I was as giddy as a child when I sat in front of the Christmas tree last winter, staring at the colorful pile of boxes, bags, and bows. We had already devoured the traditional family breakfast of muffins, and it was just about time for the unwrapping to begin.
This holiday was special for all the normal reasons. My siblings and I are grown, and my parents are retired. We each live in a different region of the country, and this was the first holiday in years when we were all gathered under one roof. But in that moment before the presents were opened, I was excited for a different reason.
I’m a notoriously terrible gift-giver. As a writer, I’m blessed to be able to travel the world, and somehow, I still manage to return home bearing less-then-spectacular presents. I came home from Australia with pens. From India with key chains.
This year, however, I was confident that I’d wrapped up some doozies, and I couldn’t wait for my family to open their gifts.
Last summer, I ducked out of the cold rain that pelted the southeast city of Ketchikan and into store after store. I was on a cruise up the Inside Passage, the protected waterway in southeast Alaska where mountains knife strait up from the ocean and whales gorge on the abundant fish stocks. My boat was scheduled to stop in the small communities of Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway, in addition to a sail into Glacier Bay. It was my first time back to Alaska since living there as a kid, and I was excited for hiking and glacier tours and snapping some photos of wildlife, but, mostly, I was excited to go shopping.
I grew up in a military family, and we lived in many states and countries over the years, but there was only one place we truly called home: Alaska. Those are remembered as good years. I hold close cherished memories of hiking with my mom through the backcountry, reeling in glittering salmon alongside my dad, and carving lines down the ski hills alongside my brother and sister.
I knew Alaska would be a place I could get gifts that struck a chord. I wasn’t sure exactly what I should buy, but luckily when I first got off the boat in Ketchikan, I picked up a free copy of the Alaska Cruise Coupon Book. It’s over 60 pages packed with great deals and gift ideas, and I knew I would be able to find some great presents if I stopped in those stores. My first mission was for an ulu. We had one in our kitchen when we lived in Alaska, always sitting in the corner ready for use. Somehow it got lost during our many moves, and my mom sometimes complained that she missed it.
In my search for the perfect ulu I picked up some T-shirts, earrings, ornaments, and saltwater taffy (because, why not?). Conveniently, the coupon book includes a coupon for a free shopping bag, so I was able to carry my bounty through town.
At last, I found the ulu I was looking for in The Outlet Store, and a coupon helped me secure an incredible deal. I departed Ketchikan with a bag full of gifts, and plenty of money left for my next two stops.
As we powered up the Gastineau Channel and docked in Juneau, I had my shopping list ready. My dad is a coffee fiend, who can go on about single-origin versus blend coffee. And he collects mugs from all over the world. He still has a couple from Alaska, but they’re permanently stained with decades worth of hot coffee, and one has a handle made more from glue than anything else. I had to get some coffee mugs for my dad, even if I knew he still wouldn’t get rid of the old ones.
My sister was young when we lived in Alaska. She barely has any memories of the state, and even fewer Alaskan possessions. In the years after we moved out of the state, as my brother and I wore our favorite Alaska T-shirts into faded oblivion, she always lamented that she didn’t have one to wear alongside us. I knew it was long past time for her to have her Alaska shirt, and with my coupon book I knew I would have no trouble finding some.
As the boat was preparing to dock in Skagway, I watched a bald eagle soar through the early-morning light, above the water, no doubt in search for his next salmon meal. As the eagle flew out of sight, I felt my own stomach rumbling at the thought of some Alaska salmon, but I prefer mine smoked. As kids, my brother and I would pile our crackers high with the treat. I knew I needed to get some smoked Alaskan salmon to bring to my brother, so we could relive those mouth-watering days.
By this point, my coupon book was missing quite a few pages toward the front and nearly one-third the size it was a few days earlier. It was practically a badge of honor showcasing the gifts I’d secured at the last two stops.
The sun was shining as I worked my way up Skagway’s Broadway Street, bouncing from one side of the street to the other, in and out of stores in a flurry of excitement. I ended up with an overstuffed tote, and more boxes of smoked salmon than I care to admit. As I boarded the boat later, I could practically see my family’s smiling faces.
Months later, at Christmas, some thin, clear plastic sat among the wrapping paper strewn about the living room floor. My brother had been unable to wait, opened his smoked salmon on the spot, and begun to relish its nostalgia-laced flavor. My mom was beaming as she examined her new ulu. My sister had slipped on her shirt, and my dad was in the other room preparing a new pot of coffee so he could break in the mug. I just sat back and enjoyed their enjoyment.
It dawned on me, perhaps embarrassingly late, that shopping for them in southeast Alaska was my way of taking them with me to Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. Then, as they enjoyed their Alaskan presents, they got to share in the excitement and adventure that I experienced in the Last Frontier.
We were all home, together, again.