”
UAS offers an amazing variety of unique outdoor courses that are part of their Outdoor Studies Program. To name a few: rock climbing, wilderness first aid responder, backcountry navigation, outdoor leadership and backpacking in southeast Alaska. All these courses involve both class work as well as field trips. For most of them at least one full weekend field-trip is mandatory. You’ll be tested on skills you should have learned in that course and on how one reacts to unforeseen situations. And trust me, these do happen a lot here. Last year one of the outdoor studies teachers got mauled by a bear during one of the field trips! This was an extremely rare situation, and most of the time all the trips bring back only good memories. Even if you’re not taking any outdoor studies classes, many classes include a lot of field work anyway. For example, for my animal behavior class we went outside to observe salmon, and sometimes my temperate rainforest ecosystem professor will take us into the forest to show some examples of what he just explained. Campus is located right in the largest U.S. national forest: the Tongass National Forest.
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