TALKEETNA, Alaska -- Most visitors return from the Alaska interior
inspired by its natural beauty and promising themselves they'll
return for another visit someday. Some do, most don't.
Then there are those tourists for whom the splendor of the land
evokes a life-altering epiphany that impels them to pull up stakes
and follow the call of the wild.
That's what happened to Alice Johannewes in the summer of
Johannewes was a 25-year-old hardware ergonomics designer for
the German government living in Trier, Germany, in a valley of
volcanic mountains at the point where Belgium, Luxembourg and
France come together.
While visiting a friend here that summer, she bought an old army
truck and traveled alone for three months, lumbering around the
mountains of the Alaska range.
One evening, she went into the hills, climbed down from the
truck and sat for a while, surveying the scene below.
"In August at twilight, the mountains are bluish in color, and
looking down in every direction, you can see rolling hills," she
said. "There was nobody out there for thousands of miles.
"For the first time in my life, I felt so small. I felt I was a
part of something very important, but I was unimportant. It changed
my whole life."
Johannewes went home to Germany, put her affairs in order and
prepared to move to this village at the confluence of the
Talkeetna, Susitna and Chulitna rivers.
"I told my boss I cannot be in an office for the rest of my life,"
Four years passed before she was able to make the change. "It
was just enough time to know that there was a place on this earth
where people live the way I want to live," she said.
In 1993, Johannewes started guiding in the Denali region for
German tour outfits. In 1994, she began work as a curator for the
Talkeetna Historical Society Museum, also called the "Little Red
Schoolhouse Museum," and on the side conducted specialized tours
ranging in length from two hours to several days.
In 2001, she joined Mahay's Riverboat Service in Talkeetna as a
naturalist/guide. Mahay's is a popular excursion option for
passengers on cruise-rail tours of the interior.
While working for Mahay's, Johannewes lived in a frame cabin
that she built herself 10 miles out of town, with two wolf hybrids
and two cats for company.
The cabin had no electricity (she had an alternate electrical
system installed) and no running water (she showered at her
In her free time, she volunteered as a firefighter and as an EMT
(responding mostly to collisions between moose and cars, she said).
She also is a trained swiftwater rescue technician.
Summer work weeks for guides are long here, Johannewes said, and
they look forward to the winter.
"Winter is the social season," she said. "That's when people
have the time to get together."
Johannewes came to Alaska to work as a guide, but seasonal work
can be tough on the pocketbook.
After eight years, at age 38, she needed a year-round job if she
wanted to stay in Alaska. Johannewes left Mahay's this year to work
for a local health clinic.
But as a member of the Nordic Talkeetna Sea Club, Johannewes
said she often can be found on the slopes in winter in the middle
of the night, skiing under the northern lights.
In the meantime, Mahay's Riverboat Service continues to draw
upon enchanted outsiders to maintain its 40-member staff and
For example, Lacey Ruskin, described as a naturalist and
deckhand, grew up 20 miles from New York and spent five years in
southeast Florida working as a singer and actress.
By chance, she landed a gig at a dinner theater in Denali and
"it was love at first sight," she said. Ruskin is now a year-round
As for Mahay's Riverboat Service, it's been operating since 1975
when it launched its first boat, a 16-footer with a 20-horsepower
The outfit now has seven custom-designed, inboard jet boats.
Business was down 17% last year due to 9/11, but management is
"hoping for a great year this year," according to Sandi Mischenko,
manager of the outfit's sightseeing division.
In season, Mahay's runs tours that range in price and level of
difficulty from the two-hour, 10-mile McKinley Jetboat Safari
(adults: $50; children age 5 and younger: $25) to the four-hour,
60-mile Talkeetna Canyon Tour that ventures into Class 3 whitewater
(adults and children: $125).
Mahay's pays 10% commission to agents.
For information on Mahay's Riverboat Service, call (907)
733-2233, (800) 736-2210 or visit www.mahaysriverboat.com.
For more on Talkeetna, call the Talkeetna/Denali Visitor Center
at (800) 660-2688 or see the Web at www.alaskan.com/talkeetnadenali.