Photographer Gretchen Powers shares what it’s like to live in a small town in Alaska and the countless ways she and her wife adventure outside together—rain or shine. Words and Photos by Gretchen Powers
The wheels slammed onto the runway and my wife Kaleigh released her sweaty grasp on my hand. After a short, but turbulent flight we looked through the rain-streaked windows at our new home: Kodiak, Alaska—or what we could see of her anyway. It was 6:00pm in the middle of December and the sky was inky black. A torrent of rain pelted our faces as we stepped out onto the tarmac. I had never seen rain actually fall this sideways before. In New England, gusting rain is a regular thing. But these weren’t gusts—this angle of precipitation made me question gravity for a moment.
We were picked up by Kaleigh’s fellow Coast Guard officers and deposited at a hotel for a few days until our on-base house was ready. I’d seen photos of a local brewery on Instagram and thought that would be a great place to go meet some people. Kodiak doesn’t have much of a downtown, but the brewery was as close as it gets, so we half-walked, half-ran to the brewery with our pup, Ella, in tow through the wind and rain. We settled in at one of the long tables, sipped our beers and tried to get our bearings.
A group of kids quickly circled Ella. They asked us, “Is this your dog?”
“Yes,” Kaleigh and I responded.
“But if it’s her dog and your dog then who’s the boy?” Another child inquired.
“There is no boy”, I responded. Kaleigh echoed “Yep, no boys! All girls,” laughing.
The kids looked a bit confused and asked the same question a few different ways before running off. We still giggle about this story, realizing that these kids might not have met many out couples before us—or dogs with two moms—and we just rocked their world.
My wife Kaleigh and I met almost eight years ago because of our mutual love of mountains and wild spaces. Our desire to be close to wilderness has guided our trajectory as we moved from Vermont to Colorado to Maine to Alaska. We’ve always desired to be in places with seasons and mountains; now the ocean has become a new aspect of our outdoor playground neither of us grew up with.
Between Kaleigh’s underway schedule as an officer in the Coast Guard (which takes her out to sea for 2-4 weeks at a time) and my travel schedule as a working photographer, we try to make the most of the time we have together by spending it unplugged in the outdoors. It’s really easy these days to get distracted by our phones, Instagram, and the things everyone else is doing. It’s harder to focus on what’s right in front of you. We go out for long day hikes or overnight trips to make a very conscious effort to be present with each other and keep fueling our relationship with good memories, and more specifically in our case, type two fun adventures that make for laughable stories for days to come.
A year and a half later, Kodiak, Alaska is really starting to feel like home. The island is host to the largest Coast Guard base in the U.S.A. and the Coasties and their dependents make up about one-third of the population of Kodiak. It’s a wild place with more grizzly bears than people, bald eagles, whales and plenty of other wildlife. We have one stoplight on the island, the smallest Walmart I’ve ever seen, and the island is as spectacularly beautiful as it is geologically active.
I’ve experienced my first earthquakes and tsunami alarms living here and have a newfound sympathy for people who live in areas with high-level risks of a natural disaster. The three things you really need to survive and thrive here are a can of bear spray, a good raincoat, and a sense of adventure.
One of the coolest things about living here is that Kodiak is run on 98% renewable hydro and wind energy. During the summer months, it is also very self-sustaining between the long days of sunshine yielding plentiful garden bounties and the vast access to fresh fish and wild game.
During the winter, however, we are very aware of just how far we are from our food sources when produce goes bad within a day or two of us buying it from the store. The barge only comes once a week and everything is coming from the lower 48 or further. I’ve become exceptionally aware of my footprint as each Amazon package arrives in a box on my doorstep by plane.
We definitely miss the accessibility to fresh food and farm-to-table restaurants, but what this island lacks in the cuisine, it makes up for in plentiful outdoor adventure opportunities. We hike, camp, kayak, backpack, and ski—all within a short drive from my house. This island is nothing short of magical and I regularly compare it to Narnia, Rivendell or Neverland.
The one question we get most often is, “What is it like living on a military base as a same-sex couple?” It’s a question I’m rather proud to answer because it’s been so much better than I thought. At work and within the Coast Guard setting and community, we have experienced inclusion, support, and kindness. Kaleigh often remarked when we first got here that her boat was great at using more inclusive language like “spouse” instead of “husband.”
Outside of her boat community, we come out to people on an almost daily basis. At community events or parties and when meeting new people, I often get asked, “What does your husband do in the Coast Guard?” I often choose to correct them, but this is something that has taken years for me to get comfortable doing. When you’re living in a new place and meeting potential new friends, it’s harder because you ask yourself these questions, “Will this change the way this person sees me, thinks of me, or want to be friends with me?”
It sure is easier to hide and stay in the proverbial closet. I claimed it would hurt my business as a photographer (most brands only show images of heterosexual couples), and I felt like there wasn’t a place for me, for us, to be out, loud and proud, but really I was just scared.
By choosing to be openly gay in the workplace and our community, we are opening up the floor for conversations—the kind that might make people more cognizant about using inclusive language like “spouse” instead of “husband.”
We try really hard to be kind and gentle in our identities so that we create an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions, rather than putting up a front or being angry when people “get it wrong.” Moving through life is so much better when we choose kindness, acceptance, and enjoying people’s differences. Picking a bouquet of wildflowers always looks better with florals of all shapes and colors; and life is best enjoyed this way—wildly, unabashedly, unique.