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 first set of head-to-toe rubber raingear, 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 night before catching the ferry home, we stayed at the state’s oldest hotel, The Alaskan. Even on a weeknight, its bar, a former speakeasy, was raucous, and the adjoining hotel was no different.
When The Alaskan first opened in 1913, it 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 wearing lace stockings.
The wallpaper was yellowed and peeling, the wood floors scuffed and creaky; the entire place smelled faintly of spilled beer. The walls were thin; in most rooms you fell asleep -- or maybe passed out -- to the sound of boot-stomping fiddle music drifting in from the bar. In Juneau, if you 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 49th state is hosting “Alaska Gold Diggers” (five Newport Beach women reviving their grandfather’s old mining claim), “Alaskan Women Looking for Love” and “Ultimate Survival Alaska.” There’s also going to be an episode of “Hotel Impossible,” a show in which an interior designer and a consultant give hotels an extreme makeover.
That show has been to Alaska before, to Yakutat’s Glacier Bear Lodge, where celebrity consultant Anthony Melchiorri, admittedly phobic about germs, was appalled by the old carpets and fish guts scattered outside the doors. The owners reportedly spent $100,000 on renovations following his suggestions; occupancy rates increased only 1.5 percent.
Now “Hotel Impossible” has come to The Alaskan, and though I want to give the show the benefit of the doubt, I’m not optimistic. One of its first demands was to soundproof the rooms.
The influx of reality TV has already changed the reality of Alaska. Locals grumble that everywhere the cameras go, television producers turn them into stereotypes. There’s the backwards, comical hillbilly, the handsome, rugged outdoorsman, and not much else.
It’s true that as resource extraction in parts of Alaska diminishes, the money spent by the entertainment industry can be a welcome shot of revitalization. Following New Mexico’s lead, Alaska adopted entertainment tax incentives in 2008, and the number of commercials, TV shows and movies filmed in the state shot up from six in 2009 to 38 last year. A decade ago, even shows set in Alaska were usually filmed elsewhere: “The Proposal,” which takes place in Sitka, was filmed in Rockport, Mass.; “Northern Exposure” was shot in Washington. The cost of getting equipment to Alaska and doing business there was too prohibitive.
But no longer. Now, the state’s allure for armchair voyeurs has proven too great to resist. Celebrities like 50 Cent and Nicolas Cage get spotted strolling through downtown Anchorage, and reality-TV shows are busy imposing their version of authenticity on local landmarks like The Alaskan.
When I stayed in that 100-year-old hotel, I wasn’t expecting a comfortable bed or a good night’s sleep. But the thin walls and cheap bedding imprinted me with the memory of a distinct place with a vivid past, an experience that’s becoming increasingly rare in U.S. tourism.
At The Alaskan, you couldn’t close your eyes in a climate-controlled, antiseptic room and block out the world; everything, from the sounds to the smells to the sensation of a lumpy mattress under your back, placed you on a rain-streaked, dimly lit street in Juneau.
Krista Langlois is a contributor to Writers on the Range a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado, where she is an editorial fellow.