A woman sitting on rocky beach next to water in Alaska.

words and photos by Ann Olsson ::

There’s something about packing your bags and leaving a place close to your heart, knowing you’ll never live there again. This is how I felt in May of 2016 when I made the journey out of the wilderness surrounding Fairbanks, Alaska and into the relatively big city of Madison, Wisconsin.

At that time, my husband flew up to Fairbanks to drive with me to our new home in Madison. As we started our road trip, I saw dark clouds in the distance and smelled rain in the air.

Before this move, while en route to visiting Wisconsin for the first time, I sat by the airplane window. Looking down from this view, I saw only a flat patch of agricultural landscape. I could feel my stomach turn and my heart tumble. I felt empty. Not a single mountain as far as the eye could see, just a flat landscape.

Flat grass trail with meadows on each side and trees in the background.In Alaska, I lived in a dry cabin. It had a woodstove that heated a room which served as living room, kitchen, and dining room. It had no running water. I remember night trips out to the outhouse, gazing up to the sky. I remember those forever-changing northern lights that danced above, switching from light green to pink.

There’s something about those sights that make you forget about the type of cold that makes your legs go numb.

The Northern Lights

During summer, those light shows constantly fought for attention against a stream of biting mosquitoes and the breathing in of smoke from wildfires raging across the state. I recall those long summer days, wondering if was 10 in the evening or 3 in the morning because of the everlasting light.

Orange sky and clouds with purple mountains in the background in Alaska.

Alaska: They call it The Last Frontier, a place where people go to hide or live off the land. I called it home.

Back in the car, I watched the landscape from my window. Following the Tanana River, we moved further from the cabin, the landscape changing, and then changing again. Deep forests, river beds, large mountains, and then more mountains that loomed in the distance.

Eventually, all those mountains were in my rear view mirror.

I felt excited for a new chapter. I also worried about adapting to a city that didn’t have mountains on the horizon.

I felt closer to nature when I lived in Alaska — that sometimes-so-unforgiving nature. Alaska is a place where you learn to love the elements or you spend a pretty miserable life fighting them.

Cabin covered in snow with snow falling

Before I moved to Alaska, I didn’t know much about hiking or being out in remote areas. Knowing how to dress when it’s 40F-below is the critical difference between getting severe frostbite and having a enjoyable ski in a winter wonderland. Having a backup down jacket in your backpack when you get a flat tire in 30F-below temperatures allows you to work instead of freeze to death. I learned how to deploy bear spray, drive in the snow, and store food for long winters.

Alaska defined me. It filled me with pride. But as the distance to my past increased, panic grew.

“How do I leave this wild place?”

The cabin was gone from view, then the mountains, and then Alaska was, too. My husband and I were committed to the long journey toward our new chapter in Madison.

Sun shining through the trees over the water.

 

It’s been several years since that move. I’ve learned that Wisconsin is more than just a flat agricultural landscape I saw from that airplane window view early on.

Just like Alaska, Wisconsin was shaped by ice and water, with a rich cultural history woven in. Brady’s Bluff in Perrot State Park shows the historic works of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Mississippi River drifts down from atop the bluff. Hikes explore Devils Lake State Park, where streams, pressure, and ice shaped rock outcrops. Bike trails travel through tunnels dug into landscapes, following old railroad tracks from the late 1800s. In the winter, cross-country skiing takes over the trails of Wisconsin’s Northwoods. And in Door County, nothing beats the sunsets over Lake Michigan.

A woman posing while wearing a bike helmet.

A wise man once told me, “Alaska is in your blood; you never shake it.”

That is where Alaska is for me — it’s in my blood. It will forever be. Yet, here in Wisconsin, I find myself in a land shaped by natural forces similar to those in Alaska. And though Alaska’s mountains are missing in this landscape, outdoor adventure is still present in my view. 

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About the author: 

Woman cross country skiing in Alaska.Ann Olsson used to live in Alaska where she studied wildfire effects on stream-water chemistry in boreal forests. She then transitioned to Madison, Wisconsin and now lives in New York City, New York, where she works as a lab manager at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, biking, running, exploring new areas, and gardening. She also loves mountains and landscape photography.
Instagram@annkolsson