The story of Alice in wonderland

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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 '89.

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.

The Talkeetna Queen skims along the river on Mahay's Riverboat Service's Jetboat Safari tour. Mount McKinley is in the background. "I told my boss I cannot be in an office for the rest of my life," she said.

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 boyfriend's apartment).

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 crew.

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 resident here.

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 outboard motor.

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.

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