Alaska Backdrop Suits 'REI Brides'
Couples take their nuptials with a side of wild
By HEIDI BOHI
Don't sweat the small stuff. Manage expectations and be ready for surprises. You can't plan everything. If you're looking for perfection, look again. And always be ready for stormy weather.
Like marriage itself, getting hitched in the wilds of Alaska is not all sunshine and roses—literally. It takes a certain roll-with-it couple who puts little importance on things like personalized toasting flutes and is more likely to have extra bug dope on the list.
They're known as the REI brides, by those in the wedding planning industry. Where Bridezillas may threaten to call the whole thing off over a misplaced ice sculpture, the adventure bride's big-day jitters center around worrying whether uninvited, unknowing hikers—or critters—will march through the middle of their wedding ceremony. The wilderness doesn't take reservations and it's no place for pansies and prima donnas.
Weddings with an Eclectic Twist
Unusual wedding ceremonies have taken place all over the world—in shark tanks, on side-by-side bicycles, from bungee platforms, parachutes and hot air balloons. One exhibitionist couple got married nude in front of 250 guests.
As the market for anything and everything nontraditional takes hold, more and more brides and grooms who like to live on the wild side are pinpointing Alaska destinations and locations for ceremonies and receptions with a twist.
Adventure weddings are not new, though in Alaska they have started showing measurable gains in popularity over the last 10 years. On the one day that is all about being the center of attention, there are few better stages for putting on a show than in the wilderness of Alaska.
Locals personalize their ceremonies by having them on the banks of their lucky fishing hole, along favorite hiking trails or from one of the countless mountaintops that offer 360-degree views.
For couples from Outside, it is the ultimate souvenir for remembering their trip north, and those planning on honeymooning here often make the practical decision to wrap everything into one trip.
"Swing Set Hooligans" Find Love
To those who know Sarah Robbins and Jeffrey Haines, it's somewhat fitting that their adventure wedding would not be easy.
When they attended East High School together in Anchorage, they hated each other. Every time he was around she thought, "jerk." He thought, "brat." Even when they met several years later at a dance group, they didn't acknowledge each other. What she calls the "swing set hooligans" continued until her birthday weekend in 2009, when she decided to bike the Primrose trail outside Seward with friends. At first, spotting other bikers was a welcome sight until she realized the hikers were Haines and his father. After a perfunctory hello, they continued going their separate ways.
"Our friend had always said that we were so similar and he didn't know why we hated each other," she said, talking about their Aug. 10 wedding. "After years, we both just grew up and we had so many common interests like the outdoors and dancing."
Tailoring a Thrilling Wedding
After dating for two years, he proposed at the top of the mountain on a weekend ski trip. "I was so surprised, I didn't know what to say—I just kind of made funny noises with my mouth."
Robbins and Haines are lifelong Alaskans who come by thrill seeking naturally, so no one was surprised when they told friends and family about their idea for their wedding. Combining their love of the outdoors with one of their favorite hiking trails, the couple decided to hold the ceremony on the hand tram at Winner Creek Trail, which begins close to the Alyeska Prince Hotel. The trail continues to the Glacier Creek crossing, where the hand-powered tram spans the deep canyon from high above the creek, offering bird's-eye views of the dense rainforest.
Just because their wedding was in the wilderness doesn't mean they were willing to completely sacrifice style. She wore a 1930s-inspired designer Lazaro dress and her attendants wore 1920s beaded flapper-style dresses to reflect the bride and groom's shared interest in swing dancing—one of the common interests that helped bring them together. Knowing heels would get stuck in the muddy trail, the women opted for rubber boots, though the men wore regular shoes and accessorized dress pants with bow ties and fedoras.
A limo bus transported family and the wedding party to the trailhead and a tent and motor home served as a makeshift base operation for clothing changes and a post-ceremony champagne toast.
The weather cooperated during one of the coldest, wettest summers on record, but when it came to the wedding, what was supposed to happen in theory, Haines said, didn't quite play out in practice.
The officiant was supposed to conduct the ceremony from land using a microphone, before the couple pulled themselves to the middle of the crossing to exchange vows—symbolic of their first act of togetherness as a married couple.
But 50 feet out, complications arose. The tram hardware pulled some decorative tulle fabric into the hardware with the guide rope, and the metal basket carrying them stuck. They dealt with that and started the ceremony again, this time without decorations and with a slightly modified plan.
Still, the couple agreed, they wouldn't have done anything differently. To other couples, he recommends rehearsing as much of an adventure ceremony as they can before the big day, and to go in knowing there could be little snafus.
"We're both pretty chill—we just hoped for the best," he said, and neither of them let complications spoil the occasion.
Because the hand tram is limited to carrying two people, after the ceremony Robbins and Haines—she has since changed her name—repeated the ceremony and hosted a reception at the Anchorage Train Depot to involve their large extended families.
To beat the weekend "hiking rush," the on-trail activities started early and friends stayed at the head of the trail to let others know there was a wedding ceremony and to please adjust their travel schedule. As it turns out, Haines said, their timing was perfect: just before wrapping up, the maintenance crew showed up and decommissioned the tram for repairs.
Demand Grows for Adventure Weddings
Over the past decade, Tom Stewart, owner of Juneau-based Alaska Weddings On Ice, says he has watched the demand for adventure-wedding planning services increase to the point where it is has become a small industry in its own right. Although the demand tapered off during the recent recession, once again couples of all ages are contacting him in search of someone to help them exchange vows under the midnight sun.
Alaska Weddings gets most of its business from Inside Passage cruise-ship passengers who dock in Juneau for the day during the peak summer sailings. Packages range from $900 to $4,200 and include planning services, a marriage commissioner, round-trip limo transfers from the ship/hotel, a complimentary bottle of wine or sparkling cider, personalized champagne flutes, an Alaska wildflower bouquet, wedding music, wedding cake, a welcome gift bag filled with Alaska products and the two required witnesses for those traveling without friends or family.
Destination weddings appeal to the client who is looking for something different, Stewart said, or who wants to avoid the stress that comes with planning a traditional wedding that is often based on what others think they should plan.
"They want their day to be their day—they want to make it their own, they don't want someone coming in and telling them what to do," he said, adding that many are traveling alone and, besides the rented witnesses, no one else attends.
One of his most popular and least-expensive packages for $908 offers a ceremony along the shore of Mendenhall Lake, with Mendenhall Glacier and snow-capped mountains as backdrop.
Because this location is on the road-accessible shores of the glacier, it is less expensive and appeals to those who do not want to be transported by helicopter.
For about twice the price, couples can get twice the adventure and marry on the glacier at elevations between 1,800 and 3,500 feet, while standing on ice 2,500 feet deep and surrounded by icefalls larger than the Empire State building. The helicopter transport is part of the experience and includes flightseeing over two glaciers and the Juneau ice field, as well as wildlife viewing.
Although weather is always a source of concern, Stewart says the types of clients who are interested in this less-formal style of wedding are "go-with-the-flow, mellow" types who don't dwell on what they cannot control. After all, he said, Juneau is in the middle of the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, most of which is rainforest.
For one wedding, he said, it rained so hard that by the end of the ceremony, "the bride looked like Alice Cooper because of eyeliner running down her face," though she was able to laugh about it.
When it comes to adventures, Alaskans can be a bit snobby. Being picked up by a limo before being whisked away—in heels—to a lodge or glacier hardly presents the uncertainty or thrill that comes with really being out in the elements.
Taking the Plunge…Into the Kenai
For Amy Rasta and Travis Boerner, the romance began with a date in Phoenix, Ariz. Their married life started with a plunge into the 50-degree Kenai River. The bride took the dip dressed in a traditional long wedding dress; her bridesmaids wore formal dresses and rubber boots and the men sported tuxedos and chest waders.
When the couple first said they wanted to get married on the banks of the Kenai River, using a flotilla of drift boats to access the makeshift altar, family and friends thought it was the couple's way of trying to get a reaction.
"They all thought I was lying and said, 'Why don't you all do that as a honeymoon instead?'" Rasta said, looking back on the planning stages. "But they know how we are—we spend our entire summer sleeping on a blow-up air mattress," and their entire relationship had been built on outdoor adventures.
Using Eagle Landing Resort in Cooper Landing as their base camp, the couple built the weekend-long July celebration around a four-hour Kenai River float trip. Six drift boats floated down the river for two hours to a pullout where the ceremony took place. Four bridesmaids, four groomsmen, and the rest of about 40 guests arrived first, along with his father, who was the wedding commissioner and also walked her down an aisle decorated with Alaska wildflowers. The photographer followed along from a separate skiff, along with others on the river who were cheering the wedding party on and throwing cans of beer to them.
After the ceremony, the entire wedding party spontaneously jumped in the river, though at that point, she said, everyone was already wet from going through rapids.
Back at the lodge, guests were served cocktails while freshening up, and the outdoor reception started at 5 p.m. It included a traditional southern barbecue menu, live band and bonfire surrounded by canopies to keep guests out of the rain. In keeping with the adventure theme, the next day they drove to Homer and went dipnetting.
The wedding was not without a few minor hiccups. The hair and makeup artist canceled at the last minute. There was a pocket of sunshine for the ceremony, but it rained the rest of the evening. The bridesmaids got wet when they went through the rapids. It is clear from the photos that her mother—who would have chosen Hawaii for the celebration--was freezing, she said.
Still, "I wouldn't have done anything differently. It was like one big camping trip with all of our friends and family, so we were all together the whole time—it was perfect." And while there were naysayers in the beginning, by the end of the weekend, "Everyone was saying that they want to do this again for our one-year anniversary."