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Michelle Theall

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Keep frostbite at bay There’s a saying: there’s no such thing as bad weather if you have the right gear. Because I run trips through the winter months to some of the most inhospitable places on Earth and have damaged a few piggy toes with frostbite, I’ve learned the hard way what it takes to stay safe and (almost) toasty in the frigid north. I photograph polar bears, auroras, and the Iditarod—all of which can be found above the Arctic Circle from October through March—when smart folks opt for the beaches of Hawaii and Mexico. But truly, those people are unnecessarily missing out—big time. I blame my frostbite on stupidity, of course, but also on the adrenaline and awe that numb my common sense. Despite jackhammer shivering and the icepick piercing stings of 30 below temperatures, I refuse to exchange what just might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a cup…

A history of my favorite bears There’s Otis and Grazer (featured in our July/August issue) and a bear that guides used to call “Old Sow” until someone said that wasn’t very nice, and they changed it to Looper. At one point I thought a bear was named Starbucks, which I kind of liked, but evidently, I heard it wrong. His name was Scar Butt, which makes sense when you see him. There’s Crimp Ear and Broken Ear and Foster Mom. Also, Peanut, Lefty, Sister, Agro, Blondie, Holly, Backpack, and 747 (like the jumbo jet—you get the picture). And then there are ones I’ve named by watching them: Snorkel, Social Services, Yoga Bear. You might think I’m talking about characters in a Disney movie, but nope, these are monikers of Alaska’s bears—bestowed upon them by rangers, biologists, visitors, and guides over years and miles. It’s also possible that when bears traverse…

The saga continues For those of you who missed an earlier column about the land my family purchased in Kodiak, the quick synopsis is this: We bought a couple of gorgeous acres in the only gated community in all of Alaska with an HOA that won’t allow us to camp on it or put a trailer on it (except temporarily or while building). It’s been two years, and so far, the only improvements we’ve made to the parcel are the wrought iron table and chairs I hauled out onto a knoll overlooking Middle Bay, where I sat enjoying a PB&J and dreaming about what it would be like to live there. My spouse has been a-okay with the fact that we’ve not spent any more money on the project, since interest rates are high, and it was my idea in the first place. As it is, I only get out…

The evolution of an outdoor girl I thought I was a wild girl once. Not the boobies on the bar after Jell-O shots kind of wild, but a girl in her 20s who chose to live in the mountains alone, after growing up in three of the largest cities in the United States—sort of Where the Crawdads Sing meets Into the Wild, without the leeches or abandoned bus. Almost three decades ago, I packed up my new Nissan Pathfinder and two Texas-born huskies and drove 1,000 miles west from San Antonio to Boulder, Colorado, aching to find a place to call home. The Pathfinder, like me, looked ready for adventure, but with its rear-wheel drive suspension and Texas plates, it was an unprepared poser that was more apt to end up spinning on ice than summiting any peaks. It made all the sense in the world to seek refuge and…

The value of exploring the unknown Coming off visiting 10 countries in six months, I’m taking a breather—for three weeks, exactly. The questions I’m asked most by friends and family are: are you back yet and where are you going next? Truth is, I get “itchy” if I’m not on the road, seeing new things, giving my brain stimulation, connecting with other cultures and fellow explorers. So, in three weeks, I’m heading to Nome, Alaska, to witness the finish of the Iditarod. Alaska might as well be another country because every part of it is unique. I’ve never been to Nome, but it feels as remote and “off the beaten path” as any destination I’ve been to so far—and that includes the end of the world in Ushuaia, Argentina, where I managed to get spit at by a guanaco and bit by a wild horse. A quick look at a…

A Wildlife Sighting Primer from a Pro I’m often asked how I managed to get a particular shot of a wolf or a bear or some other wild creature in Alaska. People imagine I know of secret locations up trails that can only be accessed by ATV, snowmachine, or packraft, or that require weeks of primitive camping and sewing a coat out of leaves, fur, and pine needles to blend into the environment. That’s rarely the case. I do have a yeti costume, but that’s a different story for another day. In fact, none of my images required me to slather myself in salmon oil or bellow like a moose in heat. At this point in my life, I’m old and lazy, and I prefer to work smart, not hard, to get an image, if I can help it. What I’ve found out? Animals also prefer the path of least…

Chum for the Fishes I admit it’s an icky subject but given the fact that much of Alaska can only be explored by water—and that most tourists first experience Alaska by taking a cruise. Let’s put aside our squeamishness and do a deep dive into the issue.  What causes it? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Seasickness is a result of conflict in the inner ear and is caused by a vessel’s erratic motion on the water. Inside the cabin of a rocking boat, for example, the inner ear detects changes in both up and down and side to side acceleration as one’s body bobs along with the boat. But since the cabin moves with the passenger, one’s eyes register a relatively stable scene. Agitated by this perceptual incongruity, the brain responds with a cascade of stress-related hormones that can ultimately lead to nausea, vomiting, and vertigo.” Basically,…

Tour operators at the brink Booking and canceling and rebooking travel during the pandemic was not for the faint of heart. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Oh, who am I kidding? It was the worst of times. If you worked in the travel industry over the last few years and are reading this, you’ve either been released from the looney bin or are allowed to have this magazine as one of your institutional privileges. Tour operators at the brink. The pandemic hit all of us hard, but it sent most travel-related workers over the edge. If we’ve recovered at all in 2022, we remain shell-shocked. Our “long-COVID” is a special kind of PTSD that has us duck for cover at the words: rollover, rebooking, cancelation, vaccination, testing protocol. My hands still shake before I send a non-refundable deposit to hold six spots at…

Welcome to the future Alaska is hot, welcome to the future. It might be time for snowbirds to rethink their second home or retirement condo in Florida. The world is hot and getting hotter, and while Alaska is leading the way, I’d like to illuminate the bright side of global warming. Consider home gardening. In the 1970s, Anchorage was a terrible place to grow tomatoes. Now, you can harvest your own tomatoes and even okra—unthinkable even in the 1990s—in Alaska. Robins once migrated south to warmer climes in the fall (just like many Alaskans), but now they overwinter in Homer. Fireweed blooms no longer reliably predict the first freeze. Red fox have been moving north and taking over the territory of arctic fox. Heck, even the bears in Kodiak didn’t hibernate until late December last year, before announcing it was spring by emerging in early March. If the reactions of…

Communication is Key I grew up in the Lower 48, and over the last decade, I’ve come to realize the differences between people who live in Alaska versus those who don’t. My clients, who I take on Alaska tours, also note these distinctions and point them out—usually with amusement, and other times with shock akin to having entered a foreign country with a different language and culture. Of course, these are generalizations—but indulge me for my years on the ground in the north and attempts at self-deprecating humor. One of the first things you need to know about Alaskans is that they prefer to communicate by phone or in person. Many businesses don’t publish their email address for correspondence, not even a general one or automated form. Because I have social anxiety and will always choose to write rather than call or meet in person, I have spent hours searching…