Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Does reality TV change the reality of Alaska?

Four years ago, when I was 25, I went to Alaska to work as a wilderness guide. I bought my first pair of XtraTuf boots and my first set of head-to-toe rubber rain gear, and between seven-week trips in the backcountry, lived above a Laundromat that smelled perpetually of halibut.

The first spring, my boyfriend and I celebrated the returning light by taking a trip to Juneau to go skiing. Only it rained the whole time, and instead of skiing we sloshed through the alleys and backstreets, lingering in bookshops and stopping at every coffee shop we could find. The last night before catching the ferry home, we stayed at the state’s oldest hotel, The Alaskan. Even on a weeknight, the bar – a former speakeasy – was utterly raucous, and the adjoining hotel was much the same. When it first opened in 1913, the building operated as a thinly-veiled Victorian brothel, and in 2010, if you squinted your eyes just right, you could imagine that it still was, that the man with the stained white beard spinning across the dance floor had just paid his tab with a sack of gold flakes and would soon slip upstairs behind a woman's lace stockings.

The wallpaper was yellowed and peeling, the wood floors scuffed and creaky; the entire place smelled faintly of spilled beer and musty sheets. The walls were thin – in most rooms, you fell asleep (or passed out) to the sound of boot-stomping fiddle music drifting from the bar. If you were in Juneau and wanted a good night's sleep, you went to the Westmark or the Best Western. If you wanted an experience to remember, you went to The Alaskan.

That was before the reality TV craze struck Alaska, turning the Last Frontier into something akin to the “Real Housewives of Orange County.” This year, in addition to “Deadliest Catch” and “Alaska State Troopers” – the old standbys – the 49th state is getting “Alaska Gold Diggers” (five Newport Beach women reviving their grandfather's old mining claim), “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” and an episode of “Hotel Impossible,” a show in which an interior designer and a consultant give hotels the touristic version of an extreme makeover. The show has been to Alaska before, to Yakutat's Glacier Bear Lodge, where celebrity consultant Anthony Melchiorri, an admitted germaphobe, was appalled by the old carpets and fish guts outside the doors. The owners reportedly spent $100,000 on renovations following his suggestions, and occupancy rates increased only 1.5 percent.

... Read the rest of the essay at
Alaskan 2

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