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We Alaskans

Dating, Alaska style: Casting a wide net

(Michael Engelhard)

It all began with an ad — in the Dark Ages before internet dating. Or rather, it began with the idea that, after so many years of romantic shipwrecks, of forever stumbling into the pits of physical attraction and carnal confusion, a soul mate could perhaps better be found by comparing souls.

I therefore decided to have my profile printed in Alaska Men magazine, the path-breaking periodical that has been "bringing you Alaska bachelors since 1987." "You," meaning the female half of the Lower 48. "Bachelors," meaning, "husband material" in the words of the magazine editor herself. This illustrious and illustrated gem also gave the world a T-shirt with the slogan "Alaska Men — the odds are good, but the goods are odd" and the Firefighter Calendar, a long-overdue male equivalent of the swimsuit calendar and Playboy centerfold.

Actually, the odds in places like Fairbanks or Anchorage seem about even, and as for oddity — judge for yourself. I certainly qualified for the honorific Alaska Man. Although German-born, I had been a resident of the Big Dipper State for almost four years.

So, undaunted by the commodification of my body, I sent in a filled-out questionnaire with a picture of my expressive, clean-cut features against the backdrop of a Bush plane. (Not my own — the plane, that is.) They ran a full page in the magazine, and I was happy with the way I looked and sounded on glossy paper.

I was hoping for the mother lode this time around.

Flurry of letters

As a safety precaution against love-crazed stalkers, crank calls or bomb threats from jealous exes or current boyfriends, I had my phone number unlisted and rented a mailbox at the post office in town. (Paranoid was not one of the character traits I had cared to mention in my sales pitch.)

As it turned out, the readership was rather diverse and not at all limited to the contiguous United States. I received fan mail from England. One letter arrived from Quebec, in broken English. A lonely sounding fisherwoman trawling off the coast of South Africa cast her net wide and wrote to me on yellow legal-pad paper. One of my female pen pals grew up in a lighthouse. She admitted she talked a lot with dead people. I received notes from prison inmates that made me blush, although I pride myself on not being prudish. Some epistles contained locks of hair. Others were smudged with lipstick kisses, or steeped in mysterious perfumes.

A flurry of letter writing ensued with a few fortunate candidates. And bit by bit, as I got to meet their souls, and they mine, the choice became clear.

Monique was a French woman living in Albuquerque, a lover of literature and a painter. She had divorced her husband, a former salvage diver, when he turned into a couch potato. My kind of woman exactly.

When she finally walked through the gate at the Fairbanks airport, my heart danced a little jig. She looked like a French version of Audrey Hepburn. Except, with her delicate 5-foot-4 frame, she was shorter than I expected — about half the size of the glass-encased grizzly bear by the Alaska Airlines counter. Monique had told me her height, but it had never quite registered, and I am bad with numbers anyway. (In my written self-portrait, that translated into "concerned with quality rather than quantity.")

She knew, however, that the way into the heart of a Taurus is through his belly. In my modest kitchen nook, she went straight to work, preparing a dish of braised scallops, green asparagus, potatoes au gratin, smothered in a killer sauce of heavy cream and cognac (no cheap brandy for her), something with a nasal-sounding name I can't quite remember. That first night, we slept chastely apart, myself in the stuffy loft reached via ladder and hatch and Monique on the floor of my domicile, which tilts slightly, because I live on permafrost in the muskeg around town.

On our first full day together, we did touristy things. Aboard the sternwheeler Discovery we plowed the silty flood of the Chena River, while the theme music of "Love Boat" played in my head. We stopped at Susan Butcher's place, and the famous musher welcomed us from her backyard. Leaning on the rails of the big white riverboat, we watched Susan's handler race her Iditarod-winning team. The huskies looked a little hot on this sub-Arctic summer day, as they pulled a sled around the yard, their driver barely visible behind dust clouds.

"But there is no snow," observed my lovely companion.

"We Alaskans do things differently," I reassured her.

Torching the letters

We spent a pleasant evening at the Malemute Saloon of the old Ester Gold Camp. Monique got her first glimpse of true Alaska manhood and mores from the upright-piano player, a token sourdough dressed in 19th-century garb, who kept spitting with great relish into the sawdust that covered the floor.

Too soon, we were saying goodbye at the airport.

"Will you call me when you get to Albuquerque?"

"Bien sure." A quick hug, a peck on both cheeks that made me feel like a European head of state, and Audrey Hepburn disappeared through the gate, a figment of my inflammation.

One week later, Monique called from Albuquerque, admitting she had a 6-year-old boy and never intended to move to Alaska.

Irked by the belated disclosure, I built a bonfire and torched my pile of letters in the yard. From the bench on my rickety porch, I watched fat ash flakes rise above tangles of fireweed that was already beginning to turn. I contemplated the odds of another long winter holed up in my cabin. Baking 12 kinds of Christmas cookies for myself. Probably talking to the ravens again by March at the latest.

To hell with it! I sighed and fed my complimentary copy of Alaska Men magazine to the flames.

A slow learner, Michael Engelhard tried long-distance dating again, this time via the internet. He is now happily married to that woman, who was willing to relocate to Fairbanks.

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