They beg us for a game of pool, conversation, anything. The bearded guys hunched over their beers rivet their eyes on us.
Once he shot a man. The string of whale teeth around his neck is from a whale that was hunted and killed by his late wife. His eyes well up, and his voice trembles as he leans in. Earlier that month, we — two harried Washington Post reporters — had been sitting in the newsroom cafeteria with a colleague, lamenting the state of our love lives. One of us was recovering from an on-again, off-again relationship that had finally finished its death spiral; the other was nursing a broken heart and in the meantime had taken up with a thrice-divorced playboy nicknamed Gator.
Winter had found us single again, and we were feeling as if we had lost our mojo. Never mind that we each had our own issues: We launched into a debate familiar to single women over 22 in the greater Washington area: Or is it D. We live in a metropolitan area that has one of the largest percentages of single women in the United States. Add to that the idea that many guys here are more interested in power than in romance, and you have a potent recipe for single-gal gloom.
Our married colleague Freddy, who was noshing on a container of leftovers, piped up. Plenty of guys there. The more we thought about it, the more it began to make sense. Alaska has the highest man-to-woman ratio of any of the 50 states.
We were used to blue-suited guys who hunched over their phones and dragged around briefcases stuffed with legal documents — or the nuclear codes. What — and whom! A few weeks later, we arrived in Anchorage. At dawn, we were awakened in our airport hotel by the howls of sled dogs in a nearby kennel. It was a lonely, mournful sound, but it felt like the perfect welcome. For every women in Alaska, there are For every women in the District, there are True, the District is a city and not a state, but come on.
Where do you go to meet men? I often end up at parties with large crowds of single women, married couples and gay men. One recent night at Lincoln , the supposedly hip new restaurant near our office, the bar was crammed with chicks from end to end.
My friend — who was wearing a cast on her leg — and I got in a catfight with a group of women over seats at a communal table. I could walk into a party, whether I knew the people or not, and make connections on an intimate, open level.
Here, meeting people can feel more like a business deal. So where were the manly men? The ones with the facial hair, the calloused hands? According to some women who have lived in both places, Alaska men have different priorities than Washington men.
If you can wield a chain saw, if you can buck wood, if you can catch a fish. Not necessary in the 49th state. We had decided to head straight to Kodiak Island, which has almost 50 percent more single men than it does women. We had gotten a tip by e-mail from a friend-of-a-friend who works at the local radio station there: Any single woman is still treasured and pursued and can still incite a bar fight if she wanted.
There is another flight, however, to a place called Homer. Without much thought, we hop aboard. We land in a tiny town on the shore of a slate-gray bay surrounded by snow-covered glaciers and mountains, with volcanoes towering in the distance. We should have been alarmed by the scent of fresh-baked focaccia and the fact that the proprietress assumed we wanted a room together.
In fact, several are clearly couples, and they are a decade or two older than we are. It turns out Homer is a mini arts colony with a thriving gay community and boasts an almost even man-woman ratio. Do they even have teeth?
The singing begins, and after a while a strange pair takes the stage for an Elton John song. Almost everybody we meet in Alaska seems to be connected to a reality show, we soon learn.
He describes a complicated plan for the spring: Back in , an Anchorage matchmaker named Patti Lafond Miller sponsored a tour for single women from the Lower Lafond now does traditional matchmaking, which has become easier in cities such as Anchorage, where the man-to-woman ratio has evened out as more women migrate to take jobs for environmental groups or oil and gas companies.
We split up to cover more ground. Blue-green water laps at rock formations jutting out of the sea. The shoreline snakes around white-blanketed mountains dotted with spruce trees.
Here, according to Census figures, there are single men ages 25 to 59 to every single women; on this plane, 14 of the 16 passengers are men. The tiny city of Kodiak, population 6, in winter, includes a blue-domed Russian Old Believers church and a half-dozen bars huddled together in the center of town like a beating heart. It is a Saturday afternoon, but perhaps because it is 7 degrees out, the streets are abandoned.
Kodiak makes Homer, with its used bookstore, vibrant live music scene and broomball league, look like Greenwich Village. I pull on my boots and hit the bars. Right away, I meet a man. Phil Costantini is 38, a tall fisherman with dark, curly hair. A Philadelphia native who attended Quaker schools, he ended up in Alaska seven years ago for a fishing job.
So anybody with power gets whatever they want. Later, I text Phil to ask why he chose such a despairing metaphor as a permanent decoration; he texts back: Because I am a bad person and I deserve to be shamed. His own ship — and home — is a fishing boat docked in the harbor across from the bars.
It has a bunkbed area that sleeps four and a TV. He heats the galley by turning on the electric oven and leaving its door ajar. Under the darkening winter sky, we make our way down a road covered in ice, two lone figures slipping and sliding through a grim industrial landscape of shuttered canneries. A bitter wind pierces our clothing. At one table, six men are dining with one woman. Phil has traveled all over America — on the rails, hobo-style.
One day, he hopped off a train he had stowed away on and found himself in Alexandria, Va. I thought I was never going to get out of there. Alaskans understand that being picked up can mean the difference between living another day or freezing to death on the side of the road. I do not accept. Eager to warm up, I find myself in a steamy cabin tub filled with nearly naked Coast Guard members.
Thankfully, none of them offers a marriage proposal; they are too busy telling me where they hope to meet women once they get off the island. They sound like Washington women, fantasizing about places that teem with men. Turns out we arrived the week of a big winter festival, Fur Rendezvous, or Fur Rondy. I thought it would feel like a Brillo pad, but it is soft.
Presently, I become aware that a man with broad shoulders and a doughy, friendly face is beaming at me. His name is Caleb Aldeman. Later, we hug good night, and I head back to my hotel. At midnight, my phone rings. He arrives in the morning to find me stuffed into a down coat and ski pants.
I ask if we can stop at a Starbucks, and he frowns. We make a quick stop at his house so he can drop off milk and bread for his year-old daughter, who is off at church. It feels lonely and remote. Charming as he is, I start wondering if I could ever fall for a guy like this. Caleb grew up in a log cabin with an ermine as a pet, and he remembers waking one morning to find a grizzly bear lying outside his picture window. He traps, fishes and hunts. When he dreams of traveling, it is to other parts of his home state.
We end up in the small town of Willow, where dog trailers are parked in a semicircle on a frozen lake, the sled dog teams readying to depart for their 1,mile race to Nome. While we wait for the mushers to harness their dogs, Caleb borrows a snowmobile, and we ride across the frozen, sunlit expanse of lake.
He guns the engine, and snow sprays everywhere. I clutch him from behind and hang on through the exhilarating rush of snow-tinged air. In some ways, they are the same as Washington men, or men anywhere: They like their toys, they like their drink, they pursue their ambitions.