Niki Breeser Tschirgi has written a book that challenges our rat race mentalities and eases us into a literal easy chair of reading enjoyment. Nothing about 'Growing Up Alaska' troubles us with rush hour traffic, waiting in long lines, or dealing with impatient people. It is the polar opposite of stress--no worrisome headlines, just a most wonderful produce cart full of memories when life had more personal worth than just making more money.
Written with a tenderness and love for the Alaskan country and the rugged, caring folks who peopled it, Niki's recounting of her childhood paradise seems to spill onto the page in simple, straightforward prose. Anything more complex or philosophical would erase both the charm and the depth of her love for the ten years she spent growing up in the wilds of Tok, Alaska.
There are tales and tributes aplenty, and if every American kid could have had a childhood like Niki Breeser Tschirgi's, then the world would be living out the difference today. Three cheers for 'Growing Up Alaska', and for a "little girl" who had the sense to share it.
Most people, at some point in their lives, either develop the urge, or are compelled to develop the urge by unsympathetic schoolteachers, to write about their childhood. These accounts generally start with "I was born on such-and-such a day", stagger out the story about spraying the half-chewed peas throughout the kitchen, and quickly devolve into a gravel pit of trivia having little interest to anyone, including the author. Set against this body of literature comes a small volume that purports to share a few memories from a childhood proudly described as "wild and free". Wild and free, like the bright purple fireweed that blooms in the Alaskan spring, so unassuming yet so full of beauty for those who experience it, and poignancy as the blossoms eventually fade into memory. Set in the interior of Alaska, well away from the cruise ships and shopping malls, trafficked by the more adventurous of the road trippers in the summer and hardly anything in the winter, this book recounts a magical time. While straightforward and unpretentious, the writing also has that ethereal quality, like the Northern Lights on a cold winter's night, that draw the reader into the people and places comprising this "little pocket of wonderful". One has an apparition of the author as a young girl, riding up to the house on her trusty bicycle, inviting the reader to come explore the verdant forests and frigid lakes, and later grab an ice cream at the crossroads. Follow her. You'll be glad you did.
Over the past 23 years, when I would tell people I grew up in Tok, Alaska, they were always, and still are, extremely fascinated. What was it like living way up north? Is it always light up there in the summer? How did you sleep when it was light all the time? Did you like growing up there? For many people Alaska is a place far away and other worldly, and utterly captivating. I would share with them about the one or two week stretches of 60 below zero weather and how we still went to school during those plummeting temperatures. What else were we to do?
Outside recess still happened at 20 below zero and we would bring our ice skates to school so we could skate during lunch breaks. No matter what temperature it was mornings would often have us breaking trail through the woods to the bus stop with flashlight in hand, and after school was the same. It was dark by the time the final bell rang, but that was our normal. Our cut-off for playing outside or snowmachining was 40 below zero. I remember as a young teenager checking the temperature and breathing a sigh of relief that it was only 38 below so I could still hop on the sno-go and zip over to my best friend’s house.
When we traveled for school sporting or music events it almost always included overnight stays. We traveled by bus, van, ferry or plane to get around the state of Alaska. It wasn’t unusual to load up the school bus on a Wednesday morning and do five days of travel. We bused to Valdez and ferried to Cordova and Seldovia. We drove to Anchorage and flew to Bristol Bay and King Salmon. We traveled 13 plus hours to Homer and even went out of the country to Canada to play a little ball. It was what we did, and to us it was normal.
Our summers were filled with daylight, biking to work and sometimes “outside” trips to see family that lived so far away. We incessantly swatted mosquitoes, went swimming in the cold waters of Moon Lake, and hung out with friends every possible moment. We took trips to “town” (Fairbanks or Anchorage) to stock up on supplies, watch a movie in an actual theater, shop at a mall, and eat at McDonald’s.
We accepted and enjoyed the swell of tourists that landed in Tok during the summer months, because after all, we were Main Street Alaska, the first major stop on the Alaska Highway.
Then, after the last of the tourists left and it was mostly locals, we settled into the routine of living. Living Alaska. Some think living in a small town in the interior of Alaska, four hours away from the nearest large city, sounds like an isolated and maybe even a dreary way to grow up. Not so for me. Not so for many of us. Not just because we were surrounded by the Alaska Range and were in the heart of a state with a unique living environment, but, I wholeheartedly believe it was mostly because of the community of people who called Tok home. The people in my life gave me the treasured childhood that I am so grateful for today.
Growing up in Alaska and later sharing stories and memories with friends over the years usually brought laughter, sometimes disbelief, and almost always an appreciation for my unique childhood. I always thought someday I would write a book about Alaska. Twenty years later I began. Starting a Facebook page called Growing up Alaska in April of 2013, I posted pictures of my childhood and shared stories to go along with them. Gradually, more and more people discovered the page and more and more people began to connect. As the page grew so did the encouragement for me to put it all down in a book. The nostalgia of childhood and the love for Alaska was stirring the hearts of people. People who grew up here, lived here, or wished they did.
With the help of family and friends, my book, Growing up Alaska, began to take shape. In October of 2014 I launched a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo to raise money to help publish the book and help offset costs for merchandise (hoodies and decals), a web site, advertisement, travel, etc. It was a successful campaign and by the beginning of 2015 I was ready to submit my book for publication. A dream over twenty years in the making.
Since leaving Alaska I have lived in New Hampshire, Idaho, Washington, and Texas. My heart has grown, expanded and filled with new memories from places I’ve lived, worked, and loved. New friendships, marriage, adoption, death and life have stretched me. But one thing is clear, one thing is for sure. Alaska sits firmly in the center of my heart, surrounded by life that has come and gone and for life that is yet to be.
This summer I will embark on a much anticipated homecoming. During the first two weeks of July, my whole family will be traveling to Alaska. My mother, my brother and his family, my husband and our five boys will be flying to Anchorage to begin a family journey back home. The last time my mom, brother and I were in Alaska together was in 1992, 23 years ago with my dad standing beside us. This time will be different. Though my dad will be absent in body, he will most certainly be present in memories shared. Some have moved on and some have passed away, but for those who still remain, I cannot wait for the embrace. The embrace that will welcome me home. Throwing my arms around these people with my family by my side, hugging them tight and looking them straight in the eye I will remember. I will remember all my mom, my dad, my brother and the Tok community did for me. I will remember Alaska. I will remember my home … Here’s to Growing up Alaska.
by Niki Breeser Tschirgi