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I Left My Heart in Seward

How my hometown became so much more than my birthplace.

By Lena FolkertPublished 3 years ago Updated 2 years ago 17 min read
Liwu at the Harbor © 2010 Lena Folkert
Seward Municipal Boat Harbor. Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert

It is one of the most basic and foremost questions we ask someone we meet. "Where are you from?" I must say that for an introvert like myself, meeting new people and answering personal questions ranks about the same as job interviews and seeing flashing blue and red lights in the rearview mirror. But, as you will see, when asked about where I am from, I suddenly have to fight the urge to ramble on and on. . .

It was on Super Bowl Sunday of 1986 that I was born at the local Seward Hospital. The immediate years after my birth brought many hardships, joys, and adventures that created a foundation and core for the person I am today. And it is an undeniable truth that the beautiful, little town became so much more than just the place I spent the first 11 years of my life. It became the one place in the world that I would truly feel at home.

Where I Left My Heart.

I realize that for some, their hometown might simply be a passing zip code in their existence, the place they were born or graduated high school. Or maybe they adopted a new hometown because it is the place that wormed its way into their heart for one reason or another. I know I have many of those -- The little pins I've stuck on the map where a little piece of my heart got left behind. But Seward was and always will be the place I proudly say I am from.

Pebble Beach, Crescent City, CA. © 2009 Lena Folkert

But my hometown is not the Seward you will find now with its fast-food chains and corporately run grocery stores, and, yes, even a Starbucks. Still, it remains one of the world's most beautiful and wonderful towns. A more objective person would say that it has improved in most regards, but I am anything but objective when it comes to Seward. No. When it comes to my hometown, I wish things had never changed. I exist in the Seward of my youth. Just call me Ahab and Seward of yesteryear is the white whale I am doomed to chase.

When I was eleven, my mother had little choice but to take my sister and me far away. The story of why and how we had to leave this place we loved is for another time. And the tale of the trip that my heart took throughout the remaining 49 states is also for another time. And even though I have spent far more of my life outside of Alaska than I did in, I still feel more Alaskan than anything else. And even more than Alaskan, I am a Sewardite.

My big sister and me circa August 1986. Seward, AK.

I grew up in a very poor family. We lived in a cabin in the woods that had no indoor plumbing, electricity, or even a toilet. Still, I always managed to have the best adventures and find fun at every turn. I even remember the two-seater outhouse we had instead of an indoor bathroom with fondness. Those midnight bathroom trips were always an adventure when one had to risk bear attacks and an icy, downhill slide just to answer nature's call.

Looking back, I realize that life was probably hardest on my mother, though she always seemed to handle everything with ease. She raised us to be strong and independent, instilling in us a will and instinct for survival among great odds. She is still the person I lean on and learn from the most. Her mother and family lived a couple hours north in the wonderful and delightfully quirky town of Girdwood. Visits to grandma's always brought warmth to our nights, food to our bellies, and comfort to our souls. Grandma would make delicious blueberry pancakes for us and always make us feel special and safe.

Despite the hardships of those early years, I frequently find myself reminiscing about our weekly and sometimes monthly trips to the harbormaster and laundromats downtown for our quarter-fed showers and free water. Mother Nature was sometimes very cruel, especially in the winters, and we often found ourselves going to bed with empty stomachs and no heat. Life was anything but easy. But we still managed to truly enjoy the richness, natural beauty, and old-town quaintness of our little hamlet by the bay.

Founders' Monument, Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert
Close up of the Founders' Monument Plaque. Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert

In the summer of 1993, my parents managed to buy a house downtown. This brought on many advantages and changes, including electricity, heat, running water, and, yes, even an indoor toilet. We had the best raspberry bushes lining our uphill driveway. I often grasped those tasty and thorny devils to hoist myself up the icy drive in the winter so I wouldn't go sliding into the passing traffic. We also had snow pea bushes wrapping through our chain-link fence in the summer, and I can't tell you how many times I raided the neighbor's garden for radishes and carrots. But the best part was that this shy and often bullied kid was able to finally make a couple of true friends.

Playground in downtown Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert

I still remember the day on the school bus when Brooke came over and made friends with me. She lived only two houses down from us. And two houses down from her was Libby. They became my best friends. We were virtually inseparable for three years.

Brooke and I loved playing basketball and hanging out at her house during the day, eating snacks, or sitting in her hot tub. While Libby and I tended to spend more time outside together.

We walked around downtown a lot and often visited the older tourist shops for candy or just to say hi to the owners before venturing to the shoreline to hop rocks and talk about whatever nonsensical things came to our young minds. I will never forget how much I loved being at her house with her gerbils and music and family, including her dear mother who was always going on about Elvis to me. How I miss her as well.

Lowell Point, Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert

The best part was when we girls would run away to the wooded lot a couple of blocks behind our street. We would sneak in and hide among the trees, pretending we were on the run from an evil prince or that we were being raised by wolves or some other crazy quest. We called our little forest in the city "Death Valley" and even brought brooms and swept our little patches of that forest to make "rooms" for ourselves.

It is so strange and wonderful the way children can view and interact with the world around them in a way that grownups cannot. I like to think of it more as "growing out" than "growing up," because we tend to grow out of abilities and habits we had as children and grown into new ones. But we never seem to stop yearning for times past.

Moose Pass, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert

Yes, the days spent with my two best friends were some of the best I can remember. Sadly, I lost touch with both of those beautiful girls after we moved away. I still think of them often, and I even remember their old phone numbers. My heart hopes that they also think of and miss me from time to time.

Lowell Point, Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert

It has now been over twenty years since we moved away and over a decade since my last, very brief visit. It had changed so much since the last time I had been there, and I am sure has changed even more so in the last decade. Even with the numerous changes, though, it remains the most beautiful and cozy place in the world to me.

Of all the memories and experiences in that town that formed the foundation of my love for Seward, the most prominent one is its sheer beauty. The thousands of tourists that flock into Seward every year provide the proof of Seward's beauty and appeal. In addition to its natural beauty, it is obvious that the people of Seward take pride in their city and its upkeep.

There are pavilions and playgrounds scattered throughout the city and along the shoreline. Even the dumpsters are taken into consideration and are painted to look like murals. There is minimal litter and trash around town, and it is constantly being manicured. I remember how awestruck I was by the difference in cleanliness I found in other places I have visited. I found that many people felt comfortable simply tossing their trash around them without thought or care. It is not the way it was in the place and time I grew up.

Painted dumpsters in downtown Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert
Painted dumpsters in downtown Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert

But many other towns also keep up with their litter and have manicured parks and playgrounds. Many even have forests or mountain and ocean views. So, you might still be wondering what makes Seward so special. Well, Seward has all of those things and more. . . So much more.

Exit Glacier, Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert
The road out to Exit Glacier, Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert

Seward is a quaint, little town nestled between the beautiful Mount Marathon and the majestic Resurrection Bay. You could stand on the sidewalk at any place in town and look in one direction to see mountains, glaciers, and forests and in the other direction to see the harbor and bay and mountains beyond them. On a single day you could be blessed to see bears, moose, eagles, seagulls, otters, and whales without travelling beyond your front yard. I have tried my whole life to explain to people what it is like to grow up with all those things at your fingertips. There is no other place I have been that compares. Even Hawaii and northern California, in all their majesty, fall short of the beauty of Seward in my eyes.

View from moving vehicle on Pacific Coast Highway, CA. © 2009 Lena Folkert

There is one road in and out of Seward, The Seward Highway, and it is a bit of a drive to the nearest town. Along the way, you will find forests, glaciers, waterfalls, cliffs, and wildlife galore, including mountain goats, bears, moose, wolves, and even whales. It is, in my less than objective opinion, one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Perhaps the only place that parallels it in my mind is the beautiful PCH or Pacific Coast Highway. There are several pins along that highway where I also left bits of my heart.

Seward Highway in the Fall. © 2009 Ferrin Folkert
Seward Highway in the Winter. © 2009 Ferrin Folkert

There is also a train leading from Anchorage into Seward. I'm not even going to begin to explain how beautiful that journey is. Of course, there are also the thousands of tourists who pour into the city every year by way of tour boats and charters. I don't believe many of them would lack the words to describe the beautiful and awe-inspiring sights of the glaciers and mountains and wildlife they witnessed on their journey.

Train Tracks along Seward Highway from Anchorage to Seward. © 2009 Ferrin Folkert

Seward has a long history with its harbor as it was the main source of contact with the world for a long time. And it is also Mile Zero for the historic Iditarod race. You can still experience the joy and fun of a dog sled adventure in Seward.

Once you have entered the city limits, you could stop at the Benny Benson memorial park and feed some ducks or walk along the pond's boardwalk. I spent many hours there as a kid. Just a little way from that park lies the beginning of the Seward harbor. It is one of my favorite places in the world. I loved spending my days walking along the piers and sitting with my legs dangling over the water.

Seward Municipal Boat Harbor, Seward, AK. © 2009 Lena Folkert

Like many other small towns, Seward always felt like a safe place for us kids. A sanctuary. We would wander the streets and find our way without fear. Looking back, I realize there were many more dangers around than we believed. Just the abundance of wildlife and the ease with which the bears would wander around downtown provided danger. But we were raised to know how to interact around them, and we trusted our instincts.

That confidence I had in my own instincts and abilities is probably the thing I cherish most about being raised in Seward. I cannot begin to count the times I would open my back gate and come nose to nose with a bear digging in our trash or a mama moose walking her young ones. Many tourists do not realize just how territorial moose can be and make the mistake of reaching for their camera, but we locals learn young to simply close that gate and go around front. We learned how to be at peace with nature.

Black Bear in Alaska © 2009 Ferrin Folkert
Moose in Alaska. © 2009 Ferrin Folkert

On any given day in my childhood, you may have found me playing at the harbor or by the waterfall on the road to Lowell Point beach. Or maybe in the forest by First Lake up by the hospital in which I was born. I was often at the high school shooting hoops or swimming in the indoor pool that was open to the public. And like any true Alaskan, I spent a huge portion of my life fishing, hiking, and blueberry picking. But most days you would be able to find me simply walking around and enjoying my town and the people in it.

Shortly before we moved away from that town, my mom got a job at the local teen and youth center. Oh, man. Those were the days. I was just a measly fifth grader, but because my mom worked the evenings, I was able to hang out with the big kids. My sister and her friends were often there. I know I was just the annoying little sister who clung onto their tailcoats, but they made my world so much bigger.

I loved playing pool and Nintendo with them and cherished the moments I got to feel older than I was. I still loved playing basketball and schoolyard games with the kids my age, but I was often bullied. The high school kids, though, put up with me quite gracefully. I even remember the privilege of being there for one of the high school lock-ins. Those are possibly the times that have stayed with me more than anything. When I think of the good old days, it is always there. The nineties at the teen center with my mom and sister and those ultra-cool kids.

Me in the red dress my grandmother made for me circa 1993

Right down the street from the teen center was another one of my all-time favorite places and the world's best restaurant. You just don't know Chinese food or food at all until you have eaten there. I remember the first time I ate Chinese food from another place... Blech! What a disappointment they all were! And no other restaurant could claim a waitress like Sue. I remember how she knew that we didn't always have a lot of money and never seemed to mind that we would sometimes give her lump sum tips when we had more of a cash flow. She always greeted us with a smile and was so kind. I will never forget the day that my mom took my sister and me there for lunch and said not to tell dad. But when we got home, he wanted to take us all out to dinner. Sue just gave us a knowing smile and never betrayed our secret. Isn't it strange that a person you barely know can leave such a huge impression on your life? I believe she opened her own restaurant down by the harbor. I hope to one day visit and see her kind face again.

Seward Municipal Boat Harbor, Seward, AK. © 2009 Lena Folkert

Speaking of the harbor... I almost forgot about one of the best parts of Seward. At the harbor you can find world-class tours and dinner cruises, fishing charters and kayak rentals. And, of course, the Seafood! When I moved to southern Louisiana, I discovered how proud the locals are of their seafood. Now, don't get me wrong. I love crawfish and gumbo as much as the next girl. Cajun food has real heart and soul. But even the best of Cajun cuisine has nothing on Alaskan seafood. Eating at those harbor restaurants is not something you want to miss. You simply must eat crab legs the size of your arm and shrimp the size of your fist. And it would be a crime to leave Seward without finding freshly smoked salmon.

Girdwood, AK. © 2009 Ferrin Folkert

What I wouldn't give to be back in those days and see and hear the things that made Seward so special in my memory.

The Tsunami alarm that would go off every day at noon. Everyone knew exactly where to go and what to do if that whistle blew at any time other than noon on the dot. Its reliability became a tether in my mind, and for that reason, that silly but vital alarm is one of the things I have come to miss the most.

There was The Alaska Shop downtown with its wall of candy under a quarter and knick-knacks and souvenirs galore for the tourists. It was there that I discovered a love for Fireballs and all cinnamon-flavored candy!

Historic Liberty Theatre and Van Guilder Hotel, Seward, AK. © 2010 Lena Folkert

There was the movie theater that was run by the kindest woman. Marie knew every kid's name and always asked about your family. She would always save us kids the best movie posters. She was a Seward landmark all on her own. Years later after we moved away, we kept the theater number on speed dial so we could hear the familiar voice of her husband Skip as he recited the showtimes. Alas, that great place has since closed down, but it left a mark on many a Seward kid.

There was the awesome whale statue that we kids loved to climb on while our parents rented movies from the local video store. How they always managed to have such an amazing selection despite being such a tiny store in the outreaches of Alaska is a mystery to me. Of course, that was back when video stores were more than just a historical landmark.

Sign at Turnagain Arm, Alaska. © 2009 Ferrin Folkert

There was the Seward Trolley. That little tour bus with its flower window boxes was such a cute tribute to our town. Our school bus driver drove the Trolley in the summer, and she would always stop for us kids to see if we wanted a ride. She would make us feel so special when she included us in her comments to the tourists on board.

And the local art gallery and coffee house that made the best Macaroons and had a sitting nook upstairs with old board games. The local boys who worked there were so cute and made the best cocoa and caramel steamers.

Aerial View of Denali National Park and Preserve. Alaska. © 2010 Lena Folkert

I know it sounds like it, but I am not trying to be your own personal tour guide. I'm not trying to fill my hometown with tourists... They flock in by the thousands all on their own every fourth of July. I just want to help you understand what it was like to grow up in that beautiful place.

Like most Sewardites, I spent my youth fishing, hiking, and exploring. We, unlike most tourists, learned at a young age not to take chunks off the glacier or stop and take photos of the mama bears and moose with their cubs. We were taught not just how to walk on ice and snow, but also how to drive on them. We knew the best spots to fish for salmon and which creeks had the best Dolly Varden trout. We knew which railroad tracks had the best strawberries and where to find the thickest crops of wild blueberries unlike any other in the world.

Fresh-picked Alaskan Blueberries. © 2009 Ferrin Folkert

Being raised in Seward taught me what real beauty and true neighborly kindness is. And it was a land of many firsts and lasts for me. The first time I knew what it was to be truly afraid, and the last time I felt completely safe and at home. The first time I discovered a love for basketball, and the last time I played that game with pure joy in my heart. It was the place I had my first beloved dog, and it was the place I knew the gut-wrenching grief of losing my dog. There were so many more experiences that continue to shape the person I am today.

Well, I did warn you about my tendency to ramble when it comes to the topic of hometowns. But my hometown is so much more than the place I was born. It's a place that seeped into my soul. It grabbed ahold of me and never quite let go. It is the place I left my heart. No matter how many miles and decades there are between us, Seward Alaska will forever be my Hometown Home.


About the Creator

Lena Folkert

Alaskan Grown Freelance Writer 🤍 Lover of Prose

Former Deckhand & Barista 🤍 Always a Pleaser & Eggshell-Walker

Lifelong Animal Lover & Whisperer 🤍 Ever the Student & Seeker

Traveler 🤍 Dreamer 🤍 Wanderer

Happily Lost 🤍 Luckily in Love

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